Mile 9- The Grey Haired Lady

I was a fair athlete growing up and most sports came pretty easily. One year this kid in my junior high theater class talked me into running on the cross country team with him. He was the star of the team, always coming in first. Those kind of guys try to get everyone to join them. I think it’s as much for their love of the sport as their desire to have more people watching them from behind.

Anyways, I kind of liked running cross country and did ok, often coming in second behind him on our team. After the cross country season, he went on to run track and I went back to goofing off. One day at school he came up to me with a cast on his arm. Seems he was messing around at track practice attempting the high jump in track cleats. He slipped and broke his wrist, thus eliminating him from the all-city meet coming up in a few days. He had that “Dude, you gotta take my place” look in his eyes and I knew I was toast. I had two days to practice.

Taking his place meant I had to represent our team in the long jump, triple jump and the mile run. Well, one out of three I had done before. I knew I could run a mile. But long jump and triple jump were something totally new to me. By the end of the second practice the track coach’s brow was seriously furrowed. “Reed”, he said, “let’s scratch the triple jump for you. Think you can just focus on the other two?” I gotta say I was relieved.   The triple jump was definitely not for me.

The mile I could do and I figured running down a straight stretch of asphalt and jumping into a sand pit couldn’t really be all that tough.

The day of the meet came and I found out I was wrong on both accounts.

First off, the meet was at a high school and we were junior highers, so the take off line for the long jump was moved up, closer to the sand pit. “I got this”, I assured myself as I watched Neon Deon get ready to make his first attempt. Neon Deon was a legend in our city and I had faced him when he was a running back in youth football. He was the reason the Saints beat us in the playoffs. If jr highers took steroids, this guy would be the poster child. He told us it was the Twinkies.

Anyways, Neon Deon headed down the strip in a blur and launched his glistening black body into the sky and ended up clearing the entire length of the sand pit, landing on the grass on the other end. The whole stadium, not just those right around us, but the whole stadium saw the feat and erupted in wild cheers and thunderous applause.

I was inspired. I was already picturing applause and cheers. I probably wouldn’t make it out of the pit like Neon Deon, I admitted, but landing toward the back should get an honorable reaction.

“Next jumper- Reed, La Cumbre Jr. High”, the official announced. I lined up full of anticipation.

You know how you have these moments of anticipation and grandeur that are interrupted by reality? This was one of those times.

As I sped down the runway, I noticed the faces of the onlookers. But the looks were more of concern and apprehension than awe and wonder as they had been for Neon Dion. When my foot hit the line, I sprung skyward with all my might, trying to remember and do the things the coach had told me over the past few days. My last inklings of stardom and glory disappeared as I landed with a solid thud to the gasp of the crowd.

I had not even made it into the pit.

I casually picked myself up from the end of the asphalt runway. I glared at my shoes with a condemning scowl so onlookers might know the source of my ill fated attempt.

“DQ” was the solemn announced from the official.

I chalked up the DQ as “Don’t Quit” and got back in line for my next attempt. Strangely, the other jumpers slowly shifted away from me as if I had something contagious they didn’t want to get. Disqualified, dishmalified…I’d show them!

On the second jump I did. I made it into the pit by a good, safe margin. But the overly picky official pointed out that I overstepped the starting line by that same good, safe margin.

“DQ”, repeated the race official.

About this time the coach came alongside me, put his arm on my shoulders and steered me away from a third attempt. “Let’s save your energy for the mile.”, he said. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a more gracious word.

I slipped away from the long jump venue and headed over to the starting area for the mile. Most of the guys there had not seen what happened at the pit, so I had a clean slate. As I was warming up, the coach came up to me to give me some last points of strategy. “These guys start pretty fast, since it’s only one mile. You’re used to three miles, where it’s a slower pace. This one will be quicker. Your first lap you want to stay pretty much in the middle of the pack. By your second lap, you should have a good feel for the pace and settle in. Stay in the middle for most of the race. When it comes to the last lap, wait until the last half then kick it home.”

This is what my little jr. high brain processed:

Lap One: Stay with the pack;

Lap Two: settle in and get the pace, stay there until;

Lap 3: Hit the afterburners in the second turn and kick it in home. I thought I had a good strategy.

At the gun we all took off, and sure enough, these guys kicked it out a bit quicker than I was used to. My focus was on staying ahead of the slower guys, not losing sight of the faster guys. I was straining a bit, but after the first lap, I managed to stay with the pack. Thinking we’d settle down to a reasonable pace on the second lap, I relaxed a bit only to find the rest of the pack hadn’t gotten the memo. If anything, they seemed to speed up some. Remembering my coach’s strategy I strained to keep pace, confident that they were straining just as much and would eventually settle down.

I was steadily losing ground as we came around the last turn of the second lap. I caught sight of my coach in my periphery. His intent stare showed little emotion, but I could tell he was impressed to see me still in the thick of things. Let’s see, lap three: afterburners. Ok, sure I was straining, but I wanted to get a rise out of my coach and I hit the afterburners early to move up in the pack.

The faintest pain started to develop in my side as I started to accelerate. My heart and imagination were trying to override my brain as I summoned the last bit of adrenaline to surge forward within an arms distance of the leader. With just half of lap three to go I was in third place with momentum for second! By now my lungs were burning, my legs beginning to seriously protest and the cramp in my side definitely screaming for attention. But the end of my final lap was just a bit ahead and I overrode all body systems with the promise of glory if we’d just hang on for a few more steps.

About this time, the guy in first started to pull ahead, and likewise number two. A bit late in the race for the kick I thought, but they had their strategy and I had mine. To my right I noticed the guy in forth place trying to nudge past for third. Third is the last ribbon place so I was having none of it. With a final surge of strength I sprinted for the line, holding off the challenger.

As I slowed for my third place victory jog, a blur of runners swept past me. When there was no celebrating by the first and second place runners, no cheering by the crowd and no official clicking his final stopwatch it suddenly dawned on me: The race was not over. I had run a four lap race with a three lap strategy.

In the few seconds it took to sink in, every runner in the field passed me. With my body in shut down mode, I started to run again but considering the over depletion exerted in the previous three laps, the final lap was, well, just plain ugly.

I was so far back that the first place runner crossed the finish line when I was about a quarter way into the fourth lap. Just before I got half way through the fourth lap, the next closest runner to me crossed the finish line. That’s when it really hit me: I have half a lap to go in front of this full stadium and every other runner is finished.

You know those dreams you have about being someplace very public in nothing but your underwear? Moments like these are where they come from.

In the back of my mind I began devising an escape plan. Perhaps there was a loose grate, and I could just stumble into it and disappear into the center of the earth. Forever.

Or maybe one of the tunnel doors that go under the stadium seats had been left open. I could just not make the last turn, go into the tunnel and jog into obscurity. Forever.

Unfortunately, none of this was to be had.   With no escape, the last half lap seemed like a million miles. As I took a quick scan of the stands, people were already collecting their stuff, some already leaving their seats to greet the already finished runners.

Being so far behind, so far out of contention, it didn’t seem to matter if I finished or not. The race was over and I was an afterthought.

And then, from the stands, something caught my ear and then my eye. It sounded like clapping. And cheering. I looked up and there was a solitary figure standing. It was a little grey haired lady and she had risen to her feet and she was clapping and cheering.

For me.

No one else was on the track. No one else was still running the race.

But me.

She cheered like I was in first place. It wasn’t one of those, “I want to go for a latte but first I need to cheer for the loser to make us all feel better” cheers. There was something about the way she clapped; the way she cheered encouraging words that let me know I wasn’t done and she was with me. It was if, when she rose to her feet after everyone else had finished, she knew this run was for more than last place. And her actions were more than a pity clap and more than a respectful gesture. Her cheering picked up my pace to a full sprint. She reminded me I was still in the race. And she made me want to finish well.

Somehow this lady knew that a life lesson was happening on that track and she was going to be part of making sure it turned out right. Her cheers sent me a powerful message that day: I might have been the only one on the track, but I was not alone in the race.

At the start of the fourth lap I had been feeling completely alone, hours behind my closest competitor, an epic failure. She became a powerful witness that though I was impossibly behind the other runners, every race is about finishing well. And we all need people to help us finish well. I will never forget her cheering that ushered me across the finish line.

Looking back on my life, there are a number of people who, in critical times, were there to cheer, to clap and keep me going toward the finish.

My mom holding me all day long when I had the mumps during my kindergarten year.  Her cheer to me; your race may bring you pain but you’re not alone.

My dad scolding me when I wanted to quit.  His cheer; your race may be hard and not fair, but you’re not alone.

My oldest sister splitting her gumball into four pieces so each of us kids could have some.  Her cheer; your race may seem like more than you have in you, but you’re not alone.

My brother assuring me we’d find my knocked-out tooth right after we scored the next touchdown.  His cheer; your race may leave you with scars, but you’re not alone.

My other sister taking the blame when we got caught egging a house.  Her cheer; your race sometimes is filled with bad choices, but you’re not alone.

Reflecting back through the eyes of faith, I see God’s hand watching over my life through these gifts. Before I even understood the race marked out for me, I was not alone.

