J’Accuse, Turkey Hunter!

I call you out, Jason! You missed church Sunday. You didn’t fill your appointed role in children’s ministry. And why? What was more important that playing some silly game in the large group? You were sitting in the woods prepared to blow the head off of a perfectly innocent tom turkey. You’re on a fast track to perdition, my friend. Haven’t you read this:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Let’s continue our examination of Matthew 6:33 with a look at the word “first.” I love the Greek word that is translated as “first” here. It’s proton. Honestly, doesn’t that sound like it ought to be a minor superhero appearing in the next series of Marvel movies? But seriously, proton, in Greek, means pretty much what “first” does in English. For something to be meaningfully first, then something else must be second and third and so on.

A few years ago, I ran my first 10K race. It was a fairly small affair in Odessa, Missouri, and most of the participants opted for the 5K course. But not me. I ran out from the town, onto several miles of gravel roads and then came back. I came in first for my age and gender group. And how many men finished after me? Exactly zero. I was the one and only entrant in his fifties and the dead-last man in the field. The only woman in the race came across a few minutes behind me and won first among women. Cool.

Understandably, I don’t treasure the medal I received for that race. When you’re both first and last, it’s not something on which to brag. I’m much more proud of a second-place finish in a much larger race.

When Jesus tells us to seek God’s kingdom first, he’s not saying that we should seek it only. When I went to a Kansas City Chiefs football game with my son last fall (and missed church in the process, I must add), I wasn’t seeking God’s kingdom. When I bought a new “Browning” ball cap yesterday, it didn’t do the slightest to seek God’s kingdom. Happily, I’m comfortable in believing that so long as I seek the kingdom first, then I’m doing right.

Of course, this sort of thought process can lead us into self-delusion. What if I buy season tickets to the Chiefs and miss eight Sundays? Is that okay? What if I spend my money on a lot of frivolous things and am not able to tithe or do other God-honoring things? What if my golf game gets in the way of my ministry game?

First is a pretty easy thing to define in a race, but it is much more slippery in the complexities of life. Still, my wife knows when I’m not putting her first. I know when she isn’t putting me first. How much more does God know that He’s not first? And deep down, I think that generally we all know when our secondary interests are creeping into first place. We just don’t like to admit it.

So I suppose I can allow Jason to take a Sunday to hunt turkeys without assuming that sin is going to gobble him up.

The Hollowness of Victory and the Agony of Da Feet

Rene PetersonA couple of weeks back, I wrote about coming in second in my age group in a 5K. The guy who beat me by enough time to eat a banana and drink a bottle of water and then make a pit stop before seeing me straggle up to the finish line was Rene Peterson, a man who, it turns out, lives less than a mile from me. If you’ll recall this fellow “runs” with his arms, propelling a hand bike through the course. We’d been in at least three races together over the last year or so.

On the Saturday before Memorial Day, I actually got to meet Rene and his constant companion, a tiny service dog named Lady, as we ran in a 5K around the Independence Square. With only 100 people running, this was a lot more friendly race than the huge one we’d shared in early May.

Right out of the start, Rene took advantage of a long hill headed north toward the Harry S. Truman Library. By the time I could see the library, Rene had already turned around and was headed up Delaware toward Harry’s home. He was flying. Of course, every downhill must be matched with an uphill. I didn’t see him, but I know he felt the grade as we headed back to the south.

Passing over the ridge on which the Independence Square is built, we had another long, gradual downhill, which promised another long, gradual uphill. It was on that uphill that I caught up with Rene and passed him. I realized that he very much prospers on a flatter course.

The race took us back to the square, in the shadow of the old courthouse, before turning west on Maple toward the finish. I could see the finish just a block away when Rene pushed past me. I probably could have sprinted it out harder and at least made him struggle to beat me, but, honestly, I was pretty well gassed by this point.

When the final results were tallied, he had beaten me by one-tenth of a second. One-tenth! In an odd quirk, I came in tenth overall in this race (out of 106) but only fourth in my age group. Once again–for the third time this spring–I failed to achieve the time goal I had set for myself, although I had a better time than in the previous race.

If there is a point to all of this, it lies in the vanity of all human desires. Does my fourth-place finish in a small race mean more or less than my second-place finish in a huge race?  Do either of those matter more than the overall time that I had? In the end, none of this means much at all.

What matters, what means something, is that we run the race at all, that we give our best efforts and that we offer them to Jesus. Next time, provided the course has some hills, I’ll take Rene and I’ll cross the finish line in 23:30, my elusive goal. Or maybe I won’t. In this pursuit like all of life’s pursuits, it’s all too easy to become consumed by our vain desires. I reminded myself of that fact as I drove home that morning.

But one-tenth of a second? That’s hard to take.

Get Your Motor Running

tired-runnerYou’ve probably had the experience: You set out on a longish run. Let’s say you’re going five miles. You know you can do five miles. Five miles is a piece of cake. (And by the way, if you’re thinking that five miles is more like a sledgehammer than a piece of cake, you can get there eventually.) You could do five miles without breaking a sweat. (Okay, maybe not that.)

