A Theology of Running

Yep, there is such a thing! Okay, I could have made it up, but just work with me here.

It has been ten years since I ran my last half-marathon, and I have decided it’s time to dust off my running shoes and get back in the game. God help me. This will probably kill me!

I began running thirty years ago when a friend dragged me to a high school track near us. We planned to run the St. Patrick’s Day 5K in St. Louis. It was three miles. Since I had never run a day in my life, it seemed reasonable. I could easily drive three miles without getting winded. So, why not?!

The first morning we ran once around the track – a quarter mile. OMG, I thought I would die! But I didn’t. So, I went back for more; again and again, until it got easier, and I decided I could do it. Not just that, but I was actually beginning to love it and the challenge that came with each turn around the track. Initially, my ambitions didn’t go beyond the 5K and the free beer at the end!

It wasn’t long before I was hooked as I grew to love the challenge of discovering my ability to go beyond anything I had imagined. Let’s see whatcha got, Linda! Though I have run several half-marathons over the years since then, it has always been that initial 5K that developed my theology of running.

I started off slowly, but pushing myself to run faster became a passion for me, especially when we moved to a rural area where I would run country roads at 5:00 in the morning. I was often told I was getting too old to run. That I should slow down because it wasn’t good for my joints (jealous couch potatoes, every last one of them!). I had no desire to slow down. Every time I decided to walk instead of run, it didn’t last long. It wasn’t the same. I didn’t feel the joy and fulfillment I experienced when I ran.

I discovered that I am most fully alive when I am running, especially in nature. I enjoyed it even more when we moved further into the country. I could run right out my front door and be in the woods. It was so peaceful and serene. In the early morning, the sunrise was breathtaking.

There was something else I noticed: God was there. My connection with God was most vibrant in those moments, and my prayers seemed most profound. That never happened for me sitting in a pew in church (I don’t need forgiveness, father…that ain’t a sin!)

St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”  Being fully alive is the quintessential manifestation of Divine Love. That magical, mysterious Love is most revealed to me in the moments when I am in the midst of and know I am fully a part of his creation.

One of the beauties of running is its simplicity. You need only a good pair of shoes. Actually, shoes aren’t even necessary, as Ethiopian Abebe Bikila proved. He set a world record in the Rome Olympics barefoot! 

For sure, there is a stark difference between the simple needs I have as a runner and the “perceived needs” of those in many sports. How does that relate to what we understand as “church”? Is church the magnificent cathedrals built centuries ago? Is it mega-churches today that entertain like a new rendition of Jesus Christ Super Star?! Not according to Jesus. The “ideal” church he modeled was about action: humble service, love, unity, hope, and mission – all easily accomplished barefoot – or, at the most, wearing sandals.

When training for a race, specific practices can be incorporated. One such practice is called “fartlek”. It’s a Swedish word for “speed play,” and it’s simply short bursts of acceleration at various times during a run. Here again, fartleking could have a spiritual meaning. Well, it could! Okay, the name might have to be changed to something a bit less like a bodily function, but it could work nicely when considering the process of growing spiritually, and, yes, it is a process.

I believe there is a misunderstanding for so many of us about just how important it is to “train” if we are to grow in faith, and that may be what discourages new Christians. I don’t believe faith just “happens” with a dunk in a bucket of water, even if there is some sort of “ritual” to prepare new converts for acceptance into a particular faith. There’s just more to it than that. It’s not an event; it’s a life-long journey. What about babies that are baptized in some faiths? Does that baby jump right out of the Priest’s arms and start serving in a soup kitchen? No.

You start out testing the waters with things that aren’t too risky, like smiling instead of flipping someone off in traffic. Then, maybe you graduate to a bumper sticker…or two…or six. Don’t do that. That’s not right.

