A reflection about running, and also more than running.
This past weekend I was in Comfort, Texas, celebrating my brother’s recent marriage. As part of my training for an upcoming half marathon, and the Houston Marathon in January, I had a track workout scheduled for Saturday. I drove to Comfort High School a little before dawn to run some fast-for-me miles around the track (pictured above).
Speed workouts, like long runs, are a test of psychological strength as much as physical endurance. Around the 3/4 mark is when my energy and motivation always start to flag. I’ve learned a variety of mental tricks to keep going, and I needed them Saturday too. I was mentally thumbing through my list of favorite mantras and slogans when I remembered something I’d heard on a running podcast:
Beginning runners focus on the pain.
Intermediate runners focus on the mileage.
Advanced runners focus on form.
It’s definitely true for me. When I first started running several years ago and the going got tough, all I could think about was my burning lungs or stinging quads. (Pro-tip: focusing on the pain is not a good recipe for endurance.)
As I gained more experience on my feet—as an intermediate runner—I would focus on the miles: how far I’d come, how far I still had to go. If I was feeling good, that could be motivating: More than halfway through… Two-thirds done… Just a mile to go! If things were going poorly, however, it was a motivation-killer: You still have seven miles. You’ll never make it. Loser. Focusing on the mileage can be brutal in a race, especially if you’re a middle-of-the-pack runner like me: Lots of people have already finished, and you still have miles to go. And look at all these people passing you.
As for being an advanced runner, I don’t know whether I’ve achieved that milestone yet, but on Saturday morning I decided not to think about the pain, or where I was in my workout, but to focus on form. Shoulders back and down.
Arms bent at 90 degrees.
It helped! The miles were still a tough effort, but I focused on myself—on what I could control, and the countless small adjustments that would make the remaining laps more bearable.
Later I pondered how this concept applies to life in general. When we’re in the midst of deep adversity, or even just an unexpected detour, what do we do?
Do we fixate on the pain and negativity, until that’s all we can see?
Do we obsess over external factors beyond our control?
Or do we turn inward, breathe deeply, and focus on what we can change… namely, our own response?
This week’s shooting in Las Vegas—the most deadly in modern history—has offered an enormous, heartbreaking opportunity to practice this approach.
It’s natural and understandable to feel the full impact of that pain—to empathize with the 59 lost and 527 injured (so far), and their families and loved ones. I myself find it hard to turn away from the stories. But I also know that to focus on the pain to the exclusion of all else will consume me.
It’s also understandable, like the intermediate runner, to focus on the miles… to look around at our culture of violence, the sorry state of gun safety legislation, the dearth of mental health resources for people in need, or all of the above. Many of us wonder why the United States has such a shameful track record compared to other developed nations, and whether our political leaders will display any political wisdom or courage to make a change. I’ll be honest; I don’t see much reason to hope for progress right now.
What, then, is left? To focus on form. To care for myself and the people around me. To look inward, and make sure I am acting with the most integrity, wisdom, and compassion. To tend to my breathing. To do what’s mine to do. In my case, that means giving money and writing letters and making phone calls to Congress… and also showing up to work each day, and reading nourishing books, and eating food that’s good for me and for the earth.
To focus on form means to “run the race that is set before us,” as the author of the book of Hebrews wrote to the early church so long ago. I wish the terrain were different—less treacherous, less painful for body and soul. But the race is ours to run nonetheless.
I’m glad we’re running it together.
Fight back with beauty,
Note: This message was sent to my email newsletter this morning. If you’d like to receive twice-monthly reflections right to your inbox, subscribe.
Want to “work on your form,” as a runner or as a human being? I do running coaching and personal/professional coaching as well. Learn more here.
This week I’m over at the NEXT Church blog. This fall they’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” Here’s my offering.
What’s saving my ministry these days is a five minute journaling practice I’ve been doing each morning (and most evenings) for the past few months. I’ve tried various journaling methods off and on for years. Something about holding the pen in my hand allows me to focus my prayers in a way my monkey mind can’t do by simply sitting quietly. And now that I work from home “for myself,” I have lots of possible things vying for my attention and time. I was looking for something short and focused that could bring clarity and discernment to my day.
Many of us are familiar with Julia Cameron’s morning pages, which she calls her “spiritual windshield wipers.” This practice serves the same purpose, but instead of writing stream of consciousness, I write short pithy statements. Whereas morning pages are like an epic poem, this is journaling as haiku. I adapted it from Tim Ferriss, an author and entrepreneur. He’s a little too “guru” for me, but I think he’s hit upon a good structure to get the day started with intention.
