Monday, November 28, 2011

Every Body Matters by Gary Thomas (A Review by Virginia Knowles)

Every Body Matters by Gary Thomas 
(A Review by Virginia Knowles)

I’m in the YMCA, about to climb on the elliptical machine for a little self-induced torture (um, I mean healthy exercise).  But at the moment, I’m sitting in the lobby with my laptop, a copy of Gary Thomas’s new book Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul, and my journal where I’ve been taking notes on it over the past few weeks.

Do you know why this is a special joy to me?  Because I had the privilege of critiquing the early drafts of Every Body Matters last year and offering my suggestions – the main one being “add more personal stories!”  He did!  And one of them is about someone I know, Dr. Scott VanLue, a wellness physician and friend of our family.  And yes, my name is on the acknowledgement page in the back of the book.  So you should buy it.  Just to see my name of course.    No really, it’s an awesome book even without my name in it!  (I can’t help giggling typing this.  Am I a classic narcissist or what?)

Anyway, I’m a long-time Gary Thomas fan, having read probably 10 of his books and reviewing a few of them.   At first this one seemed out of his genre.  I mean, a book about fitness from someone who usually writes about classic spirituality for evangelicals?  Actually, the funny thing is, he incorporates classic spirituality into his book about physical fitness with quotes by Fenelon, Climacus, and other centuries old dudes. Simply medieval, I tell you!  This philosophical edge is especially apparent in chapters like “Our Ongoing Battle Against Sin.” Gary is actually quite qualified to write about fitness too.  After all, he’s run more marathons than I can count, including the prestigious Boston marathon.  He takes the body seriously.

So what’s the book all about? It’s about how our bodies affect our souls and vice versa.  After all, the more physically fit we are, the more energy we have to devote to God’s kingdom.  And if we neglect taking care of our bodies through overeating or laziness, this reflects on our spiritual character as well.  It is a virtue to practice self-discipline.  It’s good for body and soul.  (Sorta reminds me of the YMCA’s trifecta: Spirit, Mind, and Body. I do love the YMCA!)

As Gary says to Christians, “For most of our lives, we have emphasized growing our souls, not always realizing that a lack of physical discipline can undercut and even erode spiritual growth.”  We don’t want to be heads without bodies, but whole people.

Indeed, aerobics expert Dr. Kenneth Cooper writes, “A healthy, fit body is the most appropriate home for a vibrant spirit.”

And the Apostle Paul prays, “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23b) and counsels his readers to purify themselves from anything that might contaminate body and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1) and to honor God with their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20).  Are these passages just about not doing anything immoral? No, the positive connotation is that we take careful stewardship of the marvelous gift that God has given – the masterpiece creation that we call the human body.  To trash our bodies is a sin.

Gary speaks of having “silver souls” that have been refined through difficulty.  “Desiring a silver soul means we stop treating our bodies as ornaments – with all the misguided motivations often displayed by those who build their bodies out of pride and ambition – and start treating our bodies as instruments, vessels set apart to serve the God who fashioned them.”

Again, “Protecting your health is the same thing as protecting the vehicle through which God wants to change the world.  Is there a greater loss in this world than millions of Spirit-renewed believers digging premature graves with knife, fork and spoon?”  He also poses the question: “Is food shaping me into a man who lives solely for his own gratification, rather than nourishing me to look after the needs of others?”  For many people, food becomes a kind of self-medicating substitute for God when they are experiencing negative emotions.  Eating makes us feel good, but it’s no substitute for the soul food that God wants to give us.  Besides that, just chemically speaking, you can get the same emotional boost from the hormones released during exercise than you can get from eating – and it’s a whole lot healthier!

So, what to do?  I’ll have to write about that a little later.  It’s time for me to get on that elliptical machine before my kids get out of their home school P.E. class!

Ok, I’m back again two weeks later, in the YMCA lobby again, this time after my workout.  Picking up the book up again, I’m delighted to read a quote from second-century bishop Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  I love to hear Sara Groves sing that in her song “Just Woke Up to My Own Life.”  It’s more relevant than a stiff dose of caffeine in the morning.  Alive, energetic, alert, vigorous, robust, vibrant.  That’s what we all want to be – not sluggish or foggy-brained.  Isn’t that the goal is exercise and nutrition – to take such good care of our bodies that they will serve us as we serve God and others?  Glory!  Gary writes about the “Muscular Christianity” movement of the 19th century: “The thinking was that to live an influential, fruit-filled Christian life required a toughness, a hardy spirit, a confronting and facing of challenges, a learning to deal with failure without giving in to it, and a rising up to keep moving forward – each of these is a lesson that can be learned through sports… Soft people who frequently complain about the smallest annoyances, who give in to laziness and excess, who expect others to work so that they can rest, who collapse into passive entertainment instead of active exercise – these are souls custom-made to become all but irrelevant in kingdom warfare.  They are not threat to anyone -- least of all to Satan.”