Looking farther back, even before my life existed, I see that there were generations of people who have fought the good fight, kept the faith and finished the race. Hebrews 11 describes a litany of people who, by faith, endured incredible difficulties in their lives, in their race. They remind us, that in each of our races, it’s not always about ending up first, but about finishing well. The thought wraps up in chapter 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.   Hebrews 12:1–3 (ESV)

The “cloud of witnesses” are those who have gone before us in the faith. They realized there’s more to life than who comes in first. The message of their lives, of their enduring and remaining in the race, is the witness that cheers us on. And the key to their running with endurance the race set before them?

Looking to Jesus.

The picture is one of Him on the cross. It’s about Him remaining on the cross until His work was complete, until He had finished well. It is because He finished well that we have hope. It is because Jesus ran His race that He brings power and endurance to ours with the words, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”

Sometimes Jesus whispers that to us through His Word. Sometimes He reminds us of His presence through the cheers of other people; family members, friends, a little gray haired lady in the stands. When you find yourself struggling in the race set before you, He has a message for you.

Your race may be _____________________ (insert negative adjective here),

but you are not alone.

I know. It seems like the stands have packed up and moved on and you’re still on the track, alone and with a million miles to go. But if you’ll look and listen with the eyes and ears of faith, you will see people in the stands of your life and they will be cheering. They are witnesses to remind you that there is One who runs with you and says, “This race is worth finishing well. Keep going. I am with you. You are not alone.”

The next time you’re in a race, remember the little grey haired lady. You’re not alone.

The next time you’re in the stands, remember the guy still on the track in last place. We all need people to help us finish well.

Stay on the road. I gotta run…

 

 

Mile 8- Invisible

Moving to a new neighborhood means finding new running routes. After 12 years at the old place it had become easy to head out on familiar paths with a variety of choices depending on the distance I wanted to run. Now I was living out in the country surrounded by roads with narrow shoulders lined with high weeds and barbed wire. And everybody drives big pick up trucks.

Determined to get back on the road, I cruised the area finding a route that I thought would give me a good workout and at least even odds of not ending up road kill or as a hood ornament that one of the locals might proudly display on his pickup at the local watering hole.

I found a three and a half mile loop that seemed harmless enough and late one afternoon decided to give it a try. The first mile started out along a dirt road passing ranch homes and chicken coops. It emptied out onto an asphalt lane with no shoulder, but the ditch was only a couple feet deep, so when an oncoming pickup got too close I could make a jump escape— kind of added to the adventure.
The second mile was along a major road and featured a rare commodity: a bike lane. Of course out in the country, the bike lane rarely sees any bikes, but is usually populated by ATV’s, power scooters, lawn tractors and an occasional mini goat herd— also adding to the adventure.

But on this particular day, the bike lane was wide open for about a mile, which was nice because the late afternoon traffic was a heavy parade of pickups heading home. I settled into a comfortable pace as the delta breeze started to pick up, which often happens toward sundown. My shadow was directly in front of me and stretched out quite a ways as the warmth of the spring sun massaged my back and the cool of the approaching evening brushed my face. When I run on the side of the road against traffic I make a practice of waving at every oncoming car. I figure, whoever doesn’t hit me is my friend. Low standards, but it works.

One of the first oncoming vehicles caught my attention right away; fully one third of it’s overly pretentious girth was hanging in the bike lane heading straight for me as if I wasn’t even there. Normally I wait until the car or truck is near to wave, more of a hi/thanks/now we’re buddies type gesture. But this guy was coming straight for me and not moving over. At about 25 feet away my international gesture of friendliness more resembled the international gesture of drowning with arms flailing wildly.

I was about to pull the eject cord and bail into the barbed wire weeds when suddenly the driver jerked his murder machine out of the bike lane. As he passed by I could see a bewildered “what the heck are you thinkin?” look in his eyes.

I barely had time to reflect on my near death experience when I noticed a Hundai barreling toward me. Come on, it’s a Hundai! You can put three of them side by side in a single lane and still have room. But no, for whatever reason, this guy’s gotta be hugging the bike lane. Not quite in it, but close enough to claim a few of my arm hairs as he whizzed by.

What am I, invisible?! Before I could get the answer from whoever I was expecting it, another truck had me in it’s cross hairs. What is wrong with these people?! I scooted over as far to the left as possible, my shirt snagging on the barbed wire just as the hurricane force wind blasted dirt into my eyes and nostrils as the third member of the hit squad passed by.

By this time I’m pretty indignant at the thought of this continuum of rude country drivers. I thought people in the country were supposed to drive leisurely along with a strand of hay hanging out of their mouth. I thought when they passed you they’d say “Howdy” and flash you a semi toothless smile. I didn’t think the regional sport was turning runners to road kill.

Having had enough of this road and craziness, I decided to take the next turn, even if it led to Bakersfield. My thought was to cross the road diagonally and avoid having to wait at the stoplights. As I started to cross the road, I looked back to make sure the coast was clear and the honking horn and screeching tires clued me in; I had not only felt invisible, I had been invisible. What I didn’t realize is that I had been running with my back directly in the sun. Oncoming drivers, blinded by the angle of the sun, had also been blinded to my presence until they were practically on me.
And I, blinded by that same sun, had almost stepped in front of a car that was invisible to me. Invisible can not only be frustrating, it can be deadly.

There’s this great story that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me in the book of Genesis. Patriarch Abram has been promised by God that he will have all kinds of ancestors— as many as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. The only problemo is that Abe is in his 90’s and his wife Sarai is barren. I guess the thing to do in those pre-invitro days was to have kids by proxy, so Sarah grabs her maid Hagar and gives her to Abram to make a baby with.

Abram, being the accommodating husband, indulges his wife, receives the maid and lo and behold the happy announcement is made that a replacement promised child is on the way. The Bible tells us that Hagar, “When she saw that she had conceived, looked with contempt on her mistress”. I’m not exactly sure how that works between women, but I wouldn’t want to be in the middle of it. And neither did Abram. After getting an earful from Sarai his manly response: “Do to her as you please”. With this green light, Sarai wastes no time in making Hagar’s life so unbearable that being on her own in the wilderness is far more appealing to Hagar than hanging out in the household of her mistress.

Did you catch the switch? Hagar goes from being a simple servant to star of the show to goat of the century in 6 verses. And now she and the “promise” child are cast into the wilderness, out of sight and out of mind.

Invisible.

It’s amazing how invisible can just happen. You’re moving along in life, shuffling along with the herd just fine, then something happens and it seems like you’re cut off, isolated, alone.

Invisible.

I’m not sure if invisible happens to everybody, but I know it can happen to anybody.
Awhile back, I dropped into the hospital to visit with one of our white hair saints who was having circulation problems and in danger of losing her toes. She went through great detail describing the progressive deterioration process as she held her foot very close to my face so I could get a view I never wanted of her bluish blackening toes. There was nothing they could do, she explained, the only hope was the clot dissolving itself.

That was the perfect cue for a pastor with a Bible tucked under his arm and an array of healing prayers in his arsenal. So I went to work. I read a few Scriptures from the psalms that described God’s healing presence. I shared a story about Jesus healing. And then I prayed. I even held her foot as I prayed, thinking there might be some kind of sizzle and pop and we’d open our eyes and there’d be five healthy pink toes wiggling at us. I ended with, “But nevertheless, Lord, thy will be done.” It’s the catch all phrase, just in case God decides sizzle pop healing is not in the cards right now.

As we finished the prayer, in walked nurse Tatiana from Latvia. “This is my pastor”, my friend offered. “Tatiana”, the nurse responded as she looked me over, wondering why I was holding this woman’s foot. She had no difficulty conveying that, though the presence of a pastor was a nice gesture, it was at the same time an interference to her more important work. She had come in response to my friend pressing the call button for her pain pill.

As she handed the pill to her patient, Tatiana announced, “He can’t help you with the pain, can he?” No, he can’t” my congregant quietly admitted. And there, even though it was for a brief moment, it happened.

I was invisible.

You can probably relate.
Your best efforts that netted zero results.
Responding to a request for help, only to be rejected for the attempt.
Laying yourself out for a person, a company or a cause with no regard or acknowledgment of your sacrifice.

It suddenly comes upon you in those moments: I’m invisible.

Sometimes it’s a moment like a hospital room visit. Sometimes it’s a situation, like a too-busy household. Sometimes it’s a season like a marriage that has gone adrift.

Invisible happens.

So Hagar finds herself in the wilderness pregnant, alone & pretty much cut off. And then a voice from on high speaks, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”
Really? You’re the angel of the Lord and you don’t know where I came from? You hang out with the Almighty and you don’t know what’s going on? I’m thinking the question was more for Hagar— and for you and me— than for the Angel of the Lord.

Hagar indulges the angel and explains her situation to him. The angel responds, explaining that God does indeed know her situation and relates to her not only where she came from but where she’s going through the boy— “You shall call his name Ishmael because the Lord listened to your affliction.” Ishmael means “God hears”. And now Hagar has a new reality. In the midst of being invisible to the world around her, she is seen by One. Into her history of being used, shunned and cast off a new character emerges: the God who sees. The Word tells us Hagar gives God a new name saying: “You are the God who sees me.”

Hagar is no longer invisible. Ever.

In the word from the angel, God reveals to Hagar that her life was, is and always will be, before His eyes. The shocker part of this account is that in the redemption story of the people of Israel, Hagar is a mere deviation, an oopsie, an insignificant side story. But God tells Hagar something different: I see you.

Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Isaac eventually becomes the star of the show and the spotlight moves along after him & his kindred. Yet God saw Hagar. And after 4000 years, we are still reading her story.

I think the thing that attracts me to Jesus more than anything is His eye for those that the rest of the world overlooks: the woman caught in adultery; the outcast leper; the blind beggar by the side of the road. And the thing about Jesus is that He could never see without acting. Just as His Father saw Hagar’s plight and acted on her behalf, so the Son acts on what He sees.

It was from a cross on a hill on a very dark Friday that Jesus spoke with His life these words: I see you. In all the things that would render us invisible— whether things that we bring upon ourselves or happen to us— He sees and He acts, exchanging His life for ours, taking on Himself the rejection of the world and giving us the approval of God. Through Him, we are never invisible. Ever.

Yeah, we still have to be careful when we’re crossing the road in the shadows; we will still have moments when we’re overlooked or unseen by those around us. But even in our most invisible times we know there is One who sees. And that’s enough to keep going, to stay on the road.

I gotta run…

Mile 7- Running in the dark

I never knew “Runner’s Block” was a real thing.

Whenever I didn’t feel like running I’d hear the voice of my friend Don King (no, really, that’s his real name) say, “yer just bein a slackah!”

When I shared with him that I’d been diagnosed with a double hernia a few weeks before the Flying Pig marathon we were training for, he simply said, “Quit bein a weasel!”

When I did a midlife career change and went to seminary full time and worked part time on top of that, I decided to give up running.  I couldn’t afford to join the team at Reach the Beach that year, so I thought I’d take the year off.  When Don heard of it, a pair of brand new running shoes showed up in my mailbox, along with a plane ticket and the encouragement, “C’mon Jay, stay on the road!”

To this day I can still hear “Slackah”, “weasel” and “stay on the road” in Don’s Bostonian accent.

But lately, that hasn’t been enough

As the days have gotten shorter and colder, and life has gotten busier, time on the road has been replaced by time on the couch, time in bed, time at work and time anywhere but on the road.

I tend to go through the same thing this time of year, every year.  Carrot sticks and water get bumped off the plate by cheese puffs and beer.  It seems like the slackah and weasel in me take turns running the show, while the runner slips meekly into the background all too willing to give in.  My focus is more drawn to comfort and ease of life than challenge and adventure.  What used to motivate me no longer works and I become a bystander to my own life.  The great goal of training for a marathon or setting a personal best time slip to the background as the here and now of comfort, ease and instant gratification noisily clamber to front and center.  Before long, my excuses and justifications become ritual:  I’ll start tomorrow, as soon as it stops raining, when my schedule loosens up, and on it goes.

Then it happens.  Well, more than it.  They happen.  Someone asks me how my running is going; I see myself with my shirt off in the full length mirror; runner’s world shows up on my facebook feed, and some scrawny kid at church says “we should run in this race” then adds, “Oh, but you’re probably not ready.”

I ask myself, “How did I get here again?  I thought running was going to be a lifestyle.  When will I finally get tired of this up and down cycle and simply do what’s right and good for me?”  It seems like every time I try to get back on the road I find ten reasons not to.

Runner’s Block.

So, rather than simply get back on the road, I think.

I think about why I am where I am.

I think as I read some articles on runner’s block, and then I think some more.

And when I have thought enough, it comes to me:

I don’t like running in the dark.

During the winter all my daylight is taken up with work, meetings, appointments—daylight type stuff.  My “discretionary time”, after family time, is either early morning or later in the evening.  And both are dark.

It’s not that I’m afraid of the dark.  It’s just hard for me to head off into the dark.  Sure, I wear a vest and have a flashlight.  But the light shines only so far around me.  And the rest is dark.

In the daytime, I can see the landscape ahead, I know where I’m headed for the next mile or two.  In the dark that’s just not the case.  OK, I’ve run this route a hundred times, but in the dark it’s…, well…, uncertain.  I can’t see far enough ahead.  I can’t see what’s way up there.  I can only see the length of the flashlight beam, an occasional set of car lights and a few streetlights.  The rest is dark

“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”.

I hate that verse.  OK, OK, maybe “hate” is a little strong, especially when it comes to the Bible.  But why couldn’t it be, “Your Word is a light to the whole landscape so I can see every twist and turn and decide whether I want to take that path”?

If I were one of the original followers of Jesus, I think I would have had a bunch more questions than they had when He said, “Follow me”.  Like, “So, uh, how does this thing turn out?” and, “Where we goin?” and “Is this really going to be worth my time..?”

I don’t know if they had similar questions, but we never get a record of Jesus answering them.  It’s simply, “Follow me”.

Believe.

Trust.

Follow.

You have to be willing to live with a lamp only on your feet and a light only on the immediate path in front of you.  The rest is dark.  Faith.

I suppose that’s what Jesus was trying to get us to see when He said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but have the light of life.”

To live life fully, Jesus says, is to be willing to live with the dark.  It’s to step out, even though you don’t know exactly where you’re headed.  It’s to trust that you will have enough light for the next step, even though you don’t see the whole landscape.  It’s to trust that someone greater than you has the big picture in mind, has your path in sight, so you don’t have to know every detail.

Stephen King wrote a book on writing and his contention is that the story and the characters take you where you need to go.  You just start with an idea and don’t really know all the details, but in the act of writing, the landscape appears and you just take the next step as it leads.  Your job as a writer is to put in the time every day, to simply see where the light is on the path right in front of you, and follow it.  The story will take care of itself

That’s probably why I’m attracted to writing, but at the same time find it so difficult.

Kind of like faith.

Kind of like living in the dark.

Kind of like running in the dark.

To go on an adventure, you need to take the first step and trust that even though you can’t see the whole landscape, you will have enough light for the next step.

I gotta admit, I think that’s one of the things that attracts me to Jesus.  The only thing He promises me is that he will be my light for the journey.  He doesn’t promise me the whole landscape—just enough light for each day.

When I look back on my life, my greatest adventures have been as a result of not really knowing how things were going to end up, but just taking the first step…into the dark, trusting that there will be enough light.

I got an inquiry from a friend the other day as to why I hadn’t been writing and wondering if I was still running.  It was just what I needed to get back on the road again, even if it is into the dark and only being able to see a flashlight’s distance ahead.  The rest I’ll just have to trust.

I’m still learning my friends, when you have a lamp for your feet and a light for your path, that’s enough.

It’s dark out, but I gotta run.

Stay on the road.

Mile 6- Runner’s High

I first heard of the term when I was comparing notes with a lady who liked to run far.  When people asked why she liked to run so far, she said, “You know that runner’s high you get after running a long time…”   As she continued her story, I nodded as if I knew what she was talking about, but my mind was stuck on that thought: runner’s high.

Personally, up to that point, I could tell you about runner’s cramps, runner’s sprains, runner’s runs and runner’s desire to quit real bad, but I wasn’t much good with runner’s high.

I did a little research on the subject.  It seems the subject of runner’s high is as clouded in mystery as the Shroud of Turin.  Some scientific types propose it has to do with endorphins released in the blood stream and attaching to the emotional part of the brain.  It’s effects are similar to the process of having sex.  This probably explains the running boom in the 1970’s…

Other scientific types deny that particular chemical process and offer varying explanations from a different chemical to no high at all, that it’s a myth.  What’s interesting is to watch the discussion between a scientific type who is not a runner and a runner who swears by the “myth”.  One knows all kinds of “facts” based on laboratory tests, scientific inquiry and chemical/biological dogma.  The other knows only one thing: personal experience.  Who do you believe?

There’s an account in the Gospel of John where Jesus heals a man who was blind from birth.  Nobody in the account had ever seen that done before, not even the religious leaders who had cornered the market on miracles and works of God.  After healing the guy, Jesus disappeared, leaving the religious guys to try to make sense of what just happened.  They didn’t actually see Jesus heal the guy, they were just presented with the evidence: this guy who was blind from birth and now could see.

So they started asking people.  Some said, “Yes, that’s the guy!”  Others said, “Nah, it just looks like him.”  The religious leaders conclude that this couldn’t be right, because the healing occurred on the Sabbath and that’s not supposed to happen.  So they decide the whole thing was fake until the blind guy’s parents show up.  His parents say, “yes he’s our son and yes, he was born blind, but how he got healed, we don’t know.”

So they grill the guy again looking for a way to explain away what they could not accept.  The religious leaders had become so accustomed to a religion of rules and laws and conformation that there was no longer any room for mystery.   Anything that didn’t fit within their little box of “god and how he has to work” was suspect and condemned.

Do a quick history of the Christian church and you’ll cringe.  The crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, Salem witch trials and scores of other examples mirror that “god in a box” thinking.  When we strip God of mystery, when we deny that part of Him that He has not revealed and is unknowable to us, then our religion becomes rules and regulations; a means to control ourselves and others under the guise of faith.  When we strip God of mystery, we become arrogant enforcers of a dead religious system rather than humble recipients of an unfathomable grace.

Do a quick history of your week and you’ll probably cringe again.  How many people have we judged/condemned because they didn’t fit our construct of right and wrong?  Who did we favor because they have the same twisted view as we do and who did we ignore or ostracize because their outlook threatened ours?

