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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Gym Smell

Some kids grow up on the farm. Or in front of the TV. Or in the shopping mall.

My husband Ben forever has an affinity to Auntie Ann's pretzels and buying a large drink, because whenever his mom took him shopping, the treat was always to go to Auntie Ann's. I also learned that no one south of Minnesota pronounces it AUNNN-TIE Ann's, but that's beside the point.

Anyway, I mostly grew up in the gym.

My dad was the Recreation Supervisor for the City of Plymouth, which meant he oversaw everything from tee-ball to Adult Men's Wallyball. That was a thing in the early 90s.

From about age 2 or so, I loved going with my dad to "check on programs." I'd sit and throw a ball against the wall while he helped calm down an irate men's league basketball player who SWORE he didn't travel on that layup.

I read children's books as he handed out t-shirts to the Co-Rec Volleyball Champions.
In fact, I think one of my first new vocabulary words was "co-rec."

Soon enough, I got into playing basketball and later volleyball and spent most of my youth shuttling from practice to practice in elementary school and junior high and high school gyms across Maple Grove, Minn. I'd pull on my knee-high tube socks and Nike flip flops - no sweats or snow boots even in winter - and run into the gym in time for killers and Mikan drill and endless rehearsal of the motion offense we never quite managed to run in an actual game.

I'll be the first to admit I wasn't the best "practicer." Coaches hated me because I tended to slack off midway through; my mind wandered; I had the hardest time finishing the free-throw drills because I just couldn't focus.

Still I loved the rhythm of the gym. It had a smell. Leather, and sweat.

It was a real coup when my dad got the keys to a brand-new high school gym in Plymouth and we'd go over there to play whenever we wanted. I'd walk in and instantly feel comforted, at home, sometimes even more than my home itself.

I'd grab a basketball out of the metal rack and turn it around in my hands, feeling the bumpy leather and giving it a few bounces, feeling surer and surer with each turn.

I gotta admit the gym smell still gets me every time. Like the smell of my grandpa's cologne that lingered on his leather gloves long after he died; the smell of sweat and leather and athletic ambition that clings to the gym clings to me even today whenever I walk onto a court. The days of basketball and volleyball practice and tagging along to "check on my dad's programs" are long gone, but the feeling of comfort and hope and possibility I once found in the gym lingers today.

I found my first community in the gym. It's where I fit. Besides church, all my best friends come from basketball or volleyball teams.

When I moved to mid-Missouri for college, I felt isolated until I joined the Mizzou Club Volleyball team. I walked into the gym and in a place where everything was strange and new, the gym was familiar. It smelled like gyms always smell. A setter on the team named Erin Allen befriended me, and eight years later she was reading the Bible passages at my wedding.

Months later at Mizzou I was rearranging my class schedule to make sure I never had class after 3 p.m. That's when the good players came to play basketball at the Rec Center, the hallowed gym where Ben and I met, flirting with the words: "You got 5?" "I got next."

Later, when I moved to Florida, I spent days searching for "programs" until I found an Open Gym for co-rec volleyball near Sanibel Island. I drove nearly 45 minutes to get there, and once I did again Florida felt more like home. The drinking fountains still tasted slightly metallic, the sound of the ball echoing against the gym floor made that same hollow noise it did back in Plymouth, Minn. At this Open Gym I met Rich, who helped me get on a 4's volleyball league where I met Nora, and seven years later I was serving as the officiant for Nora and her fiance Josh at their wedding.

I got so gym-crazy in Florida I even joined the old Naples YMCA, and I spent nearly every Friday afternoon doing "hoops" with the Daily News sports staff. Ron, a 6-foot-3 copyeditor got the group together, and everyone laughed as me and Hotard, a reporter from Louisiana, engaged in jump ball battles and foul wars.

Later at Luther Seminary we played basketball every Thursday night at the nearby middle school. Joe was the fairest gym organizer yet: everyone got equal playing time and no one got left out. It was true PastorBall, even when Ben nearly came to blows with an aspiring minister/rapper who goes by Agape.

