Iron (and Jiu Jitsu) and the External Word

By Paul Koch

In 1994, Henry Rollins wrote an essay for Details magazine titled “Iron and the Soul.” Rollins wonderfully elaborates on the need to press against the uncompromising iron weights you find in the gym. Their immovable presence and your desire to conquer them shapes and forms the man you are. While victory is hard earned and progress is often slow, you learn the lessons of discipline and dedication that will impact not only your physical appearance but your character as well.

At the end of his reflection, Rollins says,

“The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”

There is a real need for such an external reference point, an “all-knowing perspective giver” like iron in our lives. For such an activity doesn’t allow us to remain safely inside our own heads. Inside our own heads, we can begin to believe our own hype. We can think we are the images we put up on Instagram or the updates on our Facebook page. Inside our own heads, we can also see only or our own depressive ideas, track only our failures and know only the critical voices we let in. But as Rollins says, the “iron will always kick you the real deal.” Either you can lift it or you can’t. No amount of rhetoric or clever slogans or filters on your photos will change it.

The gift of our faith is the gift of being impacted by something external—an external Word. But in a world where our technology aids us in staying more and more within our own heads, it has become easy to hide from that Word.

We can easily spend our days in a constant state of distraction. As we move through our preferred choice of apps to stay “connected” to people we’ve never met, we no longer have meaningful conversations with those we actually see in our daily lives. Add to this the fact that most of us have lives that don’t require much physical strain. We move from climate-controlled homes to climate-controlled cars while possessing the answers to all our questions through a disembodied voice on our smartphones.

I fear that it becomes more and more difficult for us to face the hard thing, to be shaped by the immovable, for our technology shows us the easier path to take.

The physical training of the body is to press up against something outside of itself. It doesn’t allow you to stay within your head as it lovingly reminds you of the world around you. In this regard, I believe it helps us in receiving the external Word as it calls for primacy over our reason and emotions. I think that deadlifting and back squatting will make you a better scientist, teacher, and theologian. The iron reminds us of the things that cut through the BS and stand up beyond our opinions or curiosities. The iron prepares us for the Word.

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Last October, I began to train in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. At 41 years of age, this new endeavor has been one of the most humbling and rewarding things I’ve done physically. While I love learning the techniques and (admittedly) spend far too much time watching YouTube videos of new moves, the very best part is rolling. Rolling is what we call sparring. Just like two boxers training against each other, we dedicate a lot of time paired up and trying to submit the other. It is exhausting, difficult, and humbling all at the same time.

Now my wife sees me come home exhausted after rolling, but she also sees me come back with a huge smile on my face. I have new aches and pains to be sure, but I can’t wait to go back. I find myself planning my schedule around times I can get out to Morumbi Academy to train. And here’s the thing. I think it is making me a better man, husband, father, and pastor. Like Rollins and the iron, it cuts clean through any BS. There is another person you must fight against, struggle with, and try to overcome. Your words, rhetoric, or Instagram success doesn’t matter at all. Jiu Jitsu will kick you the real deal.

I find in this a living metaphor for my vocations, for in this struggle my learning never ceases.

Strenuous activities like this help me to stay engaged in the world outside of my own head. It reminds me again and again that there is a Word outside of myself that is real and powerful and absolutely necessary for salvation. And this Word impacts real people, not in theory or conjecture but actual people that I know and have learned to love. The external Word both kills and brings forth new life. it will fight and beat down the prideful and arrogant, and it will lift up and heal the brokenhearted and downtrodden.

The struggle is good. Fight, climb, lift, jump, do something strenuous, something out side of your own head, something at which you will fail. For there you will learn something about yourself and be eager again for a Word outside of your own head.

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