Category Archives: Spiritual Stuff

Grace in the Running Magazine

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I’m a regular reader of Runners World. Like most special-interest magazines, there’s a lot of repetition of ideas if you read long enough, but it’s excellent monthly motivation and entertainment for this unexpected hobby and lifestyle of mine.

At times the magazine is downright inspirational. This month’s issue has great profiles of “runners of the year,” including a Kenyan distance runner who is blind. He convinced a childhood friend (who’d never run, in a country where children routinely run to school every day!) to train to be his guide, and now they’re winning races. (As someone who picked up this sport less than four years ago, I may be more inspired by the never-runner than the blind runner.)

But here’s the piece I’m pondering days later. It’s at the tail end of the celebrity runner column, called I’m a Runner, and this month it profiles Brooklyn street dancer Storyboard P:

A lot of dancers don’t like running because they think it’s painful and that dancing is only about being graceful. But grace is acquired strength. You’ve got to run and work out to get to that.

Grace is acquired strength.

Of course, he’s talking about “grace” in terms of beautiful and fluid motion.

Or is he?

I recently heard an elite runner talk about the importance of running for the joy of it. If you’re constantly stressed and focused on your metrics, your run won’t be smooth and fluid, and you won’t be as effective. Your run will lack grace. But it’s also true that the more miles you put in, the stronger you’ll be, and there will be an ease to your running. It will be grace-full.

Christians are used to talking about grace as a gift freely given from God. There’s nothing we can do to earn or deserve this gift. The only thing we can do is receive it and steward it responsibly and joyfully.

I also give thanks that in this age we are moving beyond faith as intellectual assent and instead are reclaiming the importance of practice, of Christianity as a pattern of life. I myself struggle with all kinds of questions and doubts, and have a special affection for skeptics both inside and outside the church. I’ve had more than one non-churchy (or even atheist) Facebook friend call me their pastor. I am honored and take that call seriously!

Amid all my questions, I’m heartened by the biblical meaning of believe, which is akin to giving one’s heart to something. Giving one’s heart is not primarily about agreement. It’s about participation.

So yes, grace is a gift from God. But that gift comes in the midst of striving to live in the manner of Jesus, or the way of love, if you prefer, for I believe they are one and the same. And getting it wrong 95% of the time. But oh, that luminous 5%…

I know people who are shouldering tremendous burdens right now. I know people who’ve been dealt the crappiest hand you can imagine. Their ability to not only get up in the morning but to give a damn about the problems of others, and to refuse to let their defeats define them, is grace… wherever it comes from.

That kind of grace is not a sweet and delicate thing. It is strong. It is muscular. It is acquired strength, obtained over many years of practice and stumbles and I don’t know how I got through that day, but I just saw the sun rise so I must have done it. And it is beautiful.

~

Image: Storyboard P

More Light for a Dark Week

I wrote the other day about how dark the world seems lately. Thank you to those who’ve read, commented and shared that post. It’s a comfort to know we’re all seeking the light together.

Sadly, I wrote that before 145 people—132 children—were killed by the Taliban in an attack on a school in Peshawar. And before I received this update in my Facebook from a missionary member of National Capital Presbytery, where I serve:

Please pray for parents and families of the Ayotzinapa School in the State of Guerrero where 43 students have “disappeared” by local police and criminal drug lords. One of them has been confirmed dead and burned.

Part our Longest Night Service on Sunday will be to lift up prayers for places of terror, death and brokenness in the world. How I wish the list weren’t so damn long.

So where is the light?

Here’s some light that came to me quite indirectly yesterday. A friend shared this article about late-night TV personality Craig Ferguson, who is going off the air this week. He talked about interviewing Archbishop Desmond Tutu several years ago and this liberating and formative moment:

Ferguson said Tutu told him during a commercial break, “I think you’re crazy.”

“This is a man who talked to some crazy motherf****rs,” Ferguson said. “He said to me, ‘You’re crazy – I don’t mean to be rude.’ I said, ‘I thank you, Father Tutu.’ He said, ‘No,  you are crazy, but the type of crazy we need.’ And, this is not your agent, you know, he’s not like, ‘Keep doing the crazy thing!’ It’s Desmond Tutu saying ‘Be as authentically crazy as you are.’ It was kind of like God saying ‘Just be as crazy as you like.’ I felt weirdly released by that.”

This article led me to the interview itself, which won Ferguson a Peabody award. It’s fantastic. Of course Tutu is always brilliant to behold, but these words about good and evil and compassion and justice spoke directly to the events of this week, this month, this year.

Is it possible for light to be fizzy? Tutu’s light is fizzy.

Here it is.

Part 1:

Part 2:

There’s also a Part 3 and a Part 4. Behold… behold.

Where Is the Light?