Here are the questions for the morning:
Three things for which I’m grateful:
Three things that would make this a fruitful day:These don’t have to be things I want to accomplish, but they usually are. Most of us have way more than three things on our daily to-do list, so it helps to be clear on the most essential items.
I am… I have three kids, so “patience” shows up a lot here.
I’m curious about: This is something I’ve added recently, thanks to Brené Brown’s work. This is often where I think about my reactions to things and wonder “What was THAT about?!”
As for the evening practice, it is similar:
Three things to celebrate about the day:
One thing I could have done better:
Those of you who know the Ignatian examen will recognize threads of this practice in these questions. The questions are framed in terms of gratitude, and there is ample space to acknowledge the times I’ve fallen short—to see them written in my own hand, and to let those moments go—to let God absorb and hopefully transform them.
This post is dedicated to my local chapter of Moms RUN This Town. 100 days to Marine Corps Marathon!
One of the things that inspires me about my MRTT group is the number of mamas who get up for 5 a.m. runs. A year ago I couldn’t imagine doing that. Now it’s something I do 3-4 times a week. (I take naps in the afternoon–a benefit of working from home.) Some of us meet even earlier, at 4:30 or 4:40 for some extra miles. Yikes!
I used to think people who ran that early were crazy, or way more accomplished runners than I was. Some of them are the latter, to be sure. (And maybe the former!) But now I realize, running early is usually out of simple necessity: the workday doesn’t allow running at other times, or we have little kids we’re taking care of at home, or we’re just trying to beat the heat. There are times when I don’t absolutely need to run that early, but the prospect of meeting a bunch of funny, fierce gals is enough to set my alarm.
Back in June, a friend of mine ran mid-morning, and when she stopped by Starbucks later, she got lots of concern from fellow customers about how hot and flushed she looked. “You need to run earlier!” one man chided. Because my friend is nicer than me, she didn’t say “Are you going to come over and get my kids ready for school for me?” We run when we need to run.
On our group’s Facebook page, we share inspiration and encouragement. This commercial came across the page recently:
Whether you’re a runner or not, the message is spot on—it’s the little choices, often when nobody’s looking, that make us who we are.
If I had skills in video editing, I’d put together a spinoff of this commercial, in honor of the MRTT 5 a.m. crews. But I’d want it to show the awkward side of running so early… such as stumbling downstairs and stepping on an Iron Man toy that starts talking to you. Or putting on your running clothes in the dark and later realizing they don’t match. Or stopping by the grocery store after a run and being puzzled that it’s closed, then realizing it’s not even 6 a.m. Or being the first one out on a trail, which means you get a face full of cobwebs.
In that spirit, I posted the following on our MRTT Facebook page a year ago when I first started running at 5 a.m. Thanks, you guys, for inspiring me every day.
Top 10 Reasons Why Running at 5 a.m. is Awesome
10. You’ve officially accomplished something, even if you sit around in your pajamas the rest of the day.
9. If you puke, no one sees it.
8. It’s good for the environment: only one shower per day.
7. If you go with [one of our chapter leaders] you’ll get a muffin.
6. The sense of adventure that comes from wondering whether that hulking object in the shadows is a serial killer… and realizing it’s a trash can.
5. If you use MyFitnessPal, running first thing means you know how many calories you have for the entire day. This is known as The Donut Rule.
4. People’s head lamps and glowing phones look like little fireflies dancing in the night.
3. Sunrise and moonset.
2. Saves you money: no need for silly things like sunscreen, hats, visors, sunglasses.
And the number 1 reason why running at 5 a.m. is awesome:
1. When it’s dark, everyone looks like a badass.
Whether you run early, late, or not at all—go make one good small choice today.
It’s the first Ash Wednesday in 12 years that I won’t be dipping my finger into a small pot of ashes and tracing the sign of the cross on the foreheads of people I love and serve.
On the upside, I don’t have to make the call about canceling services tonight, as the threat of a snow squall looms right at evening rush hour.
Last night I brainstormed possible Lenten disciplines and came up with about fifteen different things I might try. Gee, overcompensating much?
It’s so easy to get into competitive Lentening. No spiritual Crossfit for me, though. In the next few days I will settle on a couple simple practices that draw me closer to God. For today I am pondering time and mortality.
Would you believe a clickbaity post–a listicle, no less–is part of that pondering? Thank you to my brother for posting this to Facebook, 23 Facts about Time. It’s light, but fascinating and even thought-provoking.
