Sunday, September 4, 2016
Let me just put this out there at the start – I am horrible at embracing and practicing pretty much any kind of spiritual discipline. Other than attendance at church every week, I can’t say there’s any purely spiritual thing I do with regularity. I read the Bible only on impulse, I pray all the time but not in any orderly manner or at any particular time, and other than those years when my wife and I remember to set up our Advent Wreath, we almost never say grace over dinner. This is strange given that I was disciplined enough to get through college, taking 15 credits a semester and working 40+ hours a week, and I got through law school in much the same way. I can be very disciplined in other parts of my life, and reflexively am.
I’m especially disciplined about running. When I was 19 or so, I decided to give running a try, and it started out very much like my spiritual life – an impulsive and haphazard endeavor. But, as with my spiritual life, I approached running in a serious way, as something that I valued. At first I ran to see how far I could go and how fast I could get there. And to go farther and faster, I got very strict with my running discipline.
As I ran longer distances more regularly, I realized that there was a lot of time between starting and stopping and since this was before the days of Walkmen, let alone iPods and iPhones, I was alone with my thoughts. Most of the time my mind would wander toward work, school, or, more often, whichever woman I was involved with or wanted to be involved with at the moment.
Over time, something funny happened. I found myself praying. Not formal prayer; I have never been cut out for that. Not even some sort of intentional, systematic meditation – I tried being a Buddhist at one point, with Zen leanings, and that’s when I learned that, while I admired those folks, I had no patience for formal, deep spiritual discipline. Instead, my prayer life involved either chatting casually with God or, over time, simply opening myself to whatever God wanted to offer me. As the years have passed I have found that opening-up process to be much more meaningful to me and so that’s the form of prayer I have been leaning toward.
This morning’s run was a magical prayer time for me, one that reminds me that God is busy chasing me even while I try to chase His grace in ways that usually just make it harder to find. For those who run marathons, it will be no surprise that a run in early September would be a scheduled 15 miler. That’s actually light. For those who don’t run marathons, that probably sounds impossibly long, but it took about 2 hours and 18 minutes (I say “about” because, even though I could, I chose not to bore you with the number of seconds! Runners track everything about their runs.) and on a day when the weather conditions were 61 °F, with winds at 4mph from the WNW, and 87% relative humidity at the start (I meant it when I said we track everything), even though I loaded it with a lot of hills, it was an easy run.
I was listening to the Trombone Shorty radio station I created on iTunes and as I reached the top of a 1.5 mile long hill, a dirge version of Just a Closer Walk With Thee, performed with brass and bass drum, came on and it so fit my mood that that my face burst into a smile. The song ended just as I crested the hill and I couldn’t tell you what came on next because the view that was presented to me was so perfect it took over my mind. Down below me was the Folly Quarter mansion on the left and the University of Maryland’s farmland on the right (and more of their farmland on the left once past the mansion’s property line), and running right down the middle was the grayish black road I was running on, undulating towards the traffic circle where I would eventually turn. There was something about that gently rolling road with corn stalks on one side and lower crops on the other, with the sagging utility wires hanging from poles along the left side of the road, that was captivating and inviting, and somehow it made me happy that I was alive at that moment and about to run along that road forming a straight-line gash though the fields, over the streams, and eventually into the woods before emerging onto Rt. 108.
After passing all the farmland, as I started up the hill that would lead to the woods, I crossed myself in thanks for the cloud cover that was keeping the temperature so comfortable, for my breath and steadily beating heart, and for my calves which were tensing up exactly the right way with the effort of each step taken to climb up that hill.
Toward the end of the run, Esperanza Spalding’s Ponta de Areia, originally written by Milton Nascimento, was served up by iTunes and it matched my mood perfectly and felt like a gift from God. I have no idea what the lyrics to the song are since they are in Portuguese, but as the dry breeze blew across my face and I knew mile 15 was steps away, the sound of Esperanza’s voice singing those incomprehensible lyrics made me happy to be alive and connected to the great big world around me, with God at the center of it all matching my footfalls. It was the ribbon wrapping up a perfect run.
Is all of this prayer? I didn’t ask God for anything. I didn’t explicitly thank Him for anything, although I’d like to believe that the fact that I was smiling with joy at the gifts He was giving me, and appreciating the world He was revealing to me, was a form of thanksgiving.
The thing is, as I said earlier, all my life I have felt God chasing after me, seeming to take pleasure in the life I am living. He wants me to do good things for others, to do the work of the church, to be attentive to the needs of those around me. But most of all, I think He wants us all to commune with Him, and maybe the best way to do that is to stop trying so hard and just let Him in. As I ran I had music playing, I was listening to my heart beating and to the air flowing into and out of my lungs, and my running program was reminding me of my pace and distance every half mile, and I was having to keep an eye on the cars that were sharing the road with me, and sometimes nearly clipping me. And instead of serving as distractions, God put all those things to use in reaching out to me. Well, maybe not the cars, but the rest.
I wonder sometimes how often God lays these things out for us only to have us look somewhere else as we expend all kinds of effort in busily chasing grace or other things? Thankfully, I don’t think He gets mad at us. He just serves it all up again, or something equally wonderful, and sometimes we actually notice. And somehow I know those moments make Him happy, maybe happier than they make us. He created us to be connected to Him, after all. He doesn’t just give joy to us, He gets joy from us, too.