Run no. 95 –Difficult but Doable

Difficult

Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 42’ 47” (PB 38’ 38”)

As I started off I felt that I was going at a good pace (for me!). I decided to try and maintain that pace throughout the run.

It was very painful as I’m just getting back to regular running after a break – although that seems to be my most common state!

I’m not usually someone who looks at split times, but for some reason I glanced at my watch at the half-way point and was amazed to see that it read 19’ 41”; which is actually pretty close to my personal best time.

Which I guess tells you everything you need to know about me as a runner; as I get fitter I don’t go any faster, I just slow down less.

Real runners would want to talk about speed training, but at my age I am really so not interested in speed!

I just want to maintain a reasonable level of fitness and control my weight; both of which have suffered in recent months.

It has been a complicated time in my life circumstances, as a job comes to an end, and as yet there is nothing else in sight. I have been applying for posts that I thought were a good fit for me, only to be rejected every time; which even though you rationalise it, is still a psychological blow. And when you don’t feel good about yourself that tends to express itself in ways that aren’t helpful and feedback back into the negativity.

It was amazing to me that unfit, carrying a few kilos too many I was still able to run at my fastest ever pace – even though I fell off quite badly towards the end.

I fell off quite badly towards the end

I discovered that it is still doable, just difficult; just really painful and unpleasant.

Which was my spiritual lesson of the day. We are told in the Bible that;

 without faith it is impossible to please God Hebrews 11:6

Which, if ever you needed a starter for ten on whether the Christian life is easy or hard, you have your answer.

Someone once said;

Faith is like a muscle, it only gets stronger when exercised.

Others have said;

Faith is spelt R.I.S.K.

And in some senses I believe both of these to be true. However I think the key component of faith is learning to live with not understanding. Learning to embrace the mystery of God, who is often, opaque, obscure, confusing.

the key component of faith

is learning to live with not understanding.

Learning to embrace the mystery of God,

who is often, opaque,

obscure,

confusing.

It is only faith that can hold on when nothing makes sense. If you want to see the awfulness of that experience played out in a human life you have only to read the story of Jonah or Job.[1]

But although their faith was rocked, fissured, stretched to breaking point, it did not fail. God would not allow it to.

All that God asks us to face is difficult but doable.

 

[1] You can get an in-depth look at Jonah through my book Jonah the Epistle of Wild Grace – available free here http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/stephenjohnmarch

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The Oddest People

Lucien Guitry: Sa Carriere Et Sa Vie [SIGNED} by Guitry, Sacha

Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 46’ 30” (PB 38’ 38”)

Almost 4 month gap since my last run – not good. Disturbing life circumstances have left me feeling drained with little energy and motivation for running. But I made it out today and it was ok, so that’s a start.

As I was running it struck me again how you often find the most unlikely of people are runners.

A couple of time I have met rather tubby blokes, who I subsequently found out were capable of marathons and half-marathons! Something I would never have predicted by looking at them.

As I think about the Christmas story I find I am equally surprised. I am surprised by who is invited to greet the new-born Saviour of the World.

The first on the scene are shepherds. This is a shocking as shepherds were considered social outcasts. They were wild, tough men, who needed to be capable of driving away both sheep thieves and wild animals. They lived out of doors most of the time and were not quite considered civilised by polite society. Given their outdoor life they couldn’t even follow the Jewish religion properly, never mind attending synagogue.

And yet when choirs of angels are sent to announce that Jesus is born it is shepherds to whom they are sent! I can imagine the angels asking to have the order checked,

“Shepherds! Really?!”

If the shepherds are surprising the next on the scene are totally shocking – wise men. These aren’t even Jewish! They are pagans from Babylon, probably followers of the Zoroastrian religion.

It is interesting story how they came to interpret the presence of a new star as sign of the birth of someone so important they were willing to travel around 500 miles to greet him.

A pagan prophet called Balaam was once hired by a King to come and put a curse on the people of Israel as they travelled through his kingdom. It must have been a well-paid assignment for Balaam to be willing to travel all the way from Babylon to do it.

