Running, Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Running on Faith

Full moon hangs in a sea of azure as I begin a long run through the desert by crossing my neighborhood of condos and sidewalks by the last lingering of dusk.  It is probably below ninety-five degrees, but the air is warm and light moving in quick breezes as my muscles find their own warmth and movement.

Night brings with it a sense of wariness, a natural inclination of the ear toward subtle sounds and attention to the periphery where our rods outnumber our cones and allow us to see better in the dichromatic hues of nightfall.  I don’t mind the desert, but I hate the streets at night.  I run too fast typically because of cars and trucks on streets.  People drive too fast, too sloppy.

But my night runs typically take me uphill from our condo across a major road into a park, where the climb is steeper by degrees until it breaks a little more than a mile in, but by then my feet are on rock and sand.  It isn’t really desert trail for another quarter mile.

On nights like this I can turn off the light and trust my feet and the quiet light.  The gentle swish of footfall on stretches of smooth ground, and the feel of rubber sandals folding over rocks and in the ripples of the trail.  It is my sanctuary in the falling dark.

I almost never meet anyone else out this late, except for the distant light in the distance and every week or so I meet a mountain biker with lights so bright I am always left with ghosts in my vision.

But the nighttime sanctuary of the mountains has its claims to make.  I have left these same trails with bruises, twisted ankles, cactus freckles, broken toes and fingers, and recently my first scorpion sting.  (Don’t worry, it was a big one.)

It is here that I test my fears against my preparation, attention, and faith.  By myself I am never fearful and never without fear.  I run to find the words for sermons and pray the prayers I avoid in the glare of the day.  I come to stop thinking and be in God.  I come to pay attention because here I have to pay attention.

“The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”   This verse is almost never spoken in today’s church without someone saying, “I don’t think we should fear God.”  I have said it too, but there is a delicate truth here that it is foolish to not understand.

To run in the mountains at night, I have to have appropriate fear.  I have to know the dangers, the awesomeness that the darkness reveals and conceals.  I have to know the dangers of loose stones and rattlesnakes and scorpions and cacti and drug smugglers and human traffickers and unpredictable youth; just as on the streets I have to fear the cars and trucks of perfectly decent people and worse.  It would be foolish not to have appropriate fear.

I run with water, usually with electrolytes, and a light.  For longer runs I take food, a compass, first aid.  I can run in just my shorts and sandals, but I rarely do for anything over two miles.  I know the mountains, I love them, and if I test them, I will eventually fail, not them.

God.  God is like that too.  If I am honest and have any imagination at all, I know that the darkness of my apprehension reveals and conceals the awesomeness of God.

I know a few thousand people, only a handful of them well.  I serve a few hundred.  I don’t understand any of them; I can’t see their mind, their heart, their will.  Take any one and look closely, I know maybe a half-dozen of the connections of their life.  And because I am a baby buster American born into a century of migration, I only know most people for a few years, perhaps a decade or two.

But God, God sees us all, every one of the nearly seven billion of us over the whole of our lives and all our relations, our physically revealed selves and our invisible spiritual selves.  God sees us all and loves us.  He knows us completely and loves us anyway.  The manifestation of that love that I trust is God’s son Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter’s son, a rabbi two millennia ago, who we claim died for us while we were still sinners.

But he died for all of us.  My part, our part, is to love like that.  And I can barely see my own feet on the trail with a full moon.  I know so much of so little because I have run this ground so many times that I can get cocky, trust my abilities, my balance, my sense of direction, decide that I know right from wrong, and I will find the wisdom in “dust to dust.”

My faith is in God’s love and God’s being God, the abba of all creation.  God knows what I cannot know, what I do not know, and can hold it all at the same time.  What can I do but to trust God and take upon my shoulders the yoke, the teachings of Jesus as Son of God?  I trust them, with the whole Bible as the appendices of his word and his words. They are like water and food to me, first aid, and light.

The apocalypses of Scripture often describe times when the sun and moon fail to give their light.  This week has been like that for many people.  The lights we navigate by sometimes give way like the setting of the moon on a long run, and we are swept into darkness, and the familiar territory of our half-light dusky lives becomes foreign and dangerous.

I do not trust my own understanding.  Yes, I test the Scriptures and I fail the tests too often to mention, but I have never found them wanting.  So in times like these I turn to them, recall them, meditate on them in the night watches.

