Against Atrophy

“Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.” Revelation 3:2 NIV

Atrophy.  Jesus’ words to the Church in Sardis in Revelation 3 were written to a community suffering atrophy. “I know your deeds,” Jesus says, “you have a reputation of being alive but you are dead” (v.1).  On the outside they appear to be alive, but inwardly they are wasting away, decaying.  And Jesus says this decay is related to the insufficiency of their deeds: “I have not found your deeds complete . . .”  LIke a muscle that atrophies and shrinks from lack of use, the community in Sardis weak in exercising the deeds which should have grown out of their faith.  So Jesus calls them to fight against atrophy: “Strengthen what remains. . .”

Training.  While training for the Pittsburgh Marathon last year, I learned first hand just how painful atrophy can be.  A few weeks into the training season, I stared to feel a burning pain in my heels and arches.  It turned out to be plantar fasciitis, a condition which can be caused by atrophied muscles in the foot.  The simple explanation (at least as far as I can understand it) is this: When the muscles in the foot are weak, they can’t support heavy weights or the repeated pounding inflicted upon them by exercises like running.  So the plantar fascia ends up bearing more stress than it should, resulting in pain.  When I started feeling that pain, the first advice that was given to me was get more support.  Shoes with arch support, socks with extra elastic around the midfoot, special insoles – anything to prop up the weak arch under the pressure.  Then I read Born to Run and realized there’s another, better way: strengthen what remains.  The simple explanation (again, as far as I can explain it) is this: barefoot runners use muscles in their feet which the rest of us have allowed to atrophy ever since we started running (and walking and living) in more heavily cushioned shoes.  By stripping away the extra padding, the runner not only starts running differently and more efficiently, but strengthens everything involved in the act of running in such a way that over time should make them less prone to injury.  So, I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers and started wearing them to walk the dog. It definitely felt different. Then I started going for short jogs in them. Sore.  This new style of running required a lot more work from my calves than they were used to, and they burned.  But the more I ran in the Five Fingers, the more natural it felt.  Now I’m doing half of my training runs for this year’s half-marathon in them.  And the plantar fasciitis is gone. 

Lent.  As we begin Lent this year, I wonder if it would be helpful to think of it as a season to “strengthen what remains.”  What if we asked the Lord to reveal the places where we’ve atrophied, where our deeds are incomplete?  Then, in the places where we are weak, we can either choose to add cushioning to protect against the assaults of life, or we can choose to exercise those weak spots more vigorously and restore them to strength.  Like the transition to barefoot running, choosing to strengthen what remains may mean learning how to walk and run again.  It may mean starting out slowly and getting accustomed to the pains and stresses of such training, hurting in places we’re not used to hurting.  But with patience and perseverance, what remains will be strengthened and healed. And the reward of that healing will be great. 

“He who overcomes will . . . be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.  He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Rev. 3:5-6 NIV        

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