Suddenly the religious leaders in the story of the blind guy are uncomfortably close.

The problem that confronted them is the same that confronts us: ultimately, the mystery of God exceeds what we can know of Him.  I mean, how do you adequately explain a God who is here yesterday, today and tomorrow all at the same time?  A God who is immediately present with billions on earth, while reigning on His throne in Heaven?  A God who commands his Old Testament people to burn, destroy and kill entire peoples and yet proclaims that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked?

It’s when we’re confronted with mystery, with things that we don’t understand, we get fearful and defensive.  We set up doctrine as razor wire and dogma as watch towers.  Anyone who trespasses either, now becomes defined as enemy. Our certainty of the facts, what is and what must be becomes our identity which we must defend to the point of death.  Living within this defensive compound, we choose to exist as prisoners rather than be confronted by what draws near to set us free.

Why is it, do you think, that the hardest words in our vocabulary seem to have become, “I don’t know”?

Fear maybe?  Fear of not being as wise or capable or competent as we present ourselves.  Fear of being vulnerable that the truths I have built my life and identity upon might not hold anymore and then what would I be left with?

It’s ironic that the words we can fear the most are also the ones that can set us free.

Taking a note from the ex-blind guy in John’s Gospel, he says “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  The skeptical religious leaders had all kinds of facts to explain away the miracle.  The blind man had an encounter with mystery.  He couldn’t explain how, only that it happened.  Frustrated and refusing to allow for any possibility other than their own reality, the religious leaders toss the guy out with a few nasty words of condemnation.

That’s when Jesus shows up again and has a brief conversation with the now-seeing guy.  In bringing a little light to the mystery, Jesus tells the guy, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see and those who see may become blind.”  What Jesus is saying is that He did, in fact, come into the mess of humanity to bring hope and healing and life.  Through His words and actions He revealed a God who is near to the downcast and broken hearted; Who is present with the deaf and the blind and Who hears the cries of all who call on Him.

But as surely as Jesus reveals to us His father who is a here and now reality, He also presents a God whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts and whose ways are higher than ours as the “heavens are higher than the earth”.  In short, the facts we know of God must be held alongside the mystery of God.

The writer of Hebrews lays it out as a paradox: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”(Heb.11:1)  As surely as God’s universe includes things that can be touched and smelled, tasted and heard, it also includes things that can only be received by faith.  As much as we live in a world of concrete and steel, of science and engineering, it is also a world of faith and hope and love.  As much as our existence lies in history and predictability, we coexist in unfathomable mystery.

Like those religious leaders of Jesus day, sometimes we work so hard to make sense of things with calculators and test tubes when only faith will do.  We try to sort everything out based on what we can know, act on and prove and when we’re confronted by a mystery that shows the inadequacy of our real world tools, we deny that mystery exists.  We would rather change the reality of the universe than our own world view.

The problem is the no-longer blind guy.

Despite all our rationalizing, denying and pooh poohing, the blind guy still sees

Into our world, into our limited-sight lives Jesus still comes as light to open our eyes and reveal an infinite, eternal God who still dwells among a finite, time bound people.  I wish I could say I get it all but I gotta admit, more often than not, this faith journey is still a mystery.

Which brings me back to the whole runner’s high thing—whether it’s real or not, chemical reaction or mental attitude—one thing everybody agrees on: you can only experience it when you are actually running.

And that’s why, friends, we need to stay on the road.

I gotta run…

Mile 5- Why am I doing this?

Some of my best loved scars came from my brother.  It wasn’t like he went around stabbing me.  Well, maybe once.  But most of them came from adventures.  He was always into trying impossible things, reproducing scenes he’d read in Mad Magazine and engaging in multiple attempts to attract the attention of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

Ever since I was a little kid, he’d drag me along.  I was kind of like Igor to  Dr. Frankenstein.  Except Igor had a better gig.  My brother would hand me something and say, “Hold this and try not to move. “  I should have caught on when I noticed him putting on oven mitts to plug in the device I was holding.  The next thing I remember was him helping me up saying, “I told you not to move.”

Then there was the time he came home from chemistry class and said, “We gotta try this thing I learned today”  Yess maasster.  He took a bunch of bottles with skull and cross bones on the labels and mixed their contents together.  The result was a strange colored gas which we funneled into a giant plastic leaf bag.  I gotta admit, I was pretty amazed watching the bag float and bounce off the ceiling of our bedroom.

In my wide eyed wonder, I failed to see the lit match in my brother’s hand as he said, “Now we have to test it out”.  I’m not sure if the explosion meant we passed or failed.  All I remember was stumbling around in a scene reminiscent of the opening of “Saving Private Ryan”.   All my senses were pretty much numb as we painted the bedroom to cover the green leaf bag which had been permanently fused to the cottage cheese ceiling stuff.  It all turned out ok, though, because my brother was able to pencil in lines where my eyebrows used to be.  My mom asked if I had parted my hair differently.  Fortunately for my brother, my vocal cords were still so singed that I could only gasp and mutter.

I think surviving near death experiences changes the way you see life.  Yeah, I suppose there’s the “Each day of life is precious” kind of greeting card philosophy you can get, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  What it did for me was to redefine what makes life worth living.  Great adventures make for great stories.  Sure, they might add a scar or two to your body, but what it does for your soul lasts a long time.  But in order to get to the story, in order to get all that an adventure has to offer, you need to be willing to leave home base.  You have to wander away from safe and sound and embrace danger.  The more danger, the better the story, provided you survive to tell it.

I have never lost my love for adventure and when my brother finally took me up on my challenge to run in the Portland Marathon together, I knew another one was in the works.  I wasn’t sure how or what it would be, but whenever my brother’s around, something’s going to happen.

This was his first full marathon, so I had kept in touch with him as he trained giving him hints and tricks I had learned over the years on what to do to be in good shape to finish in a respectable time.  Of course, he ignored all my advice, choosing instead to follow his own patched-together plan from the same authors who put out “how to lose ten pounds in twenty minutes” and “touring London on 75 cents a day”.

He actually looked in pretty good shape race day morning.  I hadn’t seen him for a few months and with his matching shoes, shirt and sweatband… “Sweatband?”, I challenged,  “Bro, nobody runs with a sweatband anymore.  That went out with bell bottoms.”  “Well, it’s back”, he announced, and the adventure began.

For the first few miles we ran slow and then slowed down.  My friend Don King (No really, that’s his real name) would have been proud.  We kept our pace, even when the old lady passed us.  As the miles went by we looked forward to seeing my sisters at various locations to snap pictures, cheer and ask if we needed the ambulance yet.

One of the cool things about marathons is that there’s a lot of free food along the way.  Not only at the fuel stations every two or three miles, but a lot of times local residents will have tables set up offering a variety of “quick energy” snacks.  This one lady had a huge bowl of gummy bears.  I’d never had gummy bears as a marathon snack so I grabbed a big handful, thinking to share some with my brother.  He said his stomach wasn’t up to it, so I ate as many as I could and still had a fair amount left.  Not wanting to waste free food, I did the best I could to stuff them in the little pocket inside my running shorts, thinking they’d be good fuel for later.

I had been so preoccupied with the gummy bears that I hadn’t noticed my brother’s pace slowing a bit.  By this time we were around mile 23—about a 5k easy jog left.  As I looked back to my brother, I could see some of the faster walkers gaining on us.  “OK”, I said encouragingly, “We can kick it in from here”.  ‘You go ahead & I’ll kick you when I get there”, he mumbled.

I knew something wasn’t right, because, for him, that was a pretty weak comeback.  I slowed down to get a better look.  He had all the signs; shallow breathing, sweaty clammy skin, dilating pupils and incoherent speech.  I’d seen these signs five times before.  “You’re in trouble”, I said.  “What?  How?” he gasped.  “I think you’re in labor…”  He didn’t even crack a smile.  He really was in trouble.  “Why am I doing this?” he groaned.

Why am I doing this?

It’s that little question that pops into our head when we’re in over it.  It’s what we rhetorically ask when the pain has exceeded the gain, the risk has overshadowed the reward and the failure seems like our only best option.

I’m thinking it’s that same thought that flashed through Peter’s mind on the blustery sea.  Matthew tells us that Jesus had been walking on the water, while Peter and the dudes were rowing against wind and waves to reach shore.  On seeing Jesus, Peter is up for the adventure and asks to join Him.  With a single word, “Come”, Jesus invites Peter into His adventure.  Peter leaves the secure confines of the boat and begins walking on the water to Jesus.  The Gospel writer tells us, “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid…”

That was the moment, the “Why am I doing this?” moment.

What looked good on paper, seemed like a good idea at the time, is suddenly replaced by not only a sinking feeling, but a sinking reality for Peter as he starts slipping into the waves.  In an act of desperation Peter cries out, “Lord save me!”

It’s a cry a lot of us can relate to.  We get in over our head and are out of options.  There’s that point in the race of life when you feel like everything is shutting down, that you’re about to crash, and there’s nothing you can do.  And the worst part is, deep down, you know it’s nobody’s fault but your own.  You didn’t prepare enough, didn’t cover all the bases, miscalculated or just flat out did wrong and now you’re going down.

