This post is part of a series on spiritual disciplines called Merely Beloved. Chad and I overlapped in seminary together for a short time, and reconnected after our family’s move to the Mid-West. He and his family are kind, conscientious and thoughtful – a great example to me. For more information about this series click here.
I can remember the day I became a runner. I had never really been all that good at sports, decent, but not great by any means. I liked basketball and baseball, but in reality I was always too short and too skinny.
Football was out of the question. In the spring of 8th grade we began another season of track and field. The very first day our coach pulled us all together and said that our goal for the day was to run 1 mile around the baseball diamonds and back. I looked over at my friend Troy and we gave each other this look as if to say, “Let’s show all these people what we can do.” In all honesty, I hadn’t given running much thought and neither did I know whether I could actually do it. Either way, I was determined that I was going to run hard for this mile. As it turns out, I ran very well finishing in a time of 7:01, not bad for a skinny runt from central Illinois.
My mom and dad both were very encouraging of this new found talent and dad took me out to buy my first pair of Asics running shoes. I put them on and dad and I ran around town as though all the world were watching. My coach and my father pushed me to work hard over the season and on the last meet of the year I qualified for the state finals in the 1600 meter finishing in a time of 5:08. Ever since that moment when I looked over at my friend Troy and committed to running hard, I have been running and running and running. I ran in high school and I ran a little in college. I got away from it some in graduate school, but took it up again in my late 20s. I am now 35 and I am one month away from running my first marathon. I have been training since February, with a goal of racing my first half marathon in May, of which I accomplished, and my first marathon in November. I have come a long way since I was 13 and in the midst of my journey towards finishing a marathon I discovered some parallels to the spiritual journey that perhaps could be helpful to those of us who look for regular practices by which to engage the Sacred.
When I was asked to write on this blog, it occurred to me that many of the spiritual disciplines have some similar structure to my training for a marathon and so most of my writing here will come from within the boundaries of this experience. I begin by sharing two important discoveries for me in my training that describes the power of the spiritual life. First, the spiritual life is every bit a process of training our lives to experience God as it is for a runner to train his or her body to accomplish a goal. Second, while running may seem like a solitary activity, after all we as individuals are the ones running, it is very much like the spiritual path, we never journey it alone.
Let’s begin with the idea of training. By no stretch of the imagination can most human beings up and decide one day that they will run 26.2 miles. I suppose most of us could try, but I have the feeling that the vast majority of us are not Forrest Gump. We have to train our bodies to experience the kind of rhythms, pounding, breathing, and pacing that is required to finish a race of this magnitude. If our bodies are not in shape, they will break down after a short while. In fact, most marathon training guides will tell you that the 16-24 week plans they have designed assume that someone has had a few months base of running and handling 4-6 miles at one time 4-5 days a week. It takes an enormous amount of time, energy, and focus to be sure that our bodies are prepared to take the pounding that such a race incurs.
I am convinced it is no different in the spiritual life. It is my experience in all the churches that I have served and in my own personal journey, that the spiritual path comes as anything but natural or easy. Most of us struggle to maintain 5 minutes of silence, let alone what it would take to adapt to an entire weekend of a silent retreat at a monastery or retreat center. Many of us do not carry a regular routine of spiritual discipline such as prayer, lectio divina, meditation, or fasting. Our lives rarely carry any kind of rhythm so that our minds, hearts, spirits, and body experience what it takes for us to experience the Sacred in our midst. It takes focus, training, willingness to fail and pick ourselves back up again. Like marathoning, it means that the spiritual life is one of intention, sacrifice, and placing ourselves in healthy patterns of discipline so that we know how to hear God’s voice to us when it is spoken. We often catch Jesus saying in the gospels that “May those with eyes see and those with ears hear,” which I estimate to mean that most of us do not have ears and eyes trained to experience the realm of the Sacred. But, this kind of experience of God is possible if we are willing to commit our full lives to listening to and for God in our lives.
What I have secondly discovered about running and the spiritual life is that rarely, if ever, are they solitary. We often hear Christians remark that they have a “personal relationship with God” of which much of their spiritual practice is done individually. While there is a clear individual component to the Christian faith, it is abundantly clear from scripture and history that “personal” does not mean private or solitary. Christian faith by its very nature is communal and none of us that claim such faith have received the gift of faith without other people, without community, without the Other being present in all that we do. I used to think that running, too, was a solitary activity. Relay races at track meets aside, I was the only one running the 2 miles around the track and experiencing the burning in my calves. If others experienced such things from the stands then that would be a different story, but as far as I could tell it was only me out there and it was only me that determined the outcome of my running. My marathon training has taught me that running is anything but a solitary activity.
