Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Walking the thin line

I was in the Dollar Store two days before Christmas, picking up last minute this and thats. I'm still trying to figure out why the store is named as it is. It's an impossible feat to spend one lonely dollar. My bill is always much higher. But apparently, others find the same to be true. The lady in front of me came up $1.83 short of her $36 purchase. She laughed at not having quite enough cash, pulling out some plastic instead. The cashier, however, refused the card. Rather, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the required shortfall, dropping it in the register's drawer. My fellow shopper's jaw flapped open at the unexpected generosity of the cashier. She looked at me to verify what had just happened. When I confirmed--and applauded--the cashier's kind actions, the customer returned the credit card to her wallet and walked toward the door, an obvious bounce in her Christmas cheer  lightened steps.

What a wonderful example of a Christmas blessing: unexpected, kind, generous goodwill to a stranger. I wonder if the cashier was living out her faith in a very practical way. Or, was this lovely deed performed out of a general sense of kindness found in many who do not bear the name of Christ? Should we who are Christ-followers be distinctly different from those who are not? Should our actions and conversation be held to a higher standard?

For days my brain churned at the questions, particularly in light of a recent string of Facebook comments. A few weeks ago, the news media reacted strongly to comments made by Phil Robertson, the cornerstone of the wildly popular Duck Dynasty clan. Robertson, a devout Christian who happens to be a football-star-turned savvy businessman who turned a passion for hunting into a multi-million dollar empire) was interviewed by Drew Magary. Magary, an author writing for GQ magazine, spent a day with Robertson, asking pointed questions amidst shooting bows, guns, and touring around the back woods of Louisiana. Among many things, Magary says, "I am comfortable here in these woods with Phil and his small cache of deadly weaponry. He is welcoming and gracious."

The author and Robertson live and think in two different worlds. Magary is a self-proclaimed city boy who reveals a surprising magnetic draw to the simple kind of life Robertson lives despite his celebrity. His language choices include expletives that are foreign to Robertson's vocabulary. Shooting the evening meal is a novel idea. And Robertson's wicked, sinful past in contrast to his post-conversion life's goal of proclaiming the Gospel seems to be somewhat of an anomaly to the author. So, it's not surprising that questions are asked that reveal Phil's not-so-politically correct views on morality.

It is not my intent to repeat the "He said, then he said's" of the article. (You can read the entire article here.) Rather, I'd like to think about a Christian's responsibility to speak truth in the context of a social audience. Now, there is no question that Phil believes that homosexuality is wrong. But heterosexual sex outside of marriage, as well as other acts such as bestiality, are also viewed as immoral based on many Biblical statements. As a fellow Christian who holds the same views, I know where he is coming from and understand his comments.

Should we be surprised that the media stoned Phil for his comments, boldly claiming him to be a hate-filled homophobic white racist despite his statement that "We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job. We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later. . . "?  (Phil was quoted about his personal experiences of working side-by-side in the fields with blacks, noting they were happy and content in the pre-entitlement and welfare era. Some viewed that as racist.)

Society as a whole calls for tolerance; tolerance of anyone and anything. The idea is that everyone has a right to decide what is acceptable for them. There are no absolutes. Everything is relative. I accept you. You accept me. Live and let live. However, should a person who believes in the authority of Scripture vocalize a view that runs contrary to the cultural norm, they are more times than not
labeled as a hater. In other words, tolerance is seldom extended to anyone who espouses a view different from the current social mores and ethos.

Since posting something on Facebook in support of the Robertsons, I have had a week or so to contemplate the issues. There were a number of supporters in the comments section of my post. However, there was one friend who took great issue with the Robertsons, Phil in particular. He responded with accusations of unkindness, hatred and bigotry, suggesting that Robertson's positive childhood experiences of working side-by-side with black Americans was "kinda ridiculous," inferring the Louisiana native was whacked for saying those particular blacks were happy. This friend's numerous comments drew the responses of some of my other friends. For the most part, I bowed out of the conversation, a prevailing pit of discomfort growing inside. Understanding that the printed word can often be misinterpreted, it still seemed to me that he had latched onto this bone and was not going to let it go. The tone of his posts came across as anything but kind, gracious and accepting, qualities he required of Robertson. A week later, in a totally unrelated post (that was itself accusatory and perhaps even a bit inflammatory), he continued to display a lack of tolerance for those who think differently by making an unsolicited and negative swipe at the Duck Dynasty folks.

