I rounded the corner and caught my breath. I knew that it was going to be big, but I didn't know that it was going to be this gargantuan. My eyes hardly knew where to look first, the extensive grandeur and ornate intricacies pulled my attention one way and then another, up and then down.
St. Peter's Basilica.
I don't know exactly what I had expected, but all pre-existing notions of what it would be like were blown out of the water. I walked through the doors and beheld the massive expanse all around me - decorated lavishly, no corner left untouched by deep color, ornate pattern and curve, and elaborate carvings.
I wound through the crowds, my eyes catching candlelight and glimpses of statues as I approached the statue of Jesus. And suddenly there it was. So beautiful, so pale, so sad, so ethereal.
Here I stood in what many consider the perfect place to feel the presence of God, a breathtakingly beautiful church, surrounded by statues and depictions of The Christ and those considered heroes of our faith. But the thing that struck me the most was how far removed I felt from any hint real, gritty life in that moment. In the place God seemed majestic but unreachable, untouchable, and miles away from the daily life of our humanity. It was overwhelming and beautiful, but I left with an empty ache.
A few weeks later after returning from Italy, I again walked through the entrance of a building. It wasn't beautiful and nothing about it looked noteworthy or majestic. Simple walls, a couch, an air hockey table, and a desk greeted me. I walked through the hallway into the main entrance. My eyes took in the tall ceilings, still open like a warehouse. Rough, thick ropes hung from the ceiling and black mats covered the floor. The air was warm and left untouched by an air conditioner.
Our CrossFit Box.
Here is a place where everything of what it means to be human is alive. The weakness, the strength, the effort of movement, the lifting, pulling, pushing, squatting, and the sweat. CrossFit is all about functional fitness… So everything is based on the movements that people have been doing throughout time that we have somehow lost in our modern society.
The sound of barbells thudding on the turf, loud music, and heavy breathing surrounded me.
It seemed that this moment could not be more unlike and opposite in every way to the moment that I stood in St. Peter's Basilica. Far from the pristine statues, shining surfaces, and ornate moldings. Far from the grandeur.
But then I saw the face of man in his young twenties who grew up in a part of town that I have rarely been to, who's mother was a prostitute, and who's father left without warning one day is his teens. The one who we sat down beside when he began to weep one day, after class, pouring sweat and tears on the black gym floor as he confessed that he was struggling to make money and had turned to selling drugs. He was the one we prayed over, who went to the authorities ready to face whatever came his way to get his life on track and who was met with great mercy. He's the one who lived with one of our trainers through transition, who was baptized, and who now has a job and loves my Jesus. He still says that he's never felt so much love, and he'd never felt God's presence like he did when he came through these doors.
I saw the face of the woman who's wedding I recently attended, an event that some of my friends might not have "baked the cake" for who says that she didn't know Christians could actually be so loving.
Then I saw the face of the woman who you might never guess spent fifteen years dealing with multiple addictions, who latched onto CrossFit as a lifeline to put herself back together. Through the community, the structure, and the exercise she found her way and has never been the same. She asked questions about God and heaven and wondered if it would be okay to go to church with us one day.
Then I see the youth pastor and the faithful baptist church member who say that they've learned more about discipleship on these floors than inside the walls of their church.
Mingling together…. The wealthy, the successful, and even the famous sweating next to a struggling single mom and the young man who's home would hardly be considered suitable to live in. The leader of Vacation Bible School and a pastor laying on the floor doing push-ups next to the former exotic dancer, the hardened military man who's seen more than any of us can imagine, and a young woman who's choices in lifestyle and sexuality drastically differ, but who's hunger for Jesus is tangible.
Equalized by nylon shorts, tank-tops, athletic shirts, and tennis shoes, the first thing that people find is not their differences in status, occupation, lifestyle, race, or religion. You simply know them as the person who shouted out when you stood up the heavy squat, the person who kept telling you that you are stronger than you believe and pushed you to get a few more reps before time was called, the person who ran back outside after they had completed their own workout just to run that last 200 meters with you. Brought close and united, finding community and camaraderie.
Common place and interest. Love. Community.
And then after hours, there's dinners out on the huge patio of the restaurant nearby, there's the birthday parties, there's the competitions where everyone piles in vehicles and caravans to watch and cheer on fellow members. And then we talk about life, about relationships, about spiritually. About God. And He's real, tangible, touchable, and present in that context.
So as I stood there taking it all in… The diaphragms rising and falling heavily with the exertion of exercise, the weight-lifting chalk peppering the floor and smearing on the legs of those working out, the high-fives, the smiles, and the community I was struck…
… Suddenly I felt more of Jesus in that place than when I stood on the gleaming floors of St. Peter's Basilica.
This is what it means to live in a incarnational, missional way. To embrace the idea of sentness, to love humanity like Jesus did.
And you may think I'm crazy, but somehow I think if Jesus walked the earth today, he might just spend the afternoon in the CrossFit gym working out, listening, and talking to people rather than admiring a shiny white statue of himself in a great cathedral.