By Melody Wilson Shobe
A few months ago, I began going to spin classes at the local YMCA as part of my exercise routine. Spinning is a group exercise class in which an instructor leads a group of people on stationary bikes through a cycling routine designed to simulate an actual bike ride. The students increase or decrease the resistance on their bikes to imitate climbing hills, sprinting, or intervals. It is a great workout, and usually a lot of fun. My husband and I make a habit of going to a particular class on Thursday nights, because it’s the one night of the week that neither one of us has a standing church commitment.
On Maundy Thursday, however, we had a service in the evening. So I decided to try the Thursday morning spin class instead. Little did I know, the Thursday morning class is “Devotion in Motion:” an hour-long spin class during which the instructor plays praise and worship music and talks about God. The instructor, a layperson who attends a local non-denominational church, uses the idea of a bike ride as a metaphor for the spiritual life to direct his devotional comments throughout the class.
The class was problematic for a number of reasons. The first problem was merely a matter of my personal taste. The instructor, who seemed like he was a very nice guy, had the unfortunate habit of singing along to snatches of the praise music pulsing through the room. This in itself would not be so bad, except for the fact that the instructor in spin classes wears a headset microphone in order to give directions to the class. So, throughout the class, interspersed with the instructions, we got a miniature concert. It was all a little too Brittany Spears for me.
The second problem was purely practical. As I mentioned earlier, spinning is a class in which “the students increase or decrease the resistance on their bikes to imitate climbing hills, sprinting, or intervals.” This instructor, however, starting telling us to increase the resistance on our bikes from the minute we began riding. Then he kept yelling, “Increase!” every two minutes for the rest of the class. By fifteen minutes in, I was at the maximum amount of resistance on my bike, waiting for him to tell us to decrease so that we could build back up. By twenty-five minutes, I was physically incapable of riding at maximum speed any longer. As a spiritual metaphor, it didn’t work very well for me; if, in fact, my faith journey is like a bike ride, it has both hills and valleys, steep climbs and long smooth descents. My relationship with God, at least, has not been all uphill. But regardless of the spiritual implications, it certainly didn’t work as an exercise regime. Asking a room full of people, some of whom have never been on a spin bike before, to “increase” every two minutes is neither feasible nor safe.
But my biggest problem with the class that I attended was theological. It was obvious from the beginning that the instructor and I differed on a number of theological points. He spent a good bit of time talking about the lies that the Enemy (you could actually hear the capitol E) whispers in our ears, which revealed a different understanding of evil than mine. He made a remark about God conquering your depression that revealed a different understanding than I have about mental health. But our theological differences weren’t an obstacle until, in between repeatedly saying, “Increase,” he yelled, “There is no ‘I can’t’ in the spiritual vocabulary!”
I almost fell off of my bike. In the midst of Holy Week, those words struck a deeply dissonant chord inside of me. Because “I can’t” is what Good Friday is all about. When we look at the cross, we are forced to acknowledge that Jesus did something there on that day that I cannot do for myself. And the same is true of Easter and the empty tomb; resurrection is something I can’t do. The transformation of places of death into places of life, the victory over death and the grave, life after death: these are all things that I cannot reach or accomplish. Through his life, death, and resurrection, God does for me something that I can’t do for myself.
In fact, I think the words “I can’t” aren’t just Holy Week words, or Easter words. They are the foundational words of the life of faith. They are integral, not inimical, to the spiritual journey. I grew up going to Baptist summer camp, and each summer counselors would give their testimonials, telling us how they had been saved. As an Episcopalian, I had a great discomfort with that language. But I was also uncomfortable because I felt out of place. My counselors always seemed to have dramatic stories: they had been saved from a life enslaved to drugs or alcohol, they had been saved from illness or injury or anorexia, they had been saved from dangerous or depressing home situations. My own life seemed, by contrast, inadequate and boring. Just what, exactly, was there for God to save me from?
It took me a long time to figure it out. But now, when I’m asked to talk in “salvationspeak,” I tell people that God saved me from thinking I could ever save myself. As an oldest child, I’ve always worked extra hard to be good and do the right thing; I’m the classic over-achiever. But through the years I’ve come to know there’s nothing I can do to earn God’s love, and nothing I can do to make God love me less. God saved me by teaching me to say: “I can’t.”
Holy Week is over, and my Thursday evening is open again. I’m back to my usual spin class this week, and I think from here on out, I’ll try to keep my spinning and my salvation separate.
The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.