I will admit that it annoys me to be spanked for holding non-negotiable values based on Scripture. It irks me that the non-Christian is allowed to say whatever he or she wants, using speech that is often vile and rude, while the Christian is expected to remain silent or risk being colored by secularists as stupid, ignorant, backward, bigots, and homophobes. I hate it when disagreement is automatically pegged as hate speech, though no actions confirm that assumption. But let's remind ourselves of something. As Christians, we must still be gracious because unregenerate man has no ability to understand spiritual things. Now, if you are a non-Christian reading this, that last statement is not disparaging. Rather, it is a statement of biblical principle: Without the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit, natural man cannot truely make sense of the spiritual. (See 1 Cor.1:18-251 Cor 2:6-16)

I fully understand that Christians will be misunderstood and I must learn to accept that. I know it will never be popular to take a stand. It's been that way for thousands of years and will likely continue. Read the New Testament. Take note of example after example of Christian persecution. Did those early believers, imperfect as they were, deserve to be burned alive, their flaming bodies serving as human torches to light Nero's gardens? Did Paul deserve to be stoned numerous times for proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ? Did the enslaved Christians warrant the wrath of the master? No. But let's not forget that out of hardship comes strength. Out of mistreatment comes an opportunity to display grace and love.

Do we need to scream Christ in order to be heard? I don't think so. Paul, writing to the church at Colossae in ancient Phrygia (Western Turkey) while under house arrest in Rome, addressed the congregation of Jews (and some Gentiles). At the time, Christianity under the Roman Empire was regarded as an illegal sect. This often put the Christians in conflict with the government's prescribed customs and mores. (Sound familiar?) Failure to conform to the law led to a death sentence. But despite the challenges of living in such a society, Paul instructs them. "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Colossians 4:2-6).

Wise in actions. Grasp opportunities. Gracious speech. Why? So that doors remain open to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

None of us are perfect. Too often we open mouth, insert foot. Speak too quickly. Speak too loudly. But it's not for lack of biblical instruction. The first dozen verses of James 3 describes the issue we have with an untamed tongue. Like a bit in a horse's mouth, a rudder on a large ship, and a spark that ignites a forest fire, we are warned of the damage that little wagging tongue can do. We are wise to think before we speak.

Timothy, a first century Believer was encouraged to "set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity" (1 Timothy 4:12). Paul writes to the Philippians church: "Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ" (KJV, Philippians 4:12a).

But is there a time to boldly speak truth? Apparently so. Consider the young church at Ephesus. They lived within a very pagan society that made it difficult, at times, to stay the course. The apostle Paul understood this. Since it is impossible to make it more clear, read what he had to say in Ephesians 4:17-29.

"So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. (Author's note: Sounds like a contemporary problem.)

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. ‘In your anger do not sin.’ Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Please note that we are to speak the truth in love with the intention of edification and restoration. Though these directives are addressed to believers and their interactions with each other, the principle can probably be applied to the believer/non-believer relationship as well.

Consider the interaction of Jesus with the Samaritan women. The encounter described in John 4 takes place at a well in Samaria where no self-respecting Jew would dare travel. No self-respecting Jew, that is, except for Jesus. He intentionally engages the woman in conversation. This "half-breed" was flabbergasted  that a Jew would speak to her. But Jesus, stopping at the ancient well of Jacob, is tired and thirsty. He asks her to draw him a drink of water. "Me? You talking to me? Why?!?" (paraphrased)

He says, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:13). She is intrigued and asks the Lord for that kind of water. What happens next in this conversation with the dumbfounded women? He asks her to go fetch her husband. He was setting up a pointed yet profitable conversation.

"I have no husband," she offers.

"You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true" (verses 17, 18).

Busted. That woman's skin had to be crawling by now. How did he know? Regardless, she was so impacted by the encounter that she ran back to the city and returned with a throng of people. Many believed, including the women. In this one-on-one situation, the truth of Jesus himself overrode any need to beat the truth into her. Her sin was revealed quietly and effectively. She responded to the Divine.

And what about the adulterous women in John 8? The Pharisees, a bunch of self-righteous religious do-gooders caught a women in the act. Jesus was nearby, and wanting to trap him, they paraded the woman in front of him, pleased with themselves for discovering this human trophy of sin. "The law of Moses says she must be stoned. What do you say?" (Paraphrased.)

The Master's response? "But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.' Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground" (John 8: 6-8).

One by one, we are told, the accusers slink away until only the woman and Jesus remain. Breaking what I'm sure was a very awkward silence, he looks her in the eye and asks, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

Her response? "No one, sir."