They are like a lamp unto my feet.  And I keep running on faith.

Every now and then I look up in the landscapes of nights like this and see the lights among the mountains and valleys and know that I am not alone.  We are all running on faith.  My faith is that this light will be enough until the day comes when we will need neither the sun or the moon for the Lord shall be our light.

Until that day, keep running.

 

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Running, Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

A Spiritual Anthropology – running with the work of E. Underhill


Tomorrow is the feast of Evelyn Underhill, whose works on Mysticism, beginning with a book with that very title marked a movement that reached deeply into a revival of sorts whose fruits included everything from the healing movements of the Sanford’s and through them to the Other Side of Silence by Morton Kelsey and so on to Renovare and various reclamations of spiritual disciplines. She situated the “spirituality movement” that she called mysticism in deeply historical roots, mirroring the much later work of Matthew Fox, though avoiding his ultimate materialism and sensuality as spirituality that keeps him always fondling heresy and scandal.

These works, along with more mainstream works by Merton and Nouwen, Foster and lately Willard, O’Murchu, Shea, Rolheiser, Chittister, all have fed this deep question that is held in my mind by the previously mentioned Kelsey and Walter Wink:

What does it mean to be a person born from above or of the spirit? This language that Jesus uses while mentoring Nicodemus haunts the anthropology on the tip of my tongue. Who are we in Christ? may be a more conventional way to ask it, but I think that keeps the question in language of soteriology or even christology.

In the Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says that it is no more a surprise that we cannot find God in space than it is that we can’t find Dallas Willard in his brain or his heart. The spiritual self is not physical, it is something else. Not to say that no one has tried. A friend brought back his biggest challenge to my anthropology in the work edited by Nancy Murphy and Warren Brown and H. N. Maloney called Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (1998). This work posited a non-dualistic view of humanity that denied the soul, or at least any concept of the soul that I would recognize at a party. On the other hand, I have become suspicious of the work of theologians reclaiming the language of the soul precisely because I wonder what agenda they are slipping into the ambiguity of soul-language.

But then what can we say? Who are we? On a completely different theological channel that every author mentioned was a book I read in third grade at the Tupelo Library called Pueblo Taoism. Now, I cannot find record of the book online (not even with Google!) but I can recall its cover and the key ideas three decades later.

Two things stick with me: you cannot do what you cannot see yourself doing, and you cannot see what you cannot conceive. To take the second first. You simply do not see what you cannot hold in your mind. It repeated the story (in my memory) of the native people in the American Islands who simply didn’t see Columbus’ ships in the water. But the story that blew my mind and has deeply affected me and perhaps sowed the first seed of this blog was the story of the Hopi people who ran RAN from northern Arizona and New Mexico to the coast of California without resting, a distance over 400 miles.

The author makes the point that we cannot conceive of running a hundred miles, so we cannot do it, even if our bodies are capable. That idea set me running to exhaustion to see if I could. I always had a knack for running, but I was not a skill player at anything. I couldn’t flip a BMX or skateboard or consistently hit a fifteen-foot jumpshot. In third grade or now. But I could run, and I could began to imagine running a hundred miles at a time. I found my limits, sure, but I also know that many of those limits are mental, emotional, psychological, spiritual. Physically, if I am well-hydrated and fed, I can leap over a wall, as David said in the Psalms.

The spiritual self is not the same as the physical self, though it inhabits it, is related to it, surrounds and suffuses it. Like God to the cosmos, according to Willard. But God is not limited to the world as we conceive it. That is only logical. Creator cannot be trapped by the creation. But are we trapped by our physical being?

Can the physical self limit the spiritual self? It can certainly express it and be shaped by it. Who hasn’t heard of dying of a broken heart? Who hasn’t seen the physical degradation of the person caught in webs of oppression, sin, addiction, or even grief? I have known grief that kept me from getting out of bed. I have mustered up the strength to work during incredible physical pain, even injury.

But what is the source of this “spirit” and what else could we call it?

Let’s assume a couple of things that I think should be pondered at greater length elsewhere. One. There is a “spiritual” or non-physical component to all of life, especially in the life and consciousness of the human being. We are God-breathed in a unique way according to our creation stories in Genesis. Male and female, or one in adam, the first creature made of red earth (adam) and breathed into by the stooping God of creation. And made to bear the image of God, to be to the creation as God would be if God were present. Like God. Creative, caretakers, stewards, with dominion of the earth, also known as responsibility.