But then, 100 yards into your five miles, you feel as if you are going to die. Your lungs are heaving; your heart is pounding. Your legs are saying, “No!” Everyone who has ever run has experienced this. To a degree, we will get the same feeling when starting out on a bike, playing basketball, or doing anything else that pushes the body very hard. Happily, this feeling of impending death does not last. If you push through it, you’ll find yourself a mile and half down the road saying, “Hey, this is pretty easy. Five miles is a piece of cake!”

Jason Saltmarsh takes up this topic in a recent article, artfully titled, “Why does the first mile of my run suck so much?” Not only does Saltmarsh explain the physiology leading to those first-mile agonies but he offers advice as to how to lessen the blow.

Basically, what’s happening is you’re forcing your engine to work (aerobic state) before it’s had a chance to properly warm up (anaerobic state). I bought a Subaru a few months ago, and now I sit patiently in my car and wait for the little blue light on the dashboard to go off before leaving home. That little blue light goes off when the car is warmed up, the fluids are moving around nicely, and it’s ready to go.

Like so many things, that physical warm-up has a spiritual parallel. Have you ever had a hard time settling in to pray or to read the Bible? At first it seems hard. No, your legs aren’t complaining, but your brain might be saying, “You have other things to do.”

A few years ago, I attended a prayer retreat. During Saturday morning, the schedule called for an hour of solitary prayer. An hour. How was I supposed to prayer for an hour. I fidgeted. I shifted. I got distracted. I was in my first mile. But then I hit my stride. The “blue light” went off, and I prayed. When the hour expired, it was too soon.

The beauty of both running and spiritual disciplines is when you get past that initial warm-up period. When we get there, prayer seems like something that could go on forever. The Bible is something to linger within. And the miles don’t seem endless.

Second Place Is Fine

Rene PetersonRecently, I ran a 5K. Once again, I was aiming to complete the course in 23:30, but once again I ran out of gas along the way. When I realized that I could not reach my goal time, I eased up and did not even make a new PR. That was probably a poor choice.

Checking the official results later in the day, I realized that I had managed to come in second in my age group. Coming in 2nd among 33 runners, 80th of 933 overall, was some consolation. But still, I knew that I shouldn’t have eased up. Obviously the guy who won the age group, coming in at 19:18, didn’t ease up.

I determined to find something out about this guy, this Rene Peterson. He also beat me in the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon, coming in at 1:33:10. His time last year in the Hospital Hill Half was considerably slower, 1:57, but that leads me to my next discovery about him.

That’s Rene Peterson in the Army shirt in the photo above. That’s him sitting down in his “hand bike,” a wheelchair built for racing. An army vet, Rene did not lose the use of his legs in combat but in a auto accident about nine years ago. He could have gone into a depression. He could have taken all the pity and handouts that the world would offer him, but instead he began pushing that chair hard. While his time at Hospital Hill was not all that impressive, the idea of pushing that device up those hills blows my mind.

This man, whom I’ve never met but hope to soon, did not decide that pretty good was good enough. He did not look at his nonfunctioning legs and decide, “I’ll never make that goal.” He did not ease up. I don’t know if his mechanical ride provides some sort of advantage to him over me, but I do know that I don’t begrudge him whatever it might yield. Despite a disadvantage, Rene Peterson keeps his arms pumping and his wheels turning. He doesn’t ease up.

It seems to me that God knows perfectly well what my abilities, my infirmities, and my limits are. He created me, after all. God did not call me to a particular time or a particular place in this race of life. Instead, he called me to push forward with all my heart, soul, and mind. Easing up is not in the plan.

Taking the Church on the Road

Group-RunA growing number of people, it seems, are discovering that running and Christianity are not all that incompatible. Granted, I’ve had a couple of Sunday morning routines interrupted by road races, but that’s a couple of times in a year.

A story in the Deseret News, timed to coincide with the Boston Marathon, describes several ways that church and running are converging.

It’s not unusual for athletes to gather to share their faith. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, after all, is 60 years old. But churches are starting to see running as a way to draw their members closer together while reaching out to the secular world. It’s a savvy strategy: As church membership in the U.S. continues to decline, the number of runners is on the rise. The nation is now in what’s been called the “third running boom.” More than 19 million people not only competed in, but completed, a road race in 2014; a figure that has grown nearly 300 percent since 1990.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that running and Christianity go so well together, despite the bad eating habits of American Christians leading so many to be–shall we say–non-aerodynamic. Running can be both a social and a solitary pursuit just like the spiritual life. What must not happen, as churches embrace running, is that the run becomes the primary thing while the Christian walk fades in importance.


13.1 Miles and Goal Achieved

At a little after 7:30 am this morning, I started running the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon. Somewhere around mile 9, I thought my body was going to cease to function. Heavy legged, I kept trudging through the miles, desperately wanting to slow down but perhaps more desperately wanting to make that sub-2:00 goal.

2015 Rock the ParkwayLet’s be clear. A two-hour half marathon is not going to get me a shoe endorsement contract. I won’t be picking up any awards even in my age group. Plenty of guys over the age of 50 can run long distances faster than me. But a two-hour half marathon is something I couldn’t have thought about two years ago. It’s 11:19 better than I did ten months ago. (At this rate of improvement, by the way, I’ll hold the world record in this distance in five years.)