Was Jesus argumentative with the Pharisees? Do you think Jesus lectured the woman? Did he speak to her with disdain? No. While he did not ignore the sin, he simply spoke the truth in love. "Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Though we are not told the outcome, my bet is on the woman obeying the Master.

So what's the bottom line? How and when should sin be confronted? How do we speak truth in love? Jesus confronted sin at every turn, but not by yelling and screaming. Even so, was he, the sinless perfect one, misunderstood and condemned? Absolutely. All the time. In fact, he was misunderstood and accused all the way to the cross. 

We walk a thin line between conveying truth as Christ did and beating people with truth (as he did not). It should come as no surprise that defending truth, even in a calm and gentle way, will not be understood by all. Still, we should not be silent. Christ was not. In fact, we are called to "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). Though we will inevitably fail from time to time, our goal must be to walk that line with all wisdom and prudence, being careful to uphold the testimony of Jesus Christ and his Gospel.

"Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Peter 2:12).

All Scripture, unless so noted, was quoted from The New International Version, found at http://www.biblegateway.com

Monday, December 16, 2013

666 miles of Hell(gate)

"Last verse, same as the first." In same ways, yes. My last race was the same as my first: I started. I finished. But in many ways, there's no comparison. It took ten finishes and 666 miles  of the devilish Hellgate 100K race to figure it out.

The brainchild of Dr. David Horton, the Hellgate 100k+ (actually 66.6 miles) always begins at one minute after midnight on the second Saturday of December. The race has garnered a near cult-following, many hopeful entrants turned away. Those rewarded a cherished spot must earn Horton's approval as a worthy candidate. It is he who judges an applicant's toughness and ability to cover the rocky, mountainous real estate between the start and finish lines. But even so, the chosen few are never guaranteed a finish. What they are promised is a night and a day of unpredictable weather, trail conditions, and a barrage of self-doubt somewhere along the forest path.

I was forty-five when I sold my soul to the trail devils. Now, at fifty-six, I know them all by name. Cold, Dark, and Windy are three of the brothers. Then there is Roaring River, Icy Boulders, Slippery Slopes, and Hidden Rocks. That last one is the son of Leaves-a-Plenty, who is assigned the task of hiding ankle-wrenching rocks from view. But the family is large. Snow and Sleet are the cold-blooded cousins of Pouring Rain. Long Climb and Never-Ending taunt each runner with alternating messages of "You can do this. No you can't." But this year, the real fiend was Sleepy, a close relative to Dopey and Nod-off-again.

I came into this race greatly under-trained, confidence waning. I even wrote about it beforehand, hoping to conjure up the courage and resolve to take on the devilish imps along the trail. I knew what the race held and, for mere mortals such as myself, the cut-offs would not be my friends. But still, I felt compelled to out run the Devil himself if necessary. Though the race T quipped "We don't HAVE to run Hellgate. We GET to run Hellgate," I had no choice. I HAD to do it. My tenth finish was in sight and it was this year or never. I failed the finish once. I could not fail again.

Photo by John Price
Though I've had trouble staying awake before, little did I know that the evil sleep devils would find me so soon--and so often--once the host of runners took off into the night. It was not long after the knee-deep stream crossing that the need for zzzzzzzzz's hit. Counting steps occupied my mind and held them at bay. But the higher and longer I climbed, the more weeble-woobley I became as my eyelids closed off the environment around me.

Grateful to finally gain the gap at Petite's, I woke to a rocky downhill, grateful to be feeling the ground under my feet. I felt alive and free. As long as I ran, the darts thrown by the Sleepy devil missed the mark. I was alert to the sleet falling around me, the flow of the trail, and the slight breeze coming through naked limbs. But alas, a descent and trail section gave way to another long uphill. The darts once again found their mark.

All night I fought off sleep, albeit not very successfully. Even the landscape now white from sleet-turned snow could not hold my attention. Though hard to explain, the desire to curl up in a little slumbering ball was overwhelming. I fought with all my might to stay upright, singing, shouting, slapping myself, asking myself questions. But before I could answer, I would fall into another micro-sleep, oddly aware of only my slowed pace and weaving steps.

Photo by Cristen Coleman

I ate, drank, took caffeine, and pulled out every trick in my ultra bag. It was hard to imagine how I could possibly finish the race if I could never wake up. Relieved to hit the first cutoff  ahead of time, I chatted with another runner up the next hill, managing to stay coherent. Through the darkened woods I ran, encouraged by legs that responded to the task.