We are dirt and divinity. Our created nature is both of this wondrous, God-loved, beautiful cosmos. We are of the stuff of the Horsehead nebula and the ribboning folds of the slot canyons of the desert. And AND we are carriers of the breath of God, spiritual by creation. Made to be with God and to do God’s work.

That’s pretty amazing. And that is all of us who are human beings. Now, we squander that, sell it, exploit it, destroy it, degrade it, drug it, waste it, and more. But that does not undo that original purpose.

We always talk about the Fall of Humanity, but we rarely say what we fell from. We fell from our true purpose as being like God in the flesh of the world, stewards of life, co-creators, and companions to each other: helpers. Our spirit, God-breath, is part of that essential human giftedness to do that work.

Have you ever been in the presence of those doing that kind of work? There is a humanness that is so precious, delightful, basic. It’s why we go to zoos and delight in the birth of animals in captivity, or saving a species. This is what we are made for. Gardens and bonsai trees, organic farming, raising pets.

Now all of these things can get weird, right? We might idolize our dogs or cats as people or worse, but I think we see the return to eden in these relationships.

I need the wilderness like I need water and food. I don’t pretend that it is enough to shape my soul and do the work of restoring God’s rule in the earth. But a good run in a wild place will restore my spirit from aridity as surely as a beach does my wife’s. We are a creature of this creation, but we are not of this place only.

We must be reborn as spiritual people into our birthright as people of the Holy Spirit, of Jesus’ Abba, who are children of the living God. We submit our little breath to the breathing that spoke the cosmos into being, and in that we find our due home.

To return after so long to Underhill. We seek God in spirit, mysticism, seeking a return to union with God, or breath to Breathing in my words. We seek out the stories, songs, and lives of those who have returned to God in the saints and living stones of the church. We follow their teachings and practice, not as an end to itself, and not as some self-help project, though we will find ourselves made whole and at peace eventually, as we return to our due home.

The language of union with God has often troubled the faithful Christian who holds dear the sovereignty, dignity, grandeur, and holiness of God and realizes that we are not those things. How can such creatures as us be one with our Creator? I think this is where language of the Holy Spirit and breath can help us conceive of such a return, not because we are worthy or holy ourselves, but because God, in Christ, as re-union-ed us to himself in an act of Grace so great we can only sing and praise such a thing.

But O, what sorrow comes with such a revelation! Because we cannot escape our potential beauty, we can neither escape our failure! I have shed so many tears over my brokenness, not in sorrow for myself alone but because I can see some glimpse of what can have done in me and through me. What wonders I have failed to see!

But here is the thing. God has made his rule available to us. It is as close as our breathing. We have to submit our breath to him, and God will breathe in us. That is awesome in deed.

Evelyn Underhill gives us a beautiful hand-drawn map drawing, as many should point out on the work of Fenelon and Guyon and others, of course. And just because Jung colored on the map doesn’t make it any less useful, but rather added depth, so to speak.

And just because there is a map doesn’t mean you have to go where it shows. You have to trust God’s breathing in you, the Holy Spirit will guide you along the narrow paths of Jesus’ teachings, and you will run far beyond your imagination.

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Running

Arroyos in the Night – Fear and Refuge

There is a blue light to the desert nights that the full moon makes dancing with the sand.  You can see by it with patience and time.  You have to adjust at the beginning, and you have to run patient, letting the light you have guide your feet.  And you have to learn not to guess about the dark shadows.  Normally safe places to balance a foot on a sharp rock or let a step glide just over the surface of contours become treacherous even in the most familiar places.

Night changes the desert.  It is clarifying and haunting to go slipping through the dark blues and purples of the landscape reduced to peripheral vision and trust.  Your senses open up.  Yucca and palo verde smells and the quiet breathing of the desert under the shifting temperatures of night: things just missed in the business and quick flight of daytime runs.

I used to run through the desert in the fuller stages of the moon at night with a cap pulled low to blow block the direct light of the moon because it was like deep sea exploration, like praying a foreign country.  No flashlight, only faith in hand and trust in the movement of the body in motion and the nature’s grace.

