Friday, November 29, 2013

A Helpful Meditation for this Runner from St. Nikolai Velimirovich

Do you ask me for the way, exhausted runners?

To what are you racing, sons [and daughters] of men?  If you knew what you were jogging toward, you would also know the way.

2012 Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa

Your destinations are innumerable, therefore your ways are also innumerable.

You collide with one another and curse at each other, because your pathways cut across each other.

Even if there were as many of you as there are blades of grass on the earth, you would not be colliding with one another, if you had one destination and one direction.  And your mouths would quit cursing.

Those who search for life and truth, have one destination and one direction.  Their destination shows them the way, just as the sun does with light.  Truly whoever hides from the sun will lose both his destination and his way, and in vain will he toss himself hither and thither in the dark.

NY City Marathon

Do not set out in the ways of your thoughts, for they lead you one through to the next, and they know of no destination or way outside themselves.

Do not set out in the ways of your imaginations, for they allure you to level river beds until they suddenly plunge into an abyss beneath the earth.

Do not trust your soul as long as she tells you that the flesh in which she is clothed is your destination and way.  Has clothing ever guided anyone?

The way to the kingdom of blessedness is not found, is not shown, and is not intersected.  It is born in the soul when Life and Truth are born in her.  If Life and Truth have been born in your soul, rejoice and be glad, for the Way has been born in it as well.

Just as life cannot be separated from Truth, so the Way cannot be separated from Life and Truth.

Until all three manifest themselves, none has been manifested.

Do not place your hope in tomorrow’s day to cast light on your erring way.  For tomorrow’s day is only a new aberration of your way, and a new enigma.

Do not place your hope in days, for days are the garden of your imagination.  Instead set all your hope in that Day which is never somber at dawn.

O Lord, my Lord, my triradiate Godhead, who will suffice except You?

The ways of men are a trap, in which runners run all day and at dusk find themselves in the same place.  The entrapped ways of men bewilder me and I ask myself: who will suffice for a haven except my Lord?

‘Whoever recognizes Me as the destination of his wayfaring,’ says the Lord, ‘will have Me as the Way to My mansions.’

O Lord, my Lord, my triradiate Godhead, who will dare us enter into Your light?

‘Whoever draws near to gaze upon My light within himself, will dare to inter into My light and will not be scorched.’

'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life'

O soul, my soul, my tri-nocturnal darkness, when will you remove your mask and be transfigured into triradiate daylight?

Save yourself while the divine torch is burning above you.  For when it goes away from you it will vanish, even as the dancing moonlight has vanished in the depths of the lake.

Sunrise on the 'Sea' of Galilee, seen from Tiberias

St. Nikolai Velimirovich (1880-1956), Prayers By the Lake, V (Grayslake, IL: Diocese of New Gracanica and Midwestern America, 2010), 108-110.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Suffering and the Remaking of God

We do not engage with God as he is.  Instead, all of us, from the theologians of many books to the occasional church attender, all of us approach God through our self-generated idea of who God is.  Most of these constructs are subconscious, most have accompanied us all our lives.  These theories, these constructs, these projections shield us from who God really is, from reality as it is. 

We are constantly adjusting this construct, this god, to help us make sense of our current predicaments.  Our constructs are pillars of the narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves and our situations, and they form the presuppositions behind how we present ourselves to others.  We build our concepts, our assumptions about God from what we’ve heard from others, from picking and choosing from the Bible what is meaningful to us, from how we interpret what our experience tells us.  Often this is a process of decades.  God becomes becomes increasingly hidden behind a carefully constructed comfort, always on our side, never against us.  Our faith is one of positive declarations.  God, or our version of God, is declaimed as the answer to every problem.  And after carefully laying one religious card against the other, laboriously building what in reality is merely a house of cards - this faith of ours - we close our eyes and hope desperately that God will keep his promises, by which we mean hope that God won’t let bad things happen to me.  (I realize I may just be talking about me here).

One galaxy among billions.

But as Francis Schaeffer stated a generation ago, Your god is too small.  God is not shaped or constrained by our fears.  God uses a palette that ranges from galaxy clusters to quarks and leptons, and beyond, as these are just what we are currently aware of.  The earth is such a very little thing, a nothing in the scheme of the universe.  And of all the billions of people currently alive, and of the billions of other individuals who sleep in the dust of death, what is my life, what are my thoughts, what are my doings for good or for evil, in light of all the rest?  God is beyond our ability to conceive, much less describe.  Every metaphor we might use is insufficient and self referential.  At best they can but point.  We scribble like mad men on the walls of our sin-bound asylum cells, literally not knowing what we are talking about.