Things you think are eternal are not. Other things are more timeless than you might realize.
But in all things, remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
It’s one of the most important things we do in the church, to trace the truth of Psalm 103 on one another’s foreheads:
As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of God is from everlasting to everlasting.
…longer than calculus, the Pyramids, or Betty White.
Image: a friend posted this to Facebook–I’m trying to find out the source for permission and attribution.
Chalice Press (publisher of Sabbath in the Suburbs, still available at fine online retailers) has some great stuff in the works these days. There’s Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation, which I featureda few months ago. Traci Smith’s bookSeamless Faith was also featured here recently. Coming next year will be a book by Frank Schaefer, the United Methodist pastor who was defrocked after he performed the wedding for his gay son.
Anyway, here’s a little Q&A that will give you a sense of their book:
1. How did this book come about? What was the initial impetus to write it?
We don’t intend to imply that she supports the book, but we can kind of blame it on a heady cocktail of Unco11, insomnia and Sara Miles. We love what she does with Take This Bread, nailing down liturgical practice to concrete activity in the world, and we were brainstorming ways to do similar things. Sara Miles clearly articulates that her experience of communion was a call to feed her community, out of which grew their food pantry. It’s crazy to us that a church can celebrate communion, and talk about sustenance and welcome, and yet have starving people across the street, and whole populations who are anything but welcome.
So we came up with prayer, which to us was emblematic of this tendency. We pray to God to forgive us, and feel better without having to reconcile with people we’ve hurt, or who have hurt us. We praise God, but look down on people who don’t achieve success by our standards. We pray prayers of thanksgiving, but Christians are famous for being poor tippers, and we often fail to thank the many people who make our lives possible.
We went through a common liturgical structure, which is punctuated by various forms of prayer, and organized the book in that way. We picked the title Never Pray Again at first to be as attention-grabbing as we could, but by the end of the writing, we have a greater sense for prayer as being one among many spiritual practices, and in itself no more necessary than liturgical dance. Notice that the title isn’t stop-praying-because-you-are-doing-something-bad, because that is not our argument. It is our belief that you can do something so much better in following Christ which will naturally lead you to Never Pray Again. Ultimately this book is about how we are called to act, more than whisper things in love.
2. I can tell you all have the pastor’s heart. You are very clear at the beginning, “If this book is not for you, put it down.” Who is this book for? Who do you hope will read it?
We imagine people who struggle with the efficacy of prayer, or with the constant assurance from other Christians to just “pray about it” when things go wrong, will get a lot from this book. People who are open to progressive ideas and who want to be challenged in various areas of their practice will be challenged by this book, we think in a good way. People who are already consistent pray-ers will find many other resources and ideas that, we think, will only strengthen them. We also found that our crowd-funding efforts with the Never Pray Again coloring book caught the attention of a number of members of an atheist community, and people who heard about us from that community made up about a third of our backers. For non-believers, I think the challenge will be that this book is stuffed full of Biblical allusions, stories and quotes. So we’ll say things they agree with about prayer, but the challenge will be that the direction we go is deeper into Christianity, rather than away from it.
3. You do a good job building a positive case for a very active life of faith, and you spend less time critiquing prayer itself and why it’s bad. That’s a good thing–it makes the book ultimately more constructive and useful. But is it possible to “get to work” AND to be actively engaged in a life of prayer? Or do you see something problematic about prayer itself, as it’s currently practiced?
This question comes up a lot, and we anticipated it. In theory, one can be living an active practice of Christianity and also pray regularly. Many of our personal heroes were pray-ers (though many others were not). We make the case in the book, however, that there are plenty of situations where prayer can be an impediment to Christian practice, and as Christians in community we are surrounded by examples of this, and have impeded ourselves as well plenty of times. Aric said it really well, that if there is a situation where you can have a ‘good’ prayer life and ‘relationship with God’, but a poor relationship with other people around you, then you are deceiving yourself about your prayer life and relationship with God.
One thing we definitely want to challenge is that Christians must pray. Our experience is that prayer is presented as a panacea, and as such, it doesn’t work very well. We disagree that prayer is a sine qua non of Christian practice. So far we have found, unsurprisingly, that the idea of being Christian and not praying is challenging to a lot of Christians. But if we put all the Bible passages about how and what to pray in one column, and all the Bible passages about how to treat people in another column, we would find many things that are more central to Christian practice than prayer.
