Redeeming Both Body And Soul

 Members of the First Baptist Church of Norfolk exercise to the beat of gospel music. It's increasingly common for congregations to offer fitness programs and other health-care services.
Members of the First Baptist Church of Norfolk exercise to the beat of gospel music. It's increasingly common for congregations to offer fitness programs and other health-care services. (By Gary C. Knapp -- Associated Press)
By Henry G. Brinton
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Open the Sunday worship bulletin at Fairfax Presbyterian Church, and alongside the prayers, scripture readings and hymns you'll find an invitation to have your blood pressure checked and announcements about church members running 5Ks and marathons, as well as a notice about an upcoming workshop on balance exercises for seniors, offered by an 80-year-old juggler named Don Rapp.

Our focus on physical fitness at Fairfax Presbyterian represents a growing trend in American houses of worship. Congregations are now reclaiming the ancient biblical truth that human beings are created with a unity of flesh and spirit, not with an antagonism between the physical and the spiritual popularized by dualistic Greek philosophy. After thousands of years of separation, body and spirit are coming back together.

A 2007 survey of more than 6,000 American congregations, conducted by the National Council of Churches USA with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, revealed that 70 percent of churches provide health-care services to their communities.

An example is the One God Ministry in Fairfax, which is sponsoring a "Family Wellness and Spiritual Revival Forum" in July, with sessions on diet, exercise and disease prevention. "We as a church body are providing a lot of spiritual wellness to people," says Johnson A. Edosomwan, pastor of One God Ministry, "but we recognize that the aspects of physical and mental wellness are important as well." Spiritual vitality is not much good without physical health.

The growing desire among church members to make a connection among body, mind and spirit bucks a Christian tendency to see the soul as valuable and the body as less important, if not totally depraved. "In thinking of body, mind and spirit, I feel that it is important to stimulate each and keep the three aspects well balanced," says Thomas Larsen, an aerospace engineer and member of Fairfax Presbyterian. "I should take good care of my body, which I believe is God's temple."

In 2006, Larsen joined a group of 40 church members in monthly meetings that I led along with my colleague Vik Khanna, an exercise specialist certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the chief executive of Galileo Health Partners in Ellicott City. Called "Ten Commandments of Faith and Fitness," this program encourages endurance exercise, strength training and good nutrition, in an effort to improve participants' overall fitness. It seems to be working: One woman thanked us for helping her to complete her first 100-mile bicycle race.

Across the country, congregations are adding full-service fitness facilities to their buildings. Fellowship Church, in a suburb of Dallas, provides basketball cages, a rock-climbing wall and a walking trail around a lake. Its ministry includes a variety of sports clubs and team competitions. On the grounds of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., is Samson's Health and Fitness Center, a facility offering athletic leagues and massage therapy. Its motto: "Total Health, Total Person."

Many churches and synagogues, including a Baptist church close to where I live, hold regular sessions of "Christian Yoga." The unity of mind and body embraced by yoga practitioners is an attractive dimension of this ancient Hindu spiritual practice, as is its promise of stress relief, stronger muscles and improved flexibility. Their promise of physical strength, coordination and self-knowledge have made the martial arts very popular as well -- and led to the creation of an international organization called "Karate for Christ."

What does this focus on physical health have to do with spiritual vitality? As a Presbyterian pastor, I spend a lot of time studying the New Testament, and I can't help but notice that Jesus sees the body as a good gift of God; he rejoices in the pleasures of touch and taste and other bodily sensations. Jesus comes on the scene in the Gospel of Mark as a man of action: curing the sick, casting out demons, cleansing a leper and healing a paralytic; clearly, he cares deeply about the health of human bodies. At the very end of his ministry Jesus gives the gift of his own body, saying, "Take, eat; this is my body."

A core conviction of mine is that God has given each of us the gift of a body, and he wants us to take good care of it, making worship on the Sabbath and workouts throughout the week critical elements in a life of health and spiritual growth.

So, how can a person do this? One approach is to embrace "The Fitness Trinity," a set of guidelines devised by Khanna. It consists of three parts: endurance exercise, strength training and good nutrition. (See "The Fitness Trinity," below.)

This simple approach to caring for our God-given bodies keeps body and spirit together and is ecumenical enough to work in either a synagogue-based yoga class or a meeting of "Karate for Christ."

Henry Brinton is the pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church and co-author with Vik Khanna of "Ten Commandments of Faith and Fitness" (CSS Publishing, 2008).

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