7 Community

Trusted advisors (Paul and Tim).

“You told me to remind you about Ezra,” Tim said as Paul caught up to him. “And I want to know what you’ve been telling God about me.”

Paul laughed. “Nothing bad, I assure you. In fact, I thank God for you. Instead of being grateful for stuff, I’m grateful for people. And I’m content with whatever stuff I have.”

Tim shook his head. “You don’t strike me as someone who settles.”

“I didn’t say I settled. In fact, why do you think I’m out here running? I’m training because I don’t settle. I want to improve. But I’m content with what I have.”

Tim looked confused.

“I’ve been running for a long time,” Paul said. “I’ve seen fads in shoes, in exercise plans, in clothing, in technology. But I decided a long time ago that I was going to concentrate on running. If I have new shoes or old, I still have to put in the miles. A watch doesn’t make me faster or slower. A shirt is a shirt (unless it’s cotton and it gets wet. Then it a dead weight.) I focus on the run, not the stuff.”

Tim nodded. “I’ve struggled with that a little. Sometimes I read a magazine and see some new thing. I want to buy it because it seems like I’ll get better. Usually, I’ll remember that what makes me better is running.”

“Sometimes those shoes look amazing, don’t they?” Paul said. And then he laughed. “But I’m content with these.”

“But what about Ezra?” Tim said. “Didn’t you say he had something to do with giving advice, like shoe ads?”

“Ezra. He’s the title character of a short book, though it’s mostly about other people,” Paul said. “There’s a short description of him that I think about any time I look at people who try to give advice or teach others about running. Or anything else. It goes, ‘Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.’”

“That’s nice,” Tim said. “But what does that have to do training advice? Was Ezra a running coach?”

Paul smiled. “Ezra was a coach of sorts, but I don’t see him running. Here’s why I talk about him. The first thing we read is that Ezra was committed. His heart was set. He was passionate about what he was doing. He was training for something.”

Tim shook his head. “Always with the training. From our first conversation. But I’m working on it.”

“Second, Ezra studied,” Paul moved on. “Before he taught, he learned. He wanted to know all about what God said. When I’m looking for who I’m going to trust for advice about running or nutrition or life, I want to know that they aren’t making it up. I want to know they have studied.”

TIm nodded. “I get that. When I hear someone talking about a training method, I’m starting to look for their research. And if they are saying that this is brand new, never before discovered, secret until now, I need to know why they are ignoring everything that has been said before.”

“That’s a helpful filter,” Paul said. “And then I add another one. Ezra observed the law. He did what it said. He kept the practices. Not only was his heart involved, and his head, he made his body part of his life. So that by the time he got to teaching, he had complete credibility.”

“So don’t take marathon training advice from a person who only runs 5Ks?” Tim said.

Paul nodded. “Assuming that the person has the capacity to run, that’s exactly right. And they don’t have to run fast, if what they are teaching you is how to complete a marathon. But I always pay more attention to the whole life of someone who is telling me how to live mine.”

And while Tim was trying to make sense of that sentence, Paul started to move ahead.

“Have a great weekend,” Paul said. “Don’t forget your long run.”

Tim waved. “So should I trust you? Just because you run faster than me?”

“Ask me Monday,” Paul said.

Richard and Andrew didn’t make me run.

Richard and I meet to talk every Monday morning. Two guys, mid-fifties. We talk about life and faith.

For years, he would say things like, “I ran 10 miles this morning. But my calf is still hurting.”

I would shake my head. The calf pain, I could understand. The ten mile run, I couldn’t.

Richard is a fairly normal guy. Father of four. Professional. And two-time Boston Marathon runner. I’m fairly normal, too. Father of two. Professional. Multi-time Boston cream consumer.

Andrew is our son of twenty-eight years. A few years ago he started running. He’d run ten miles in a gym or in the streets of Chicago.

Rob lives back east. He started riding many years ago, then running, then swimming. He has completed a couple of triathalons. Yesterday he ran his first marathon.

Andrew and Richard and Robbie never told me I ought to run. They just told me about their running as part of their lives. I watched them develop. I watched them accomplish pretty cool things.