They became a place of refuge, these nighttime runs.  I turned to desert for my closet of prayer when I couldn’t focus, when my words seemed to be too thin for the longing of my heart.  The night became a place where I was comfortable, clear, a place of focus.  Except for arroyos.

In the park where I ran there were these low places: washes, small canyons, arroyos where the water had carved the desert floor in beautiful curves only seen from up high.  Down on the floor at night they were sudden walls of darkness, cool caverns of fear where I always met my insecurity.

We all live with insecurity.  The deep seated anxiety of life, the existential fear of being naked before the Lord and mountain lions, critics and killer bees.  We live afraid, often without being conscious about it.  We live with basic fears that seem to mount as responsibilities pile up and the landscapes of our life changes.

For those who go through transition, it is a lot like running in the dark.  The landscapes we know well are suddenly different, or feel different, and the places where we skipped over obstacles and relied on the familiarity of small oppositions become traps of lost perspective and flattened depths become shallow traps.  The night changes the desert.

And then there are these arroyos that come out of the moonlight like walls of darkness, where our base insecurities become unseen lions stalking our waking minds.  Our praying trust becomes fleeing demons, a test of faith in the wilderness.

“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” the Psalmist asked, and I wondered if I would survive the darkness, my refuge of a moment ago approaching like a purple wave of doom out of the comforting blues of the desert night.

Over and over, night after night I would take one step down into the wall of darkness and discover, as the cool air rushed past, that God was there behind my questioning.  I was refreshed time again by the enveloping dark, as the dim light of grace would come into focus in this new passage through shadow, and I would come back up to the desert floor mere seconds later refreshed and almost laughing.

Fear every time would fade in steps taken into renewed faith.  I just had to keep going.

from Jesus in Matthew 10:

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.  Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

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Silence and Obedience

There is a particular kind of slurring that an iPod does when it is running out of juice, somewhere between a digital glitch and an eight-track slip.  It is particular, and on my old blue Shuffle it meant I had about ten minutes left of music.   Maybe.  I was trying to remember while watching for signs of a diamond back I kept  hearing behind a Beck track that always made me feel like I was being warned just out of earshot.  But with rattlesnakes even a warning that you suspect is audio background noise, you pay attention to.

It was a long dancing trail that was just beyond my familiar route into a box canyon.  And I was running out of music with miles to go back home, which would not have been that bad, I often had my little iPod run out after a couple of weeks of running while I was out, but I was trying to ignore God at the time.  Earbuds help.  A lot.

So I was something closer to worried than annoyed when the music slurred.  I changed songs, hoping that would help and knowing it would not.  I was sure that I had charged it the night before, and so I was sure that God was wanting my attention.

It was one of those moments in life when things were okay after a long period of disobedience.  The fool says in his heart . . . and I was trying not to listen, either to acknowledge how foolish I had been or how much I needed to reform right then.  I was running away from God, but in the most mundane, lackadaisical way.  I was whistling past the angry mob.  I was pretending not to hear the screams in the distant room.  I was avoiding my own conscience.  I was Jonah in the boat to Tarshish playing cards, and that little slur was the first drop of rain.

I knew.  And so I stopped the music.  And God spoke.  It was loving, kind, but clear and direct.  It was time for me to turn around.  Again.

The root of the world obedience is “to listen.”  And that is where Benedict’s trail begins.  “Listen, my son . . .”

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

Waugoshance Trail Marathon – a lesson in humility and prayer

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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!

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*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.

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Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility part II

Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility part II

( part I is here.)

One of the amazing things about the Rule of Benedict that does not leap out at those who only glance at it, see it as obsolete, and flip past the last two-thirds of the book before putting it somewhere people will see it displayed prominently, is that the Rule is remarkably humane.

Benedict is constantly allowing for organic variability in the application of the Rule, either for the seasons of the year or at the discretion of the abbot.

In a world where we see both wild diversity and militaristic uniformity, it is remarkable how moderate the Rule is in asking for submission but encouraging allowances.

As a trail runner, I tend to fall down on the side of wild diversity. I like the constancy of change on natural ground and only tolerate the dull repetition of the road as necessary with excuses about it being meditative.