Dawn was breaking by the next aid station. After refueling, the task was to climb another mountain road. Surely, eating, drinking, and talking to people should revive me. But like clockwork, that (and every extended climb up through fifty-two miles) brought on more sleep-hiking. My brain screamed "Noooooooo!" but my head shut down. This was going to be tough.

Miraculously, and despite snow, sleet, freezing rain, and a soaking wet rain, the padding on the cut-off time increased. I knew I could finish if I kept on moving. I knew I HAD to finish. The finish was demanded by not only my desire to bag number ten but by the story I could tell my team. The thought of admitting defeat to these young people was unconscionable. What would an unnecessary failure tell them about suffering, perseverance, and enduring unfortunate circumstances? I needed to walk into Monday's practice so I could testify that success is achieved by overcoming one obstacle at a time, even if that obstacle is the next faltering step.

I did okay. I ran across the painted line on the grass, delighted to see my husband standing there to greet me. Crossing that orange mark removed the huge burden of this particular finish. Sure, I was tired of running and weary of breathing. My time was not speedy but it was not my worst. My legs were okay, nothing was really wrong, and a hot shower was imminent. Relieved, the realization of completing the task began to sink in. My string of Hellgates had come to an end.

Many have told me I'll be back next year. No, I don't think so. Really. I am content to give my slot to another runner who wants to outwit and outlast the woodland devils. However, might I consider a do-over in four years when I am sixty? Hum...maybe.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Before the gates of hell open

It seemed like a good idea eleven years ago. A killer race with a midnight start. Unpredictable weather. Wet feet in the opening miles. Ice. Snow. Howling wind. Off camber, leaf-covered and rocky trail. Sections of the course that seem endless. Miles-long climbs. Technical descents. What's not to love--or hate?

I'm a sucker for such things. When David Horton, also known as King DHo, came up with this cockamamie idea, I signed on. Since then, it's been a running battle in the truest sense. Every year, it's been hard. Other years, even harder. And now, I suspect, this year just may be the hardest.

I failed once half-way through. I bailed when I couldn't breath and hands turned blue, and not from the cold. I still regret the decision to quit. But that's another story. This year the race taunts me with a ten-year finisher award. Only a handful of men have nabbed the honor. Now, it's my turn.

But I am not fully confident. I suppose one is not supposed to admit that out loud. But let's look at the facts. I teach and coach. At my desk by 6 a.m. and home (on good days) a dozen hours later hardly allows time to do much of anything but grab a quick meal, lay out clothes for the next day, and fall into bed for a short night's sleep. Saturdays are filled with all-day coaching responsibilities. Scratch the fun weekend group runs of yesteryear that built as much camaraderie as stamina. I manage to run nearly every workout with my team of high school distance runners, but if specificity is key to training, then that can hardly be considered ultra-worthy.

The forecast for this year calls for cold, miserable rain. No. Let me restate that. The forecast calls for temperatures in the 30s with liquid precipitation for at least portions of the race. "Miserable" is what I perceive that combination will be.

The cut-offs for this race are tight, even tighter than my hamstrings may be partway through the race. And I run slow and hike a lot. Though I hate to use the age card, being three years from my sixth decade doesn't exactly keep the accelerator mashed to the floor.

But I HAVE to finish these 66.6 miles. I HAVE to get #10 in the books. Then, and only then, can I erase this ludicrous event from future calenders. I'll be a year older next year and it will certainly not get any easier. It HAS to be this year.

So how am I going to get it done when the odds are stacked against me?
1) Change my attitude from one of pessimism and fear to optimism and anticipation.
2) Call on twenty years of ultra experience to get me through the miles.
3) Remember conquering previous challenges even when the odds were not in my favor.
4) Embrace the fact that wicked weather will make the journey's completion that much sweeter.
5) Run when I should run. Walk when I should walk.
6) 17 or 18 hours is short in the context of a lifetime. Commit to suffer that long if necessary.
7) Keep moving.
8) Know that it doesn't always get worse.
9) Keep my mind alert. Plan my next book (or at least blog post). Solve a few problems.
10) If #9 turns out to be a fail, go brain-dead but keep on going.

Here begins the mental transformation. Stay tuned for the rest of the story, coming to you sometime after the race this Saturday and at a point when cognition is possible once the brain cells are once again viable. . . which could be close to never.
Interested in other Hellgate stories from the last couple of years?

