For Mother’s Day this past year, my son Gordon filled out a “Mommy Questionnaire” at school as part of my gift. The idea of this questionnaire was that it would give him an opportunity to tell me all of the great things he appreciates about me as his mother. I had a smile on my face as I read the list of adjectives he chose to describe me: nice, loving, smart, etc. It was the last word he had, however, that made me laugh out loud. Athletic.
I grew up knowing that I could do and be many wonderful things in my life. But I knew I was NOT an athlete. I was the awkward kid with zero hand-eye coordination who sounded like a pug dog when I physically exerted myself, particularly when running. I was picked last for every team sport. Along with a few other factors, like my passionate love of musical theatre and book worm-ish ways, my utter lack of athletic ability set a pretty low ceiling on my popularity potential. I comforted myself by making mental lists of the things that I could do well in life. And I tried to do those other things to the best of my ability to make up for such a glaring lack of this one talent.
Now, looking at Gordon’s list of descriptors, I couldn’t help but call my husband Dan over, point at the word “athletic” and invite him to laugh along with me at such an outlandish word. Dan just raised a quizzical eyebrow. “So?” he asked. “You are running a half marathon next week, aren’t you?”
“That doesn’t make me an athlete!” I laughed.
“Martha,” he said patiently, “what do you think an athlete is?”
That stopped me short. A rudimentary audit of my time does leave a certain impression. I run a lot, and I cycle too. What’s more, I enjoy it, and I tell others that I enjoy it too. I slowly but surely improve. My now stronger lungs only rarely leave me sounding like a pug. Although my self-understanding was long ago formed by knowing absolutely and certainly that I am not athletic, I had to admit that, at least on the outside, a new definition had started to shape my life.
Maybe I am an athlete.
I was thinking about my own evolving self-understanding as I thought of a cultural refrain that has been popular for a number of years now: “I’m spiritual, not religious.” I know what people mean by these words. It means that they are not members of a faith community. Certainly, we know that for the majority of people across the Western world, the sentiment behind these words is true: they may hold their own private beliefs, but they don’t participate in the life of a church. To say they are not religious, however, I almost always find to be false. That religious impulse can be found, and usually not far below the surface. In the absence of the structure that say a church allows a person—to discern purpose, to mark time, to care for others in prayer and in service, and to explore life’s deepest questions—people get religious about a whole host of others things. They add structure, meaning, story and ritual to their lives by joining fandoms, connecting in online groups, adopting different eating practices, or taking on elaborate expectations for how a holiday like Christmas is going to unfold. Even those that vocally claim they are agnostic or atheist will, when probed, describe assumptions about how the world functions according to order and purpose, how they have experienced their lives becoming aligned with a creative spirit and purpose, and how their own lives can and should exist for the sake of caring for others.
Most people are religious. What they are naming, however, is a disconnect between that religious impulse and the possibility of being able to fit in and get something out of a community like the church. I relate to this. I have spent my life not only thinking that I’m not athletic, but also harbouring a mild suspicion of those who are. Aside from the long-ago days of elementary school gym class, athletic people as a whole have never done anything to exclude and belittle me. I have just grown up with the assumption that athletic people are not like me. And therefore, I have assumed their rejection of me outright, even as I have preemptively rejected seeing myself as one of them.
When I had my come-to-Jesus phase, the mid-teenaged years when I suddenly fell headlong in love with Jesus, one of the things that pulled my heartstrings most was his insistence that we redefine what constitutes faithfulness to God away from the typical assumptions of what religious people look like, dress like, how they are labeled and defined. Instead, the brothers and sisters of Jesus are claimed as the ones who spend their time doing things that match up with what God cares about (like caring for the poor and feeding the hungry). He applauds, empowers and commissions the faith of society’s rejects, the sinners and outcasts, the nobodies, the desperate. These are people who have had it imprinted upon them that they live outside of the bounds of God’s love and provision. Jesus recasts them as beloved children, as evangelists and leaders, healers and teachers, models of faith. Jesus takes away the labels and gives new names instead, because he sees in their words and actions people who can’t be anything other than anointed with God’s love. He makes it frighteningly simple to know and love God: just pay attention to that hunger deep within you because you are already known and loved by God. Because it’s so easy, our labels are mostly revealed as false.
This is bad news for the religious elite, who like their nice categories of who is ‘in,’ and who feel assured of their privileged position because the riffraff are firmly kept out.
It’s good news though for any of us who still believe that the world is an enchanted place after all, that God is on the move far outside our human-built pens of religious respectability, that even those who choose different labels to define their lives are still made by the hand of God, are still alive with God’s spirit, and therefore have wisdom and creativity that can be a blessing to all of us, have voices we need to hear.
It’s good news for the awkward and uncoordinated, like me, who thought that athletic, or perhaps religious, pursuits weren’t for us. It really could be as simple as putting one step in front of the other, seeing how our lungs and limbs, and especially our hearts, start to grow stronger, and how a new identity begins to take shape in us.
The Reverend Canon Martha Tatarnic is Rector of St. George’s St. Catharines.