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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This past Sunday I made reference in the sermon to having run several long distance races. What follows is an edited version of a sermon I gave in May 2004, a week after having completed a marathon for the first time:

”Heart and Sole”
I am not the same person I was 200 days ago. 200 days ago I was someone who wanted to run a marathon. There is no way I could have done it. It was a dream, a heartfelt desire- maybe even a calling from God to try a new thing- but it was also impossible for the person I was then. If I had tried to run 26.2 miles on the day I got the inspiration, no amount of prayer, luck, will, or stubbornness would have made it happen. I simply was not ready.

But last Sunday, I ran a marathon, something I always thought was for people who were gifted with a lean running machine of a body. I now know that you do not have to have the perfect body, but you do have to do the work.

At one point I ran past a water station in front of an elementary school. Some of the student volunteers were yelling the Nike slogan, "Just Do It!" as runners passed, to encourage us. I have two thoughts about this- The first is: You can't just do it! You have to train, and learn, and apply discipline, and accept pain, and make sacrifices, and get help and advice, and get hurt, and recover, and train more, and rest, and recover, and then you can do it! My other thought it is: Yes, just do it! If I had waited until I had the perfect body, or the ideal schedule, or the best resources, or the exact right training plan before I began- I would never have started!

It was in the last week of October that I came home from work and talked with my wife Lexie about training to run the First Annual Mississauga Marathon. We talked about the effects that would be felt by the whole family. Lexie supported this ambition, even though it meant that I would run 4 days a week for the next 6 months. The weekday shorter runs I could fit in early in the morning before the family woke up, or in the later afternoon before evening meetings. But the longer weekend runs were big chunks of time away from my family.

I have had a few people ask how I fit in the running with all that is happening in our busy church. Having a personal project has pushed me to be better organized, and more disciplined about the use of time and energy. It has also been a good year for me to have something to work on that had a definite beginning and end, because a lot of the work we do together to build a new congregation is ongoing.

I missed you all last week. I thought of you around 11 am, when I was about halfway through, and hitting the toughest part of the race. I felt like I was being prayed for. I am grateful for your prayers, and your support, and for the flexibility in my work that allowed me to take a study leave the week of the marathon. Thank you.

The race was an amazing experience. I learned so much in the process of getting ready for the big race, and the marathon itself taught me more.

There were amazing kindnesses. Every few miles there were volunteers at water stations, standing in the sun with arms stretched out, handing cups of cold water or Gatorade to runners. There were also hundreds of people along the route, clapping, and cheering. During the race, these kindnesses touched me so deeply that I just had to find a way to pass something along.

My time came on Southdown Road, about halfway through the race. This part of the route was a big loop. We had to run on Southdown towards the lake, and then turn around and come back the same way up to Orr Road. I found this to be the toughest part of the race, because it went against all my instincts to run 5 kilometers south and west, only to have to run back up the same road. And as I was heading south, there were the people who were further along the loop, running back towards me. I made myself get past being annoyed by this, and decided to try to be generous. So I smiled, and waved, and clapped, and tried to encourage people as I met them face to face. Because I could see their faces, I often saw people return the smile, and pick up their step a little. We need each other, and we can help each other do amazing things.

It might surprise you to hear that I spent far more time resting, and recovering, than I did actually running. The sports physiologists call it the “Training Effect”. Simply put, after you apply stress and exertion to the systems in your body, you have to let them rest before you push them again. Rest gives your muscles a chance to heal, and grow stronger. There is a natural rhythm of stress and rest, stress and rest, that I have talked about before. There also needs to be a proper balance. All work and stress will burn us out, and too much rest and we won't make any progress. That was true as I was training for a marathon, and it's true in our life as a church. We need to exercise, to push ourselves, in order to grow. We also need to slow down sometimes, to allow healing and strengthening to happen. The rest after a long, hard run is a satisfying, earned rest.

One of my spiritual heroes, a Trappist monk named Thomas Merton once defined prayer as “the desire to pray”. In other words, in order to be with God, you have to want to be with God. I thought about this on the days when I did not feel like running. I remembered that in order to be a runner, I actually had to run. In order to become a marathoner, I would actually have to run a marathon. In order to be a Christian, I have to turn my desire to follow Jesus into action.

