Monday, October 26, 2009

Run Slow, Run Fast...Just Run!

Haile Gebrselassie poses for a picture with dressed up runners before the start of the 35th Berlin marathon in 2008 (AP Photo). Shortly after this photo was taken "Geb" would go on to set the world record in the marathon. He ran 2 hours 3 minutes and 59 seconds. He does not look bothered by the runners who seemingly have nothing in common with him. I imagine Geb being put at ease by not thinking about the 4:40 miles he would need to clip off a few minutes later. He may even be such a wise ambassador of the sport that he knew how to ham it up with the entry paying customers who help raise money for him to make a living as an elite distance runner.

I'm confident these two clowns did not come within an hour of Geb's finishing time, but all three pictured are smiling and look as if nothing can disrupt their great morning. These clowns are every bit as much runners as Haile Gebrselassie.

I was inspired to dig up the picture above thanks to a NY Times article about slower runners somehow making the marathon less than it once was.

Quite an outpouring of support for all marathoners has ensued online and I immediately recalled the wide-smiling fastest runner on the planet with arms around two mortals. The elitest and arrogant comments in the NY Times article seem to claim that to run and walk over the course of 26.2 miles or to simply run slowly is somehow of less worth than those type A folks like myself who rarely smile and count every second until the finish line is crossed. The first thing to remember is that there is always somebody faster than you, so watch what you say. I'm okay locally, but regionally and nationally, I get smoked in every race I enter and so will you--on some playing field, someday. Fast is a subjective term and hardly the point of what makes a runner.

Moreover, I'm envious of those who are unmarried to their watches or less married. I never think of runners with slower paces as somehow less connected to the tag "runner" than I am. Whenever I make a running acquaintance, be it at a race or a customer that I am helping find a shoe that fits, and they say some version of, "well, I'm slow, not like you," I never let it go. I always take issue with such remarks. While I can self-depricate with the best of them, there is no room for thinking that pace is what determines the merit of each of us a runner. If you are out there for the love of the sport, for any of it's varied merits, YOU ARE A RUNNER.

Who cares if marathon times have slacked over the last few decades as measured by the median recreational runner. Childhood and adult obesity statistics are reaching alarming numbers and they won't decrease if the goal of the running community is to recreate a time when less people ran faster. We need more people to run as part of lifestyle values centered on activity and healthy living. Do you have any idea how many more calories are burned in a four hour marathon effort versus Geb's nearly two hour world record mark? That's right, about twice as many, and that's from a humanities guy. But even I can handle multiples of two. In 1999 Khalid Khannouchi remarked after setting the then world record at the Chicago Marathon that the real heroes were the folks out there for five and six hours. They had much bigger concerns in terms of stamina and hydration than he did in just over two hours.

Running snobs beware. We are looking out for you and we hope that slower times don't find their way to you, but they will. I guess as age and speed loss catches up with you, you will have to take up competitive remote controlling, because according to your arrogance, you will no longer be running in a truly pristine fashion. I hope you will change your tune and keep running in healthy form and if need be, a slow and steady pace.

How many miles can you run until you drop dead?

miles i can run
Created by - best treadmill reviews

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Good Compulsions

The world is leery of concepts such as compulsion and addiction with good reason. Compulsive and addictive behaviors can be the habits of drug addiction, alcoholism, etc. While there are negative choices that can be compulsively lived out day after day, such as skipping sleep, beating a child, lying to every person encountered, perhaps we are too quick to assume that something compulsive is always a bad thing. Instead there are bad compulsions, but not all compulsions are bad. What we can safely say is that there are bad choices, made once, made over and over, but not all compulsions are fraught with bad intentions or outcomes. A world mired with fear, guilt, and anxiety often leaves us more comfortable with notions of playing it safe as characterized by such sayings as all things in moderation. If this saying were the final say so on how to live life the world would have never seen a single genius. Jesus was compulsive in loving the world. Beethoven was compulsively practicing the piano. Gandhi compulsively resisted non-violently. Einstein compulsively tinkered with numbers and ideas related to the universe.

The nun compulsively prays on behalf of the rest of the world. She does not pray in moderation. She prays without ceasing.

