Now that I've deleted May's Flying Pig Marathon from my schedule, my first long distance race (longer than a half marathon) will be the High Bridge Ultramarathon in June.
That race will obviously require a lot of preparation. That's why I spent part of my afternoon running on that trail.
"Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training," wrote the apostle Paul. Paul was a man who knew what the word discipline meant. Discipline can be summarised as the act of intentional suffering. It's the act of insisting that your body and/or mind and spirit engage in challenges that build up your stamina and endurance. The disciplined person pushes his or her body to heightened levels of performance by demanding of themselves a level of effort that produces excellence in life and work. As my Bible reading reminded me this morning -- I was in Philippians 3 -- Paul excelled at everything he did, even before he became a Christian.
"I was a real Jew if ever there was one! I was a member of the Pharisees who demand the strictest obedience to every Jewish law and custom. I was so committed to my religion that I greatly persecuted the church. I made it my one goal to obey every Jewish rule and regulation right down to the very last detail."
Then, after his conversion, he wrote, "I am still not all that I should be, but I am bringing all my energies to bear on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus has done for us."
It seems to me that disciplined people understand in a strange, counter-intuitive sort of way that it's important to inflict pain on themselves. They demand something extra from their bodies and minds that most of us do not want to naturally give. And that makes all the difference. I want to cultivate the company of these kinds of people. The disciplined Christian understands the importance of values that spring from a life that is grounded in the daily reading, study, and application of God's word. This is what character transformation looks like. Saints of a previous generation used to call this the practice of spiritual discipline -- the discipline of putting yourself under the authority of the Bible and of seeing yourself as God sees you. The disciplined life is one where the person lives every day in the pursuit of excellence in all that God has called them to do.
Not that it is easy. Running is not easy. Still, I have to run. And when I do, I remind myself that my running is an analogy for life. I run because I want to undo the damage I've done to my body and spirit. I run because I want to find some part of myself yet undiscovered. Every step takes me a little closer to where I want to be.
Standing at the start of an ultra, your goal is to complete the 31 miles. The difference between succeeding and failing is often as simple as being willing to take one more step. The fact of the matter is that every step of the journey is important. My hope is that in reading my running story you will find your own path to joy and success in life. My dream is that you will find, as I have, that success is learning to accept progress one slow step at a time. It is learning to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. I talk to a good many people who say they used to run but stopped because they were frustrated by their lack of progress. I feel really sad for them. Dedication means not giving up. Who knows -- maybe you stopped one single day before the magic might have happened for you? Often, dedication means doing something you don't want to do. Instead of rushing the process, take it slow and enjoy each step along the way.
I've stood at the finish lines of 33 half marathons, 18 full marathons, 6 triathlons, and 2 ultras and have never, ever heard anyone say that all the training, all the hardship, all the sacrifices, all the hours and hours of preparation weren't worth it. If God continually reaches out for our hand because he wants to establish an intimate relationship with us, isn't that something worth pursuing? The older I get, the more I understand the inestimable value of pursuing with a passion my relationship with God. When God's Spirit is within us, one of the evidences is self-control, as seen in a vibrant daily time alone with God.
"The glory of God," wrote Irenaeus, one of the early church fathers, "is man fully functioning." On the trails, I give the God of creation a standing ovation. And in his word, I listen for the still, small voice of the God of my salvation. I am, for this small moment in my day, alone with my God. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life that God cannot repair. I came to this love of running -- and for God's word -- through adversity and pain. Pain was the key to opening up a new and larger life for me. When I need to improve my psychological state, I turn to the trails. When I need to improve my spiritual condition, I turn to the Scriptures. It's as simple as that. My spiritual life parallels my physical life.
I've faced down 69 candles on my birthday cake and I can tell you, change is always possible. You just have to be willing.