What happens next in Peter’s “Why am I doing this?” episode is life changing.  The Bible tells us Jesus reached out His hand and took hold of him, saving him.  Now, Peter gets a bad rap for lack of faith and a bunch of other theological stuff.  For our purposes, here’s what I see: We’re still telling this story today.  It’s a simple story about a guy on an adventure who gets in over his head and a God who rescues him and gives him a story he’ll never forget.

I’m thinking for the rest of his days, Peter will never forget the touch of that hand that reached out and grabbed him.  Forever etched in his memory would be the grasp of the strong arm that saved him.   All the stupid things Peter had done to get himself into trouble his whole life would pale in comparison to that one event.

I suppose what Peter teaches me is that you think you can know something just with your head.  You can hear about it and see it from a distance and think you got it.  But the truths that become life changing stories, the ones that form us, often don’t appear until we’re in over our heads and think we’ve got nothing left.   It’s so often at those times that God shows up, either directly or indirectly, and reminds us that none of us is beyond His reach.

Immanuel, “God with us”, is in the business of leaving the 99 to find the 1, raising up the last to first and leaving Heaven to come alongside our struggle on Earth.  He gets it that our eyes are often too big for our stomachs, our good intentions exceed our poor abilities and our heroic ventures can leave us needing to be rescued from ourselves.  His arm is always extended to anyone who would simply receive it.

There is this great passage in 1 Corinthians 10 about God not letting us be tempted, or tested, beyond what we can bear. Even when it’s our own fault, even when we’re the ones who got us in over our own heads, even when we offer up that last gasp, “Why am I doing this?”   In His faithfulness, the author writes, God will always provide a way out.  His arm is always extended.

I was snapped back to reality as my brother slowed to a walk and started making motions as if to hail a taxi, which wasn’t likely to happen on a closed road.  We were now less than two miles away and I wasn’t about to let him cash it in this close.  I started plotting to shortest legal route to drag his corpse across the finish line.

Then I remembered the gummy bear emergency supply I had in my shorts, and started to pull them out to offer my brother.  Of course after 6 miles of running in a small pocket of sweaty shorts, they weren’t in the most pristine condition.  In fact, as I pulled them out, they kind of stuck together like those little plastic monkeys in a barrel we used to play with as kids.  They had also lost most of the color, with the whole strand taking on a greeny yellowy tint.  “They’re still good”, I faked, as I pretended to put one in my mouth.  They say the last thing to go before rigor mortis sets in is your sense of humor, so I knew my brother was on his way out.  I even thought I heard strains of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” coming from above his head someplace.

Just then a kid with some orange slices showed up and my brother took a handful.  OK, so it wasn’t Jesus plucking my brother out of a stormy sea, but it was pretty darn close.  After a few slices his color returned to an acceptable pinkish grey and he started breathing easier.  A couple more slices had him back to a jog and mumbling about crossing the finish line.

I’m thinking it was a few steps after the finish line, after they had put the medal around his neck and after they had stuck a rose in his hand that my brother got his answer.  His disillusioned query at mile 23, “Why am I doing this?” received its response only from the perspective of the completed race.  Peter figured it out when he was safely in the boat.  I think my brother got it standing in the finisher’s area looking back on the course he had just finished, with the taste of orange slices still lingering in his mouth.

I gotta admit, I like telling this story a lot more than he liked living it.  I see it as a little bit of sweet payback.  Sure, he made it through with his eyebrows intact and only had to spend a couple hours in the first aid tent, but I got a story out of it that I’ll be telling for a long time.  Each time I tell it, it gets a little better.

Well friends, stay on the road, there are a lot of adventures just waiting for you.  And if you get in over your head, just remember, His arm is always extended.

I gotta run.

Mile 4- Start Slow and Slow Down

I had to beat Oprah.

My running partner Don King (no really, that’s his real name) told me that Oprah had run a four hour marathon.  Sure, she had a personal trainer, nutritionist, coach and aerodynamic hair designer to give her an edge, but for my first marathon I figured if Oprah could do it, I could do it.

Don & I had started training for the Vermont City Marathon, following all the advice we could gather from running magazines, the internet and Don’s friend Biekman.  The more we ran together, the more I began to wonder about this Biekman character.  We’d be cruising along at mile seven or eight of a fifteen miler and suddenly Don would shout out, “My friend Biekman says ‘find a pretty girl and follow her’”

The fact that it’s only me and Don and empty miles of tree lined asphalt  didn’t seem to register with Don .  He was hearing from Biekman.  He would swear to me that Biekman was real and that he had run 38 marathons and Biekman knew everything there was to know about running.  But I found it odd that the only time we would get a word from Biekman was when Don had been running a while and was nearing that runner’s high resulting from breathing your own breath, swallowing your own sweat and the mental anguish of being in the middle of a very long run and you have a very long way to go.  That’s when we’d hear from Biekman.

As we neared the marathon date, we had a final long run before starting to cut back to be ready for the race.  As we ran along, we were discussing racing strategy and what it would take to beat Oprah.  On one particular grueling uphill stretch, Don blurted out, “My friend Biekman says, ‘start out slow and slow down.’” I tried to look in Don’s eyes to see if they were rolled back in his head or if one pupil was larger than the other, but he was staring at the ground right in front of his feet as he ran.  I waited a minute, to see if there might be another Biekman revelation or maybe for some clarification on the last utterance.  Don just kept at his steady pace, eyes on the ground.

He had dropped the hook and I had to bite.

“Start off slow and slow down?”, I questioned.

“What?” Don asked, looking up at me.  His eyes looked pretty normal, but they had this stare as if I had said something crazy.

“I thought you were supposed to start off slow to warm up and then pick it up.” I challenged.  Don looked down at the ground again and resumed his pace, while I looked for an emergency call box, wondering how I was going to explain what was happening to my running partner.

Don broke the silence, “Biekman says, for their first marathon, too many people go out too fast, like they’re running a 10k. They get all caught up in the “race” and all the energy of the people around them.  By mile 16 their toast is burnt.  You gotta run with your head more than your heart at the beginning and pace yourself.  Nobody cares how you started if you don’t finish.”

I don’t know where the voice was coming from in Don’s head, but it was starting to make some sense.

“You gotta have a plan and a pace”, Don or Biekman or whoever the voice was continued.  “You can’t get distracted & caught up with everything going on around you or you’ll end up running someone else’s race.  Your plan, your pace, your race.”

I wanted to ask the Biekman voice what he thought the Dow Jones was going to do in the next few months, but I thought that would be pushing it.  Besides, he was on a roll, and with eight miles to go, I was good with the entertainment.

“Start out slow and slow down is about keeping your pace, running your race.  It’s about staying strong the whole time.  At mile 20, if you’ve got a lot left in the tank, then you let it go and let her rip.  Until then, you have to resist the urge to surge or you’ll burn up.  No one cares how impressive you were for 25 miles if you don’t finish.”

In a final prophetic tone, Don muttered, “That will be our strategy.  Start slow and slow down.”  I was waiting for clouds to part and angels to sing, but all I got was the steady patter of Don’s pace with his gaze returning to the ground.

And that was our strategy.  We started off slow and slowed down.  At mile four, the crowd we started running with thinned out, just inviting me to pass and I began to pick up the pace. “Slow down.” Don rebuked in his best Biekman voice.  I settled my pace back down next to his.  At mile 13 I was feeling the agony of all the runners passing me and the thought of finishing behind Oprah slightly accelerated my pace.  “Your pace, your race”, came that haunting chant, and I eased back to our agreed upon pace.  And so it went, me trying to pick it up, Don reminding me to keep the pace.  Somewhere around mile 16, it started to sink in.

No one cares how impressive you were for 25 miles if you don’t finish.

The thought of not finishing was a fear always kind of lurking in the back of my mind.  I had seen pictures of runners who had collapsed along the way and heard stories of people who had dropped out a mile or two from the finish.  The explanations were pretty much the same:  started out too fast, pushed too hard, didn’t run the right pace.

I thought about that application for our run through life.  I suppose the pace of the American Dream lifestyle could be more defined as “sprint and collapse” rather than a steady pace.  We so easily get caught up in keeping up that we don’t realize we’re headed for trouble.  In a culture where busy-ness is next to godliness, our eyes are distracted by the whirlwind of the here and now  while the finish line slips from our view.

Like runners trying to catch us in their frantic pace, the pressures to have more, do more and be more constantly urge us to run faster.  A faster pace is a seductive mistress, promising a reward that lies just around the next corner or over the next hill.   So we pick it up, only to find that beyond the next hill or next corner is simply another with the same false promise and same pressure to pick it up, just a little more.  And we’re so caught up trying to run at a pace that is not our own that we quickly lose sight of the finish.  Keeping up consumes our energy and we don’t even realize we’re in trouble until it’s too late.

No one cares how impressive you were for 25 miles if you don’t finish.  Your plan, your pace, your race.

I’m thinking that’s what the prophet Isaiah had in mind when he wrote, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.  Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:3-4)

I have mixed emotions about the phrase, “God has a plan for your life.”  Part of me thinks, “Well what if I missed it when I was seven and this whole time I’ve been blowing it?”  What the heck is His plan for me?  I have a tough time following my own plans, let alone trying to figure out and follow the one God has for me.

