Monday runs are the hardest (Paul and Tim).
Tim was panting when Paul caught up to him.
“You look awful,” Paul said.
“Thanks,” Tim gasped. “I feel awful.”
Paul pointed to a bench. “Sit. It’s okay.”
Tim looked like he wanted to argue, but stumbled over to the bench. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Last week I was doing great. You saw me. This morning, I can barely run. I’m so out of shape. This isn’t working.”
Paul sat quietly, letting Tim catch his breath. “There’s a fountain,” he said, pointing across the path.
When Tim returned, Paul looked up. “Tell me about your weekend,” he said.
“It was just a weekend. I worked on the yard on Saturday. We went to a wedding and reception in the city. Got home about one. Slept in, finally got rid of my headache in the afternoon, just before headed to my in-laws for supper. We were going to picnic, but it was too hot. We grilled and then played Rummikub til late. Nothing that was the kind of work that should leave me this unable to run.”
“How fast were you running before I got here?” Paul said.
“I was just running. I don’t know.” Tim looked down. After Paul’s statement about running at conversational speed, Tim wasn’t going to let on that he had been trying to run as fast as Paul.
Paul smiled. “If you were interested in training, in preparing for something, I could help you. I’d point out that lack of sleep takes away energy. I’d point out that increases in temperature makes you run slower. I’d point out that for an introvert, being around people takes away energy. I’d point out that building speed too fast wears you out.”
Tim looked up. “Are you making excuses?”
Paul shook his head. “I don’t care about excuses. I’m for explanations for how you feel right now. Because honest analysis and attention to all of your life can improve your running. But looking at your running without considering all of your life will leave you frustrated.”
“But why are you talking about it in relation to training?” Tim asked.
“Because training demands purpose,” Paul said. “It involves looking to the future rather than thinking about how tired you are this morning. It involves learning how to improve rather than assuming change will happen.”
He stood up and dragged Tim to his feet. “Whether you are talking about training for a race or training for character or training for living a godly life, you need to decide something about purpose.”
He started to run. “Or you can be keep being surprised by how hard it is to run after a weekend designed to leave you exhausted.”
Tim waved him on. “I can’t keep up with you,” he called to Paul. “But I can get a little ahead of me.”
Tim started to run. Slowly. Which meant that he couldn’t see Paul’s smile.
My friend Rob says that running in the rain makes you feel indomitable. I think it makes you wet. But that may be the same thing.
Here’s what I do know. If I ever need to, I can run 5K (3.1 miles) if the temperature is 24 degrees (F). I can even run 5K if the temperature is 18 degrees (F). And, if the weather is 50 degrees and raining, I can also run 5K.
I didn’t know any of those things until last week. I had seen people running, had heard about the delights of running, knew that some people chose to be outside in those conditions, but I wasn’t one of those people.
I have no need to feel indomitable. I have a growing need, however, to be growing.
Paul writes to his apprentice Timothy about training, saying “train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
I’m understanding the value of bodily training right now. I’m more ready for challenges of temperature and exercise than I have ever been (which is scary when I consider all I can’t do). I’m starting to train for a half-marathon in March, knowing it will take me that long.
But I am working on understanding and clearly explaining what training for godliness looks like. Slowly at first. In easy situations. And then in colder moments, in darker times. Encouraging nice people as I learn how to encourage sad people. Forgiving small things, on the way to larger things. Being thankful for coffee to practice being thankful for criticism.
In case I ever need to.
Running with weights.
“Want to try a little experiment?” Paul said. “Take this package.”
It was about the size of a big brick, wrapped with gray duct tape.
Tim took it. The handoff was a little awkward because the two men were running. “That’s not too heavy,” Tim said. “About five pounds?”
“Good guess,” Paul said. He shook his head when Tim tried to hand it back. “I want you to carry it a bit.”
They ran, talking about their activities from the previous weekend. “I got more sleep than last weekend,” Tim said. “It helped to not have any more weddings, but it also helped to actually turn stuff off and crawl in bed.”
Paul nodded. “I’ve realized that I need to start to bed a little earlier than I think I should. It always takes longer than I think it will to get the coffee ready, to pick stuff out for the next day, to finish up. And I need to leave time, on purpose, for my examen.”
“Is that a medical thing?” Tim laughed.
“It’s a review of my day that I have with God,” Paul said. “I’ll tell you more about it sometime if you are interested.”
“I’ll try to remember,” Tim said. “But at the moment, I’m thinking mostly about this weight. Is there a reason I’m carrying it? Is it to make me stronger?”
“It’s possible to get stronger by carrying the weight,” Paul said. “But for runners, strength training often happens while we are not running. This time, I wanted to help you understand something about the challenge of weight. If you are planning to run a long distance, wouldn’t you want to have as little unnecessary weight as possible?”