Crying Girl - Iraq War.  Windows of Suffering #23

All too often it takes suffering to upend our comfortable constructs of God, to prove our confident words and theological bluster to be so much chaff driven by the winter wind, leaving us sputtering and grasping the empty air for balance as we confront both the truth about ourselves and the reality of the living God, the Holy Trinity, revealed in the narratives and stories and letters we call the Bible.  The Bible is just one story after another where this sort of thing happens.  How we have managed to go from the Scriptures to the sanitized safe deities of our self-consumed imaginations is beyond me.

Suffering is painful not just because of our loss of health or loved ones or property or career, but because our constructs, our gods, are revealed as insufficient, as false.  And inasmuch as they prevented us from engaging with the true and living God, such constructs are in fact idols.  Suffering is disorienting because it demonstrates that the world is not as we wanted or pretended it to be, nor is God as we wanted or needed him to be.  God, the true and living God, is not concerned for our comfort, but rather for our salvation.  God makes no magical declaration from heaven that we are saved, rather he plunges into the mire of our lives and relationships and rebellions and ignorances and engages us with himself.  This is terrifying.  This he calls salvation.  And given the profundity of our blindness, our ignorance, our pride, our preference for lies, salvation will often mean suffering, as one by one we are disabused of our worldly ways of thinking and coping and relating.  This is what the Bible routinely refers to as repentance.

(Shockingly, the only way to measure where we are in terms of our pilgrimage is not in terms of our faith, or of our pious declarations, or our church attendance, or theological convictions.  Rather Jesus says that the tree is known by its fruit.  How we treat our neighbor is the indicator of whether we are bound for the New Jerusalem or headed towards the hell of eternal self consumption. I find this sobering.)

Suffering jars us loose from our shallow, inadequate, wrong thinking about God.  Some people foolishly blame (the one and true) God when their paltry constructs prove themselves the cardboard cut-out gods in a thunderstorm they are.  The thunderstorm is actually God’s mercy, if we can but have eyes to see and the courage to acknowledge our inadequate god-making and the humility to walk towards the one greater than [Solomon, the Queen of the South, Jonah the prophet, the Temple, our DIY deities...] that is calling us by name to himself even in the midst of the suffering.

At present I cannot make sense of my own suffering. A confusing amount of it is, of course, self-inflicted.  But it has been such that I’ve been forced to abandon the easy constructs, the easy theology, the easy Christianity of my past.  The deluge has been too great.  Like the typhoon in Tacloban.  None of them, these flimsy houses of my faith, could stand.  I pass judgment on nobody – how could I, enduring as I am the emptying of my life?  Instead, I recognize my own fault, my own meanness, my own inadequacy, my own sin at every point, in every relationship, in every work and word.  

Victim of Typhoon Haiyan surveying what's left of his life.

But it is at this very point, in my sin, and the sin of others, and in the suffering it has caused, that God reveals himself, not just as the God of galaxies and leptons, but as the God of the Jewish teenager Mary.  God, the living and true God, stands not above the world, thundering imprecations at the world from the safe distance of his heaven. God does not remodel.  He makes all things new. But to do so God comes to me, to all of us.  Not the made-up me, not the self-sufficient me, not the me of a thousand excuses.  But he comes to me the broken, undone sinner.  He comes to find the one who is lost.  A baby is conceived in Mary’s womb, the incarnation of God the Son into this world, my world, our world.  God beyond words, God beyond worlds, becomes God with us, God for us, God finding us.

Good Shepherd icon, 3rd century, Roman Catacombs

I do not know how this is going to end.  I do not know how much more I will lose.  But in the midst of this suffering, having abandoned the lesser gods of my fragile, comfortable, inadequate faith, I find myself in the hands of the living and true God.  It’s the most dangerous place I have ever been.  And the most safe.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

My New Life (as a substitute teacher)

The last time I was in an American high school was back in 1977.  There was a pencil sharpener to the right of the blackboard up front in every classroom.  Blackboards were blackboards and we used chalk to write on them.  Texas Instrument calculators were the rage, as were four color pens.  Telephones were found on the secretary’s desk, the principal’s desk, the assistant principal’s desk and the football coach’s desk.  And nowhere else.  We wrote out our homework by hand with a no. 2 pencil on a piece of paper and handed it in, and got the same papers handed back with our mistakes duly noted in red ink.  Everybody spoke English.  And everybody was either white or black.