But he duly arrives and starts his sacrifices and incantations. Then, to his total surprise and shock the Spirit of God comes upon him and instead of cursing Israel he blesses her. This happens several times until in the final blessing that he is forced to pronounce he states;

“‘I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a sceptre will rise out of Israel.”
Numbers 12:17

It seems likely that this prophecy was taken back to Babylon and became part of the holy writings of the Zorastrian religion. Preserved for around 600 years it is this prophecy that they link to the appearance of a new star in the sky and follow to Israel (probably a comet).

So when the Saviour of the World is born it is the rough, tough, irreligious social outcasts and the foreigners who don’t even worship the true God who are invited.

If ever you wonder whether or not there is a welcome for you at the manger, please remember this, we are ALL invited, no-one is excluded – just come.


Run no. 86 – Habit eats willpower for breakfast

Willpower

 

Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 41’ 14” (PB 38’ 38”)

 

The hardest thing about running for me, is getting out there.

Once I’ve got into my running gear and got out the door I’m fine.

But making that happen regularly is a challenge.

Today was a case in point. It was a hot day and I just wasn’t in the mood.

What got me out there was that a few weeks ago I decided that I needed to run more regularly and that the only thing that was going to make that happen was habit.

So I started the habit of running every second day. Over the past few weeks that habit has got ingrained and it really helps.

Today, knowing that tomorrow it will be very difficult to get a run in, as I’m away all day, the idea of missing today felt like something I just couldn’t do.

In John ORTBERG’s great book ‘Soul Keeping’ he makes the statement that;

‘habit eats willpower for breakfast.’

A good habit, say giving 10% of your income to good causes each month, will keep you giving even when you don’t feel like it.

A bad habit, reacting aggressively to criticism, will eventually get you to the point when nobody can help you with your weaknesses, your worst attributes will be irrevocably fixed.

Which is why being lost or saved, is not so much a destination, as a diagnosis of who you are becoming.

To quote ORTBERG again,

This is what it means to lose your soul. It is not a cosmic threat. It is a clinical diagnosis.

It is not “I could end up there.”

It is “I could become that.”

If you are a lost soul your surroundings don’t matter – I mean this literally – one damn bit.

When it comes to our souls, as with everything else, habit eats willpower for breakfast.


Run no. 82 – When the wind’s against you

against-the-wind

Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 41’ 48” (PB 38’ 38”)

Out for a lunch-time run today. Quite warm but overcast so not too hot.

There was a pleasant breeze that was both cooling and at my back.

Which is of course where you want any breeze to be! You want it to be a help and not a hindrance; to reduce the effort and not increase it.

In the spiritual life it is much the same. God’s Spirit is often described as a wind, an invisible force that we experience without being able to see His presence.

Sometimes that Spirit-wind feels like it is at our back. The spiritual life is easy and fruitful. We feel that we are making progress. Our chosen spiritual disciplines do not feel burdensome and we sense they are helping us to grow and to change.

At other times we feel the opposite. Everything is hard, nothing seems to be happening spiritually, we wonder if it is all worth it.

I think that there are two possibilities when we feel like this.

Firstly it is entirely possible that God’s Spirit is blocking us because we are heading in the wrong direction.

St Paul had such an experience.

Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.

When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.

So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.[1]

Paul was trying to do what God had called him to do, to share the message of Jesus with the non-Jewish populations of the Roman Empire. And yet he is thwarted in some way both as he tries to enter the province of Asia and when he tries to enter Bithynia.

It is only after being blocked twice that he is open to receive a Spirit-inspired dream that guides him to Macedonia.

So sometimes when we are struggling to make any progress spiritually, it may be that we are heading in the wrong direction.

There is a further possibility;

Sometimes God allows trials and difficulties in order to strengthen our faith.

God’s primary goal for our lives is that we come to love Him more and more and be able to live in His love. This is why Jesus said;

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment.[2]

Anything that God asks us to do, or allows to happen in our life, is designed to support this goal. In order to love God we need to know Him and sometimes we only get to know Him through difficult experiences. Jesus also said to his disciples;

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.[3]

So I guess the wise approach is to enjoy those halcyon days when everything is going easily, they are a grace and a blessing, enjoy them!

