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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;
    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.

Psalm 16:5-8

Header Image: Toni L. Sandys of the Washington Post

Backwards Roll Image Source

Heidi S. De Jonge

Heidi S. De Jonge is the pastor of Westside Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Kingston, Ontario. She and her husband, Tim, a CRC chaplain, parent three grade school daughters. Heidi enjoys cake decorating, cycling, and digital scrapbooking.

12 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Very true, and a good metaphor for the experience.

  • Travis West says:

    A very insightful image, Heidi. Thanks for sharing your experience. All strength to you as you enter this tome of leave.

  • Reverend Linda Miles says:

    Well done!

  • Great description of an inevitable human experience. Experience in ministry has taught me that when certain symptoms appear, it is time to take serious time for restoration. None of us is immune. God heals when we allow the time for it to happen.

  • Andrea Robinson says:

    Oh Heidi, May this time be a gift to you, bringing you back to your center and filling you with hope and joy and security. Blessings!

  • Elaine DeStigter says:

    Your essay on “Twisties” speaks powerfully to me, Heidi. Thank you.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Great image and well used here, Heidi. Thank you for your honest and vulnerability.

  • gregory van den berg says:

    Instead of saying Woe is me, look at the Prophets and what they endured for the sake of spreading God’s Word. Praise the Lord they did not shrink from their God inspired responsibilities. Your article is taken from an EST meeting. One must rely on the Lord and His strength. Thank God Jesus did not feel his burdens were too overwhelming and asked His Father for a sabbatical. The blogs are becoming too sentimental and full of humanistic viewpoints. The Reformed tradition has fallen to new laws. The Reformers must turning in their graves when tripe is written as advice to those who are experiencing true difficulties. The Word of God gives us the strength to soar like eagles.

    • Henry Baron says:

      Please read the Psalms and feel corrected, Gregory.

    • Judie Zoerhof says:

      Oh my goodness! How many times does the gospel tell us that Jesus pulled away from the crowds to nurture his spirit with the Father? We are all relying on God and His strength. I am suffering. Pastor DeJoge’s words help me hold on. Thank you, Pastor DeJonge!

  • John A Rozeboom says:

    Thank you, Pastor Heidi. “I want to lock my eyes on the Sure Horizon.” struck home. As an old guy who happily leads worship from time to time, having neuropathy that gives me the twisties when I close my eyes leading prayer or forget to move my feet standing up front, fixing on a physical level surface or line is a big deal. Either that or fall over. Taking flight instruction a few years ago, I learned to love the “artificial horizon”, a cockpit instrument absolutely essential for flying level no matter what, and to keep my instructor passenger from getting sick. My ministry challenges are small potatoes compared to yours, Heidi; I pray you get what you need to fly true in the exceedingly rough air of pastoral leadership today. Thanks to your piece, “Twisties”, I will fix more and better on the True Horizon.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Thank you Heidi. Perfect metaphor for the challenge of ministry in these times. And thank you for being vulnerable in telling your story of profound twisties. Disappointing that even this forum can’t be a safe and accepting place for this kind of vulnerability. Grace and peace to you. Strong back, my friend. Strong back.

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