Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Running the Race

I've been training for my first Triathlon sprint, or as I like to call it, a half triathon. That's a 600m swim, 20k (13mi) bike ride, and a 5k run, in that order.  Swimming and biking, I feel pretty comfortable and confident in my ability and endurance.  It is the running where I lack.  I used to joke that the only way I would run is if a) I was running to first base in softball, b) I was running to catch a bus, or c) I was running away from something with sharp teeth.

Running does not come naturally to me.  That's why it's a great metaphor for my struggle with faith. In fact, Paul used the idea of running a race in his letter to the Corinthians:
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV)
Paul is right that running and the spiritual life is a discipline.  Right now, my spiritual life DOES feel like I'm "beating the air".  But, I have a few things to add from my limited experience...a few things I've learned about running:

1. You can't improve overnight.
I know that's probably obvious, but sometimes my expectations for myself are unrealistically high. The same could be said with my spiritual life, it's a slow process.  Which leads to my next part...

2. You CAN overdo it.
Last year, I was training improperly and did too much too soon. I injured my foot and was out of commission for a while. I missed out on the Tri last year as a result.  I think one can overdo spiritual disciplines too.  Richard Foster speaks of this in his book on Prayer:
“Some people work at the business of praying with such intensity that they get spiritual indigestion. There is a principle of progression in the spiritual life. We do not take occasional joggers and put them in a marathon race, and we must not do that with prayer, either. The desert mothers and fathers spoke of the sin of “spiritual greed,” that is, wanting more of God than can properly be digested.”
It takes time. And patience for the process.  There are no shortcuts for both distance running and the spiritual race.

3. There will be mistakes and there will be setbacks.
And getting back up is the hardest part.
JUST when I started feeling comfortable and confident about my running, this past week, I injured my quad, and then (due to overcompensation) my knee while playing softball. I realized that even though I may be fine doing a sport that has more potential for injury, I probably should not have risked it the week of my first 5k (which I had to miss).  I'm resting it now in preparation for my week-long bike trip to DC this weekend.

Battle scars: I had problems with my knee caps going out of place in high school. 
I had corrective surgery on each knee to prevent that from happening. 
You can see the right knee was a little swollen from my recent injury.

For all the mistakes I have made, there was also a lot outside of my control. I played softball for 6 years growing up, and it so happened in 9th grade I started to experience knee cap dislocations...because of my particular anatomy.

I've found that I tend to beat myself up over these things rather than see it as a chance to slow down, heal, learn from the situation and be grateful that it wasn't worse.  I get demoralized, getting caught in the mind trap that I can't escape from my mistakes, so why bother starting yet again?

The same actually applies to my faith.  I mess up. Sometimes I avoid prayer like I avoid replying to an email because I'm ashamed I waited so long to reply already.  It can be a vicious cycle.

The trick, I think, is to slow down enough to see the issue, then actually have the courage to do the next right thing to work myself out of it.  And not put the cart before the horse.  There is no short cut to healing (see point #1).

More than that, I need to put my issue into perspective.  That might mean seeing a doc about my knee (which I did today), or for faith matters, stopping to remember what I know about God.  I often revert back to my view of God as a overly critical sort, nitpicking over every mistake I make (which makes me want to hide from Him).  Not so. God is actually the loving Abba/Father who runs out to welcome me back home.  The Master physician who heals not just my physical wounds, but the wounds of my heart and spirit.  If I really believed that, perhaps I could actually let that healing power into my life.  Or see where it's taking place already.

Getting back up is the hardest part, but getting back up again is what we do as Christians. It's not about a one-time healing and now you should be fine for the rest of your life. It's a constant coming back, starting over, remembering how God has been faithful in the past, realizing that He remains Faithful.  Sinking back into His arms like a child coming to her parents.

4. It's about the Experience rather than the achievements. It's about the Relationship, rather than the disciplines. In terms of God, it's not really about you and what YOU can do.
In the end, I truly believe it's not going to matter how many Ironman competitions I won or lost.  It's about my experience of the world, and whether I learned to love others, myself and God more than I did before.  It's about the connections and allowing those connections to shape me.  My faith is not about getting things right, but forming a relationship with my Creator, who knows me better than I know myself, Christ, who understands my shortcomings, and the Spirit, whose deep Love can transform me into more of who I'm meant to be.

