the Long Haul – Holiness on your Face

Holiness is one of those words that many of us ran away from for a time.  It was an accusation for a part of my life to be a “holy roller.”  I have rarely been accused of being holy, but I feared the impact of my vocation, of my faith, on relationships with other people.  Being a clergy can end up being a lonely profession, especially in my younger years.

Many colleagues will admit to each other when we are alone that seminary was this golden period for us.  We long for the back and forth of conversation about faith that is informed and deeply knowledgeable.   We long for the carefree days before twelve hour days and committee meetings and people angry over minutiae. We say we long for these things, but I suspect that what we really long for is the companionship of formation, the camaraderie of a cohort going through the same experiences from roughly the same place.

Church work does not generally provide this, especially for the small church pastor.  We are sent out as sentinels to towers in the wilderness of american culture.  We often serve alone in a unique place in culture, cut off from regular family times and our own faith holidays by the obligations of our calling.  We are often cut out of honest conversations by deference or fear of judgement.  I tried to say all of this to my wife about the social cutoff of priesthood, and she didn’t believe me until she was asked a dozen times what her husband did and heard the crickets of silence call in hair salons and dinners.

I have tried the “no, no, I am cool; here I will curse a little for you” approach a few times.  Ultimately it doesn’t work.  I am still, despite my funny off color jokes, an emissary for another world that stands over and against this world and its concerns and conversations.  The collar is a reminder, but it is something else that makes it real.  That something else is holiness.

To be holy means to be set aside for special use, particularly religious or God’s use.  Ordination makes you “holy.”  Now, to be fair, I have often taken my self off the shelf where I am set aside for God’s use and used me for my own use, and Satan’s.  I  have used and abused myself, sometimes even as a rebellion against my ordination.  I am coming to the middle of my twentieth year since being ordered as a Baptist minister before God and a congregation, my family and friends, in Buckeye, Arizona.  I was ordained in my twenties and thirties, and those who bore witness to those years could tell you about how God used me and how I abused my self for other purposes.

But this isn’t merely about ordination.  I think that is one of those fine places where the church has lost its way.  We are all made holy in our baptism.  We are set aside for God’s use in the Kingdom of God, the Rule of God.  I wish that were more clearly stated and reiterated for the church because it would take a lot of the pressure of those cricket filled silences.

You are holy.

You are set aside for God’s use in bringing about the salvation of the world, its healing, redemption, peace, and justice.  You are adopted into God’s family as children, bearers of the Name, a royal priesthood, meant to stand before God for the world and before the world before God.  You are set aside to love others as God’s emissaries. You should have a uniform.

I am absolutely convinced of this, though I haven’t gotten one person to agree.  Every Christian should wear a uniform, a marker of their status as ambassadors of love, peace, and justice.  Let’s imagine that we all agreed to represent the mantle of Christ that we wear internally with a sign, a face tattoo of a small cross on the right cheek or forehead.  (We have to have a choice so that we can argue about which one is better and divide over the option.)  This small cross is shaped according to your church at baptism.  Imagine it as you sit there, something you don’t notice much but are always somehow aware of.  You notice people notice it when you are standing in line at the cafe or just passing in the crowd at a party on the street.

Imagine walking from a distant parking place to a movie with your children when an older lady trips and falls.  You would stop, aware that others could see the cross on your face. “You shall not refuse your help.”  Imagine getting out to pump gas at a station when another driver you hadn’t noticed jumps out of his large pickup to yell about your not signaling your turn.  You see him notice your cheek.  What do you say?  Your spouse is angry because you have committed the same sin, again, and is really yelling about it, reminding you of promises made and broken.  How do you respond?

It never goes away.  It is never hidden.  Your calling defines you in every setting of your life.  How would it shape you?  How would those thousands of small interactions and large experiences come to change you over decades?  How would the public declaration of that small tattoo change your life?

Now I don’t have a face tattoo.  And I doubt, being married and employed, that I will anytime soon.  Okay, ever.  But I have often felt like my life in God was like a face tattoo.  It has been this known thing about me for so long, and it has determined so many interactions.  And I have honored that and I have failed it.  But it always remains.

I want to live like that, marked as holy, public.  I believe that if we were that intentional about our faith, we would be different.  Hopefully in the small interactions and the big experiences we live marked lives already, but what would it do to us to add up those thousands of moments?

We would not merely be set aside for God’s use, but we would find over time that we were so shaped that our own use would be like God’s, or at least that is the hope, to become the person whose holiness has become more than a mark on the skin, but a way of being marked by love, forgiveness, peace, justice.