Humility is a personal discipline. Most of what we put in that category is not really personal because our lives are deeply communal. With a wife and children, my life is even more communal than before, and no decision is truly personal.

Humility, though, is a personal discipline that has an effect on everyone who encounters us, but it must be chosen personally. Humility cannot be forced or even really encouraged from outside of yourself.

Force someone to be humble, and you are destructive. Encourage humility, and you are a bully. Okay, that is a tad overstated. I sound like a social media zealot. But there is a truth involved. You may be able to encourage a child or a friend to look at themselves and even rarely call them out on the distance between their idea of themselves and reality, but there has to be enough love-capacity built up to pay the cost of such a charge.

No we have to choose humility, to face that distance between our hopes, ideals, and ideas and our reality, ourselves. We have to will ourselves to have peace beyond the anxiety such a facing calls up.

I am not an anxious person, and you may not be either, so let me walk you through what I mean. When I come face to face with some aspect of my real self, say, my arrogant assumptions about my running ability, this will bring up anxiety naturally. Because I have not merely thought of myself as a great runner, but chances are I expected to win races, run fast, and may have told others, I may have spent money and time on this assumption, I may have chosen to be with certain fast runners and eschew the company of slower runners. I have invested in a view of my self based on the assumptions of my abilities. Now, I lose a race or get injured or just have a slow period due to overtraining. I have to admit to my self that I am not as fast as I thought.

This alone does not seem so bad, but I will admit that I have struggled here. I build up excuses and pass around blame to avoid dealing with the truth. I reinforce the mask, which now terribly is revealed as a mask at some level. I defend my false self against revelation.

My failure is not merely about reimagining my own time goals. I will have to tell those who I told was fast, or to whom I acted fast, that I am not fast, that I lied or failed. I will have to mourn the loss of that invested time, energy, money. I will have to face the relationships that may no longer have value or that I turned away because of my arrogance.

If I know and value my self as a child of God who is loved for being, none of these things is a great burden, only a hurdle on the way. But if I only know my self as a fast runner whose value is in winning or success, then my interior view of my self is in real danger.

Does this seem touchy-feely? It is not. I have seen the violence done by people protecting an unnecessary view of themselves time and time again in person. I have seen the damage that I have done as I struggle with my ego.

I am not entirely comfortable identifying my proud self with ego. Freud did not help us with choosing this term to identify this part of us. Ego is from the Latin for “I.” According to Merriam-Webster, it is the part of the self in psychoanalytic theory that navigates between the self and the world. It is associated with pride and an antonym from humility.

But ego is not antithetical to humility. We need ego, the “I am” of the self in the world. We need to know that we exist and have value in our just being. I cannot say this enough. In a healthy Christian anthropology (theory of what it is to be a human being), we are created in love and are loved from our creation.

It is a crappy, degraded, pagan Christianity that begins with an evil God who hates us. It neither offers explanation for creation nor meets the teachings of Jesus about his Abba God who loves us. We are loved even as we fail.

Living out this kind of anthropology means that we make allowance for our organic humanity even as we call for our better selves in worship and living together. The Rule’s balance in this regard is remarkable.

My balance on the other hand is questionable. I constantly want to succeed. I have dreams and ideals for my self and my family and my church. I want to run as fast as that high school kid from downstate I was reading about. But I don’t. I eat a lot of pizza on pizza night with my family. Our attendance at church varies with the weather and the season. I stay late on normal days to get a little more done.

I lace up my shoes and head out. Everyday I vary. I need a Latin phrase for “I vary.” *Variaro ergo sum*.

I run with a Suunto GPS that tells me my pace, speed, elevation, heart rate, attractiveness, holiness, and actual location in the Rule of God. I want to be a little better than yesterday, than last week, than last year. But the truth is more complex, as Mr. Suunto likes to point out.

Last year I ran a ten mile loop in seventy minutes, this year I crashed out on the same run. I called Amy, who couldn’t come get me because she had the car to get the child I was supposed to pick up because I was going to be back in sixty-five minutes and it was now well over an hour and a half and I was walking still miles from home, wet, and shaking from the cold. It was the same run, only much colder, rainy, and I had neither eaten nor hydrated well. But even if I had, I was not in the same shape coming out of the winter rather than summer.