2012  Just One More Day: Journey to Hellgate and Beyond
2011  The dark Side of the Hellgate Moon
2010  Hellgate: Take 8
2009  Hellacious Hellgate

Roanoke Times Interactive Web Story  featuring video, interviews and race information

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Waiting for the other shoe to drop

A late practice scheduled for my distance runners at the indoor track left me with about an hour to get in a run of my own. I almost felt guilty sneaking away toward "the mountain." I looked forward to trail time with me, myself, and I.

But getting to "the mountain" requires a trek up the steep incline of Candler's Mountain Road. Since it takes awhile for me to get the blood pumping and breathing sounding something less than a coal-fired freight train on its last run, I tried to find my rhythm by distracting myself with the view. Well, not that there was much of one. Crossing the concrete bridge suspended above Route 460 is hardly the epitome of a glorious vista. To the left of the oncoming lane (and the space through which I travel) is a fair share of gravel, bits of broken glass, remnants of prior vehicular collisions, crushed pens, an occasional coin, and a broken piece of a smashed brake light, among other things. But a Hoka? I wasn't expecting that.

For the non-runner, Hokas are gaining ever-increasing attention. Manufactured in France, these running shoes look almost clown-like. The platform above the sole is thick, and made with squishy, marshmallow-like material. The wearer gains at least two-inches in stature, a particularly delightful outcome for short people who wish to be tall. This Hoka characteristic earns incredulous stares from people who can only relate to the disco-inspired platform shoes of  yesteryear. But in addition to the conversion into a taller frame, the Hoka sports an equally attractive wide-bodied base for the purpose of stability. It all works together to deliver an incredibly soft, comfortable ride (for miles on end) while maintaining a nimble feel. But unfortunately, the price of these shoes rivals its girth. At $180 retail, only a serious runner with orthopedically-challenged feet makes such an investment.

So you can imagine my surprised delight to find a Hoka on the bridge. Not two Hokas, as in a right and a left. Nope. Just one. The left. How does this happen? How does one lose just a single shoe? Was there a de-shoed runner roaming the mountain trails, looking for his shoe-gone-missing? Or had someone chucked it out the window of their car for some inexplicable reason?

I looked over the edge and onto the highway, the right-footed companion shoe no where to be found. I checked the weeds after the bridge, on both sides of the road, and further up the hill. Nothing. Not another Hoka was in sight, assuming you disregard the perfectly good pair on my own two feet. I carefully placed the found shoe on the guard rail and contemplated the strange find as I clicked off the miles.

After years of running, I knew what I had to do. Special finds must be carried back home. I've carried home wrenches, hammers, money (of course), sweatshirts, belts, antlers, bungee cords, and the majority of an intact deer skeleton. Therefore, and in the interest of tradition, there was no question that this lost soul (pun intended) of a shoe was coming with me.

Arriving at its new destination, I snapped the picture that would grace the pages of Facebook. "My best running find in a long time: One perfectly good HOKA. Great for any one-legged runner!" read my post. Soon, numerous comments piled up faster than Speedy Gonzales can run. The best response came from one of my brothers. Dan wrote, "Give it to the waitress at IHOP!!!!!!!!!!" I laughed. Hard.

Who could have predicted that a Groundhog Day-like occurrence would happen again on my way down the mountain the next day? But sure enough, there it was. A single left shoe in the middle of that bridge. This time it was a kid-sized black Nike shoe. Perfectly good. Hardly worn. Really? What is up with losing shoes on this Lynchburg bridge? But, yes. I picked that one up as well and carried it home. I can hardly wait for the next shoe to drop.

Which reminds me: Remember these expressions?
"The shoe is on the other foot."
"If the shoe fits, wear it."
"As comfortable as an old shoe."
"Wouldn't want to be in someone else's shoes."

Shoes seem to give us perspective. Look at a woman's closet and it will tell you something about her lifestyle. Put me in the stiletto heels found in that closet and watch me topple over. I have no earthly idea how the dancers on Dancing with the Stars can leap and twirl in those potentially ankle-busting contraptions. After a day of teaching, even a low heeled shoe makes me yearn for my flats, or better yet, my Hokas. But I wonder what a non-runner might feel in my strange-looking trainers.

What do my shoes say about me? Where do my shoes take me? Are my shoes involved in doing good--or evil? Do I dare slip on another's shoes to know where they go and how they feel? If I did, I just might have more compassion and greater understanding. I might even give them my shoes when theirs' are worn and tired. For if my shoes can bring good news and offer peace, I will rejoice.

So yes, drop another shoe and let me walk with you.

"How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'" (Isaiah 52:7)


A walk in the park and a pink finish line

By the time I finish most races, I've figured out at least the first paragraph of my post-race story. This was one of the few where the ...