I heard the indicator on my watch double-beep. The last waypoint before the end of my route was approaching. I knew once I crossed that point I would be home free. I might even pick up speed and finish with a sprint. But at the moment I felt like someone was physically pulling me backward. Just the sight of the hill between me and WP7 made me feel slow and sluggish, and I heard my inner voice practically wail inside my head: No. No, I cannot keep going, I have to stop. My heart was pounding, my breathing was too fast and shallow, and I nearly gave in to the pleas. I nearly quit. But then that song started playing, and I felt myself settle. I leaned into the hill and kept pushing. I listened to the words building to a crescendo inside my ear buds. I was reminded of why I do this, and I ran.
I did not mean to take up running. I meant to compete with some work friends who were using the “Couch-to-5K” app to get in shape and prepare for a race. I was in decent shape, and I had no desire to start signing up for races; I just wanted to prove I could. I had long joked that I only ran if something or someone was chasing me. I scoffed at training plans and carb loading and expensive running shoes. I sang the praises of yoga, even though it had been a few years since I practiced it regularly. But something started happening to me as I took to the pavement in my neighborhood each evening. Something began to shift in my thinking. I stopped focusing on the run itself–the stitches in my side early on, the tightness in my chest, the sweat pouring into my eyes–and started turning every footfall into a prayer.
It began one afternoon after a chat with a friend who was struggling hard with some major life changes. I set off on my run with the burden of her pain heavy on my mind, and before long I fell into a cadence that matched the four words I was saying over and over in my head: Please help her, God. Please help her, God. This went on for several minutes, and then my mind wandered, and I began to think about my husband, our daughter, our home, and words of thanks set my pace: Thank you for these blessings, dear Lord. It became my habit to turn my music down and begin each run with prayers of need and thanks, and to let my mind be quiet and open to responses from God. I wasn’t sure it worked this way, but I felt like I was onto something. I’d been praying my whole life, but conversation with God was a foreign concept to me. I had grown up hearing preachers talk about following rules to avoid angering a God who was always on the verge of damning us all to eternal suffering if we stepped out of line, and praying was a rule; it had never occurred to me that in reality, God just wanted a relationship with me, an open line of communication, a commitment to living by faith and extending grace and learning from my mistakes. But out there on the streets of my neighborhood, as I explored proper running form and discovered the splendor of the right pair of running shoes, God initiated just such a relationship.When I was a little kid I remember being frightened by stories in the Bible about God and Jesus suddenly appearing and talking to people. The burning bush? Terrifying. A loud, earth-moving voice shouting from the skies? Please don’t. Jesus suddenly appearing to his disciples in a circle of light a few hours after they watched him die? No thank you. Perhaps that is why “talking to God” was such an unfathomable act to me: I did not want God to scare the…bejesus…out of me. As I grew older and more experienced with church teaching, I learned that God supposedly used the Bible to speak to us–but I didn’t know how to open the connection. I would read bits of scripture in isolation, or look up things I was curious about, but there was no two-way exchange. In retrospect I believe it was because I never asked for one. And then I started running. Every run started with what Anne Lamott calls one of the three basic prayers: HELP. Somehow this simple outcry was like picking up the phone; I always sensed God on the other end as I took in the wildly colored sunset and managed my breathing. There was a peace that came from every run unlike anything I had ever experienced, and it began to trickle into other areas of my life. I would open my Bible to read and the scripture I encountered was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. In the book I was reading, a passage would be the comfort I craved, or the nudge I required to move forward. Conversations with friends, interactions with strangers at Target, sermons at church–I began to find God’s voice everywhere, perhaps because I was suddenly opening myself up to hear it each time I laced up my Sauconys.
My pastor calls this “Chair Time”–the part of your day when you find a place to be present with God, without other people around, with minimal distraction, with the intent to have a chat with the Almighty. He refers to it as “chair time” because for him, it is a literal period of time during which he sits in his favorite chair and prays and listens. It is part of his three-pronged approach to doing life like Jesus: worship with a large group, spend time with a close circle of friends, and go sit and be alone with God. But he is very clear that not everyone will “go sit,” and there won’t always be a chair involved. For some people, chair time looks a lot like cooking dinner while the kids are outside playing, or making the 30 minute commute to work, or digging in the garden. Or running 3 miles. The place where we open this connection differs for all of us, but the process is the same: focus, pray, listen, reflect.