In the end, I am human, of the humous, of the earth, organic little ball of God-breathed dirt, but dirty none-the-less. I may fly or fall, but I am God’s to cheer or catch. I strive, and I crawl, but the long run always ends up in the same place. I will end up with God answering for how I loved the river clay, whether my own or my wife’s or my children’s or yours.

God loves me and expects me to love my own self and others with the same kind of love. It is that expectation that leads me to the demands of the trail and the Rule. It is that love carries me when I fall and that puts out my hand to my neighbor when he falls.

The other reason I love trail runners is the joy and camaraderie of the trail. It is different in my experience from the road. We know we can’t compete for the trail, only along it. It belongs to God and leads to home, no matter what trail it is.

So relax a little and turn off your GPS, be where you are right now, be who you are right now. Be humane to you. You are loved, you little failure, or you are nothing. Your existence is proof that you are. So relax and face up, you are only what you are.

You are a human being, and we vary, like the Rule, like the trail.

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Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility

Trail Running with Benedict – Learning Humility
The quarter mile is kind of out of fashion. We run 400 meters races now, but in junior high school I became a quarter-miler.

It was a track meet against at our rival school’s track, that I first discovered a run that mattered. We were tied with East Holmes Academy, I was last leg in the mile relay. My faithless coach told me to run my own race and be content just as our rival team took a hand-off in the mile relay right behind our third leg. He kept the race close. We had a two foot lead as Doug handed me the baton, and I took off full speed. I was sprinting as I went around the first curve, and my older brother joined the coach in yelling for me to slow down.

*Slow down*? What kind of coaching was that? I was in first, and my name could have been Orville; I was discovering flight. I won. I really won and broke the school age record for the quarter-mile. I discovered that the race was a sprint and not a run, and I could sprint. All of those lonely miles in forests and fields had given me the endurance to run flat out for longer distances than others.

When we moved to Tennessee and Arizona I continued to run through a couple of minor football injuries and much bigger competition, and I won a few races. My senior year in Arizona, I was set up coming into track season to be one of the top five quarter milers in the state. I wasn’t going to win it all. I had realized that there were at least two runners with a whole set of gears beyond mine, but I was the best at Ironwood High School, team captain, and secure that I would be going to State with a shot at placing.

I started the season with a mildly sore achilles tendon, so coach wanted me to run an easy race in a small meet on our track, loose dirt, to set a time for the next major meet coming up a week later. I was supposed to come out easy and set up for a strong finish, maybe a 80% effort.

Coming off the first corner, I was first and shifted from the forward-lean of a true sprint to a laid-back long-reaching stride I had used the last two years when I felt a Charlie Horse in my right hamstring. As the muscle knotted up, the natural kick forward of each stride pulled the knot apart. I could feel my hamstring tearing, and I went down on the side of the track for the last time as a competitive runner. I cursed. I yelled at the trainer.

I had torn my right hamstring. A doctor explained that I had torn three of the four major muscles of the hamstring at 75, 80, and 40%. I was given cutting edge treatment, but we never considered surgery. My running career was over.

It was a humbling experience. I don’t mean that I was some sort of Icarus flying too close to the sun. I wasn’t overly puffed up with pride. I wasn’t some punk kid. I was a team captain and a Christian who had given my life to ministry for Jesus the summer before. I thought of others. I led warm-ups and stretching and prayers at school and church. I worked with younger runners.

No, it was humbling because I got re-planted in the earth, reconnected with my ground of being. I look back now at that high school kid and see the way I would come off the track with my head pounding and my muscles complaining and my focus on myself. I see the weakness at the core that I never addressed despite my coaches admonitions, and the terrible form that I had deduced from bad logic and led to my over-reaching stride. I see the brokennesses that would become patterns, habits, addictions in later adulthood. But it is not really humility to see your weaknesses only and name them. Humility is being grounded in a knowledge, an ethic, a life that is bigger than your own capacity. It is giving up the will to self.

As for self-will,
we are forbidden to do our own will
by the Scripture, which says to us,
“Turn away from your own will” (Eccles. 18:30),
and likewise by the prayer in which we ask God
that His will be done in us.
And rightly are we taught not to do our own will
when we take heed to the warning of Scripture:
“There are ways which seem right,
but the ends of them plunge into the depths of hell” (Prov. 16:25);
and also when we tremble at what is said of the careless:
“They are corrupt and have become abominable in their will.”
from Chapter 7 of the Rule of Benedict, osb.org

Self-will moves us away from humility. When I discovered that I knew better what I was capable of than my coaches, that was a truth, but it was also a seed of arrogance that would grow like a vine in me, setting roots into the mortar of my character, and eroding my very foundation. I could see my strengths clearly, but I was unaware of the seriousness of my weaknesses.