To sum up, here's another great quote from Richard Foster on Prayer:
“In the beginning we are indeed the subject and the center of our prayers. But in God’s time and in God’s way a Copernican revolution takes place in our heart. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, there is a shift in our center of gravity. We pass from thinking of God as part of our life to the realization that we are part of his life. Wondrously and mysteriously God moves from the periphery of our prayer experience to the center. A conversion of the heart takes place, a transformation of the spirit.”
So yes Paul, I want to win the race, but in order to win the race, I can't focus so much on my goal of "winning" that I fail to see the lesson, the love, the road that is right in front of me.  I race to win, but I truly believe that if I'm focusing on that next step or that little bit that God reveals of Himself, one day I will suddenly see that I had crossed the finish line.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Now I'm ready to start...?

Arcade Fire!
(not referencing an Arcade Fire song, but it's kind of appropriate)

I mentioned in an earlier post that I have hang-ups with my relationship with God.  I have been experiencing the start-stop faith experience, meaning I have been gungho for Jesus one day and not thinking about "God stuff" at all for the next 5 days.  Even though I'm sure this is a common problem to most people of faith, I've been trying to understand why that is.

Part of it may be that I DO think I need to be completely together in order to pray or enter into a communion with God.  This is false.  Whatever faults I have, Christ has covered that over.  All I need to do is come near.

However, I feel like that might be merely a symptom of a larger issue...  And I'm still trying to zero in on it.

I have never really been good at starting things.  Whether it's that next project or cleaning my room.  Sometimes starting is the hardest part.  In these cases, I think I hesitate to start because I know that if I start, I'm going to go all the way.  Once I start, I get pulled into the task and I can't concentrate on anything else.  Hyper-focused one track mind.

This is even with good things, like deepening faith.  If I know it's good, then why would I shy away from it?  Why would I not let my natural process take over and delve in head first?

I guess the larger part of the problem, maybe even the source, is that I'm afraid of letting go and letting God take over.  If the ultimate in faith is to pray, "Thy Will be done," then I guess that's what I'm afraid of.  Even though I believe it will be ultimately GOOD, I hesitate to truly pray that prayer.

Why?  I guess because I fear giving up my facade of control.  I know I'm really not in control, but I'm still going to grasp onto what control I perceive I might have.  And when I go gungho over a project or cleaning every crack and corner of my kitchen, I still have "control".  It's giving up that control to a Being that I cannot see that is scary and to be honest, strange.

That's another aspect of why it's hard to trust God:  as simple as it sounds, I cannot tangibly see God.  It's hard to put your trust in something unseen, but hey, that's the definition of faith right?  What I do see are the affects of "the ultimate good" of God: how God works in other people and in circumstances.  I have read and believed about how God has worked through people in history. And really, I think there may be subtle changes in my own heart, despite my inability to recognize where I end and God's Spirit begins.  I feel like even in this point where I have difficulty seeing God in sharp relief, God is still there in the background working on me, even in this desert-land where I sometimes question the realness of God.

And I'm not unaware of what Christ calls us to as followers.  It's not a comfortable life.  It's often full of trouble and trials and suffering.  It's not really that attractive in many ways, but it IS compelling.  Learning "the secret of being content in any and every situation."

Perhaps the remedy to this is to surround myself with people who remind me that God is real and that God is working for the good? I also remain watching for where "my greatest passion meets with the worlds greatest need."  It is in throwing myself into service that I feel like perhaps I can begin to see the God-image in others and therefore, start to actually form a picture of God.  And I don't need to be so hard on myself.

Along with the feeling like I need to have things completely together before I start, I often feel tired of the start-stop thing.  I think, oh maybe God is going to get tired of me continuing to fail and falter...  As if He's going to say, "Oh look who decided to finally come home again..."  No, this is also false.  No matter how many time I turn aside, EVERY TIME I come back is like the prodigal son returning home.  My Father rushes out, to the point of humiliating himself, in order to welcome me back.  Every time.

In Foster's book on Prayer, he reminds us that "sometimes Simple Prayer is called the Prayer of Beginning Again."  So we begin again, and again, and again.  If I'm too afraid to start because I know I'll fail at some point along the way, I'm never going to move!

So yes, I'm ready to start, again.  And later on, I will also be ready to start, yet again.