Every Saturday I make my way to the Lunken Aiport trails in Cincinnati, Ohio to do my long runs and put my body through the rigorous beating it must experience in order for me to finish 26.2 miles. Since February I have been building up mileage to reach 24 miles and then I taper down leading up to the race. A few weeks ago I discovered several things the morning I was to run 17 miles. Friday nights I spend a significant amount of time putting together all of my stuff for the morning…my clothes, my shoes, my Gatorade, charging my ipod, and on. When I am running these long runs I have to be sure that I am hydrated enough and that I eat enough food prior to, during, and after the run. That morning I woke and had a great breakfast, of which my wife had made the night before for me, and I had just come off an amazing week of training leading up to this long run. I got out on the trail and by mile 10 I had begun to fall apart. I was so physically exhausted that I was having a hard time making it on any level. By mile 13 I had already stopped several times and was spent, but somehow I mustered up enough energy to walk and jog 2 more miles to make 15. Honestly, I do not stop in the middle of my runs and somehow my body was just telling me I needed to rest. But that day, I wondered how it is that I was even able to make it as far as I did.
Runners have this funny way of thinking that we are all lone rangers running out there by ourselves with only our energy. But, we have an entire language of our own as well that makes this sport a communal sport. When I was really struggling through those last several miles I began to notice that every time I would run by another runner going in the opposite direction of me that they would smile, wave, or give me a thumbs up. It is as if we all know that we share a similar pain and that we simply need someone to cheer us on so that we can keep going. A smile, a wave, they are small acts, but they were enough to keep me going. As these small acknowledgements from my fellow runners kept me going I was reminded of my first half marathon back in May. I ran the Cincinnati Flying Pig Half Marathon and it was horrendously difficult, with steep hills and challenging terrain. I walked a lot of it. But, there was a huge crowd at the event and I found these complete strangers cheering me on and telling me I could do it. I finished the race even though I really wanted to quit. I would not have finished without them and that day a few weeks ago when my body crashed on me I would not have survived without those runners around me giving me their thumbs up.
I know based upon these experiences that I will be able to finish my marathon in November. I know this because I know that I am not running that race by myself, I have an entire cloud of witnesses lifting me up and supporting me. When I think about all the players who play a role, I am amazed that I didn’t see this concept earlier. Every time I put on my Brooks shoes, I am reminded that someone had to make those shoes. When I put on my Starter running outfit, I recall that someone stitched those threads together. When I mix together my Gatorade for hydration I know that 40 years of hydration science has gone into making this drink. Each Saturday morning as I go to run, I precede it with a bagel or a tofu scramble and I realize that someone had to make the bagel or that my darling wife made me a scramble to give me the energy I need to make it all those miles. The people who designed the running trails I am running on are literally providing the foundation of my run. When I actually run this race in November I will see friends and family on the sidelines reminding me of all the countless hours that I have poured into, no, that WE have poured into running these 26 miles. Truthfully, it looks and sometimes feels like a solitary activity, but no runner does this sport alone…we are lifted up and supported and run with and given strength by a myriad of people that make it possible for us to do so.
Truth is, when we lose sight of the fact that we as individuals are a part of a collective whole, we miss the opportunity to see our spiritual lives in very enriching ways. We are not on this journey by ourselves. We have the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, our church community, the Bread and the Wine, the living waters of Baptism, the holy words of historic creeds, and a living Jesus that does not leave us alone to our devices, but comes among us saying, “Peace be with you. My peace I give to you.” Faith may be personal, but never private or solitary, it is always accompanied by those who have gone before us and by a Presence much greater than ourselves. In the long time that I have been running, never have I accomplished anything significant by doing it on a whim or by myself. I had to train with intention and I had to surround myself with those that will allow me to be the best athlete that I can. In the end, this is the spiritual path, to live into a disciplined path of seeking the Divine and to do so in connection with that great Cloud of Witnesses, both living and dead, that reminds us of our identity in Jesus Christ. Perhaps one of these days I will stop running away from these things and start running towards them.