Tuesday, November 30, 2010

U-turns

It was funny...the first couple of times. After that, not so much.

I was with my cross country team at a big regional race down in Charlotte, NC. The kids were excited. This trip had become a tradition for many. Although it was not a required event, about fifteen of them chose to give up a full day of Black Friday shopping, opting instead for a bumpy and boisterous bus ride and an overnight stay. I have to admit; I was not fully committed to the adventure. I was exhausted from having out-of-town guests for over a week and had given up highly anticipated plans to attend my 35th high school reunion and visit my mom in Pennsylvania. But the kids begged and I relented, not wanting them to miss an opportunity to end the season in style.

The trip went well on the way down, arriving at our hotel without difficulty. We also successfully managed to find the race headquarters to pick up race numbers as well as directions to the event site. Our next goal was to visit the course before nightfall to familiarize ourselves with the paths and stretch our legs in a light run. Easy enough.

Easy enough if we could find the right road. Somehow, we missed a key turn, extended a fifteen minute trip to forty-five and practiced the fine art of U-turns, most of them legal. After jogging the course in the deepening dusk, we climbed back onto the bus, wanting very much to get refreshed and find dinner. I was somewhat melancholy, mindlessly gazing out the window, when my assistant coach (who doubles as the bus driver) handed the map to one of the senior guys. Bad idea. Wrong turns and endless speculation about the relationship of the downtown skyline to our desired destination dominated. The once carefree chatter ceased as hunger pains grew. I kicked myself for not remembering the GPS.

We finally arrived back at the hotel if for a brief few minutes, time enough to tidy up and grab wallets. Back on the bus we piled, eager to fill our stomachs. Pulling up to the hotel's carport to pick up the last few people, spirits rebounded, the bus once again filled with happy noise...and the noise of the bus's roof mounted vent and escape hatch being unceremoniously ripped from its hinges. A loud, incessant buzzer sounded to tell us the hatch was awry. Really? The hole in the roof wasn't clue enough?

Thankfully, no damage was done to the hotel. A couple of kids held the broken cover in place as we drove the three miles to the location of approximately ten restaurants. Unfortunately, the entrance into the mall area was missed, finding us driving down a limited access highway instead. The chatter once again ceased as the buzz of the still-resounding alarm spotlighted our situation. After another turn-about, we finally arrived at our destination and filled our bellies. Packing tape now filled the gaps around the fractured vent.

"You got this?", I asked Jeff the next morning. After a scenic tour all over Charlotte the day before, I wanted to confirm that he had his bearings to get us back to the event site.

"Yep. Sure do" he said, handing the map once again to the same boy. I should have known better. I unwisely relaxed and sat back content to entertain some things heavy on my mind. Bad idea. Before long, I realized that we were again displaced from the proper route. A few more speculative U-turns and a much less direct route eventually returned us to the race site in the nick of time. The angst of arriving late must have been motivating. Jeff went out and ran a lifetime best and won the masters division of the open race.

After a day of successful racing, I took hold of the lousy and incomplete map and directions, guiding us on our way back home. It was without incident. Without incident, that is, until an hour and a half up the road, I startled out of a light sleep to realize we had missed a key exit onto another highway. It was almost laughable. Another grand detour and a few more groans eventually led back to Lynchburg. It could not have come any sooner.

So, what's the point? We are all laughing about it now but it wasn't quite so funny in the midst of it all. Had I just remembered the GPS, we would likely have had no difficulties. The problem was that we were relying on instinct, faulty as it was, coupled with a photocopied, hand-drawn and incomplete map. Even an old-school atlas would have provided superior direction.

I get myself into a lot of trouble, wasting time and energy, when I fail to rely on good directions. Surely, they are available but I either choose to ignore or disregard the directives. I rely, rather, on my own faulty premises and feelings, trying to reason my way back to where I need to be. That isn't too bright.

I gain understanding from your precepts;  therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp for my feet,a light on my path. I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws. (Psalm 119: 104-106)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Appearances

Hum. Maybe he has a point, I thought to myself. Time for a little introspection.

I know I shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Many a rich word has been written between the pages of old, crusty and dusty covers. But I do not speak of a literal book. I think you know what I mean. I see a dirty, homeless-looking guy holding a sign in the median by Wal-Mart and immediately have thoughts of drunkenness and lack of motivation. A morbidly obese overweight woman in stretch polyester pants walks by speaking harshly to a young child and I assume she's not much of a mother. Or, I see a tattooed teenage boy trying to keep his pants up and figure he has little to offer the world. Am I right or wrong thinking these thoughts?

This is not a phenomena peculiar to my generation. My parents were suspect of boys with long hair and girls wearing bell bottom pants and leather fringe back in the day. In their minds, no self-respecting Christian young person should dress that way since there was a cultural association with the Beetles, revolution, drugs, alcohol, and free love. Was there an element of truth in their thinking? Perhaps. The masses do have a tendency to mimic the characteristics of whatever-or whoever-they fancy themselves to be. But even if the outward appearance of being a radical hippie was there, was that reason enough to hold those people at bay?