I started my new part-time career today as a substitute teacher.  I was informed that a job was available when a computer called me and offered me a job, which I accepted by pressing #1 on my hand-held mobile device.  I was able to go online and find out which class it was, what notes the teacher left me, and what assignments the students would be doing under my aegis.  And after a decidedly 1970s breakfast of GrapeNuts (with Almond milk), I drove to the big city high school to meet my fate.

The staff have been wonderful – they made me feel like I was actually making a difference.  The other teachers I’ve met have been out of the way helpful, perhaps because I have that deer-in-the-middle-of-the-road look about me.  And the students – except for the ipads, the iphones, the screens in the back on which are broadcast the announcements and daily school news delivered by student anchors, the powerpoint projector and projection camera placed so that the teacher can simply write notes and it is immediately broadcast on the screen, not to mention the copier/scanner just behind me - the students are just like students everywhere.  Sort of.  

Continuing my spot check inventory: no blackboards anywhere. But there are whiteboards on two walls.  There is an old fashioned clock just above the door, and an old fashioned pencil sharpener somewhere in the back of the classroom.  And big school windows that let in lots of light.  But as I scanned my new environment I had the decided impression that some things had changed since last I frequented one of these halls of learning.

Back to the students.  I was subbing for an ESOL teacher (English for Speakers of Other Languages).  In my several classrooms today I had students from eastern Congo, Afghanistan, Columbia, Mexico, Honduras, Dominican Republic, China, Bhutan, Nepal and Thailand.  Most had arrived in the past couple of years.  Two had come yesterday.  Having been an ASOL (Amharic for Speakers of Other Languages) student myself, I immediately understood what these kids were up against.  It is hard enough just being a teenager.  But to do it immersed in a completely new culture and language is not a happy set of circumstances.  Learning the language and culture of one’s new adopted home makes one feel like a four year old.  That’s bad enough when one is 41 with a PhD.  It’s OMG worse when one is a teenager.

So that was my job today.  Shepherding some new Americans through a couple of assignments.  They all looked like this having a substitute thing was just normal and so I attempted to project the same aura.  I can tell I’m going to be learning a lot about education in the coming days though.  In the past four decades of doing whatever it is I’ve been doing, I seem to have missed quite a bit.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Runner’s Log #13 – Marathon Day: More, I’m Sure, Than You Want to Know

Last minute preparations before we head for the starting line downtown.

The weather people had forecast ‘some showers’ overnight and then sun by starting time at 8.  Of course I woke up at 5 with rain just bucketing down, which continued through 6 and as we were looking for parking in downtown Richmond at 7.  

As ready as we'll ever be!

My daughter’s half marathon got underway at 7:30.  Somehow, the rain stopped, except for the dripping from the trees.  And my son-in-law and I watched as wave after wave of half marathoners blasted off, and we cheered as my daughter bounded off into the gloom.

Ready!  Steady!...

At 8 there was no sun, but we started nonetheless.  I was fashionably dressed in my thrift store flannel shirt to keep me warm and my Hefty lawn and garden trash bag to keep me dry, because by this time it was misting, as well as sprinkling from the overhead trees.  I must have, by this time, descended into auto pilot.  I remember looking around me at the hundreds of other runners in my Wave 4, thinking that every single one of them has worked so hard to get to this place, and then also thinking that these are the people who keep all those running stores in business!  And then without fanfare the crowd began moving, then jogging up to the starting line and then through and we were off.  I remember saying to myself, ‘Thus it begins.’

The bag man to the left is me.

I had several fears as I thought about the race.  One is that I would aggravate my knee injury.  But that never happened.  I was also afraid that I would start too fast and pay later.  I didn’t think that was happening until we started passing mileage markers.  I thought I was in the middle of a group that was pacing itself to do 9 ½ minute miles, but we were doing 8 ½ minute miles, which was not a happy thing.  So I tried to slow down, which was very hard to do.  I succeeded in slowing down some, but I passed the half-marathon point at 2:02, which is about a 9:20 pace, which is faster than I run. I realized that could be trouble.

If that wasn't enough, between mile 2 and 3 it rained.  Enough to get me really wet.  More importantly, enough to get my shirt wet.  The problem here, of course, is chafing.  I’d not had an issue with chafing since my  disastrous long run in Minnesota, after which I had bought some sort of anti-chafing stuff to smear on my susceptible underarms.  I had put my normal dose on and made sure to smear some on my nipples as well (I had read horror stories of guys with bloody nipples…).  This, I am sure, would have gotten me through the race in normal conditions.  But at mile 3 I now had a wet shirt with 23 miles to go, which did not bode well.  Sure enough at mile 12, I began to feel the telltale sign that things were rubbing the wrong way under my right arm.  I still had a very long way to go.  I decided that if it got bad, I would just pretend it was summertime and take my shirt off and tuck it in my shorts and soldier on.