In Vegas there was women's volleyball in an old rec center near downtown Vegas; in California it was stay-at-home mom/substitute teacher open volleyball at Renaissance, a quick stroller ride from our apartment.

Eventually I put together that comforting feeling, the leathery ball, the leftover sweat smell - the GYM had for me become my COMMUNITY. Everywhere I moved, until I found that unique "gym" place, I didn't really feel at home. I didn't fit in until I got to the gym.

When I met the Call Committee at St. Philip, one of the most exciting parts for me was meeting Ellen, a Senior Olympic volleyball champion who knew all the best open gyms in the area. But I was adjusting to a long commute, Jake in daycare, and a new job, so my gym time in Chicago early on was limited. I joined X-Sport Fitness in Arlington Heights, but it never really clicked. Most nights I put on my gym clothes and ended up sitting on the couch watching reality TV instead.

This week on Tuesday night I think I might've found it.

We joined the Park Center gym in Glenview, and I put my boots in the locker room and went out to run around the track above the gym. As I did I saw below me the women's volleyball league and it felt like home. The rhythmic bouncing ball, the guys on the other end haggling over 3-pointers, the vending machines and scoreboards and sweaty smell. I was home.

It was the best run I'd had in awhile, so after stretching and a few sit-ups, I hurried downstairs into the gym itself and walked over to some girls from the volleyball league.

"Hey are you guys in the women's league? We just moved to Glenview and I was wondering if they ever have open gyms?"

We all introduced ourselves, and they told me where they played for open gyms and how to get involved in the league. I left feeling so great, like I'd finally found my community again, even though I hadn't played a game yet.

As a pastor, though, I wonder about how even I find my COMMUNITY somewhere else beyond the  church, and I wonder what's happening at the gym that might not be happening in our faith communities.

I feel at home at church, too, but I guess churches can have a higher threshold to enter the community.

At the gym it's easy. Drive successfully to the basket, serve a few aces, leap above the net -- you're in. You're cool. You're "one of us." No one cares what you look like or what you're wearing if you can dunk. There's no pretense, no "well we do it this way here," it's just can you play or not?

Eventually, a kind ambassador tells you "the rules." 16 by 1's and 2's. No open hand tips. Whatever it is. You're integrated into the community and eventually you make friends and build relationships and it becomes a home of sorts, where you go to find your peace.

The faith community of Jesus Christ is meant to be this, too. Welcomed in softly, comfortably. The only thing that matters is if you can play: if you will open yourself to the presence of God and invite that in however it fits for you. Come up for communion or not, however the Spirit moves you. Raise your hands, sing, sit, stay quiet, go out for coffee -- doesn't matter. You're in.

And eventually someone pulls you aside and offers you the Peace and explains to you "the rules." For God so loved the world that He gave His only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life ... For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

And eventually you meet people and make friends and build relationships and the church becomes a home of sorts, where you go to find your peace.

Maybe your place isn't the gym. Maybe the smell of gym socks makes you sick but you've got this coffee shop that is YOUR PLACE. Or this cafe. Or this park. Or this library. Or this bar. Whatever.

What's your sacred place? Where do you feel home? Where does this overlap with your church and what are things that happen in this place that don't necessarily happen in church?

It's the season of Lent and confession and contrition, so I'll end this blog with a confession of my own.

Sometimes I think I feel more "at home" more "community" in the gym than at church.

I'm going to pray about that this season. I'm going to examine what changes or what needs to change - about myself, about my own openness, and about my faith community, and where we might be more open, more forgiving.

And I'm going to ask where Jesus is in all of this: where I find Jesus in the gym and how I can take that Gym Jesus to meet Church Jesus and Cafe Jesus and Bar Jesus and all the places where our Savior Saves Us, despite us, with us, and in all our communities.

Where's your community, and what's your advice to a Pastor looking to make Church feel more like a sweaty, smelly gym home?

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