Consider the things you love most. Do them and do them well. Do them over and over until they are as much a habit and a requirement as it is a habit for your lungs to take oxygen from the air you breath. Walk wisely with your compulsions so that you can walk again tomorrow and walk better tomorrow. Learn from the times when you pushed too hard and were made lame the next day. Reflect on your compulsions to determine if they are still good choices. Seek wise counsel from others who have gone before you and wisely learned how to manage similar compulsions. But don’t fear the threshold and the risks associated with peeking over to the other side. On the other side of the apparent boundary waters are genius, fulfillment, ingenuity, creativity.

I guess that for me these compulsions manifest themselves in running and writing. I have moments of lassitude and lacks in confidence, but I come back again and again because I can do no other.

Rainer Maria Rilke writes in Letters to a Young Poet, p.18.

Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge a testimony to it.

Rilke describes his urge to write. The positive compulsion of your choice can be inserted into the structure of Rilke's description. I think "Pre" pictured below characterized running like Rilke describes writing, even after falling just shy of the podium at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Stained-Glass Justice

Amos 5:23-24, The Message,
When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it.
That's what I want. That's all I want.

Amos 5:23-24, NRSV,
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

In Holy Scripture and in the climate of today’s world is there a more loaded term than “justice?” Most think of punitive measures and punishment and retribution. At the least, justice is what is fair, right?
God’s justice is different. God’s justice is found in the faithfulness of a people who trust that God alone will get it right. That won’t always mean fair. God builds up the lowly. The Creator lowers the rich. He is not interested in fair—not on the world’s terms.
My friend Meredith has stain-glassed justice to look like:

For me, Meredith has captured God’s justice. This blue is so beautiful, a hue that could only come as part of God’s beautiful created order. It’s even perfect where this glass is hung with the green tree filling in the clear spaces and creating a border outside the border. But look fairly at this glass. It’s not just easy to behold. The waves are not just peaceful and calm. They are as tumultuous as the storm that laid siege to the Egyptians when the water walls broke over them. Look inside the wave, the pipeline has a storm inside of it. There is the beating water of a rainstorm. Scientists explain storms inside storms—the layered affect of a hurricane. I bet the glass has a textured feel as those bubbled rain drops come up off the main surface of the clear glass. These drops would hurt the skin, leaving marks. They are so big and falling so hard.

This is the image of God’s justice?

Rivers and oceans of justice come with a price. God’s price. God’s tears shed as the many drops in a rainstorm.
So the writer, the prophet Amos, does not want to hear the noise, the cacophony, of the world’s songs anymore. Are you ready for God’s song? It’s not just a warm blanket, a nuzzling puppy. It is also a storm of such force and strength to knock you down—a storm that lowers mountains and shifts valleys. God’s storm is so powerful that rocks are heated to lava in the blink of an eye, oozing and forming and filling spaces and voids that men said could never be filled. Lava filling wounds that men said could never be cauterized. God’s justice will come by the bucket-fulls, by the plane-fulls, by the ocean-fulls, by the solar system-fulls. Do you really want justice—the kind of righteous justice that God offers?

I’m afraid…and yet…I lay in waiting.

Waiting at the foot of cross, because I don’t know where else I would wait. I have no other story. Some days I’d like a “Co-Exist” story where every story imaginable were accommodated or a story where I was the author pulling the puppet strings, but this is not my story. I just lay in waiting at the foot of a cross--a beachfront stilt as this wave of justice pours over me in a hurricane come ashore. He punishes me for iniquities. He blesses me for goodness I do not deserve. He thanks me for showing mercy to the stranger when naively I was so stupid I did not even mean to help the stranger in my midst. He raises me up at my lowest mark. He snuffs me out just when I was riding atop this wave of justice in a standup kayak of arrogance that deceived me into thinking that I would never again feel the flesh ripping affects of the coral reef just below the surface.

Why God? Why must I ride the wave in limbo? Why must I never feel real blessed assurance? Whenever I claim total optimistic assurance, I know it’s a deception. You have not given me unfettered access, not yet, if ever. Always in the shadow of the cross and then back in the sun and then back in shadows. Won’t you leave me be? Let me alone so I could just be.

It seems you never will. Always laying claims on me that I am not worthy of. You never seem to misplace the baggage claim. You’ll wait forever as luggage passes by, waiting only for me. You don’t need to go to customer service. You flew the plane and unloaded the baggage and I’m the only piece you seem to care for. Yet, you have equal time for all the others, but it does not seem that way to me. I feel trapped in a beautiful and exhausting sequel to Green Eggs and Ham. I don’t want to eat them, just let me be. But God won’t—always hovering and watching and caring.

