Redefining Possible: CrossFit, Transformation, and 5 AM Trips to the Box

Post Author: Rev. Dr. Molly F. James


It is a little before 5:00 on a Wednesday morning, and I am driving through the dark streets of West Hartford, Connecticut. There are very few cars on the road–few of us crazy enough to be ought and about. Where would one be going at such an ungodly hour? Well, it is time to come clean. I have caught the bug: I do CrossFit.

If you had told me a few years ago that I would be getting up in the pitch black to go and lift weights and do push ups, I would have given you quite a quizzical stare. I like my sleep (a lot), and given my medical history, I didn’t think I would ever be lifting anything heavier than my toddler.

When I was thirteen, I was diagnosed with bone cancer. The year of chemotherapy and the numerous surgeries that followed taught me a lot about my body and left it permanently changed. The tumor was in my left collarbone, so after the chemo shrunk the tumor, my left collarbone was removed. Because of the mobile nature of this bone, there is not yet (nor may there be in my lifetime) the technology to replace this bone. They cannot put in a rod or a donor bone the way they would if it were a vertical leg or arm bone. This means all the muscles in my left shoulder are now attached to each other rather than my collarbone, which means I don’t have the same skeletal stability in my shoulder that most people do. For instance, I cannot just align my skeleton and “rest” in plank position. On top of that, one of my chemo drugs can have long-term effects on my heart. My doctors have been cautious about how much anaerobic exercise I do. Can you see why I might be skeptical of doing something that involved lifting 50 pounds above my head?

Over the years, I have sought out fitness options that help to strengthen my shoulders and to just keep me in good shape. I have done yoga and rowing. Both of those were great in many ways, but somehow they weren’t exactly the right fit. Then, I started working for a bishop who is passionate about CrossFit. His stories about it intrigued me. One day, I saw a Groupon for a Box (what you call a CrossFit gym) in my town… and so I tried it. I haven’t looked back.

CrossFit has provided some remarkable personal and professional lessons for me. One of the biggest reasons I have stuck with CrossFit, beyond how good it feels to be in the best physical shape of my life, is that it has changed my definition of what is possible. Given my medical history, I was very cautious about what I might be able to physically do, but from the day I started, my coaches have found ways to scale and modify workouts. They always ensure that I can do something that is challenging, but never harmful or dangerous. When I started CrossFit, picking up my three year old was enough of a challenge. Today I can deadlift more than my own body weight, and I can lift 50 pounds above my head. I still can’t do a pull up, but I have faith that I will get there. My slow and steady progress over the past few years has taught me to trust the process, to trust my coaches, and to keep trying.

This model of self-transformation has taught me a lot as a leader in the Church.

What does it look like to enable the same kind of spiritual transformation in those who love and follow Jesus? The Christian life, too, is an invitation to transformation: an invitation to live our lives in new ways, an invitation to redefine what is possible for ourselves and for the world around us.

As ordained leaders, as “coaches,” how can we better encourage and empower those with whom we have the privilege of serving? How might we give them the tools and the skills to test their own limits in a supportive environment? How do we inspire them with courage to be bold without being dangerous?

How might we make being a follower of Jesus something that people will wake up in the dark to do because it brings them joy?

I thought cancer had put limits on my body that could never be overcome. CrossFit has shown me that, amazingly, they can.

I don’t know all the answers to these questions yet, but CrossFit has me thinking about them. I do know that it is about taking small steps and doing something little each day. I also know it is about doing it community with good teachers. What I have learned is that if I can take the long view, and trust the process and the leading of the Holy Spirit, I – and the church – will end up somewhere we did not think was possible.

Molly Field James is an Episcopal priest who serves on the Bishops’ Staff as the Dean for Formation for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. She holds a PhD in Theology from the University of Exeter (UK). She holds a MDiv from Yale Divinity School. She is an Associate Priest at Christ Church Cathedral and Grace Church in Hartford, Connecticut. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at Hartford Seminary and the University of St. Joseph.

Previously, she has served as a parish priest and a hospital chaplain. Her husband, Reade, is a mechanical engineer, and they have two children – Katherine, who was born in October of 2010, and Halsted, who was born in April of 2014. In addition to ministry and education, Molly loves cooking, reading, films and spending time in the splendor of God’s Creation.

Image by: dorianrochowski
Used with permission
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