How do we turn away from self-will? Submission. How do we begin to truly learn from others? Submission. How do we become a part of something larger than ourselves? Submission.

Now submission is not popular. We think of submission as something forced on someone else, but submission is the willing giving up of our self-will to another.

Seven years after my high school track career destroyed my hamstring, I started to rebuild it (and the rest of my self) when I submitted my physical life to the teachings of a Hindu guru named Swami Sivananda. Someone had given a complete set of his books in English to the graduate school library, and I found them looking up Bede Griffiths for a model of ecumenism.

My life was in shambles as I studied to become a priest in the church. It was clear that I had no idea how to take care of myself, so I just did was the Swami said about practicing yoga, breathing, walking, and eating. I gave up my will to those little battered paperbacks. I ate simply and did yoga daily for six months. I lost well over fifty pounds and got my mind back together.

The irony is that I am not and was not Hindu. Submission is what I needed, and I was so broken down that almost any truth applied consistently was bound to do some good. The Swami was really wise and good for me, and I still apply some of his teachings. But he also gave me back the Ten Commandments, not as rules but as precepts, taking them from a set of laws to be kept or broken to being a way of life that flows directly into Jesus’ Beatitudes in ways I had not seen before.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” Matthew 5:3.

Humility leads to blessedness. Submission is one of the keys to humility, according to the Gospels and to Saint Benedict.

If I had submitted to my track coaches twenty-five years ago, I would not have been injured. Even just strengthening my core would have been enough. But if I had really submitted in learning running form and only going out at 80%, I would have finished my senior year running and set myself up for a much less heavy college career.

Submission is giving up our self-will to the will of another. Now I still have plenty of self-will left. I am still getting grounded year by year. I still get self-focussed when my blood gets to pounding and my efforts are over-reaching my capacity.

Running helps. When I started to run again seriously in my late twenties, I submitted to a running plan from a beginner’s book and running form from Danny Dreyer’s book *Chi Running*. I started over and stopped exalting myself.

From there I actually grew and today I am stronger and more healthy than I have ever been. By exalting my own ideas about myself and my running, I destroyed my running career. By humbling myself I have learned how to be really strong and to keep running safely year after year.

Today I stay grounded by submitting to running plans and workouts from actual experts, the coaches of adult life. I submit to my wife and to my bishop. I submit to committees and boards, to the community at the church where I serve, to my true guru Jesus of Nazareth, and to God’s dream in the Scriptures.

Submission has its balance of course. This is not a plea for some sort of Masochism or weird sexual practices. I think abuse is just abuse.

Humility is grounded in truth. I am humble enough to know my weaknesses, but I am also humble enough to know my strengths honestly and use them mostly without arrogance. I am humble enough to know the value that I have as God’s child in Christ and defend my dignity with love as I do others. You must not tolerate self-destruction in Christ anymore than destruction of others.

So I am a mid-pack runner these days, when I (very rarely) run with a pack. I still have a visible gap in my right hamstring after all these years. And every spring I get the itch to run in circles until I fall over.

I am not a great runner, but I still love to fly. There is a moment that I love on long runs when the trail pitches over narrow ridges or along the close hug of the forest when my feet go sailing behind me with the wind on my face and my body floating over the good earth, and I toss myself into the care of God.

Ultimately I submit to others because in doing so I submit to God. And I submit to God because I have come to know that God always catches me up into a web of love that, when I trust it, keeps me on my feet, limping and sailing along the Way through fields of gold where the wheat bends bowing in the winds of the Spirit.

That harvest that will someday feed the world is my hope. I submit because I know that God is able to do more than I can and often with those I don’t suspect of belonging to Christ. God’s dream has always been carried by those who like Abraham and Mary and Benedict submit to God’s will. Greatness in winning races is nothing compared to that belonging found when someone bows to you to wash your trail-worn feet or you wash theirs and find between you that doorway home into the Household of God.

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