It was easily the worst part of school. Every year.
Starting in the 1950s (long before I got there), a new measure of greatness entered physical education in American public schools. The Presidential Physical Fitness Award Program—awarding signed certificates and embroidered badges to kids who met or exceeded the 85th percentile on all seven tests.
Although none of these assessments were easy for me, after a few years and several attempts—and maybe a bit of grace from the PE teacher—I somehow managed to eke by on six of them. But I was convinced President Carter would be deeply disappointed to see that I could never pass the arm hangs (the girls’ equivalent to pull-ups). Each year, as soon as the teacher mentioned it was coming, I started worrying.
In Sixth Grade I had the idea to train for the test. I walked to our city park every afternoon after school to “practice” hanging from my arms. For weeks, I would detour to the cold, unforgiving bars, set down my chapter book, math homework, and spelling list, climb the ladder, clench my teeth and grab hold as I counted the seconds in my head, hoping to improve.
My flimsy but determined arms just couldn’t do it. I made an early fall to the dirt over and over and over again. I wish I could say I eventually grew muscles, but it never happened.
Despite all my attempts at holding on, those arms never held the Presidential Physical Fitness Award.
I recently felt that hanging-on weariness again.
From my journal:
Today we got the news that I am no longer holding at the lower level of heart function. Today we learned I am slipping. After three years at my lower plateau, I have now dropped to an even lower one. My ejection fraction is now in the red zone, and my cardiologist is concerned. I suppose I am disappointed, mostly, but also confused. Heart failure doesn’t give a very accurate playbook. I am worried that this is the beginning of an even steeper decline. I’m just hoping to hang on.
A SUBTLE, SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE
At some point during my park practices, my younger brother (who liked to tag along on this exciting athletic training) offered to scoot his bike seat close enough for my feet to rest on it. Hoping to relieve the shaking in my arms, I’m sure. Or to help me avoid another skinned knee.
But as a self-sufficient Enneagram 5, I refused to admit I needed help. Even in the early stages of training. My little brother reasoned that with the bike’s support, I could hang on for the required seconds. Wasn’t that the desired result?
The outcome is the same (in the short term anyway) but what’s happening in the process isn’t. Are we striving under our own power or depending on something else? In our believing lives, the difference becomes us vs. Him—who is the sustaining force? Am I holding on or being held?
Turns out, the difference is a big one:
Holding On depends on us; Being Held is depending on Him.Holding On depends on us; Being Held is depending on Him.Click To Tweet
Last week after that heart function test came back lower than it had been in several years, I learned I’m still not strong enough to hold on without support.
And God says, that’s ok. We don’t need to keep agonizing and struggling on our own when we face painful circumstances: missing a child or missing a chance, losing a job or losing a vision, the ability to pay our bills or the ability to understand a decision.
I, your God, have a firm grip on you and I’m not letting go.
I’m telling you, ‘Don’t panic.
I’m right here to help you.’ – Isaiah 41:13 (MSG)
FIGHTING THE HOLD
For some of us (maybe those who wince at the idea of a massage day?), it’s more comfortable and natural to hold on rather than to be held.
But that bar we’re clinging to can turn into a tug-of-war. Between the hard place and us. One will win, one will lose. It was never intended to be that way. That difficult iron bar was meant to connect us to Him.
We think of John the Baptist, Stephen, Job, and we know the hardest part: We don’t know how far we’ll fall until we feel His arms again. And there are no guarantees. Except that we will feel those arms again. He will hold us. History tells us, from Eden to the empty tomb, that His is an unrelenting love. Our job is to simply loosen our own grip. Somehow.We think of John the Baptist, Stephen, Job, and we know the hardest part: We don’t know how far we’ll fall until we feel His arms again. And there are no guarantees. Except that we will feel those arms again.Click To Tweet
I didn’t know it back in my PE days, but like so many tests in life, medical and otherwise, sometimes there’s nothing you can really do to prepare.
Or maybe there is…
In faith, we can simply trust He’s there, and act like it. It’s more than just letting go because we’re exhausted and out of options.
It’s resting our feet on Him… on purpose.
It’s admitting from the start that we need to be held.
FAITH IS RECOGNIZING THE HOLD
According to Pastor Joe Novenson:
The feel of faith is not strength, but dependent weakness.
Faith isn’t the ability to pray away the parts of our lives we wish were different. Faith is the ability to let go and trust there are Arms holding us even when life is falling apart.Faith isn’t the ability to pray away the parts of our lives we wish were different. Faith is the ability to let go and trust there are Arms holding us even when life is falling apart.Click To Tweet
So it was with my latest heart test. I was struggling again with a stubborn bar after hearing from my cardiologist. I was a scared middle schooler again, fighting against odds I knew I wasn’t equipped to overcome, against a standard I knew I couldn’t attain on my own. Though I‘ve been held so close this entire heart failure journey, I still often felt a need to rely on my own power—my own doing—by learning enough, understanding more, trying harder.
Seems I’m some different this time around. I used to think the faith I needed was to hang on. But maybe the faith I’ve been training for is allowing me to let go.
“Just Be Held” by Casting Crowns came out in 2014, a year before my heart failure diagnosis:
You’re not alone, stop holding on and just be held
Your world’s not falling apart, it’s falling into place
I’m on the throne, stop holding on and just be held.
I’m starting to think that was always His point.
HE WANTS TO HOLD US
Ann Voskamp says,
The art of living lies in the balance of holding on —
and letting go because He’s holding on to you.
Though my memory bank is full of scary days with the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, Mom’s probably wouldn’t be. When we cleaned out my parents’ house a couple years ago, we discovered they didn’t keep many of their children’s certificates or awards. I didn’t find a single one, in fact.
Even though it sounded so official, so Presidential, my parents put no weight on earning the award. I’m not sure they even knew we had such a test. It was me that placed so much heaviness on it and so much emphasis on passing it. For this externally-motivated child, it was agonizing to fall short in one category and get excluded from the whole award.
I am wired to win. That’s why heart failure feels doubly cruel to me. It’s why sometimes I bristle against letting go and trusting God’s arms.
But our God desperately wants to hold us. We’re not proving anything by not allowing Him to.
When my own babies were worn out, I scooped them up. If one was throwing a fit, I held them so they wouldn’t do something one of us would regret. And sometimes I carried my children simply because I wanted to feel them close to me. If they had insisted they could hold themselves, it would have broken my heart.
So it is with the Best Father.
OUR BEST OPTION
Still, days come even now when I don’t feel held at all. It happens to all of us. We live in a world where young parents die of cancer, faithful families fall apart, and friends betray us. Lots of days I still feel like I’m barely holding on, slipping, afraid I’ll disappoint someone… or myself.
This week I’ve thought a lot about those after school sessions at the park, practicing my arm hangs: clenched teeth, shaky limbs, struggling to hold on.
Some of us are hanging on mid-miracle and others mid-mudslide. Either way, the world pulls hard and we slip from weariness or ignorance or waywardness.
Sometimes the very best we can do is to let go.
Because, though we may lose our grip, He never will.
We are held in the arms of a God who won’t let go.