2 Identity

On being a runner (Paul and Tim).

The morning was perfect. Low sixties (16C), low humidity, no clouds. Tim was feeling much better about running than he had been on that Monday a couple weeks before. He was feeling better in general.

He showed up at the park and started running slowly, allowing his body to warm up. He nodded to the people he met on the path. He was getting more comfortable running in daylight now that he’d been working at it for a month. And running with someone like Paul had helped. There was a sense of community that helped him through some of the moments of insecurity. Alone, he would have quit.

Tim had never been a runner. Growing up, he spent more of his time exercising his mind than his body. He laughed at his friends who were working hard going in circles around a track. It seemed pointless.

But he couldn’t deny that something was different. His conversations were changing. His choices about all kinds of things were starting to shift. He thought back to the way he mocked his friends and wanted to apologize. A little. After all, they were pretty arrogant about their abilities to attract attention.

He was lost in thought when Paul came up from behind. Paul had to say his name a couple times.

“Sorry,” Tim said. I was just thinking about changing labels. Are you a runner? Am I?”

“What do you think makes a person a runner?” Paul answered.

“I used to think it was about winning races,” Tim said. “Or having a certain physique or spending a certain amount on shoes or running ultramarathons. But I’m not so sure anymore. I’m starting to think it’s about running.”

Paul laughed. “Well, being a runner certainly involves running. I think about how I used to read about running. I’d look at magazines. I’d read books. But I wasn’t a runner. I wasn’t even a bad runner. But one day, there was this small nudge. It said to do something different, to live differently. So I ran a little.”

“But how much? When had you run enough that you could look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a runner’?”

“Ah. There’s an interesting thing. I think that when you say that there needs to be a change and you start running, that you are a runner.” Paul smiled. ”You may or may not realize it or accept it, but you are. When you quit sitting and start moving, when you start to follow that path, you are a runner.”

“You make it sound like a conversion,” Tim said.

“I think of it more as accepting a new identity. And growing into that identity.” He looked at Tim. “It’s about training, after all. Learning how to live like a runner lives.”

Paul shook out his arms. “Time to get moving. It’s what runners do.”

He looked at Tim again. “And you are a runner.”

What would a person like me do

James March says that we think people make rational decisions.[1] We assume that people will evaluate options and choose based on what is reasonable. Which is why we often feel frustration at poor choices of ourselves and others and we say, “What were you thinking?”

But we aren’t actually rational. Instead, we tend to make decisions that are appropriate to an identity. As March says, we look to see what kind of situation this is and then we say, “What would a person like me do in a situation like this?”

Imagine, for example, that a person has learned the identity of being a failure, or of being inadequate, or of being an outsider. Give a self-identified “failure” remarkable opportunities and they tend to do what a “failure” would do.

I see this gap between reason-based decision and identity-based decisions often.

In the running world, it is unreasonable to get up early and run. At 85 degrees or at 0 degrees, reason tells us to stay inside. But when someone is a runner, they look at the thermometer and say, “I’m a runner and runners run. What should I wear?”

In the spiritual world, asking “What would Jesus do” makes little sense unless we identify with Jesus.

That’s why we find many places in the Bible that talk about identity. For example, in a letter that teaches about identity, Paul says “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.”

The actions of compassion don’t start with a command to be nice. Instead, Paul points out identity: picked by God, cleaned up, beloved. When I know that I am a loved one, I am more likely to look at a situation which is filled with tension and hostility and say, “How would a person who didn’t question being loved respond?”

It could be a response like “Father, forgive them for they don’t understand what they are doing.” Which isn’t reasonable. But it is appropriate.

What I will do.

In my journal the other day I wrote, “runners run” It was October 9. I hadn’t run for a couple days. I was a little achy. I was hesitant. But I knew that what runners do is run. More than talking about it, more than reading about it, more than worrying about it. They run.

A couple lines later in my journal, I wrote the words from a song: “In the morning, O Lord, you will hear my voice.[2]

The writer has the same kind of resolve that I did about running. “Prayers pray,” is what it says.

The writer goes on: “In the morning I will order my prayer to You and eagerly watch.”

