Spirituality for the Long Haul
It took me forty three years of preparation before I ran my first marathon. I’m still psyching myself up for the second one, and despite having such a superb and finely tuned athletic body it may just take another forty years, or maybe a bit longer.
I’m told that at the end I staggered deliriously over the line and collapsed, saying, ‘I have diabetes and I might be having a low blood sugar attack, or I might be just finishing a marathon, which feels the same.’
Running one marathon twenty years ago makes me an instant expert on long distance running, of course, and I’d like to pass on some of my extensive wisdom. If you’ve done your training and you’re fit, you only need to know three things on the day: pace yourself, never miss your drink stop, and stick with a group going the speed you want. Then you’ll stay the course and feel the wind in your hair and feel incredibly good to reach the end of the race.
Pacing yourself is hard at the beginning. There were four thousand of us, and, after the starting gun, it took ages for the huge crowd to move and then walk and then get running. I just wanted to go! But I slowed down, stuck to my times and ran the second half in the same time as the first half. And finished — alright, I just finished.
It’s been just as hard for me to pace myself as a follower of Jesus. I was brought up in an incredibly active Christian family. I just assumed that first we save the world and then we rest. But I soon realised that this doesn’t work. Yes, Jesus calls us to take up the cross and walk in his footsteps of welcoming the poor and so on, but he paced himself too. Yes, Jesus calls us to lose our lives in order to gain them, but I had to learn the best way to spend a life for Jesus! I soon discovered John 10:10, where Jesus said, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. You can’t share good news unless it’s good news for you.
I discovered boundaries. I discovered recreation. I discovered sustainability. Now I mark in blank spaces in my diary. I mostly get around at bicycle pace or public transport pace. I don’t answer the phone during meals. In fact, I sometimes lose my mobile on purpose and don’t answer it at all. Our family has always taken annual holidays, even when we couldn’t afford to go anywhere. Although our house is like a neighbourhood centre, our neediest friends know that I’m not always available; it wouldn’t be good for me and it wouldn’t be good for them. Discipleship is costly but it shouldn’t lead to bankruptcy.
I’m sad to say that I have friends who went out too hard, and they blew up in the middle of the race. I feel for them deeply. I hope that with the guidance of God’s Spirit I’ll still be pacing myself for many years to come so that I can still be running for whatever time I’m given.
As for not missing your drinks, I have to confess that the reason I was delirious at the finish — and yes, I was dangerously low in blood sugars — was that I missed the last drink station at forty kilometres with two to go. Too tired to hold the drink, probably. But that’s actually when I most needed that strong cordial.
I’ve discovered that I need regular spiritual nourishment. The more you roll up your sleeves, the more you realise you need to locate the spring of living water.
I take regular retreats. I journal. I see a spiritual director. I head out of the city regularly. I read nourishing books in cafes. I walk and pray. I cycle and pray (actually, I think every cyclist prays — it goes with the danger on the roads!). Everyone will find their own path in opening their lives to the refreshing and nourishing power of God’s Spirit. But we all need to do it.
If pacing myself is a challenge, and if remembering to take my drink stops is a discipline, the third thing, running with a group, I find much easier. It’s hard to explain how close you feel to someone when you’ve just run twenty or thirty kilometres beside them, perhaps not even saying a word. An unspoken agreement grows that you’ll both stick together and try to keep an even pace and encourage each other.
You can guess that I’m talking about community. In genuine community we all share the load.
Sustainability, at least for me, requires community. My community—Westgate Baptist Community and, in particular, a home group within it—makes me laugh. My community tells me when I’m not pacing things well. My community turns up when we’re loading a trailer or painting a house or minding kids for a suicidal mum. We’re rather needy ourselves. We call ourselves the walking wounded, or God’s rag tag army. But we’re in it for the long haul together.
The most important thing my community does for me is to give me hope. It helps me to understand the paradox of losing my life in order to gain it and to gain it abundantly. I’m not just giving and giving. I’m giving and receiving.