We also hear things like “Well, anything done for God is a form of prayer,” which might be true, but if everything is prayer, then does the word prayer mean anything? We don’t think so. In that case, we aren’t talking about the same thing. In Never Pray Again, we are talking about what people mean when they say something like “Let us pray.” What happens next is most often that we close our eyes, bow our heads, clasp our hands, or put them up in the air, and say words in our minds or aloud which are directed at God. This is what the word prayer means 99.9% of the time, and this is what we are challenging. And we are not merely saying ‘pray a little bit differently.’ We are saying that it is fruitful to at least consider that we Never Pray Again.
4. How do you understand the Sermon on the Mount in light of your book? Jesus has a lot to say about how we pray (in your closet, etc.), but he also lifts up the Lord’s Prayer as a template.
So, in Matthew, 5:1 through 6:4 is about things we talk about in the book at length. Matthew 6:5-13 is about prayer, and then we’re back to other concerns in 6:14 through the end of chapter 7. Interestingly, there is very little Jesus says about prayer in this passage, and this is the most he talks about prayer in any of the Gospels, as you pointed out. But the way he describes prayer is such that a person who prays regularly will look no different from someone who doesn’t pray at all, because he admonishes his followers to pray in secret. We think that this reflects Jesus’ concern that prayer can take the place of action – a concern we share.
So how is it that, for Christians, prayer is necessary, but the other things Jesus talks about are optional? Subversive blessing, being salt and light, fulfilling the Law and doing what’s right, extinguishing hatred and sexual objectification, truth-telling, integrity, nonviolence, loving enemies, giving to the needy, fasting, non-worry and courage, giving up certainty of food and drink and clothing, being non-judgmental – these are also things Jesus talks about, but they occupy far less of an average Christian’s time and energy than prayer, and few seem to see them as absolutely necessary to Christian practice. Why is this?
We have a challenging theory – Christians focus on prayer because prayer is easy. If on the one hand I can pray, and on the other hand I can be a homeless pacifist truth-teller who loves his enemies and judges no-one, prayer is the easy choice. And we wonder, with this focus on prayer, do we make ourselves feel better about consuming, hating our enemies, judging others and being hypocritical? Our experience is that taking prayer off the table, so to speak, leaves us bare to the fact that our practice is lacking, and that we use prayer to make ourselves feel better about that. Think about the criticisms of millennials of the church – that it is judgmental, exclusive, hypocritical, that it does harm to vulnerable people, etc. These are all instances where we are failing to live up to everything in the Sermon on the Mount, including prayer, because we don’t focus on prayer in secret. We even push the Supreme Court to rule on prayer at public gatherings! Jesus would say don’t pray at public gatherings at all.
5. How has the book changed (or has it changed) the way you engage in prayer with the folks in your congregations? What fruit do you see or hope to see with your faith communities?
This is a more of an individual question, so we will answer individually.
(Aric) Writing and publishing this book has definitely changed the way I pray in and with my congregation in that it has forced me to address some areas of real hypocrisy in my life. Where the phrase “I’ll pray for you” had previously served as a sort of lazy stand-in for almost any expression of compassion, I now have to consider in each case what the best way to express my sympathy and solidarity might be. I find myself saying “I love you” a lot more and to a wider array of people, because that is what I really meant by offering prayer. The fruit I already see within the congregation I serve is people having to think through their reasons for praying. I have had many discussions with people about “why” they pray, which for most of them isn’t something they’d ever even considered. Prayer was just “what you do.”
(Nick) The collaboration and challenge of the book as an idea started changing me, which
I’m sure has influenced my own prayer life and that with my congregation. From that initial conversation the underlying challenge of directness asks more of me. Last night I was gathered with our college ministry, Disciples on Campus, for a final meal to end the semester, and we closed with group prayer, but we were also eating at a Mexican restaurant who had stayed open late to accommodate us. I found myself walking back into the kitchen (a few of the students even followed me) to thank our cooks, and server who stayed late for us before they could start to close up. Before this book I don’t think I would have taken that action.
(Doug) The process of writing this book, a year and a half of research and struggle and discussing and revision, has changed me a lot. It has given me a chance to think through my commitments more thoroughly, and has strengthened my sense of the call of the Christian life. My hope is that a big part of my ministry is encouraging people, and modeling as much as I can, not to let outward religious practices replace true commitment to living a Christ-like life. For me, it’s all about Isaiah 58, and that line of thinking has informed me from the moment I thought I might do ministry as a career.
Excellent responses, guys! I hope your book is a great success.