Go and buy something from Meredith at:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Risking Pain-Filled Humility

It's about 20 weeks after Pentecost, the birthday of the church, but I figure any day is a good day to write about life in relationship to the church's birthday. This story began on Pentecost 2009, back in May...

I heard recently, from a man who pours out his wisdom by the bucket-fulls, “God calls us into the pain of the people – to identify with it and if necessary to take it on. Great leaders are willing to enter into the pain of their people” (John Perkins speaking on 6/4/09 at Duke Summer Institute).

My own sense of Christian leadership is that it hurts to enter into the pain of a people, and it is also a great joy to be a part of the ongoing work of the church. At The Church of the Holy Family, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we worship in a sort of in-between times. Hopefully, all churches plow and harvest in this season knowing that Jesus has been fully revealed in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and yet, the same churches are mysteriously aware that there is still something left to come. If there were not something else, then I believe pain would not feature so prominently within the fields of our lives. Humility in the face of pain is one area of human farming where the church has featured prominently, because where folks are humble, suffering is sure to be found.

During my time at The Church of the Holy Family as staff, lay member, and now ordained clergy (in another tradition, so still essentially lay in an Episcopal world), I have seen much work in the fields of humility. Some of what I love about Holy Family is that we do not fit neatly into boxes for others or our own descriptive purposes. We look liberal and conservative, orthodox and progressive, and many striations and variations in-between. I feel simultaneously insider and outsider, and over the years I have become less clear about who I am theologically, and spiritually. Such ambiguity may unnerve former professors, mentors, even my own family, yet I suspect that I am not the only baptized member there who thinks Holy Family is dually contributing to his own salvation and failure. I have shared in the failures of other members and the community at-large and seen these failures be to the glory of God. My time at Holy Family appears to be shaping me for confusion, not wanting to live in any one theological, political, or spiritual box. Can we be a people without simplistic answers to difficult questions? That’s a rhetorical question, loaded to the brim, but it has an affirmative answer for me. I no longer seek success, merely faithfulness. Those who yearn for faithfulness over and above success can rest assured their commitment to humility will be tested.

While this tends to contribute to my lack of classical success in jobs as of late, I believe such complexity can be to the glory of God. Others will not agree with me, believing that all should be tidied up where religious and vocational matters are concerned, yet God’s kingdom is rarely so tidy. It is a kingdom told in parables. It is a kingdom told in such statements as “those who are last shall be first” or “blessed are the meek.” Jesus never came pronouncing simplicity. His rule today is filled with a faithful commitment to mystery. Allegiance to mystery leaves more up to God then would make us the most comfortable. It also means that we will succeed on God’s timetable not our own.

One of the ways through last-ness and meek-ness might be to embrace these conditions rather than disdain them. To draw upon Dr. Perkins again, entering into the pain of a people is to first, be last among them, to be the humblest in their midst. To come last in the race will involve pain, humility, even embarrassment. Perhaps the church’s call is to be less triumphal than is typically our M.O. Instead we are to be a people more accepting of conditions of seeming failure. For what seems to be a failure is akin to God’s seeming failure—death on a cross. If we believe that God remains faithful to us, then it is all being worked out. It’s all good.

Though we are reminded that faithfully pronouncing, “it’s all good,” is not without pain. I have seen such digging in the realm of humility and pain at Holy Family. We were mixed on the ordination of a homosexual bishop. We were mixed on the ordination of a female presiding bishop and some are even mixed on the at-large ordination of women. Yet, we stay together. We weather the floods as Episcopalians within a complex Anglican Communion. This lack of shared vision does not always lead to increased tithing, and we deceive ourselves if we sense that giving is down only due to the recession. This parish was led by a rector/pastor so gifted it is almost laughable, yet we are far from meeting our budgetary needs. That tension exemplifies humility. I believe we live faithfully in-between the times primarily through shared food at the altar nearly every time we gather. Further, we practice acts as a weekly commitment to a penitential order including a kneeled prayer including the Ten Commandments. This penitential order has been practiced for eight years, since the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. Cases could be made for many other worship commitments that are adhered to by Holy Family and its’ members—foot washing, anointing, etc. Through each of these acts we hurt individually and collectively with one another and the world. My hope is that we enter into this place of pain humbly, and in turn we celebrate joyfully as participants in God’s Kingdom.

The image of fire is the prevelant image at Pentecost thanks to the story from Acts, chapter two. This is an image filled with light, pain, fear, hope, reinvention. It's a mixed bag, paradoxical, like the church.