Here in the Northern Hemisphere we’re winding down to Sunday, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Here in the DC area, the sun will rise that day at 7:23 a.m. and set at 4:50 p.m., giving us just 9 1/2 hours of light.

I know a good number of people who are having a tough time this year. There are family dramas and medical setbacks and stresses at work, not to mention the chronic struggles and annoyances that will always be with us. Those don’t take a break simply because Andy Williams calls it the most wonderful time of the year.

There’s the torture report, and the painfully raw conversations around #BlackLivesMatter. There’s a bungled Rolling Stone story that threatens to distract us from the disgraceful stats about sexual assault on college campuses.

There’s the two year anniversary of Newtown, which came and went with so little notice, and certainly no new laws regarding gun regulation, nor much of anything else, for that matter. (Where are all those people who claimed the guns weren’t to blame but rather the state of mental health services in this country? Have they been out there crusading without my knowledge for increased support for people with mental illnesses? Or is the death of 26 people and a school shooting every week the price we are willing to pay for “freedom”?)

Where is the light? This week, it is seeping away, a few minutes at a time on the margins of the day.

Many churches, Tiny Church included, have special gatherings for people who aren’t feeling the holly-jolliness. We have ours on a Sunday evening in December, and we’ve always called it “Blue Christmas.” This year, the solstice is on a Sunday, so we’ll be able to call it what it is: A Service of the Longest Night. It’s one of my favorite services of the year.

I must admit, though, as the darkness grows:

The light is absolutely beautiful this time of year.

Yes, there’s less of it than in the summer, with all its full blazes and its squat, sharp noon shadows. But what’s here right now is dynamic and textured. It’s brilliant and full and filtered through bare branches rather than blocked by leafy trees. Then it’s smudgy and silver when the clouds roll in.

And then it’s full of color. The sunrises and sunsets can be stunning. It feels strange liturgically to be preparing for a Service of the Longest Night when we are gifted with this:

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Many Decembers ago, I was awake before dawn with a teething Margaret. I was wishing I were back in my warm bed in my dark room instead of trying to entertain a cranky toddler when something caught my eye outside the east-facing window. At first I didn’t understand what I was seeing. There in the otherwise dark sky was a vertical streak of light, jagged like a bolt of lightning, but it hung there for the longest time, frozen like a still photo.

Finally something in the scene shifted enough so I could realize: there was a massive cloud taking up half the sky. The cloud was invisible in the pre-dawn sky, until the sun rose behind it. What I was seeing was the side of the cloud, tinged with light.

The winter light is surely less abundant. But it’s startling and strange and exquisitely beautiful. We dare not blink or we will miss it. And we need it; we crave it.

It feels sometimes like our world is in a season of diminishing light. It’s felt that way for too long a while. Part of the invitation is to see gifts in the darkness, as Barbara Brown Taylor argues in her book. But we also have to keep alert and awake to see the fleeting brilliance when it comes.

 

Choose your own confounding streaks of light. Here are some of mine: a lone senator still banging away at gun reform after Sandy Hook. The Richmond chief of police who marches with protestors affirming that #BlackLivesMatter. The wave of people in Australia offering to ride public transportation with frightened Muslims as the hostage situation inflames anti-Islamic sentiment. And—it must be said—the police officers who put their bodies on the line to end that terrible standoff not long ago.

And if people let you down, consider the creation—this world we are privileged to inhabit and make a tiny bit better.

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Where is the light?

Where is the light? Here is an answer I like, courtesy of Peter Mayer (who wrote the song) and LEA (who performs it).

 

Thanks to my friend David Ensign for giving me permission to use his photos.

Does Your Life Feel Too Jam-Packed? That’s Perfect.

 

Robert and I attended an event last Saturday evening. It was the final thing in a long string of almost back-to-back events that day. When we got in the car and fired up the GPS, we saw it would take 40 minutes to get there.

The event began in 40 minutes.

That’s a terrible feeling.

It worked in this case, despite bad weather, DC traffic, and the need to find on-site parking. A bit of a miracle, honestly. But it could have been otherwise. In this case, being late would’ve meant awkwardly slipping into a pew before the bride walked down the aisle. Not a good situation.

I write a lot in my Sabbath musings about the importance of margin. So many of us live lives without any margin. We schedule back-to-back events, overstuff our days, and hop on social media at every idle moment. This takes a toll on us physically, mentally and spiritually.

We need space to pause and breathe. We need a buffer to absorb the unexpected, the things that don’t go according to plan.

But the opposite is also true. Sometimes there is no room for margin. We have to adapt to life without it. And doing so can even be energizing.

I’m reading a book about Charles Lindbergh. (It’s Bill Bryson’s delightful One Summer: America, 1927, so it’s also about Babe Ruth and other amazing figures and events from that time.) One of Lindbergh’s big challenges was to reduce the weight on his plane so he could save fuel on his trip across the Atlantic. He took absolutely nothing he didn’t need. He even trimmed the pages of his flight book, eliminating the white spaces on the sheets of paper.

