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Earlier this year, I defended my doctoral thesis at Western Theological Seminary: Truthing in Love: Engaging Conflict with the Disarming Love of God. Someone in my congregation asked me how I would summarize my dissertation in one or two points, like Jesus summarized the law in two commands. I answered by referring to the work of Brené Brown who invites her readers to live as people with strong backs, soft fronts, and wild hearts. When we engage well in conflict with Christ at our centre, we do so with strong convictions, open and curious postures toward one another, and hearts that love ourselves and our neighbours with the wildness of God.
Right in the middle of this summer, I realized something: my back was weak, my front was armoured and defensive, and my heart was both sad and mad. I chalked this up to the cumulative impact of the pandemic, my mom’s death, my dad’s remarriage, the end of my doctoral journey, and the work of navigating the CRCNA’s Human Sexuality report with my congregation. I asked my council for a leave of absence and they graciously granted me three months to take a step back in order to grieve, heal, and be refreshed and strengthened.
A couple of weeks into my leave, American gymnast Simone Biles cut short her participation in the Olympic games. She named mental health concerns as the reason that she stopped competing. She also very specifically described her experience of her last vault. While she was in the air she got the “twisties.” A July 28 article in the Washington Post describes it well:
Imagine flying through the air, springing off a piece of equipment as you prepare to flip on one axis while twisting on another. It all happens fast, so there’s little time to adjust. You rely on muscle memory, trusting that it will work out because, with so much practice, it usually does.
But then suddenly you’re upside down in midair and your brain feels disconnected from your body. Your limbs that usually control how much you spin have stopped listening, and you feel lost. You hope all the years you spent in this sport will guide your body to a safe landing position.
When Simone Biles pushed off the vaulting table Tuesday, she entered that terrifying world of uncertainty. In the Olympic team final, Biles planned to perform a 2 ½ twisting vault, but her mind chose to stall after just 1 ½ twists.
“I had no idea where I was in the air,” Biles said. “I could have hurt myself.”
When gymnasts have the “twisties” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.
In some ways, I feel like I have a version of the twisties. The metaphor isn’t perfect. Pastoring is neither an individual sport nor a competitive sport (at least, it shouldn’t be!). But pastors do use a certain set of emotional, spiritual, and mental muscles to do a wide range of things all at the same time. In my fifteen years of pastoring, I have often felt like I’m flipping on one axis while twisting on another axis. I rely on a muscle memory of sorts to plan services and respond graciously to criticism and offer pastoral care in the midst of crisis. I trust that it will all work out, because with so much practice (and by God’s good grace), it usually does.
But the stress of the pandemic (for our world) and the gravity of the Human Sexuality Report (for our denomination) and the loss of my mom (for me) all hit at the same time. There I was mid-twist. My brain and body, heart and spirit, all felt disconnected from one another. I felt lost and uncertain of where I was in the air. I could have hurt myself. And what’s more, I could have hurt others.
Gymnasts who experience the twisties talk about the need to go back to the basics. They go back to their own gyms and train in the pits – pools of foam constructed to absorb their landings. They practice slow backwards rolls, like the ones they learned to do in preschool, to remind their bodies what it is like to turn without twisting.
I pray that these months of leave will bring me back to the basics. I want to lock my eyes on the Sure Horizon, so that I can know where I am at in the air. I want to plant my feet on the Ground, not by sticking landings, but by taking slow, deliberate, gentle steps. And then, when I re-enter my community, I want to do these things together with my siblings in Christ – sharing what I have learned and hearing what they have learned (because being disciples and being the church is something we do together).
For those of you who have your own case of the twisties, I pray that you also might be able to step back– if not for a few months, then perhaps you can take a few days, a few hours, a few minutes. Right now. May we all find our horizons and our footholds. And as we do, may we discover our backs strengthened, our fronts softened, and our hearts wilded by God’s love.
Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;Psalm 16:5-8
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Header Image: Toni L. Sandys of the Washington Post