Then I started running.

  • After I started, they never said, “Someday you should be as fast as me.” They celebrated my pace.
  • I felt free to share my gradual progress, knowing that they would cheer, not scold.
  • When I had an off day, they told me that resting was important.
  • When I wanted to push, they all told me that gradual was better, that slow runs were as helpful as sprints, that 3-4 days may be better than every day.
  • When I was interested in short term speed, they encouraged long-term habits.
  • They all offered advice only when I asked.
  • I think that they all know that my preferred learning style is to read, as much as I can, wherever I can. But then I put the books away and ask them how it really works.

I’m learning a lot about helping people learn to follow Jesus from watching my friends make a running disciple.

“You’ve created a monster.” That’s what one of my colleagues told my marathon running friend, Richard, the other day.

But some advice is different.

Last week, after running, I notice that my leg hurt. It was a muscle thing, that much I could tell. So I ignored it. And ran a little. The next day, I was still sore. Maybe a little more. So I mentioned it to my marathon friend, Richard. He identified the muscle. He gave me some counsel. He sent me a link to some stretching exercises.  I took the OTC pain med. I tried the stretching once. I felt better. I went running a couple days later. And my leg hurt.

I was discouraged.

Until I remembered something about Richard. Richard is a medical doctor. Not only does he run, but he understands something about the body, and about his body. When he gives counsel, it’s not because he found something cool on the Internet. And it’s not something to mask the pain.

Although Andrew can help me figure out what to wear, and Rob can share from his experience, Richard has a different pool of experience. His goal is to give the kind of direction that, if followed regularly and completely, will make me healthier. Taking the meds helped with the pain, but didn’t do much to rebuild muscle. Regularly following the steps he told me would have made my leg healthier faster.

Not all counsel, however well meaning, is equal. Not all voices carry the same kind of weight. And even the best counsel, ignored when we start feeling better, is useless.

I’ve discovered that spiritual counsel is much the same. Not all voices carry the same reflection and study. And even the best guidance, left untried or abandoned too quickly, won’t accomplish our healing.

Now, excuse me while I stretch my leg. And my heart.

Making moments matter

Sunday was the Grand Rapids marathon and half-marathon. Andrew and I didn’t run in it. We talked about it, but decided that the registration fee was higher than we needed to pay for a conversation. We decided to make up our own race and give away the registration fee. It would mean no t-shirts or medals, but it would give us time.

As the race day approached, it was clear that we weren’t going to be ready for the half-marathon we talked about. So Andrew plotted a 5.2-mile course and made up race bibs for the “First Annual Father-Son Pre-memorial Five Miler.” On Saturday, after trimming bushes, we set out on our run.

It was a clear afternoon with a temperature of 45 degrees. We talked the whole time, about work and writing projects, about running, about conversations, about the hills in Grand Rapids that are slightly more than the hills in Fort Wayne. We laugh about this experience being inconceivable for most of the 28 years we’ve been son and father.

Our “registration fee”, about the same as a five miler that happened in Fort Wayne recently, is going to buy some coats for some kids in an elementary school in Grand Rapids.

What would you pay for the opportunity for a one-on-one conversation with someone who matters to you? Would you pay at least a mile a day for 144 days in a row?

I would.

Relationship takes training. It takes working out individually. It takes building the capacity to keep up with each other, to challenge each other, to be able to be proud of each other. It takes finding unexpected common ground after decades of mocking runners. It takes adjustment to each other’s pace for the sake of conversation.

We’ll let you know when the second annual is. Maybe you can start training, too.

Such a great cloud of witnesses.

Preparing to run my first half-marathon, I got a lot of encouragement. People sent me texts. They (you) “liked” my Facebook status. They came to the race.

I could have interpreted the support as pressure that I must do well, increasing my fear of failure.

But my friends aren’t like that. They know I’ve not been an athlete. They know I’ve been training. Some of them know the struggle of running 13 miles. Some of them know the struggle of not walking at all. Some of them know the cost of perseverance.

So when they offer support, they are cheering. They are hoping I do as well as I can. They are hoping to strengthen my resolve and to help me fight my fears.