No margin.

For Charles Lindbergh, this was a deathly serious process—nobody had pulled off what he was attempting to do—but there’s also something creative about such an effort. What do I absolutely need? What can I get away with not having? It reminds me of the few times I backpacked as a Girl Scout. There’s something profound about whittling down the essentials so you’re not carrying around extra weight. (Don’t take the entire tube of toothpaste. Squeeze what you need into a ziplock bag.)

This metaphor could apply to time in one of two ways. On the one hand, you might consider what’s weighing you down, the ballast in your life that needs to drop. But today I’m intrigued with the other side of that image: to eliminate all margins such that there is no time to “spare.” To live a life as precisely calibrated as Lindbergh’s plane.

Today was one of those days in which one thing bumped up against the next such that there was no slack time. I could have dropped a bunch of stuff to allow for some margin, but instead I decided to go for it. It all worked beautifully, to my amazement. I had just enough time to pick up a few groceries between kiss and ride and the pastoral visit. And when I got home from clergy group, I managed a short run, breezing past my kids walking home from the bus so I beat them to the house. Of course I was ready to adjust at any moment, to jettison my plans if something went awry. But it didn’t. And it was a full, lovely day in a full, lovely life.

There’s a big caveat here. Be mindful of the impact your lack of margin has on your mental health—and on others. Making people wait because of your chronic lateness shows a lack of respect for other people—and I say that as someone who has made people wait because I’ve tried to do too much stuff in too little time. But if others will not suffer, why not go for it? Cram your life full! You may discover hidden resources and creativity you never knew you had. (The only time I made the honor roll in college was the semester I was working three part-time jobs. Of course, I got pneumonia at the end. Maybe the trick is knowing when you need margin and when you don’t.)

I know a lot of people who feel overwhelmed a lot of the time. Like the 40 minute trip downtown for an event that starts in 40 minutes, that can be a terrible feeling. And sometimes we do it to ourselves—holding on to standards of perfection we could let go of, refusing to let other people step in to help, keeping ourselves busy in an attempt to feel important.

But the truth is, a crammed-full life is a privilege.

Yes, sooner or later our busy lives catch up to us. We need breaks.

But it’s a gift to be needed. It’s an honor to have people counting on us. It means we are connected, that we matter to our families and our communities, that we have skills that are of use to the world around us. As much as I celebrate the gifts of Sabbath, I celebrate the gifts of a crammed-full life too.

An Advent Playlist: What Would You Add?

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Got to talking on Facebook the other day about Advent albums—in theory, this should be its own thing, as a season separate from Christmas, but it’s often folded into the behemoth category of Christmas music.

I only knew of one album of Advent music, but of course, many friends schooled me on the other great ones out there. So I’ve been building a bit of a playlist, which people have asked for.

Here you go—sorry there are no links, but I’m doing this quickly since we’re celebrating a certain seven year old’s birthday today. A quick Google or iTunes search will get you there.

ALBUMS

Advent: Piano Solos, Jim Morgan. Especially these tracks: Rejoice, Divinum Mysterium, Hyfrydance (my favorite)

Advent at Ephesus, Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. I dumped the whole album onto the playlist because it’s such lovely choral music.

Midwinter, Peter Mayer. This singer-songwriter hits just the right Adventish tone on this album of original music, though a few tracks are explicitly Christmasy. So you should avoid Stables, Christmas Morning, Heavenly Child, and Make My Christmas Day until later. But don’t forget to add them to your Christmas playlist because they’re beautiful. I dream of using Where Is the Light with a church choir someday. It’s rousing!

Advent, Vol. 1 and Advent, Vol. 2, The Brilliance. These were recommendations, haven’t downloaded them yet. Same with Advent by Tangled Blue.

SONGS

Thanksgiving, George Winston, December.

Each Winter As the Year Grows Colder, Marty Haugen. Haven’t found a version of this that I love, but the words are wonderful, very Adventish.

God, Beyond All Names, Bernadette Farrell. I like the Trinity Episcopal Church version. I could listen to these lyrics all day. And it has a fun alto line.

Veni Emmanuel and Of the Father’s Love Begotten, both from Winter’s Solstice III by Wyndham Hill

Beneath the Trees, William Ackerman, Winter Solstice

There is No Rose, Chanticleer, A Chanticleer Christmas

Lo How a Rose E’er-Blooming, Jennifer Knapp and Margaret Becker, The Hymns of Christmas

O Come O Come Emmanuel, Pentatonix, PTXmas

Gabriel’s Message, Sting. He has a couple versions of this (most recently on his Winter’s Night album) but I like the original 1980s version from A Very Special Christmas.

Enjoy! What have I missed?

~

photo credit: chrisotruro via photopin cc