There have been a few times since that first Couch-to-5K adventure when I had to stop running, either because of physical setbacks or the sometimes overwhelming demands of life. These have not been good times for me. I slip into the shadows during these times. I feel unhealthy, out of sorts, fuzzy and uncentered. You might suggest this is because my body is missing the endorphins and sustained raised heart rate and energy high that running provides. And you are right, but only partly. Also missing is the one-on-one time I crave with God, and more than just my joints and energy level suffer when this time is compromised: I get cranky, and my faith wavers, and fear pokes its long ugly finger into my tender places; my Bible reading plans fall to the wayside, and I stop listening to music and looking for wisdom in the written word, and I begin to wonder what on earth is the point in all this waiting and heartbreak. I begin to feel like someone is pulling me backward. Just the sight of the hill I’m trying to climb–a falling out with that very friend I was praying for, a devastating ongoing legal battle, an illness, a disagreement with my husband–makes me suddenly slow and sluggish, and the inner voice begins to wail inside my head: NO. No, I cannot keep going. I have to stop. And then that song starts playing.
The Gospel of Matthew offers us the Lord’s Prayer as a framework, not as a rote recitation, but it is how Jesus introduces the prayer that stands out to me: “When you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you (Matthew 6:6 NLT).” He goes on to say that the Father knows exactly what we need, even before we ask Him, but we are to ask Him anyway. Jesus Himself prayed often, and alone on several occasions, much to the bewilderment of his disciples. Perhaps they were concerned for His safety when He slipped off into the night to pray in solitude, or perhaps they didn’t understand why He even had to pray in the first place, but they had a lot to learn from Him. He provides us not only with scripture’s best examples of how to pray, but also with an explanation of why we should pray: because God said so. Because in the chaos and busyness of life, in the darkness of tragedy and in the celebration of joy, in mundane tasks and at monumental milestones, God wants to talk to us, and He wants us to talk to Him. It is the ultimate expression of faith, and the epitome of a perfect relationship–to go sit alone and talk with God and expect him to answer us.
I can think of three separate runs, all of them involving less than ideal conditions–high humidity, searing heat, hills of death–when The City Harmonic’s “Manifesto” began playing. I keep a motivational playlist on shuffle as I run, with the volume low enough to leave my mind free to focus, pray, listen, and reflect, but loud enough to drown out the sound of my own breathing. “Manifesto” is not an up-tempo song. It does not encourage me to go faster. It doesn’t inspire speed or foster energy like some songs do. What is does is remind me to keep going. It reminds me that I have come here to this “chair” for a purpose, that I am on this particular life path for a reason, and that I cannot stop moving. It is, for all intents and purposes, a prayer. In fact, the entire text of Jesus’s “sample prayer” from Matthew 6 is part of the lyrics: Our Father, who art in Heaven…Thy will be done…give us our daily bread…deliver us from evil. I don’t want to read too much into the Spotify shuffle algorithm, but…I am pretty sure God plays this song for me when I have lost all sense of why I am here in the first place. “Pray like this,” Jesus explained. He knows what you’re going to say, but pray like this anyway.
A few centuries before Jesus gave his followers the Lord’s Prayer, several passages in the Book of Isaiah served as a reminder to His battered people that He is their protector, their shepherd, their gentle Father. Isaiah 40 in particular could be summed up for me in a few simple sentences: “Shhh. Sit down. He is holding you in His hand. He’s got this. You are fine. Just trust Him.” Christians the world over who also happen to be runners know Isaiah 40:31 by heart: “Those who TRUST in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint (NLT). The NIV says these things will come to those who HOPE in the Lord; The Message promises all of this to those who WAIT for Him. This sounds a lot like “chair time” to me. “Here’s what I want you to do: find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace (Matthew 6:6 MSG).” Trust that He will show up, have hope in His promises, wait for Him, and you will run and not grow weary.
I never meant to become a runner, but my intentions were eclipsed by the life-changing effects running had on me, both physical and spiritual. Running became a physical release for me, sure, but it also became an avenue for communication, a place of refuge, and a metaphor for the kind of work God does in my life. It is my “chair time,” and it reminds me that I must remain committed, stay the course, and finish every race, whether I’m running a 5K in a hilly neighborhood in the heat of summer, or grieving the loss of a friend, or waiting for a judge’s decision, or simply jogging around my neighborhood. There are days when I am convinced I have run my last mile–days on which I feel heavy and incompetent, with no desire to ever step into my running shoes again. There are days when I feel like I am made of wind, like I could run and never stop. And then there are the days in between, which is most every day, when I am crying out and speaking praise in the same mile, when I think I cannot make it up the hill but finish with a burst of energy I thought was long gone. This is life, and it is also running, and it is especially the process of learning to engage with God and allow Him to speak into every mile you travel.