Isaiah tells me the plan: God keeps me in perfect peace.  I like that word “keep”, as in “playing for keeps”.  There’s something at stake and God wants to guard it, to keep it.  That something is my peace.

Isaiah also tells me the how: a mind stayed, focused, fixed on God.  It’s a mind that realizes, that trusts, that the God who created the universe is near and good.  That my life is better focused on Him and run at His pace.

Finally, Isaiah tells me the why: the Lord God is an everlasting rock.  In the race of life, God sets each one of us up with a pace, specifically catered to our unique personality and situation.  When life goes crazy around us, when our pace seems out of step, when we’re angry or frustrated or lost or broken, God is our rock.  He is that steady voice that reminds us that life is best lived at His pace.

In all this I think God is saying to us, “you start out by keeping my pace but it’s actually my pace that is keeping you.”

God’s Word, the Bible, has been described as a love letter to His creation.  In it we find stories, commands, laws and promises.  Though it was written by dozens of authors over thousands of years in many diverse settings, it has a simple uniform message: God is about keeping people in peace.  In a world that fools us into running ragged, God offers a pace that gives peace.

So a little twist on our mantra would go something like:

Your race, God’s pace, God’s peace.

In the race of life, it is God’s pace that keeps us in the race all the way to the finish.  It’s a pace that slows us down to listen and learn and grow in trusting the One who creates, sustains and gives perfect peace.   God’s pace is simply taking Him at His Word to be near and be good and keep us as we run, trusting that the pace He sets for us will get us across the line in peace.

A question:  will your current pace keep you to the finish?

A reminder: Nobody cares how you ran the first 25 miles if you don’t finish.

A Promise: Your race, at God’s pace will bring God’s peace.  The Lord God is our rock.

It’s kind of like my friend Don using his Biekman voice to keep me at my pace.  I not only finished,

I beat Oprah.

As you stay on the road, friends, may God’s pace keep you in peace.

I gotta run.

Mile 3- Brian Will Get Em…

Reach the Beach is one of those experiences that looks like great fun on the website. Appearances are definitely deceiving. It’s a 200 mile relay that weaves through various New Hampshire towns and countrysides, starting from Cannon Mountain Ski area emptying out at Hampton Beach. The basic idea is for a team of 4-12 runners to complete 36 legs of varying distances in the shortest amount of time possible. So, if you have a team of twelve, each runner takes three legs; if you have four runners, in addition to being declared legally insane, you take 9 legs each.

With about 475 entries, teams are started every 20 minutes from the ski area, the slower teams having the earlier starting times. The faster teams actually finish the trek in about 20 hours with the “velocity challenged” squads trickling in about 36 hours after launch.

One of the “games within the game” is to see how many slower runners you can pass during the event. There’s various names given to this process—“collecting scalps”, “passing turtles” and my personal favorite, “road kills”. So there’s a little bit of ego and pressure to assimilate more road kill than being it.

As we gathered in the parking lot of the church for our two hour ride to the starting line, we were greeted with one of those good news/bad news type deals. The good news was that there’d be more room in the vans this year. The bad news was that we’d have that room due to a couple of runners dropping out at the last minute. Although I liked the idea of having to share space with one less stinky runner and their stuff, I wasn’t crazy about the six extra legs we’d have to pick up & immediately started plotting how to weasel out of any extra running.

I had already assessed my team members, most of whom I had run with before. There were a few “cheetahs”—runners that made five and six minute miles look effortless even when running a seven mile uphill leg at 2 am. Most of the rest were 7-8 minute milers that I call “gazelles”—impressive runners but still road kill for cheetahs. Then there was the rest of us. Actually, it was just me. In the past our teams were proportionately divided into these three groups—cheetahs, gazelles and those of us who bring the beer. We run for style points and to make others feel good. We fall in the wild animal kingdom category of “anteater”—not going anywhere fast, but people definitely take notice when you’re moving. This team was pretty much “cheetahs”, “gazelles” and me, the lone “anteater”.

Sure, I’d been training for this event, but life being what it is and chocolate ice cream being what it is, you can’t always get into the shape you want in the time given. I had figured I could probably do my three legs in a mid to late nine minute mile pace. Not too bad for an anteater. Besides, I had picked up a hat that looked like a running chicken and a couple of noise makers that made little clucking sounds when you shook them. Like I said—not going anywhere fast but loads of style points.

But now, with the prospect of having to run two extra legs, I was thinking even the hat might not be enough. I got the sinking feeling that my lack of hill practice, absence of speed-work and relatively low weekly mileage would soon show my training to be a house of cards. And with two runners missing, I could feel the winds beginning to blow.

As it turns out, the cheetahs figured an elaborate scheme to cover the extra six legs. For me, it meant “only” having to run two more legs that were “only” two miles each. I know that doesn’t sound like much on paper, but when you have to hop out of a nice warm, dry van and run on a cold, dark, wet road they may as well be 20 miles each.

The cheetahs and gazelles were all congratulating themselves on the equitable arrangement. The anteater was slipping into anxious despair. They had just moved my mound of ants four miles farther away and expected me to be excited about the “challenge”. Cheetahs like challenges. To them it means more road kill. Anteaters like ants. Preferably chocolate covered and not moving so you don’t have to chase them.

Resigned to the fact that my fun adventure had just taken on a torturous endurance theme, I adjusted my running strategy accordingly– doubling the ibuprofen before and after each leg.

Through the rain and hills and dark and light and sweat and smell and in and out of vans the ibuprofen held up and I found myself thinking, “Just one more leg. I’m gonna make this!” I even told my van mates that I was looking forward to my last leg, a four miler.

Big mistake.

Of course, for my last leg I had to sport the running chicken hat and bring along the cluckers to keep pace. I figured that since it was the last leg I might end up in a low nine maybe even eight minute and something pace. The sun was shining, people were cheering, I was feeling good. .. for about two miles.

For two miles people would laugh and wave and say, “You go Chicken Man!” As runners would pass me, they’d laugh and say, “Good race Chicken Man!”. I even had this one cheetah girl slow down long enough to say she thought it was really cool how I encouraged the other runners by wearing such a hot, heavy hat. In fact, it bordered on heroic. I’m not sure those were her exact words, but it was something like that. Life was good. For two miles.

At about 2.001 miles my legs informed my brain that their contract had expired three miles back. Hearing the reasonable argument from the legs, my stomach noted that there was a processing problem with the trail mix, bagel, banana, coffee, pasta, chicken soup combination I had wolfed down at the last transition station.

About that time my team van pulled alongside. “Great”, I thought, “I can walk a bit to appease the legs and drink some water to settle my stomach, get some encouragement from my team mates and finish this thing.” As I reached for the water and slowed to a walk, my friend Don King (no really, that’s his real name) said in his encouraging Bostonian accent, “They’he getting by ya! Ya gotta pick it up! Slackah!”

I tried to inform Don of the democratic nature of my body and that at that particular moment in time I was undergoing an impeachment trial.

He wasn’t interested.

I pointed to the chicken hat and told him that in my new persona as Chicken Man I had greater responsibilities than keeping other people from passing me.

He would have none of it.

He was like one of those flies that keeps buzzing around your face and then buzzes just out of reach every time you swat at it. Buzz buzz buzz. He just kept on about the runners going by and my plight as road-kill of the year candidate.

And I had no answer. With full on rebellion now coursing its way through every member of my body, maintaining any respectable pace, let alone catching anyone in front of me was not gonna happen. My world started to grow dark. My whole run and race with the team was about to go bust. My cards were starting to fall. The anteater was about to expire less than two miles from the mound. It looked like the last run of the Chicken Man.

And then I said it.

Somewhere in the darkness, hopelessness and impending onset of rigor mortis came a thought which I blurted out at Don king with all the force of a ten foot fly swatter:

“Brian will get em.”

Don stopped his buzzing. “What?”

“Brian will get em. I don’t have to.” I replied.

“But”, Don stammered, “You can’t depend on someone else to do your job!”

“Brian will get em. That’s his job”, I countered.

“But…” Don protested.

“Brian will get em, Brian will get em, Brian will get em…” I repeated until Don took his buzzing into the van and sped off toward the next transition area. Yeah, it was all good natured, but in the road kill department I was definitely a liability to the team. I knew it and it could have ruined my run. But at just the right moment I remembered who had the next leg: Brian.

Brian is our super cheetah. He was built to run, loves to run and transforms chocolate ice cream into fuel for running. His nickname is “Killer” because of all the road kill he amasses for each leg he runs. What stopped Don’s buzzing and gave me hope and encouragement to finish my leg was that Brian had our last leg. Not only would he make up any ground I had lost, but he would pass a bunch more as well. Between my now 10 minute rate and Brian’s sub 6 minute sizzling, our team would be back at an 8 minute pace.

In fact, we finished the whole 205 mile relay with a team pace of 8 minutes 1 second per mile. It was very rewarding standing in the finish area with a medal around my neck when one of the many Chicken Man fans came up to me and asked, “How’d your team do?”. I nonchalantly replied, “Oh, we finished 77th out of 474 teams with an 8:01 pace.” “Wow!” was his reply, “That’s great!”