In the meantime, I had been impressed by how well-organized the whole event was.  The Richmond people had obviously done all this before, and knew what they were doing.  And the course was fantastic, with a great mix of urban, suburban and rural.  Many of the trees had cooperated and kept their beautiful leaves.  And there were lots of folks along the route to cheer the runners on, even if the damp weather had kept others at home.  I must have seen 10 signs with some variation of ‘You are running better than the government.’  But that's not saying much.  My favorite sign was, ‘Run faster, or the Kenyans will drink all the beer!’

I had a simple hydration strategy: ‘Drink everything they offer you.’ And so I did.  I had also packed enough ‘Chomps’ to have four ever 6 miles.  And then, as the miles piled up, there were ‘junk food stops’ where you could get gummy bears or pretzels or who knows what else.  I refused to look.  However, a local donut store was handing out donut holes at one point, and I was sorely tempted.  But I passed by.  Five miles later, there they were again and this time I caved.  Big mistake.  My mouth was dry and I had all these sugar crumbs in my mouth…   About mile 21 or so there was a beer stop.  This was welcome.  Evidently they were offering whiskey shots as well, which would have been even more welcome at this point.  But sadly I didn’t see any and it really wasn’t the time to rummage around under the tables.

I was doing ok, even pretty good through mile 16.  I had been looking forward to mile 16 for several reasons.  First of all, I would be finishing the longest hill of the day, the 1 ½  mile beast of an incline crossing the James River on the Robert E. Lee Bridge up and back into downtown Richmond after 3 miles of a beautiful run along the river and another 3 miles through rolling suburbia. I was glad to get that subtle monster behind me.  But most of all I was looking forward to seeing my family.  My wife and son-in-law had all cheered for my daughter at the half-marathon finish line, and then they were all going to walk the couple of blocks to the city side of the Lee bridge on cheer me on as I passed by.  And sure enough, they were there.  They were such a welcome sight.  My daughter, of the just completed half marathon, ran down the sidewalk to where I was and back up with me – where these young people get the energy I have no idea.  Anyway I got all teary and then had pull myself together with the reality of ten more miles ahead of me.

Getting rid of my rain-soaked hat.

Off he goes...  Just 10 more miles...

The tears took me by surprise.  At mile 8 I found myself daydreaming about finishing, and I teared up.  And I finally had to say to myself ‘STOP!  You can’t do this NOW!  You’ve got A LONG WAY TO GO!  Wait till you really finish and then you can cry all you want.’  This happened three or four more times during the race.  And since I didn’t have much else I was doing, I had plenty of time to ponder why.

After finishing the bridge and long incline, after the rush of seeing my family, my body decided that it wasn’t having fun anymore.  It wasn’t knees, it wasn’t recalcitrant poplitea, it wasn’t hydration or fuel, it was just a general rebellion.  And then out of the blue came cramps.  At which point I was most grateful for someone’s decision to place porta-potties just there.

After making strategic use of the facilities, I felt better, but I could tell that it was payback time for my earlier pace.  On all my long runs, mile 17 or 18 have always been really hard.  This time, mile 17 found me with the same issue, but with a lot further to go.

I decided that I would say my morning prayers, again.  This was actually an excellent choice because it got me thinking about something else besides myself and how bad I was feeling.  And having them memorized meant I didn’t have to expend energy generating dialogue, especially since the only dialogue I was capable of at the time was, ‘O God Help Me!’  I also decided that I would walk through every hydration spot, which occurred around every mile marker.  So I would give myself 30-45 seconds and then countdown to a ‘blast off’, such as it was.  This actually helped a lot.  The rest was just gutting it out.  One foot in front of the other.  My right under arm was badly chafed and hurting.  I felt like I was hardly creeping along.  I was being passed by different people, but I consoled myself with the thought that the vast majority of these people passing me could be my children!  And then I would daydream about finishing, tear up and have to say, ‘STOP! NOT YET, YOU FOOL!’  It was hard.