These words are from Psalm 5, a song about lament and cries for justice. It is not a pleasant song to listen to, with its calls for divine punishment. Unless, I suppose, you are in ancient Israel being lied to and betrayed, or ancient Babylon watching family members being attacked. Or not so ancient.

But what captures me? The writer addresses those cries and laments and calls to God. In the morning first thing, like me sitting in my chair with my coffee and Bible and journal. Like a runner lays out clothes and shoes the night before so that there are no excuses in the morning. Like a parent prepares the cereal and the bowl and the toaster the night before. Like a planner writes out the six things for the next day the night before. Like a praying person plans to pray.

I do want to make a confession. A couple days later I said, “God, I don’t even know what to say. So what do you want me to ask about.”

But I think that’s the point. Regardless of our competence or speed, pray-ers pray.

Finding your stride.

My friend Richard says it sometimes takes him three or four miles to find his stride.

It’s the place in every run where you aren’t thinking about the mechanics of running: speed, coordination between breathing and steps. It’s the place where you aren’t thinking about whether you can afford the time for this run,  where you aren’t taking every twinge in your knee or ankle or breathing as a sign to quit. It’s the place where start to actually just run.

Richard runs marathons. So he has plenty of time to run after finding his stride. When he said it to me, a long run WAS three miles. “Never find my stride in a whole run?” I thought. “That’s depressing.”

But as I thought about it, and as I kept running, I realized that he was giving me a gift. Even for experienced runners, starting is often rocky. There is often resistance. But if you keep moving, the rhythms of leg and lung, arms and heart, feelings and focus begin to settle down. You run slower than you know you can. You take your time.

Now that I can run further, nearly seven miles at a time, I understand Richard’s words. If I can make it past the first mile or two, I can often make it five or six.

I thought about all the friends I know who say, “I tried to listen to God, but all I heard was the noise in my head.” Or they say, “Three days in a row. I was asking God for wisdom. But then I kind of forgot.” And what I wish I had known to say was, “Sometimes it takes three or four miles.”

And it may take a few weeks to be able to run that far.

Running With Eugene

Eugene Peterson has been shaping my thinking about spiritual growth for a long time. Since 1986, to be precise. That was the year I used his book, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, for devotions in the speech classes I was teaching.[3]

The book is an explanation of Psalms 120-134. These psalms each have a subtitle, something close to “Song of Ascent”. They were, Peterson suggests, the songs that the Jews used around the campfire on their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Each psalm stands alone. There isn’t a story that runs through them. And yet, each psalm reflects on a point in the spiritual journey of the people of Israel as a whole, and as individuals.

This book, more than any other, helped me understand that spiritual growth a process we walk through rather than a state we achieve. At the core of the book is the word perseverance, a life of daily obedience that moves in fits and starts but always in the same direction.

I read other books he wrote. I found ideas that described my experiences in helping other people understand scripture. I resonated with the creative tension of pastor and writer, of shepherd and administrator.

But when Peterson’s autobiography came out, I began to understand a new layer of his reading of those psalms as pilgrimage and perseverance.  In addition to being a pastor and being a writer, Eugene Peterson is a runner. He understands the process of training, of recovery from injury, of identity. He ran as a young person, and then rediscovered the value of running as an adult.

“There is a meditative dimension to long-distance running: the uninterrupted quiet, the metronomic repetitiveness, the sensual immersion in the fragrance of trees and flowering bushes and rain, the springiness of the soil on park trails, the Zenlike emptying of the mind that felt like a freedom to be simply present, not having to do or say anything.”[4]

This isn’t my experience, not yet. I haven’t arrived at the meditation. There is still, almost always, a layer of obligation.

And yet.

Part of the process of learning to run, and learning to follow Jesus, is that there is always more to learn. There is a basic framework. And then there is the daily practice, the daily application of what we already know to the peculiarities of the day. And we grow stronger and we understand more. And we struggle.
It’s funny to me that after all these years, it was running that gave me another glimpse into how Peterson had shaped me. And helped me understand those Psalms.

  1. March, James G. A Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen. The Free Press, 1994.
  2. Psalm 5:3 NASB
  3. Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in The Same Direction, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980.
  4. Eugene Peterson, The Pastor. HarperOne: New York, 2011, 234.


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