But when things feel tough and difficult and hard, pay attention. For either we are heading in the wrong way, or God is about to use something difficult to take us deeper in our relationship with Him.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.[4]

[1] Acts 16:6-10 NIVUK

[2] Matthew 22:37-38

[3] John 16 :33

[4] James 1 :12


Run no. 79, 80, 81 – It’s the Cost

Cost

 

Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 42’ 33” (PB 38’ 38”)

Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 42’ 07” (PB 38’ 38”)

Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 42’ 30” (PB 38’ 38”)

 

I was out running at 7:15 this morning as it is going to be hot today. But even at that time the temperature was around 23°C.

It was a hard run, my legs felt heavy and I was more tempted to stop and walk that in any run for a while.

I felt slow and when I finished my time was not brilliant.

A good time makes me feel better about having run, so a poor time is demoralising to me.

As the more negative emotions started to stir I reminded myself that the value of something is often expressed more in what it costs than what it is. I was taught this lesson many years ago.

At the time my wife and I were a young married couple with our first child. We were active members in a church who had just called a new minister. This is always a very exciting time in a church’s life as we wait to see what vision the new person has for the future direction of the church.

The church leaders had decided to have a church weekend where the new minister could share his thoughts and vision with us.

We quickly agreed to go. Then one of the church leaders rang us to say that more families had booked up than they expected and so they needed someone to look after the children while the main meetings were going on; and would we do that.

My heart sank. We wanted to be part of the exciting meetings with the new minister, not looking after other peoples’ children. But because we had been brought up to believe that if someone asks you to do something for God and you haven’t got a good reason not to, you should do it, we said yes.

So while the meetings were on we found ourselves in a port-a-kabin with about 8 children. We found that space was shared with the kitchens, so while we were trying to do stuff with the children the cook was banging around with pots and mixing machines making meals for everybody. It was not ideal, but we tried to do our best. We had chosen some holiday club material to use and every time a leaders said ‘The J Team’, the children had to shout out ‘I wish I could be in it!’ And I guess we had fun and did a reasonable job of it.

About 4 weeks later we were in church one Sunday evening and the new minister said I’m going to invite someone up now and they are going to share what God has been doing in their life

Imagine our surprise when it was the cook from the weekend that came up the front. He said that he had been invited to go on the weekend and cook as he was unemployed and had a friend that went to our church. He wasn’t a Christian and had had a tough life struggling with alcohol and other stuff. He said that he never attended any of the meetings that weekend as he was always in the kitchen preparing food.

But there was a young couple who had shown such love to the children that he had listened in to what they were teaching them. He said that suddenly the message of Jesus and of God’s love and forgiveness made sense to him and he had decided to turn to God. He looked at my wife and I and said,

“I’ve just got one thing I want to say; the J Team, I wish I could be in it!”

By this time my wife and I were in tears, humbled, amazed, astounded.

That lesson taught me that God works in 360°, we never know what parts of our life, or which of our words and acts might be a vehicle for God’s grace.

It also made me play the ‘What If’ game.

What If we had declined the request to look after the children and perhaps someone had done it, someone who more interested in keeping the children busy, and less interested in helping them explore faith.

What If we had not been as loving towards the children because of our feelings of missing out on the important meetings, as it was our love for them that got the cook’s attention.

What If it was only the fact that we did something we didn’t really want to, as a sacrifice to God, that made it something that God chose to bless.

The value is in what something costs, not what it is.

 


Run no. 78 – Shall I call the ambulance now?

health_heart

Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 42’ 54” (PB 38’ 38”)

The cheek of some people!

As I was running around Watermeads Country Park on my usual run; in reply to my cheery, “Good afternoon. God bless you!” some cheeky beggar shouted out to me,

“Shall I call the ambulance now?”

Which made me realise that I do not have the running equivalent of a ‘poker face’.

Some people have a running gait that looks effortless – even when they’re pushing hard.

Some have a beatific facial expression that belies all effort.

Not so me!

It is very obvious that every ounce of pain and effort is writ large on my face and shown in my belaboured running gait.