So what can we do? Glad you asked!  In his chapter Purely Practical, Gary recounts Dr. Cooper’s advice: to “engage in regular, moderate endurance exercise”, “pursue a strength and flexibility training program throughout your life” and “emphasize low-fat, high-fiber foods in your diet.”  Gary adds in eating less and making sure you get your sleep.  All of this is especially important in the middle-age and older years as our metabolism changes and women go through menopause. In a previous chapter, he recommends that churches consider offering healthy exercise programs (team sports, group bike rides, a Pilates class, etc.) as a means of outreach and fellowship – and not just an endless round of potluck dinners.  If this isn’t something your church can do, consider signing up for community-based exercise programs, such as those offered by the YMCA.  The social aspect of meeting up with friends (even brand new ones) fuels a sense of well-being and motivates us to keep going.  Agreeing to meet a friend a few mornings a week for 30-60 minutes of brisk walk-and-talk really helped me last year.  I need to start that up again!   If we want to break the habit of sluggish, sloppy living, a whole new routine is necessary – eating, sleeping, exercising.  It is so convicting to type these words.

It can be really hard to make big transitions in health, but it is worth it in the long run. My father was diagnosed with diabetes about 30 years ago, when he was in his mid-forties.  I am so impressed with how seriously he took life-change.  Accustomed to sitting down in his computer specialist job all the time, he turned into a running machine and was rewarded with a lean and healthy body.  Now in his mid-seventies, he still runs daily.  Three years ago, while jogging, he was hit by a motorcycle and suffered a traumatic brain injury.  Doctors attribute his quick recovery (back in the office in six weeks) in part to his incredible physical fitness.

So what happens when “nothing happens” – when you don’t lose the weight you thought you would?  Don’t give up!  Fitness matters more than body shape.  Exercise is still good for your body and your soul.  And if you can’t plunge into a full-fledged fitness program, at least do something.  Get started.  Move in the right direction and keep going!  Make it something you enjoy, such riding a bike or working out at the gym.  Listen to some music on your iPod or watch a movie while you’re on the treadmill.

It’s been fun writing this review at the YMCA over a period of weeks, but now it’s time to exercise my fingers and press the post button on my blog.  But before I do, one last verse from Every Body Matters.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

The book is now available on-line and in bookstores!  Go get yourself a copy because Every Body Matters – including yours!

You can get it at Christian Book Distributors, or or the publisher, Zondervan.

Virginia Knowles

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Remembering Christmas -- And Other Books by Dan Walsh

Dear friends,

Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed two books by Christian novelist Dan Walsh, and this year I received two more

Just in time for the holidays comes Remembering Christmas. Rick, a young CPA on the fast track for corporate success, is summoned to coastal Florida to take over running a tiny Christian bookstore after his step-father collapses from a stroke.  For someone who is embittered against both faith and family, and who just wants to get back to his own career, this is quite a feat.  Add in a schizophrenic homeless man, his imaginary friend, a pretty sales clerk and her young daughter, and you’ve got quite a quirky yet inspiring tale.  I particularly enjoyed this book, and the 1980’s pop culture references are especially fun to recall.  Wrap it up for someone who needs to touch of grace this Christmas!

Inspired by real life events, The Deepest Waters chronicles the tale of a young couple on a honeymoon voyage in 1857.  Their ship sinks, and Laura is rescued by a passing ship. Now she must carry on the journey alone, relying on God and the help of strangers, to meet her new husband’s family and bear the tragic news.  This book definitely kept me turning the pages!  

The Unfinished Gift is a heartwarming tale of a young boy named Patrick during World War II.  His mother has died in a car accident while his father is off at war, so Patrick is sent to live with a grandfather he never knew -- a grandfather who doesn't know how to nurture or celebrate.  Fortunately, he finds a guardian angel in his social worker, Miss Townsend.
The Homecoming is its soul satisfying sequel as Patrick and his father Shawn attempt to rebuild their lives.  