We have a son who walks to his own beat. He has pierced ears and doesn't own any real trousers, opting instead for pencil thin jeans. He is a creative, right-brained photographer who expresses himself through his work and appearance. And, he seems to attract more of the same. Recently, a girl showed up at our house with hot pink hair and a loud, interesting dress and sweater, her well-endowed features spilling out over the top. I have to be honest. It was hard not to make an instant judgment. I made it a point to speak to her, howbeit not for long since she and Seth were watching a movie. She seemed like a nice girl and had to have something on the ball; she had just turned 17, graduated early from high school and was taking college classes. Still, it was hard not to make judgments. I wish it were not so.

James strongly warned about giving preference based on outward appearance. Review it with me (James 2: 1-13) but be prepared. These are powerful words.

   My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.  Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
   Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
   If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
  Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. 

Goodness. Mercy triumphs over judgment. That is an incredible truth that is so easy to say and so hard to do. Is it possible that this girl's outward appearance indicates a set of values not consistent with holy living? Maybe. Maybe not. But does it relieve me of the responsibility to interact with grace and mercy, showing her God's love through my words and actions? No. Absolutely not.

God help me.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Good Race

It could not have been a more beautiful day. The sky was bright, air clear, temperatures crisp. The brilliant colors of fall covered the mountainside, leaves refusing to lose their grip on the trees at the lower elevations. And there I was, running through woods just as happy as could be. That was a nice change.

In recent years, I haven't always been happy. Races had become a chore. An obligation. Sure, there was some satisfaction in getting the job done but there were many more moments of pain and suffering, both mental and physical. I suppose there were a lot of reasons for that; insufficient training, poor time management, getting pulled in a hundred directions, burnout after nearly two decades of hard running, and the prevailing thought that I would rather have a power tool or shovel in my hand to work on a big project. Hence, not a lot of smiles.

Photo courtesy of Seth Trittipoe
But this year was different. The start of the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile Trail run in the pre-dawn hours was met with an element of anticipation. I had put in long trail miles through the summer and daily shorter, more intense miles with my cross country team. There is something motivating about trying to stay ahead--or at least abreast--of the team members. It's that example thing that spurs you on to producing pools of sweat, aching legs and burning lungs. A few pounds shed in the process and no injuries loomed on the horizon. I thought there was a possibility of a good day.

The miles clicked by as did the mental cogs in my brain. Eat. Drink. Run when I'm supposed to run. Walk when I'm supposed to walk. Be smooth and efficient. Get to Long Mountain Wayside in good time. The race starts there.

For the first time in the race, I glanced at my watch at the "halfway" point; a bit more than the 26.9 mile advertised distance. History has proven that no matter how speedy or turtle-like, if you double the first half time, you get pretty close to your finish time. My watch said 5:11.  I wanted to be closer to ten hours than eleven. There was hope.

My second half was more social than the first. I ended up playing cat and mouse with a number of the same guys. A few wanted to know what was coming up in the course and I was happy to share my knowledge with them, this looking to be my thirteenth finish. Strong marching up the hills and steady running felt good. I was able to pass a good number of people, particularly encouraging in the closing miles of the race. With sore feet from significant rock-kicking my only malady, I crossed the line in 10:18.

10:18. Definitely not my fastest (8:57 back in 1998) and not my slowest (11:14 in 2006). However, I had not run better since 2004. I enjoyed the day, embracing the hardship of the elevation gain and the terrain. I had no in-the-pit low times. I was able to eat and drink with ease (except when I overdosed on Gummy Bears.) I was dressed perfectly for the day and enjoyed making footprints in the first snow of the year. It was a good race and a good ending.

A good race. I think of another good race; the one I am to be running on a daily basis. Sure, there will be rough spots in that race. Times of doubt. Times of angst. But there will also be joy and movement forward will be possible through love.

Run the good race.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Say it outloud. Write it down.

Goodness. Best of intentions have gotten me again. I really, really wanted to post at least one a week. But from the looks of it, I have fallen off the wagon since September. It's not that I haven't thought about it. In fact, I had these thoughts rolling around inside my head for quite a while. But life gets busy and my energy run out at the end of the day. However, I must pen some ideas now lest they dissipate with the wind rustling the leaves outside my window.

A week ago Thursday, my cross country team was facing conference championships on Saturday. It has been a good year but a few things were yet to be accomplished. In a "fireside chat" before we set out on our run I asked the kids-all of them-to publicly state their goal for the race. After the initial panic subsided, the kids started talking. Most took the task quite seriously. Some had a time goal to beat. Others wanted to place. A friendly but mutual "I want to beat her" dual even emerged. Two runners wanted to win it all. Each goal, no matter how optomistic or realistic, was written on a tablet and guarded for safe keeping. On Monday we would revisit that list.

Well, guess what happened? That's right. Many of the goals were achieved. Great satisfaction followed in the wake. But what about those who fell short? Each was analyzed for it's merit and what may have gone wrong. We had to talk about how to respond to apparent "failure." Was your pre-race preparation adequate? Could you have done any better at a particular point in the race? Did your will betray you going up that tough hill or chasing down one last opponent?

It was an interesting exercise not only for them but for me. When we commit to something openly, our feet are held to the proverbial fire. It's hard to escape our own words, our intentions, our goals. Will we fail somewhere along the way? Probably. But as the fortune cookie quip read at the restaraunt on the way home from the championship: "A man may fail many times but he is not a failure until he stops trying."

I commit to write at least once a week. There. I said it. Now help me keep to it.