On some days, my running time is very prayerful, and meditative. I focus on my breathing, and sometimes imagine that I am breathing in health and strength and love from God, and that I am breathing out fear and anger, and tired thoughts, and all that holds me back from being everything God desires me to be. This is intensely personal prayer.

Usually on Sundays I can be found somewhere near the front of the sanctuary, involved in leading worship. It was a powerful contrast for me last Sunday to be way at the back of the crowd waiting to start the race. I didn't get to say when to stand up, and when to sing, and when to pray- someone else was in charge, and I was one of thousands in a crowd. I was struck by how an experience can be both intensely personal, and powerfully communal at the same time.

I spent so many hours on the road, mostly running on my own, that I am somewhat conditioned to view running as solitude time- time when I am on my own with God. I brought that sense of running to the race last Sunday- but I was one of thousands of people who were running- and my experience of solitude, of being alone with my thoughts, and feelings, and with God, was blown open, expanded to included all the other faithful disciples of this open air church.

I mentioned that were stations along the route where volunteers were offering water and Gatorade. There were also medical aid stations, and a couple of times closer to the end of the race, we could hear and see ambulances on their way to runners who needed help. I can tell you that as I was running, and feeling my body protest the effort I was making- the minor pain and hardship I experienced made it that much easier to feel compassion for those around me who were also suffering, and especially for those who might be in real trouble. The siren's call was a not so subtle reminder that this thing I was doing was not to be taken lightly- there was risk involved. People get hurt, and sometimes die.

It is not that great a leap from feeling an empathetic connection to the other runners in a race, to realizing that we all, every person, not just runners, have these physical bodies that are subject to limitations, and aging, and stress, and disease. Beyond that, it seems a natural progression to remember that physical pain is not the only challenge or hardship we face as human beings.

Running a race in the GTA is an excellent opportunity to see the whole rainbow of humanity. There were people of many different backgrounds, and in many shapes and sizes, all gathered together to run. To be honest, a wider range of humanity than we usually see in church.

There were people in that race who have been running marathons for years, and there were people like me who were doing it for the first time. There were the front of the pack runners who travel the circuit, and make their living from the race prizes, and there were guys like the man I met before the race who decided about 4 weeks before that he'd like to try the half-marathon, so he went out and bought himself some running shoes. (I wonder how he made out?)

There were a number of different running and walking events. (10 km race, 1/2 marathon, full marathon, relay teams for the full and half marathons) One of the thoughts that came up for me as I was being passed, or passing another runner is that we each were running our own race. My experience was not about beating another person, but overcoming the factors that made it a challenge for me to get my 42 year old, not particularly athletic body to go the distance. Looking at it that way, I feel great respect and joy for all those who were out there, running their own race.

Whether it is a running race or a faith community, people grow and progress at their own pace. And God is at work in all of us, making the change possible.

Perhaps the most important learning I want to share this morning is about becoming. As I said at the starting line, the person I was 200 days ago could not have finished the race. It was not enough that I believe in the idea, or agree with the idea. I had to make the idea come to life. I had to change my life, to give the idea life. I needed lots of help, and I had to read, and improve my diet, and schedule, and learn how to run, and how to dress, and how to rest. That's kind of bad news, that real change is hard work, and that good ideas do not take the place of hard work.

The good news is that change is possible. I ran 26.2 miles in 4 hours, 37 minutes, 34.2 seconds. By following an inspiration, asking for help, making a plan, and doing the hard work, I was able to accomplish something that used to be impossible for me. I have shown myself that it is absolutely possible to grow to meet a challenge. If I can run a marathon, this church can do almost anything.

When I got to the end, and I could see the finish line, I sprinted. Legs and arms pumping, I was filled with excitement as I realized two things: I had made it, and I had strength to keep going. I felt like I was flying.

I was overwhelmed by joy. I had pushed beyond my limits, and thrived. I had been helped, and supported, and loved along the way, by God, and by many people in my life. I felt totally alive, and incredibly grateful for life. That transcendent mood stayed with me for the rest of that day, and on into the week. I found that I laughed easier, and could also cry at the smallest emotional nudge, which is something I have been trying to not do as I tell you this story. Amen