Yep. That’s great. It’s great because I had a team mate who could get em. It struck me that if I ran this thing as a team of mes, as anteaters, my pace would have pretty much brought us in dead last. If Brian had run this thing as a team of super cheetahs, his pace would have brought them in first. Because he was willing to run on a team with me, I came out ahead. When I had all kinds of people passing me and I knew I was an anteater, what kept me in the race and completing my leg is that I knew who was running next: I knew Brian would get em.

There are parts of the Bible that are simple. I read them and I get them. There are other parts that everyone says are really important, so I read them and I don’t get them so much. Sometimes it takes a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and a lot of life to get them. One of those passages for me is Isaiah 53:5-

“But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

For someone raised with a cultural motto of “If it is to be it is up to me”, this is confusing language. Depending on someone else to make up for your mistakes is a cop out. Expecting someone else to pay your debt is begging. In a self-made, self-paid culture it is embedded in us to produce more than we consume, to win more than we lose, to pass more people than pass you.

But what happens when your mistakes are too deep and your debts are too high? What happens when you are doing your best and you become painfully aware that your best is not going to cut it?

I am sometimes filled with anxiety as I try to make my income match my outgo. I stress over the things I could have done better as a son, husband and father. I worry about my kids as they navigate an increasingly hostile and threatening world. I am almost overcome when I survey news reports of chemical weapons, child abductions, senseless shootings and catastrophic natural disasters.

It seems no matter how hard I try, how intently I pray, how much I try to believe, the ugly, the pain and the struggle of life keeps creeping up. Like advancing runners on a dark mountain road, it seems like evil and brokenness keep overtaking me and the world around me.

And then I get a thought.

Jesus will get em.

In all of human history the most spectacular event is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In His death, Jesus redeems the world, overcomes the evil , makes up for our mistakes that are too deep and pays our debts that are too high. In His resurrection He brings hope into our present situations with the certainty that there is gonna come another day.

There is gonna come a day when there will be no more injustice, pain, struggle or sorrow. It’s the next leg, the fulfillment of God’s promise… He’ll get em. When the best I have is not good enough I am encouraged because I have One who has run the race ahead of me and has overcome.

I still have to finish my leg. But now I run in hope, with a new strength, knowing the race is not all dependent on me. As I appear to lose ground in life, as the race appears to be slipping away, I am aware of another reality—by His wounds we are healed. In the race of life, I haven’t trained enough, worked out enough or run well enough. But on my team is One who has. He has kept the faith I have broken, served the God I have ignored and taken upon Himself the punishment I deserve. He runs the race perfectly & I get the benefit.

By His wounds, we are healed. He runs, we get the benefit at the finish. That truth gives us hope for the future and endurance for the present. Your leg in the race of life might be tough right now, but hang in there; Jesus will get em.

Until next week friends, stay on the road.

I gotta run.

(If you’re interested in the movie version, click here http://youtu.be/h5B13F-YnQc)

Mile 2- The Kenyan

I’ve seen a Kenyan.  Up close.  I was not impressed.

It was in Hartford before the start of the marathon.  The usual routine once at the starting area is to immediately get in line at the porta-potty.   Once you de-hydrate a bit, you get back in line.  This is due to all the pre race hydrating you do before you get to the starting area.  So basically you hydrate and dehydrate while standing in line for the porta potty until the race starts.  This is the less glamorous side of the whole marathon experience.

Well in Hartford, as it turns out, the porta-potties were fewer and the lines were way longer.  As I got in place at the end of the line, I could barely see the little blue plastic hut in the distance.  I joined in some light chatter with the other runners waiting in line as the sun’s first rays broke the early morning darkness.  After a few minutes, I realized my line was moving unusually slow.  That’s just about the time my urgency indicator started a slow blinking from not only my bladder but my bowels as well.

“I’m sure the line will start moving faster”, I thought to myself.  But it had that same conviction as, “Someday when I win the lottery…”  As I strained to see what the problem was at the front of the line I noticed an empty porta-potty about fifty yards away.  It happened to be inside one of those cheap plastic fences next to a tent that had an “Elite Runners” sign on it.

Elite runners are the ones they expect to win the race.  They’re the ones who get special invitations, special treatment and special porta-potties.  They get special places at the front of the starting line, because they are expected to be in front of everyone else.  They’re crossing the finish line when most of the rest of us have not even hit half way yet.

I could see movement inside the tent where I imagined they were eating special bagels and relaxing in special pre-race massage chairs.  But their special porta-potty just stood there.  Empty.  Unused.

As my urgency indicator went from yellow to red, I started to plot my move.  To go around front where the opening in the fence was would be to risk being detected.  The fence was just over waist high which meant I’d have to jump a bit or slip under, either of which might attract unwanted attention..  As I surveyed the fence line, I noticed a slight dip in one section, just beyond the porta-potty.  That would be where I’d breach the dividing line between special and the rest of us.

I casually left the line and wandered over to the lowest line in the fence.  I bent over as if stretching my calf, then stood up and placed my foot on top of the fencing as if performing another stretch.  I was poetry in motion as I surveyed the scene for any security or race officials who might be on to my ploy.  Since the coast was clear, I slid my leg over the fence and bent over in another calf stretch position as my other leg innocently followed the first.

I was in!

By this time my urgency indicator was hitting purple and I used my best elite-runner posture to go up to the door and saunter in.  Much to my relief (both physically and emotionally) it was vacant and everything came out alright.  As I was finishing, there was a tug at the locked door and then a knock.  Suddenly my mind flashed to the burly security guard who had eyeballed me a few times as I strolled toward the fence.  Shoot!  I must have missed him on my scan as I slipped over the fence.  All I could think of was being led away in handcuffs for not being special enough to use the elite port-potty.

Resigned to missing the race and being a disgrace on the front page of the Hartford Sentinel, I opened the door expecting to be taken into custody.  Instead, there stood a Kenyan.  He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him.  No words were exchanged but plenty was spoken.  You know how when you lock eyes with someone for a second it’s really about a 20 minute conversation?

I’m not sure of all the thoughts that ran through his mind, but I was sure some of them had to do with me being in the wrong place—a non-elite using an elite porta-potty.  I took the surprise in his eyes as condemnation that I was out of place.

And I distinctly remember what went through my mind.

“Oh yeah, well you’re tiny!  How can you win marathons when you’re shorter than my grandma?!  I’ve seen Rhode Island Reds with more meat on their bones than you. If this was wrestling, I’d take you down right now!

Yeah, I know, not real noble.  But when you have to plot your way into a porta-potty to keep from exploding, and then someone looks at you like you just committed a capitol offense, you’re not always in the best frame of mind.  It’s amazing how quickly we can slip out of our best frame of mind.  One minute I’m politely exchanging pleasantries with other runners and wishing them well, the next I’m trying to deconstruct a Kenyan.

Looking back on it, I guess it was not just about the scrawny Kenyan.  It was also about the guy with the loping canter that I was sure would collapse by mile 10.  It was about the guy who dressed as Elvis, complete with wig, sunglasses and sequined skin tight pants.  It was about the therapist who talked non stop as she ran alongside of me for five miles trying to help me with problems I never remembered having.  It was about the 14 year old girl who ran without sweating and the 70 something year old lady who never stopped smiling.

They all beat me.

With their odd gaits, unconventional styles and “No way they should make it” physiques they finished the race ahead of me.

When I crossed the finish line behind so many people, my family was there to greet me.  Four year old Cassidy came running up to me, asking, “Did you win Daddy, did you win?”

Did I win…

I looked over at the Kenyan with the trophy and all the people who came in behind him, who didn’t win.  Most of them were smiling and having a great time.  I even saw some who came in way behind me and they looked even happier than the Kenyan.

I thought about competition and winning and the American Way I grew up with and had bought in to: one winner and the rest losers.  Somehow I got it in my head that to win meant passing the most people, coming away with the trophy, always setting a new personal best.  Anything short of that was losing.  One winner, the rest losers.

It was in Hartford that my American Way started to give in to another way.  As I looked over the post race crowd, every person had their own story.  Each one had their own reason for being there, their own race to run.  Sure, a few were running for trophies and cash.  But there were thousands there not running in the race of the American Way.   It was as if they were all running in a different race than the one I just lost.

Sometimes I think life can be like that for a lot of us.  We are in a race with people who are better trained, stronger and faster than us.  Whatever we do, whether it’s work, relationships, or even play, it seems as if there are always people that are better at it.  For some reason, as humans, we have this innate tendency to compare ourselves with those around us to see how we’re doing.  The problem is that we can actually be doing very well, but because we are comparing ourselves to the better trained, stronger and faster, we feel like we’re losing.  You can tell that kind of thinking creeping in by the “If only’s”:  “If only I tried harder; if only got up earlier; if only I was more like…; if only I’d been born in Kenya…”

Maybe it’s that tendency that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews was thinking of when he said, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (12:1)  Within THE race is another race set before each of us.  It’s a race specifically tailored to our own individual pace, style and abilities.  It’s the race we were meant to run within this bigger race we find ourselves in.  It’s this race that makes the other one worthwhile whether we finish first or last, get the trophy or just blisters.  It’s this other race that gives our lives meaning and purpose for the long haul.

