Vacations, Re-Creation, and THE RACE

I have taken a bit of a break from posting while Kim and I went on vacation. This is our annual post-Easter week on the beach (if it happens in March we go to the mountains). We stayed at Seagrove Beach in Florida, and were blessed with six days of sun, temperatures in the 70’s and low 80’s, and nothing to do but enjoy it.

We rented bikes and rode all over scenic 30-A, enjoying Seaside, Watercolor, Grayton, and Blue Mountain beaches. We ate, mostly in our condo. One of the joys of these trips are the meals we prepare together for two. On this trip, we tried to do the meals we prepared as healthy as possible, and succeeded for the most part. The meals out?…not so much. I’m sorry, but this southern boy cannot resist a plate of fried fish or po-boy sandwiches, and French fries will always be my biggest weakness. So if I were giving myself a grade, it would be a C on the eating…maybe a B-.

I did run four days, including a long run of six miles on Saturday. It was really humid and quite warm, which made the runs difficult, but I got through them. With the biking and two or three long walks on the beach, I think I offset the eating pretty well.

Final result – I gained three pounds. erg….

The good news is that I’ve done well since being home, and I think I lost what I gained. I will weigh in on Saturday morning before the race to see how close I got to my goal.

The half marathon is Saturday. It is supposed to be in the high 80’s here, but I’m hoping to be off the course before the real heat arrives.

I’m going to give everything I have to get in under 2 hours, and it will take everything I have to sustain the necessary pace for the full 13.1 miles. We start at 7 a.m., so I appreciate any thoughts and prayers you might send my way.

A few people have asked me why I run. I’ve never really been able to answer that question before this year. But going through this more intentional process – especially during Lent – has opened my eyes to a few things, and I think I have an answer now. It comes from a line in the movie, “Chariots of Fire,” and it is quoted by Richard Foster:

“When I run, I feel His pleasure.”

When I put one foot in front of the other, I feel that I’m doing something that is making me a better husband, a better father, a better friend, a better pastor…and that all those things are helping me become the person God wants me to be. So yes,

“When I run, I feel His pleasure.”

That’s it, that’s why I run…

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Prayer: Who’s in the Room?

There are always at least two people in the room with me whenever I think about, write about, or preach about prayer. I met them while I was a student pastor in a small Tennessee town, barely nineteen years old and trying to preach and pastor among this little rural church. My encounters with them have formed, and continue to form, my understanding of prayer.

Mark was a fifteen year old kid who loved nothing more than being out in the woods on the weekends, hunting, fishing, and riding his three-wheeler. His life was typical of most of the teens in that community; raised close to the land, acquainted with the ebb and flow of nature, full of life. One weekend I received a call that Mark had an accident on the three-wheeler and was at Vanderbilt Hospital in critical condition. When I arrived at the hospital, I discovered a devastated family. Mark was in a coma, he was probably brain-damaged, and it was not likely he could breathe on his own. I stayed with the family while they agonized over a decision no parents should ever have to make. Prayers filled the waiting room, rose up from the little community in homes and sanctuaries, and surrounded Mark as he laid unconscious on the bed. In the end, they removed him from life-support and we all prayed for a miracle even as his life slipped away.

Russ finished his freshman year of college at Tennessee Tech and was on his way home for the summer when he slipped off a rain-soaked two-lane road and down a steep gully. He died instantly. His family called and asked if I would come to their home in the hours after the accident. I entered a home filled with the kind of pain that even now, twenty years later, is hard for me to describe. Russ was the youngest of their children, incredibly smart, and a decent, loving, committed disciple of Jesus Christ. The senselessness of his death took our breath away, and left us with nothing, it seemed, to say, or believe, or hope.

Mark and Russ – and their families – are always in the room with me when it comes time to pray. They are a constant reminder of the words of C.S. Lewis, “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death bed, is a monument to a petition that was not granted.”

I have to admit that for a long time after these experiences, I was reluctant to pray with any kind of specificity. My prayers became generic odes to “Thy will be done,” hardly recognizable from one to the next, no matter the situation. I feared that if I actually prayed for healing, say, or reconciliation, or relief in concrete situations, I was doing violence to their families. How dare I suggest God answers prayers for any other individual or family, when God did not answer the prayers of these families?