When you’re running a two-hour race and obeying the rules against earbuds, you have a lot of time to think, and this morning I put that time to good use. It occurred to me that running such an event is something like a metaphor for the Christian life. The parable of the sower could be adapted as the parable of the runner.

Some of us run fast, like the guy who won this morning at 1:07; some of us are slow, maybe still on the course now as the shadows gather outside. But the key to Christian life is that we prepare ourselves to run our best race and then keep the legs turning over even when lungs and heart and muscles scream for us to stop.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul uses this same metaphor, recognizing that he is approaching the “finish line” of his life:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness,which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

The key to this understanding of living in Christ is that a PR, a prize, or an impressive finish time isn’t the key thing–which is really good news to me. Whether you run your race of life fast or slow, a long distance or short doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you run your best race, that you keep pushing on toward the prize even when the temptation to stopping screams into ever cell of your life.

That’s what I had time to think this morning.

Let Mercy Lead

Pointed the wrong way at the starting line of the 2015 Great Plains 10K.
Pointed the wrong way at the starting line of the 2015 Great Plains 10K.

Tomorrow morning, just under twenty-four hours from right now, I’ll be crossing the starting line of the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon, my second race at that distance. A year ago, when I ran Hospital Hill, I basically just wanted to finish respectably. This year, I will feel that I have dropped the ball–or perhaps the baton–if I don’t break two hours. Succeed or fail, I’ll report here tomorrow.

On my longest training run, thirteen days ago, I did something I rarely do when running outside. I listened to music. Rich Mullins, a favorite of mine for many years, sang a song that I’d never really thought about.

The lyrics struck me powerfully enough as I made my way through my last couple of miles that I replayed the track. Here’s the chorus of “Let Mercy Lead.”

Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs
And in every footprint that you leave
There’ll be a drop of grace

Is there a better lyric for a Christian runner? My prayer for tomorrow and for my every endeavor is that the strength in my legs is not my strength and that the legacy of my footprints is not simply my work.

Should the first verse and chorus of that song not hook you, the second verse surely will:

You’ll run the race
That takes us way beyond
All our trials and all our failures
And all the good we dream of
But you can’t see yet where it is you’re heading
But one day you’ll see the face of love

I know where my 13.1 miles will end tomorrow, hopefully somewhere before 9:30 am, but I do not know the destination of the truly important race I am running. That doesn’t matter. Tomorrow’s race is more of a ritual, an outward symbol of an inward struggle. I can run as far and as fast as I need to when I’m sharing the road with someone who authored the mercy that will lead and the love that will strengthen me.

Dying to Exercise

old guy runningA recent article in JAMA Internal Medicine (admittedly not a journal I regularly read) indicated that exercise is good for us. This groundbreaking conclusion actually brought some joy to the hearts of serious runners who have been getting smacked with occasional studies suggesting that excessive exercise increases mortality. This much-larger study found the following decreases in mortality over the 14-year duration of the study. (I’ve expressed them in running terms, but the study did not restrict itself to running.)

  • 5 miles a week=a 20% decrease in mortality chances.
  • 10 miles a week=a 31% decrease.
  • 15 miles a week=37% decrease.
  • Up to 50 miles a week=39% decrease.
  • Over 50 miles a week=31% decrease.

Clearly any sensible person will avoid running over 50 miles per week, right? For me it will be 49.9 miles and not one step farther! But seriously, do people who run in excess of 50 miles a week do it just to prolong their lives?

Since I’m interested in the stewardship of the Christian body, it occurred to me that a bit of math might be possible. Let’s assume that our runner is doing 8-minute miles and that the reduction in mortality adds years to your life. For the purposes of my decidedly non-scientific study, I’ve assumed that average life expectancy is 80 years and that a 20% reduction in mortality adds 2 years to that. A 31% reduction thus adds 3.1 years and so forth. How did I arrive at those numbers? Honestly, I just plucked them out of the air, but humor me.

If you run 5 miles a week at 8 minutes a mile, you’ll spend just under 35 hours running each year. If that 20% reduction in mortality gains you 2 additional years of life, you’ll gain 17,520 hours of life minus 70 hours of running for a net gain of 17,450 hours or 1.99 years.

Running 35 miles a week, right in the middle of that optimal range, you’d spend a whopping 242 hours a year on the road, but your 39% reduction in mortality would earn you an additional 3.79 years of life.

Some very attentive reader will note that I have not accounted for the hours that must be run between now and when you hit your “extra time” over 80. So let’s assume that our light runner is 20 years old. Those 35 hours a year over 60 years will mount up to 2,100 hours or roughly 3 months. The net gain is still considerable.

Granted, my math is vaporous stuff but the basic premise is sound. When we invest our time in exercise–running or swimming or whatever–we’ll not just spend time. We’ll gain an increase of time on this earth. That’s time for mission trips, family events, community service, or just to make your retirement providers pay out more.

Even if exercise does not reduce stress, improve self-image, or anything else positive, the longevity issue ought to seal the deal. Exercise, the numbers insist, is good stewardship.