I guess this is true in the spiritual life too.

For some people the spiritual life looks easy. They exemplify certain verses in the Bible that seem to indicate this is how things should be;

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,

and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,

for I am gentle and humble in heart,

and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”[1]

For others the spiritual life doesn’t look like that at all. Rather it is more like some other scriptural verses. I think of St Paul’s use of metaphors from the boxing ring and the gym;

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?

Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.

They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly;

I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.

No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.[2]

So which of these is the truth about the spiritual life?

I guess the classic answer is both/and.

There are times when things go easy, God seems close, blessings are abundant and we can very well agree with Brother Lawrence that;

Our business is simply to love and be happy in God.[3]

At other times God will seem remote, blessings none existant, the demands of the spiritual life burdensome, and the rewards absent.

It is at times like these that the mental toughness developed by running can help.

We run even when it isn’t fun, because we know it is good.

Likewise we love and centre our lives on God, regardless of the payoff. It is simply the right way to ‘be’. And our perspective is the long game; not the close horizon of our earthly existence, but the far horizon of an eternity with God enjoying Him and all the good He has planned for us.

From the perspective of eternity our pains will be our pride;

they will be the inerasable evidence of our love for, and commitment to, God.

 

[1] Matthew 11 :28-30 NIV

[2] 1 Corinthian 9:24-27 NIV

[3] The Practice of the presence of God, 2nd conversation.


Run no. 74 – One Man’s Meat

2017-05-17 15.08.14crop

Distance: 4.53 miles (7.3 km) Time: 46’ 05” (PB 38’ 38”)

It has been raining solidly all day; which, for me, is fantastic running weather. I love running in the rain.

I know that other people hate it. There are many who only enjoy running under a balmy blue sky, feeling the sun’s warmth on their backs. But not me; I love running in the rain.

For me any temperature above 20°C is too hot for running and I find it deeply uncomfortable.

No, it’s cold and rain for me, every time. Perhaps I’m a masochist, perhaps it’s just because I first started running in Scotland, a place known for its ‘rigorous’ climate. But for whatever reason that’s my preference.

It struck me that in our spiritual growth preference plays a large part too. What suits one person down to the ground as a way of expressing their faith, what helps them move forward in their relationship with God, won’t necessarily be helpful for someone else. Our individual personality, preferences, life-situation, age etc. all play a part in how we respond to the many different ways there are of expressing and exploring faith.

I have had the great privilege in my life to spend significant periods of time within many different spiritualities – Evangelical Protestant, Charismatic Baptist, Roman Catholic, and Anglican. I’ve also had the opportunity to encounter Orthodox, Methodist, and Pentecostal spiritualities, and I could probably list many more.

My experience has been that each of these has enriched me in some way.

The Evangelical Protestants taught me about how incredible the Bible is and how scholars through their books and sermons can really help me encounter God trough His Word. The Charismatics taught me how to encounter God in worship, His presence amongst us as we glorify Him. The Orthodox taught me how the senses can help us in worship and how glorious sounds, sights, and smells can help us move into the presence of God. The Catholics taught me how to encounter Jesus in the Mass. The Anglicans taught me how important unity within the Christian family is – however difficult it may be to achieve and maintain, and that perhaps preserving a difficult and fractious unity is the greatest act of worship we can give to God.

In fact all my experiences have encouraged me to see the differences in how Christians express their faith as riches we can share, rather than reasons to divide.

All of this means that if ever you are struggling spiritually and your current form of Christian spirituality is not doing it for you, then there are a whole range of different ways for you to try, one of which may be just what you need at this moment.

Try reading a book written by someone from a different Christian tradition, try watching a sermon on YouTube by a teacher from a different church, go and experience worship in another church, or go to a conference organised by a different denomination.

It’s like a child’s paint box. You might have your favourite colour – and that’s fine – but another colour might be just what you need at this moment. And if you tried something different, from a different spiritual tradition to your own and found that helpful, wouldn’t that make you appreciate your brothers and sisters in Christ just a little bit more, and wouldn’t that be a good thing?