In those years my faith was hardly distinguishable from the “Watchmaker God” of the Deists. God merely winds up the world and then retires to the Divine equivalent of the Bahamas to watch it all unfold, never entering into its ebb and flow, never influencing its events, never getting involved. It seemed to me an offense to the memory of Mark and Russ and their faithful families to think of God in any other way. Harold Kushner once famously posited that God had to either be all-powerful or all-loving, but could not be both and account for evil. He settled on all-loving but impotent. I was willing in those days to grant all-loving and all-powerful, just absent.

It was Richard Foster who woke me up to my immature thinking. He writes, in discussing the spiritual discipline of prayer:

“In our efforts to pray it is easy for us to be defeated right at the outset because we have been taught that everything in the universe is already set, and so things cannot be changed. And if things cannot be changed, why pray…It is stoicism that demands a closed universe, not the Bible.”

Foster challenged me to expand my idea of prayer from simply telling God what I want to listening for what God was saying to me. Soren Kierkegaard says, “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.”

Gradually my immature ideas gave way to a much richer, though complex, understanding of prayer. Prayer demands a listening heart, a humble spirit, and a profound connection with those for whom we pray. Prayer is an active discernment of the ways God is at work in a given situation, and a humble recognition of that Divine work. Sometimes prayer involves words; often it does not. Listening is the doorway to intercession. But it is a listening that does not shy away from speech. It demands the kind of daring specificity that mirrors the radical specificity of a God who would live among us in a first-century Jewish peasant and die a shameful and violent death.

Mark and Russ will always be in the room. But their presence need not silence my prayers. Instead, I (and we) can dive into the mystery of God-with-us, knowing that God does not reside far off, but near, in Jesus Christ, and that even in our weakness and vain attempts to speak the unspeakable, the Spirit intervenes with sighs too deep for words.

There were a lot of sighs and groans and loud, inarticulate cries that rose up in those days as we stood watch with Mark and as we grieved Russ. I never stopped to consider that maybe the source of those sighs was the Source of all that is, seen and unseen; the One who prayed until drops of blood fell like sweat from his beaten brow; the One who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”; never dared imagine God was the One “whose heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Mark and Russ are always in the room when I pray, and so is the One they called Lord. That’s why I still pray, sometimes against all odds, with great specificity.

Quick Update

I don’t have time to really write anything today, as Easter Day preparations are in full swing, but I did want to provide an update on yesterday’s 12 mile run.

Clarke and I ran the full 12 at a 9:31 pace. While that would bring me in around three minutes past my two hour goal, I typically always run a little faster on race day. So it should come right down to the wire.

I also weighed after the run – which is cheating just a bit, since my body was totally depleted of fluids, but, hey, I should get some added benefit from running 12 miles! – and was sitting at 191.5, exactly fourteen pounds lost since setting the goal. That leaves six pounds to go in two weeks. That will probably come down to the wire as well.

On a different note – Good Friday brought devastating weather to this area later in the day. A tornado touched down in the Murfreesboro area, killing a young mother and her nine-week-old baby, injuring many more, and destroying houses. Please keep all affected in your prayers.

Important Week

Today I am hovering right at a loss of twelve pounds, and a 9:40 minute mile. I ran ten miles Saturday at that pace. I mapped out the ten mile trek through my neighborhood, and it was fun running. It was a beautiful, warm day and there were lots of folks out. Each turn saw families of all kinds out walking, working in the yard, throwing footballs and baseballs, and grilling. There was a good spirit everywhere. I’m glad to live in a neighborhood filled with life. When the sun comes out, this community teems with energy.

I became fatigued toward the end. I really need to run earlier in the day to avoid the heat, but I am not constitutionally predisposed to early morning anything.

After a rest day today, I plan to run five miles Tuesday, do some cross-training cardio on Wednesday, three miles Thursday, and then run twelve miles Friday. This will be my last really long run before the race, and should tell the tale. I hope to lose at least four of the remaining eight pounds I need by Sunday, but that may be too optimistic. We go on vacation the week after Easter, and I will do some running down there, but I know myself well enough to know that my diet may suffer (I think it is close to a mortal sin to diet while on vacation), and I will need to really work hard at it when I get back. So, we’ll see. I feel pretty good about where things stand at the moment.

It is Holy Week. We have services Thursday, Friday, and Easter Day. Lots of my friends in the ministry really dread these days from a vocational standpoint. The week can be draining. But I have always loved it, even with all the busyness. This week really is the reason we exist; the story we tell on each of these holy days is what gives life and meaning to all the others.

So it is an important week on many levels for me. I invite your prayers for the congregation, for me and all the staff, and for all Christians everywhere who walk this week in the shadow of the cross toward the light of the empty tomb.