I don’t run from holiness as a marker these days, but like Paul I run for it, adding up the miles of decades along the narrow path.

But we never really run alone.  One of the things that has changed over the years is my understanding of what it means to be ordained.  I am a servant in the house of God, but I am also a member who has the same needs as my brothers and sisters.  When I see that others have my calling, then I am no less a sentinel, I am just not alone on watch.  And the conversations have changed, true enough, as I stop trying to live in two worlds and pretending that I am somehow not in God’s Rule.

Trail Running with Benedict – Humility and Prayer during the Waugoshance Trail Marathon

Waugoshance Trail Marathon – a lesson in humility and prayer


So, I finally ran a trail marathon this last July.  It was awesome and only took an hour longer than I planned.  I ran the first half in the time I planned, and then I added an hour on the second half.  If you are reading this blog for an account of awesomeness, I am afraid that I will disappoint you.  I am an apprentice to a servant, the Servant, and you would think that I would have learned a thing or two about humility and prayer after thirty years and not need this lesson, but you would be wrong.

Running is something I love.  I don’t suffer runs, even when I am suffering: I love them.  There is little to beat a long run on a sunny day in July along the North Country Trail through Wilderness and the Headlands parks.  So much of the run was on single track that I was shocked by how open two track places felt.

We took off at seven in the morning after camping at a campground with Amy and two of our children.  There are two things you really should know beyond that it is single track: you have to carry liquids with you in bottles or backpacks because it is more than four miles between water stops and the distances vary because of the remoteness of the trail; and for several miles we were warned that our GPS would be wrong due to the hilliness of the terrain, being along old sand dunes now covered in forest.  I lost my watch three miles from the end and should have just used the timer not the GPS, but there you go.

The run began along Wycamp Lake Road just north of Cross Village, Michigan, a few hours from home.  It began along a road that barely counts as one, as I got my parents SUV stuck showing them the road a week ago.  After a quarter mile to sort out who was where, we turned off onto the trail.

Trail running is different from road running a marathon.  In a road marathon, you find a rhythm and you drop into a zone almost like Transcendental Meditation.  It is peaceful and forces a wonderful patience and meditative state.  On trails, especially single track in hilly woods, you have to be constantly alert and mentally flexible.  It is more like Zen mind.  It is reflectively awake.  It is my home mental state.  It is the mind on fire; it is the mind at peace.

I love the dance of the trail like a tango with the earth.  It is sensuous and religious, like incense, chant, bodily sung, and wondrous.  It is so holy and languid.  I always think this, but returning to that state after twenty miles, after throwing up, after the sweating and the deer flies and fatigue.  That is the lover come home to the beloved.  It is an earthly experience of what prayer is like.

You know, if you have been reading along, that running is prayer for me.  I admit that I am not a great pray-er.  I read about the saints and heroes and heroines of the faith praying all night and years in the desert, their hours on their faces, on their knees, or armed outstretched. I read about them, and I hunger for God like that, but I fall asleep, I get distracted, I do the dishes, play solitaire, check messages, and fail.

Prayer demands more from me than running in a way.  It does not hurt the body so much, but it does hurt the ego, strain the mind’s attention, the heart’s priorities.  I can add up the miles on my feet, but the hours before God elude me.  So I run.

But I am learning that my prayer life needs the methodology of my body.  It took me seven years to run a seven minute mile; seven years to do a one-handed push up; seven years to get my deadlift-squat-benchpress total up to 900 lbs.  And none of those things remain as I cycle away from running, working out, lifting, to other priorities.  But prayer I need even more.

I need the patient accrual of prayers, of hours, of days, of weeks of prayer.

And sometimes, dear reader, I feel that lover-returned-to-the-Beloved dance of prayer.  It does not often go five hours, but it does go hours these days.  My prayer life like my running has become sensuous over the years, pleasurable, dancing in the way that only those who are mastering the thing find.

I do not think that I will ever be a competitive runner, but I may be a master runner because I know the realities, the subtleties, the love beyond the strain of the practice, the craft beyond the technique, and I can teach it.  O for prayer mastery!

For that I turn to Martin Thornton and the Daily Office, the disciplines and the joy of the long hours, the faithfulness I have to work so hard for now begins in little moments of inspiration to become something more, something like the joy of runner in the landscape who dances along the cosmos with the Creator of all things, born new and newly creative.

So I didn’t run as fast as I wanted, but O did I run!


*The photos are from the beginning north of Cross Village and the end at the high school in Mackinaw City, Michigan.  It is hard to show the actual trail.