Walsh’s books are published by Revell, a division of Baker Book House, and I understand that he is collaborating on a new fiction series with Gary Smalley.  Check them out at

Virginia Knowles

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The End, The Beginning, and the In Between

"The end of the matter is better than the beginning, and patience is better than pride.  Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools... Consider what God has done.  Who can straighten what he has made crooked?  When times are bad, consider: God has made one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future."  Ecclesiastes 7:8, 13-14
I jotted this passage in my journal on August 31, along with a personal reflection:

"It is easy to be proud when you are plotting out your plans for accomplishing great things - but it is going to take a lot of patience to work through the inevitable setbacks and frustrations to get there.  And the fruit of your labor is better than the mere dream of it.  Things may not go as you plan, though.  It could be that the Lord's ultimate goal is different than your dream.  He wants character in you that is humble (recognizing his control, not ours) and enduring (able to withstand the tests) and kind to the people you meet along the way. And the future will unfold, the story will be told, even if it seems "crooked" and meandering."

Looking back a few meandering months later, I am glad for the encouragement of my own words.  I need them right now in the middle of my life, in my crooked times. Isn't that one of the beauties of keeping a journal?  I can write courage and wisdom into my own future. The story does unfold, but it isn't always clear or pleasant as it happens.  We don't always know what will happen next, but whatever it is, we will need strength and grace. The same day I wrote that journal entry, I started reading Luci Shaw's book Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit: Reflections on Creativity and Faith, which I have also mentioned in my posts Ivory and Gray and Is My Head in the Clouds?  This quote made it into my journal a few pages later:

"We try, in the moment, to make sense out of what may often seem horrifying, incongruous, paradoxical, irrelevant, and absurd, while retaining a kind of eschatological hope that God's order, peace, design, and glory will fill all the spaces in our widely scattered personal and cosmic jigsaw puzzles."

I am glad for the encouragement of her words, too. Jigsaw puzzle indeed.

Thanksgiving is in two days.  In light of that, I will say that I am grateful that God is in control, whatever happens, and that I know I am growing and enduring in ways I had not imagined before.  I am also very mindful of the kindness of family and friends.

Joy and peace to you,
Virginia Knowles

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ivory and Gray (A Wedding Poem)

Ivory and Gray
For the wedding of Alex and Julia on October 15, 2011

On this beginning day of your marriage,
You appear in ivory and gray, not black and white.
So too in the nuances of life you will learn to blend in a little like this,
Making the differences between his way and her way a little less stark.
 The way you grew alone now changes into the way you will grow together.
Yet you are still designed to be distinct from one another.

So go forth boldly with grace and joy,
Cherishing who you are each created to be in Christ:
Two gifts of uniqueness joined.
Jesus makes you one for one another, for his own glory,
Reflecting his radiant love in your new home, your new family,
Starting on your wedding day of ivory and gray. 

That's the poem, now how about a story to go with it?

I had been wanting to write a wedding poem for my daughter Julia and her husband Alex for quite a while to give to them as a wedding present. I needed to think of something that was unique to Julia and Alex's special day. This takes a lot of thought, because I just don't like to dash off a ditty.  The wedding was rapidly approaching  and I still hadn't come up with any good ideas.  Finally, just six days before the wedding, I sat down in a Subway sandwich shop while my boys were at youth group.  I carried with me pen, paper, my leather bound journal and the book Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination, and Spirit: Reflections on Creativity and Faith by Luci Shaw as my inspiration. (You can read more about that book in another blog post here: Is My Head in the Clouds? I had been soaking in the book, jotting down my reflections, when I lady walked in and sat down near me in one of the easy chairs, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes.  A little later, we started talking.  She was waiting for her daughter, who works there, so our conversation turned to our children. She asked if I was a Christian, and when I told her yes, she said, "I was praying for you while I was sitting there with my eyes closed."  Wow!  That was sweet -- and timely!  I asked her to pray that I could get the poem written for my daughter.  She said she would, and then they left.  And as I sat there and started thinking about the poem, pen in hand, I imagined seeing Julia and Alex at the altar.  What did they look like?  Ivory and gray.  What did I envision for their marriage?  Peace and understanding.  And so I wrote: first, second, third drafts.  What you see above is probably sixth draft or something, after I removed extraneous lines about the contrasts of burlap and lace, lemonade and sweet tea, that would have clued you in to their country wedding reception. When I finished the poem, I printed it in gray ink on ivory paper in the pristina font you see above.  Then I matted it with ivory lace in a gray-silver frame. I read it to them at their rehearsal dinner and gave it to them then. 

So there you have it, the story behind my "Ivory and Gray" poem. The wedding was beautiful, just as I had pictured in my mind.  You can see more photos here:
Note: I usually write free verse poems, but I did do a rhyming one, Diamonds in Our Family Tree, for my grandparents' 75th anniversary two years ago.  The flower arbor I mentioned in their poem reminds some of us of the arbor that Julia and Alex were married under, as in the wedding picture above.

Virginia Knowles

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