On Caleb Going to College

At times I feel like this is all a dream, and
I will wake and find he is still two, and
we are walking on the beach hand in hand, the
brilliant light of the descending sun silhouetting us,
causing her some pause before she finally, slowly
takes the picture.

The photo stands on our mantle, accompanied by many others;
poor attempts all to duplicate that one fire-lit evening, the
light daring us to see what lies just beneath:
Glory.

Okay, that’s my lame attempt at free verse, trying to come to terms with having a son going to college. If it makes it onto the blog, please be gentle…And if you’ve made it this far, you deserve a real piece of poetry that gets at the same thing:


Sentimental Moment Or Why Did the Baguette Cross the Road
By Robert Hershon

Don’t fill up on bread
I say absent-mindedly
The servings here are huge

My son, whose hair may be
receding a bit, says
Did you really just
say that to me?

What he doesn’t know
is that when we’re walking
together, when we get
to the curb
I sometimes start to reach
for his hand.

Failure

Last Saturday morning, I failed.

There, I said it. It took a while for me to say it, and I went through various drafts trying to find ways of saying it that might soften the blow to my ego, but in the end it just needs to be said. I failed.

Nothing in the week preceding the run indicated the failure that awaited. I kept my training schedule, and on Thursday I even ran 3 miles at an 8:29 pace, which was a personal best. Saturday morning I woke up feeling well, motivated, and certain that I would improve on my time and distance from the previous Saturday. Clarke and I were to run 11 miles, and I was shooting for a 9:20 pace. I woke up on Saturday weighing in at 195.6 pounds, a ten pound loss since beginning this regimen. All the signs were good.

The run was going well until mile 4, when I began feeling more fatigue than I should in my legs. My breathing became more labored at about mile 7, prompting Clarke to advise, “Notice your breathing; you’re breathing too hard.” Just a little short of mile 9, I had to quit. We were about as far as we could be from the parking lot, which meant the “walk of shame” would be lengthy.

The predictable voices in my head came in right on cue: “Your goals are too lofty,” “You’re no athlete,” “What made you think you could run that fast,” and on and on. On this day, however, those voices were countered by another one. Clarke and I began talking as we made the long journey back to the cars. I let him know how disappointed I was. He said he had made very similar walks from failed training days, recounting one incident that involved jumping a fence and calling his wife to come pick him up. I said I felt like perhaps it was the couple of beverages I had enjoyed the previous night at the Belcourt with Kim. He nodded knowingly and let me know that he had been down that road as well. I said I thought maybe I over-trained on Thursday, running way too fast. He said he had the same problem, and tried training just three days instead of four, which seemed to work for him.

It went on like that for a while: steady footfalls on the warm pavement, Clarke hearing my confessions and letting me know that he had walked all those roads as well, and still did, sharing what can only be described as grace while we traveled in the shadow of failure.

At some point we began talking about other things: family, faith, movies, basketball. Eventually we were in the parking lot. As we stood there, it became clear that the journey we had just taken was, for me, journey from shame to hope. The failure was real, to be sure, but the hope generated from the experience of the community of a fellow sojourner was real as well, and more powerful.

The Lenten walk means, if it means anything, that we are sustained in the midst of our brokenness, failure, and shame by the One who “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the God who was able to save him from death…”

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann calls the God revealed in the Christ who journeys through broken humanity “The Crucified God.” I believe more and more along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer that “only the suffering God can help.” It is this God who travels with us on the road that leads from failure and shame to hope. The desperate cries of a world that includes suffering in the Sudan, spilled blood and endless conflict in the Middle East, dramatically rising levels of poverty in this country, and a global economy reeling from recession; these cries rise to a God who knows, and feels, and suffers with this world.

At times, I want God to move more decisively. I want God to intervene and set things to rights. I scream for a God of justice. There are times when this God who suffers with and journeys alongside us just doesn’t seem powerful enough to change anything. I cry, along with the psalmist, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens, and come down!”

But then I find myself wandering on some long road of failure or other, trying to find my way home, feeling alone. I look up and find, in the community of faith, in the quiet conversation with a friend, in the smile of a child, in the swinging of a Habitat for Humanity hammer, in the table-talk with a homeless guest, in the silent strength of an AIDS ministry, in the confident prayer of a hospice chaplain, and in countless small acts of defiant hope, that I am caught up again in the mystery of God-with-us.

It is enough.