Tim nodded. “I’d love to have less weight right now, whatever distance I’m running.”
Paul reached out for the package. “So stop for a minute. What do you think is in this package?”
“I think it’s flour,” Tim said. “In the old days when sugar came in five-pound packages, it would be a tossup.”
“It is flour,” Paul said. “Plain ordinary flour. Is there anything morally wrong about this bag of flour that I asked you to carry? Is it illegal to have flour?”
Tim smiled. “Unless you are intending to feed the flour to someone who is gluten intolerant, flour is pretty benign. To be safe, you could have given me corn meal.”
“I wanted something less expensive for this lesson,” Paul said. “Because it is a lesson. An ancient writer was using running as a metaphor for spiritual living. He or she said to put off the stuff that weighs you down and the sin that trips you up and run with endurance.
“In running, we have stuff like that flour. It’s not wrong, it’s not evil, it can be quite good as pancakes or tortillas. But we usually know to put it down. But there can also be body weight. If we eat in a way that just fuels the running throughout our week, we’ll end up with less weight to carry. You saw how just five pounds is a lot.”
Tim nodded. “I remember how much harder running was on my knees thirty pounds ago.”
“And you carried the flour because I asked you to,” Paul said. “Let’s start running again. Think about how often you carry stuff because other people ask you to. You carry obligations, you carry busyness, you carry their work. You can, in the course of a week, add a lot of weight to your life. And that can shape your running. You feel pressure to finish training runs because of the time running takes.”
Tim laughed. “There are times when I’m out running that I feel my whole body tighten up when I start thinking about the tasks on my to-do list. You could tell that standing was making me nervous, couldn’t you.”
“That’s why we’re going to wait to talk about the sin part,” Paul said. “But I’m guessing that you’ll be thinking about eliminating weight for the rest of your run.”
“I am,” Tim said. “And I’ll be wondering what you are going to do with that flour. Save it for the next person you are coaching?”
“What a waste,” Paul said. “What if no one else needs this particular coaching? I’m going home for breakfast. After the workout carrying the weight, I’m ready for pancakes.”
A few years ago, I went on a 24-hour retreat. At the beginning of my retreat time, I sat on the sofa where I was going to sleep, needing to find the starting point. A race starts with a pistol, but a retreat is an unrace, an anti-race. Starting with slowing, with soul-searching makes sense. Perhaps the best tool that process at the end of a day and the beginning of a retreat is examen.
Everyone who talks about spiritual disciplines talks about examen. It’s a Latin word which means, not surprisingly, examine. Although I’ve read about it often, the most helpful discussion for me is in Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton.
Barton talks about examen of consciousness, examen of conscience, and confession. Consciousness, in her model, means consciousness of God. Rather than starting with “I’m so awful”, we start with “God is working, let’s look for evidences.” Conscience is looking at me. And confession is agreeing with God that there is a problem.
She suggests starting reading aloud scripture that reminds you of God’s love. Sitting in the silence of a computer-fan free house, surrounded by fields, late at night, I discovered I’ve watched too many creepy stories. I needed to remember God’s love. For me, “the Lord is my shepherd” was an image that is comforting. Particularly when thinking about spiritual journeys.
Next, Barton says, “invite God to help you reflect.” Although we picture God naturally nagging this way, the idea of asking for the help makes me think differently about God. I’m learning to say at least once daily, “The Lord God is here.” I’m thinking that God likes to be asked, to be invited, to be acknowledged as being in the room.
Next, Barton says, look back through the day for evidence of God’s presence. In my rush to the next conversation or agenda item or project, I forget what happens in my day. And I’ve struggled with examen for this reason. I’m afraid to go back and look. But on this night, as I thought with my pen, I found unrecognized connections, unexpected delights.
Then she suggests giving thanks for the moments that we understand and for God’s presence even in the moments we don’t understand. This walks us from simply stopping, to noticing events, to attributing intention to the events. It’s an unfamiliar feeling. I confess.
Next Barton points us to the first part of confession, asking God to help us see our “attitudes, actions, or moments when you fell short of exhibiting the character of Christ.” This phrasing matters. It is radically different than saying, “God show me how much of a failure I know I am.” And rather than looking at being a failure, she says to look, with God, at what led to those moments.
This deliberate reflection helps us see patterns, gain perspective, find hope. And then, having seen our shortfall, we ask God for forgiveness, knowing that God is willing to give it. I know this to be true. I teach other often. But specifically, orally, asking is humbling. And freeing. Moving from the thoughts in our head to the words in our mouths doesn’t make God hear any better, but it does make us own specific words.
Finally, she suggests talking with a spiritual friend about what you see. This process of sharing feels invasive or time-consuming when you read about it. Coming at the end of the process, it feels like the necessary next step. It completes things. Until tomorrow.