And I respond looking for ways to run more intentionally. In the middle of the race, when I am struggling, I know that there are people who believe in my work more than I do. I know that when I get to the end, I will find family waiting.

There is an image of running in Hebrews 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

Before the “therefore” is several paragraphs of biography. Some are famous Bible people. Some are not. And some are referred to as “others”. All of them demonstrated faithfulness in the face of opportunity and resistance. Each of them is part of a group of people cheering.

I’ve often felt guilty for not measuring up to this crowd. I now see them as friends, cheering on the way, waiting at the finish.

The willing help of other people.

It is possible to run 26 miles by yourself. Organized marathons, however, assume that there is value in community experience. And there are several parts of that community.

There are people who are paid to help, like the police officers at every intersection. Every intersection. Dealing with the frustrations of drivers who want to go through, standing for hours. And smiling or nodding when they are thanked. But just because they are paid doesn’t mean they don’t help, doesn’t mean they aren’t important, doesn’t mean they don’t care.

There are volunteers. People who hand you a cup of cold water, or Gatorade. People who ride bicycles along to route to make sure things are safe. Even the guy with a walkie-talkie sitting in a lawn chair along a back corner of the route. They aren’t running. They aren’t going through what I’m going through. But I don’t judge that at all. In fact, I don’t care that they aren’t doing what I do. I am grateful that they are doing what they do. I thank them and drink the water.

There are other runners who are in the race with you. Josh and Zach for the first twelve miles, someone I didn’t exchange names with during mile 19, and Jen who walked and ran with me (or I with her) for the last two miles. I’d never met them before. I’ll likely not see them again. But we shared encouragement and identification during those moments. No criticism. No judgment. No answers. Just presence.

And there are random encouragers. There are some people who lie. “You are almost there” is a lie when you still have nine miles to go. But there are many people along the route who cheer, who ring bells, who dress up like santa, who have neighborhood parties during the race. The human presence helps. I don’t drink the beer shots, I ignore the smell of grilled food, but I am grateful for the community.

I could, of course, run on my own. But it is remarkable to be part of community while I do this work, having others helping me bear my burden even as I am doing the work I am responsible for.

It almost feels like a metaphor.

Without whom, not.

Friday night I texted Hope: “How am I doing in the marathon?”

She was in China, 12 hours ahead. On her time, I was already 90 minutes into the race. I wanted all the information I could get.

She wrote right back: “You got off to a rough start and couldn’t quite get the breathing right. Maybe a little behind the pace you wanted, but you can make it up. You’ve realized that everyone around you is also just trying to stay alive and will only notice you if you go down. They’re focused on their own efforts.”

Saturday morning I was walking toward the starting line. I got a text from Andrew: “Don’t worry about the start. Don’t worry about the finish. Don’t worry about the stuff that will happen in between. Bask in the fact that you’re prepared. You’ve trained. You’ve dedicated the time and the energy. You know the process and know how to meet your goal. It’s YOUR race. Your pace. Your decisions on that course. Your control.”

Nancy was standing with me when I got both messages. And she was standing at the start, sitting on the curb at three miles and at nine miles, handed me a bottle of pickle juice at 17 miles. She tracked me down after I texted her, “pray”. And then at 19 miles. And she was standing above the ramp where I entered the ballpark. And was at the top of the steps when I finished. Where Allie brought me coffee.

Richard meets with me most Mondays. He never told me I should run. He always answered questions. And he called me 3 minutes after I finished so we could connect. He ran the race too.

Dan meets with me most Fridays.  We talk about life, not about running. He ran the half-marathon, like Andrew.

Dave gave me a plan for the last two months. He invited me to stop my running streak. He pushed me and prayed for me.

If any of these people told me I had to run, or tried to shame me into running, or asked me to stop running because it was ruining our family, I would have stopped.

Instead, they loved me. They encouraged me. They comforted me. They were patient with me.

Sometimes people take on goals to prove other people wrong. Sometimes people accomplish goals to prove to themselves that other people are right.

I’m grateful for the people I’m with. They are teaching me about much more than running.


Not Sprinting Copyright © by Jon Swanson. All Rights Reserved.

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