Anyway, we are taught that in baptism, we are to put on Christ. But what does that really mean? We are called to live and move and have our being as followers of Christ, who teaches self-giving love by his example. And how does that happen? We learn from him to be less self-centered and more other-centered. For most of us, none of that growth happens at the moment of our baptism. Instead, we will struggle in life, have setbacks, and often lose our way. We have fits and starts trying to believe we indeed are God’s beloved and our life has purpose. 

As we journey through life, hopefully, we will grow in the fullness of that baptismal call to be an instrument of God’s love for the good of the world we live in. This realization can indeed be likened to a “runner’s high”! When we finally become conscious of who and whose we are, we respond through works of love, justice, forgiveness, and mercy. Call it a “Jesus high”! You just can’t get enough.

Now I am at the place where I need to tell on myself and share a couple of final important AHA moments in my running and faith journey. The first experience goes back to the beginning when my friend and I started training for that 5K. When we got to the day of the race, we both felt unprepared, especially since, just a few days before, her husband, an avid runner, told us that the race’s route was very hilly! Wait…what? Hilly?! As in mountainous hilly? As in, crap, we didn’t train on hills…hilly?! But, after that initial shock, we decided to do it anyway, even if we had to walk – or crawl – or call an Uber.

But we were going and we were getting that beer at the end. Period. So, off we went. When we got to the start line, we immediately saw the “hill” staring down at us, laughing hysterically! Undeterred, we went for it. It was hard, but we both endured and walked when we had to. AND THEN, we turned a corner and saw the finish line! I got so excited I took off running with all I had in me (it was downhill this time which helped). As I got to the end, gasping for air, my friend caught up with me. She was visibly upset, “Why did you take off like that? We spent all this time training together, and we were supposed to finish together! Why did you do that?” I felt so bad for leaving her behind. I was only thinking of myself, and that was just wrong. Sadly, I suppose I believed that everything revolved around me.

NO. IT. DOESN’T. DUMBASS.

Our faith journey is also not meant to be about us alone. If we are merely growing in a personal faith that does not embrace others on their journey, if we are so self-centered that we sprint toward life’s finish line knocking others aside, I’m pretty sure God will be waiting with those chilling words, “You came alone? Where’s your friend?”

Okay, that experience wasn’t funny, but this one is. A few years ago, another friend and I signed up for a 10K. She wasn’t concerned about training because she planned to walk. I think she just wanted to be sure I survived because, well, by then, I was old. So, off we went agreeing to meet at…that’s right…the beer truck at the end.

There were a lot of turns, so volunteers stood at designated intersections to point the way. At one intersection, I was confused and alone to choose. So I turned right and kept running. After a mile on that road with no one in sight, it became clear to me that I had gone the wrong way. So, I turned around and ran another mile back to where I should have been. I was tired but knew the end was near. And there, around the last corner, I saw it! The finish line! WOOT WOOT…

Suddenly I realized the race was over and they were deflating the blow-up finish line! I panicked and ran faster, but I was too late. By then, most everyone had left. No one is cheering. No one telling me I was almost there and to not poop myself (they tell you that. It’s not funny. Neither is the lie that “You’re almost done” when you’re not. It’s not right). Anyway, I was devastated, and my friend was in a panic! When I finally did see someone carrying some medals, I insisted I deserved a first-place medal for being the only person who ran eight miles instead of six! So, I reasoned I came in first in the unofficial eight-mile race. That logic didn’t fly. I was handed a “Yep, you did finish even though you screwed up” medal. FINE. WHATEVER. “Where’s the free beer?”

There were still a few drops of beer left for my friend and me to cheer each other. I did survive, so it wasn’t all in vain. And the lesson? On this journey of faith, we will also make wrong turns, but God is always at the finish line with a cold beer (don’t tell me there ain’t no beer in heaven!) and a “well done, my good and faithful servant” cheer! But, no medal.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if there’s beer at the finish line of life or if that’s really why you want to run that race – to get some reward. As for me, I fully trust that a life of faith is all about the journey, not the finish line. That will take care of itself.

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