The writer gives us Jesus as a reference point for this other race.  Jesus is kind of like a Kenyan only not so scrawny.  His race, the writer tells us, was to win it on behalf of the rest of us.  It takes the pressure off of us.  And He did it by enduring.  Jesus’ race was unique to all history—to run perfectly THE race of life so that we might be able to run free of the impossible pressure to be perfect ourselves.  In Jesus keeping THE way, He made another way for us.  Sometimes it’s hard to fully understand what it means that Jesus “died for the sins of the whole world”.  Our minds can’t always grasp the heights of Heaven or the depths of Hell.  We spend a lot and energy trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad when it comes to God and the Bible and life in this human race.  And pretty soon we can start believing, that in faith as in life, the race is to the swift and the battle to the strong and we’re not keeping pace.  We’re so worried about the race going on around us that we lose sight of our own.

My Hartford epiphany:  there’s a race within the race; run the one marked out for you.

For the Kenyan, or someone equally well trained, strong or fast, that race will probably mean a trip or two to the victor’s stand.  For the rest of us, it’s about running the race that is set before us.  It’s a race that’s been founded and perfected by a God who slows down to run alongside the weary, who gives hope to the weak and provides a way for the lost.  It’s about following in the footsteps of the One who redefined winning as the first being last and a servant of all.

Your race has been set by the One who saw your last day before your first came into being; who knows your fears, struggles and dysfunctional way of running; who finds great joy and delight just in the fact that you’re in the race.

Just one question:  Whose race are you running?

As my friend Don King’s (no, really, that’s his name, really) friend Biekerman always says, “Run your own race”

So, how did I answer Cassidy’s question about winning?  Like I always answer…

“Yeah, I won, you shoulda seen me out there runnin… poetry in motion…”

Well friends, til next time, stay on the road.

I gotta run…

Mile 1- “You’re a Runner”

“No, really, I’m not a runner”

The guy in front of me at the supermarket checkout line was trying to clarify his status with the clerk.  But the evidence was there in plain sight of all of us: a running magazine and four packets of gel, the kind runners use.

“So you don’t run.”, the clerk was sliding into interrogation mode.

“Well, yeah, I mean… I run but…”

“Then you’re a runner.”, the clerk finished his sentence

“Yeah”, chimed in the girl bagging his stuff, “You run, so you’re a runner.”

It sounded reasonable to me.

“No”, the cornered running non-runner protested, “I am not a runner.”

The clerk shot the bag girl a quick “I got this” glance and asked, “Why not?  Why, if you run, doesn’t that make you a runner?

I had come to the market for a couple gallons of milk and found myself in the middle of a great drama.  I sat my milk down and crossed my arms, letting the non-runner know I was camping out on the side of the inquisition.

He looked at me for support, but I was not going there.  You see, I had faced this same trial years back.  I understood his pain, his desire to be out of that white hot soul bearing spotlight.  But I also knew that there was only one way to recovery, and if he weasled out now, he’d be a running non-runner forever.

When I was out preparing for my first marathon there were days when I didn’t feel like running.  Work, the weather, a sore earlobe—many were the excuses and reasons that allowed me to ignore my training schedule.  And the permissive phrase that was always at the back of my mind was, “Besides, I’m not really a runner.”

Runners are lean, sinewy and don’t fart.  They always eat the right things, say yes to kale and no to Ho Hos.  They are on the road long before sunup and have their daily miles completed before most of us have hit the snooze button for the first time.  They are often out again after the sun has gone down, doing mile repeats while most of us are on our first beer.

Runners know their resting heart rate, maximum heart rate and their neighbor’s heart rate.  They win races, if not overall, then at least their age category.  Following the races they win, they are not sweaty, and many of them jog 15 miles home.  To be a runner is to be perfect at running.

My understanding of what was going through this guy’s head was confirmed as he looked down and stared at the magazine cover.  Smiling up at us all was Perfect Runner: ripped abs, bronze skin, standing upright on one leg as he pulled the other behind him in a stretch that exposed well defined quadriceps.  This is what a runner looks like.  To be a runner is to be perfect at running.

It was painfully obvious to my non-runner running friend that the guy on the magazine cover was not the guy buying it.   He couldn’t be a runner because he wasn’t perfect at running.

It was painfully obvious to a first century fisherman that the guy standing in his boat was a lot different than the one who typically rowed it.  Jesus had hopped into Simon’s boat as an offshore stage to teach the crowds.  Then he tells Simon to drop his nets where Simon had already tried.  All night.  So, to humor the preacher he does what Jesus says.  Shortly after the nets started breaking, Simon has a “moment”.

In that moment he realizes that the Who’s Who of holy people is standing in his presence.  Simon’s response?

“Go away”.

Not a mean or obnoxious “Go away”.  But the kind of “Go away” you say when you realize that you are not, when you are in the presence of someone who is.  It’s the kind of “Go away” that’s spoken by a humbled and fearful heart before the mind can stop it.  The heart sees well before the mind shortcomings, blemishes, the dark places within us.  If holy means set apart by God for God, Simon’s heart tells him he is far from either.

I’m thinking Simon had magazine cover expectations about what it meant to be holy. As he watched all the holy people around him, saw all holy people assemblies, one thing became more and more clear: Simon wasn’t what they were.  Oh sure, he probably did some holy stuff from time to time and occasionally had holy thoughts, but when it came to claiming the title “holy” he’d respond, “No, really, I’m not.”

We all live in two realities: Objective reality and subjective reality.  Objective is fact; whether you feel it or not, it’s true.  Like gravity– you might feel like you can fly, but if you jump unassisted off a rooftop you’ll be quickly convinced of objective reality called gravity. Subjective is what you feel; if you don’t feel it, it’s not true to you.  Like love– someone might truly love you and if you don’t feel it, it’s not true to you.

This is where a lot of us get stuck.

My non-runner running friend—objectively, he runs, so he is a runner.  Subjectively, he’s not like the guy on the cover, so he is not a runner.  He’s stuck between a glossy image and the reality of his life.

And Simon—stuck between what holy ought to be and his own distant imitation of it.

It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t go away.  He sees through Simon’s words and speaks into his heart; “Don’t be afraid”.  Some of the greatest episodes of God’s story open with those words.  It’s like Jesus saying, “Simon, I got you.  I know where you are.  I know you are stuck.”

Then Jesus applies the words that unstick Simon, “From now on, you will be catching men.”  OK, so there’s a whole lot of theological stuff that is happening here, but stay shallow with me for a minute and look at the whole scene: Simon is minding his own business.  The holy of holy guys shows up, commandeers his boat and speaks a new truth into Simon’s life:  holy is not about appearance.  It’s not about being perfect.  It’s about being called where you are as you are and going from there.

If you follow Simon’s story, you see he never gets the perfect thing down.  Even after the name change to Peter and the image-lift, he probably would not have made any magazine covers.  But that didn’t really seem too important to him after Jesus spoke into his life.  What mattered is that Jesus called him where he was, as he was, and he went from there.  I think Peter figured out that holy happens as a result of his journey with Jesus.  The Bible is a strong witness that somewhere between Jesus showing up and the time of his death, holy happened to Peter.

It’s kinda like that when it comes to running.  You don’t start out as a magazine cover candidate.  Most of us will never get there.  But that’s OK, because being a runner is not about appearance, or being perfect, or getting the best time, or always feeling like putting on the shoes.  It’s about starting where you are, as you are, and going from there.  After awhile, you look back at the testimony of miles run, muscles pulled, races completed and it all says one thing:

You have run.

Runners run.

So you’re a runner.

You may be slow.  You may be ugly.  But there’s no denying it:  you’re a runner.  And runners run.  So stay in the race, because it’s the only way to get from here to there.

Someday I hope to see my non-runner running friend again.  I’ll flip the magazine over, and look him in the eye and tell him:  “You’re a runner.  No, really, you are.  Stay on the road.”

26.2 Lessons on the Run with God

Sometimes you just gotta start.  You’re not sure if it’s gonna go down in flames or turn out to be one of those pivotal life changes.  All you know is what got you here is not what will get you there.  So you start.

That’s what moved me from the couch to the Boston Marathon.  Well, it’s what got me started.  I haven’t gotten to Boston yet.  I’ve gotten to 26.2 eight times in eight states, but not Boston.  My friend Don King (no really, that’s his real name) talked me out of running Boston as a bandit, “you gotta eahn Bahston”.  So, 15 years later I’m still doing what I started.

Because I started, I have medals, certificates, pictures and shirts.  I have runs in the snow, runs in the rain; runs of beauty and runs of pain; runs in the teens and runs in the 90’s; runs in the dark and runs through the park.

Because I started, I have run with thousands and run alone; run up and run down and pretty much all around; run past a bunch and got passed by a bunch more; run with a stranger who finished  as a friend; run with a guy who dropped out just before the end.

But most of all, because I started, I have lessons learned.  In the long miles on the road, I have learned that running is a lot like life.  If you stay with it and keep your eyes open, the lessons just happen.  So, it’s time to start again.

I’m starting this blog to share 26.2 lessons that running has taught me about people and life and God.  I’d like to invite you to join me on this journey, because one of the lessons I learned is that it’s easier to go the distance if someone is running with you.

Each week I’m going to post another blog– a lesson that might one day join 25.2 others in a book.  But that’s the end– that’s Boston– and I’m not there yet.  I’m just starting.  And someday I hope to be writing in a book, “And because I started…”

All I know is right now, I gotta start.