Marathon Training...for an academic

Having not found whiskey at mile 22, I carried on through 23.  At this point, as I somewhere passed 23.7, I entered into ‘Farthest I have ever run in my life’ territory.  And I was still running!  I was hoping that, with two miles to go, I would generate from somewhere deep within me some sort of adrenalin rush to carry me through the last bit in a burst of glory.  Nope.   No adrenalin, no dopamine, no runner’s high, no burst of energy, no glorious feeling.  However, there was gravity, and at this point it began working in my favor!  God bless the course makers! The last quarter mile was downhill from downtown to the finish line at the James River.  As I was running the last mile downtown, I kept looking for the last turn, hoping for the last downhill.  And it didn’t come and didn’t come. And then finally, around one more corner and there it was!  You have no idea the stunned relief!  A long slow curve.  Crowds were cheering along each side.  The announcer called out my name (how did he know my name?).  And there it was.  The finish line.  The end of the race.

And I promptly burst into tears and just wept.  And my daughter came running through the crowd and she was crying, too.  And we embraced and the world gyred around me.

Whence the tears?  This past year has, in many ways been the hardest year and the worst year of my life.  I have been stripped of so much.  Everything I had worked for, everything that I thought I was, identity, work, relationships – everything is changed.  But through it all, somehow I've managed to keep praying, and keep running.  

 I’ve always enjoyed running as a way to exercise, but I never dreamed of doing any kind of distance other than a 10k.  I felt it was beyond me.  A year ago, in the midst of a very bad time for me, I started adding a mile to my Saturday runs.  Slowly, I increased my distance to the point I was running a 10k every weekend in the late winter.  8 miles in the Spring.  By the time I came back to the States in May I was able to run 9 miles.  When my daughter invited me to do the Richmond Half Marathon with her, I thought that I might actually be able to pull it off.

But as the late Spring turned into hot and sweaty summer, I found  that I was adding mileage and staying healthy.  10 miles, 11 miles, 12 miles, 13 miles 14 miles.  I realized that I could do the Half Marathon, and that maybe the unthinkable was actually possible.  In August I was doing 17, 18 and 19 miles.  In September I ran 20 miles for the first time.  Part of me was concerned that I might be ‘peaking’ too soon, but then I decided that I would press on to work on my endurance.  And so there was a 5 week stretch when I had four 20+ mile runs.  And then came my injury and my week-long lay off, and another week of coming back very slowly, and that glorious and fun run in DC with my daughter, and then two 4 mile runs during the week before race day, and then the marathon. 

Running the marathon, and all that led up to it, is the most arduous physical thing I’ve ever attempted.  And starting from where I started, it is the equivalent of an academic PhD, at least in my book.  But most of all, it was something that I could control, more or less.  With everything else in my life seemingly out of my control, this was something that I could do.  I could set the goals and take the steps to meet them.  Nobody else could do it for me.  Nobody else could be blamed for me not getting it done.  And so to set finishing a marathon as a goal, and then months out work on getting myself in the kind of shape where such a thing might be possible, and then hoping that my body would tolerate the training and not fall apart.  And then just getting out and running. 4 mile runs, 6 miles, 10 miles, 14 miles, 20 miles, 23 miles, three and four times a week, racking up totals of 22 miles/week, 28 miles/week, 33 miles/week, 44 miles/week, and then that really stupid 52 miles/week when the muscle behind my right knee threw up the white flag.

It’s easy to get lost in all the details of training.  But behind it all, I think, was the drive to demonstrate to myself that I can do this, I can make it happen.  Sure there are things that are out of my control to effect.  And those are painful places to be.  But I do not need to let those painful places define me.  Because when push comes to shove, I can run a marathon.  I can take care of those things that are in my power to do, to change, to effect.  As the Apostle Paul says, ‘I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.’  This is why I wept at the finish line, and why I’m weeping even now as I type this.  So much of life just sort of slides by without my being aware of it.  But this past Saturday, this race, this marathon, this was important.

The bigger race, however, doesn’t seem to be done just yet.  This past weekend has become one of those significant mileage markers along the way, for me at least.  And I’m finding that, as I’m daydreaming about finishing this real race that I’m in the midst of, of maybe having an unseen crowd cheering as I come down that last hill, as I hear the announcer calling out my name, as I make it over and see and embrace those so dear to me, I tear up (which is embarrassing right now because I am at work…).  But I’ve got to pull myself out of it, because I’ve still got a long way to go, and I’m not there yet. 

But somehow, someday, as I keep putting one foot in front of the next, that day will come.  I’ll round that last corner.  And whether I’ll be running, or walking, or crawling, or even if they have to fetch me on a stretcher, I’ll cross that finish line.  I’ll be home.

Thanks to my wife, son-in-law and daughter for all the great pictures!  And for being such a great support.