I Belong  

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One morning, at least a year or more ago, I was running alone around Memorial Park here in Houston where I live. There was nothing unusual about the morning. It was still very dark, and I was one of the earlier arrivals at the park. Very few runners were out yet with me in the humid, still air we have in the morning here on the Gulf Coast. The crushed gravel crunched under my feet as I tried my best just to shuffle myself through a session of junk miles.

From behind, I started hearing footsteps--not the footsteps of one runner, but of many. And not the heavy "chunk-chunk-chunk" of the adult, weekend warrior. It was the quick, light "swit-swit-swit" of the competitor, a whole team of young competitors in fact.

A group of boys, teenagers by the look of them, floated past me as if the law of gravity had no effect on them. They were all in team kit, and their warmup pace left me behind within a matter of seconds. They were "the team" and they had things to do.

I've often wondered what it is like to be part of a group like that. On the one hand, you're never alone, always surrounded by team mates who can pick you up or kick you in the behind and make you better than you would have been on your own. On the other hand, when you're part of a team, you're not running for yourself anymore. You are expected to sacrifice your own comfort for the good of the team. People run better on a team, and one of the criticisms of American endurance sports is the way collegiate runners wilt and disappear after leaving the team environment for post-collegiate competition.

But that sense of belonging, doesn't everyone want to belong? Even if (like me) you're not a "joiner"? It's hard to explain what that sense of belonging is, or what it feels like. I might know its opposite. Have you ever experienced that feeling, on an elementary school playground perhaps, of being picked last for kickball or some other game at recess. That has to be the worst, kid feeling ever. Not only are you alone, you're alone and unwanted.

Well, last week we took a peek at the Heidelberg Catechism. And it's first question and answer tell us that we're not alone in this cold, dark universe. And we're not unwanted. We belong. We have been picked.

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, . . . .

The Book uses powerful word pictures to explain the intensity of this transaction--illustrations like a debtor/slave being redeemed, or a commoner being adopted into the house of a noble. But as powerful as these word pictures can be, as powerful as that memory of the "not picked" feeling, they are still inadequate. I need constant reminding that I was not bought with "perishable things such as silver or gold" -- or even credit default swaps or some other collateralized debt obligation. 1 Peter 1:18. No, I am not my own. I was bought with a price--a much steeper price. 1 Cor. 6:19.

Considering how much God overpaid in that transaction, boy, do I ever belong.

Now, go run. See you next week.

Love Letters  

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And now for something completely different.

Or maybe it's just another facet of the same jewel.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism, in all its Britishness, can be rather lofty and metaphysical and impersonal, as can I. Hence, it begins with the question about the "chief end of man," out there in the universe somewhere, rather than a question about me. Hence, I struggle with knowing God personally and "enjoying him forever."

But Westminster was not the only assembly in the reformation that sent its confessions to the New World. The Heidelberg Catechism was the first to reach the shores of Manhattan in 1609 because it was the part of the doctrinal standard for the reformed churches in Holland and Germany. As compared to the stiff upper lip of Westminster, these questions and answers are like personal letters, sometimes love letters, from The Almighty. All the questions are addressed to "you," and all the answers are from "I" and "my."

The first may be my favorite:

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

I'll probably write more in the next couple of weeks to break this down into bite-sized pieces, but for now, notice how many times you see the words, "I" and "me" and "my"--indeed the notion that God has made "all things" in the universe second place to your personal salvation.

I was thinking about it tonight, and it reminds me a little of when I first read "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" from the Chronicles of Narnia to my daughter. She was only 4 or 5 at the time and barely up to paying attention to a chapter book night after night. But the thing that hooked her in was when I substituted her name for the name of Lucy, the youngest of the children in the book. It is Lucy, the youngest, who discovers the wardrobe, who remains steadfast in her faith in the magic when her siblings doubt her, and who remains faithful to Aslan, the Lion, even in his sacrifice and death. With my daughter's name in the book, the story became personal.

And that's kind of the point. Your name is in The Book. It is personal. It is your story. It is as if the book says,

"If God is for [me], who can be against [me]? 32He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for [me]—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give [me] all things? . . . 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [me] from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8:31-32, 38-39.

If God created us to glorify him, he also has made us the center of his own, personal love story. And we are redeemed as a result. Why? How, exactly? Why not some other way or some other person or creature? That's way above my pay grade, I'm sure. But even my little child brain can pay attention when I know I'm in the book.

Now, go run. See you next week.


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Sorry I missed last week. We had that whole natural disaster, no power, no internet, middle ages pastiche going on. It was actually probably a good thing, because I’ve been struggling with this one and thinking about it for awhile.

Back to the Question:

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

But what could be so hard about, “enjoying him (God), forever”? Why struggle with this? Isn’t this the fun part? I don’t know, maybe I don’t understand “joy” or maybe I don’t understand “God” or maybe I just need the practice.

I know, I know, The Book says, “The Joy of the Lord is [my] strength,” (Nehemiah 8:10) and “rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) And I try, or at least I think I do. But pretty much every time God made his presence known to a human being in the bible, there wasn’t joy; there was terror. The first words out of God's mouth, or that of his angels is always, "fear not." So, I don’t think I’m the only one that has trouble equating God with “fun” or joy, as opposed to seriousness and awe and holiness and fear. After all, The Book also says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” (Psalm 111:10) and even “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.” (Psalms 2:11). Rejoice with trembling?? What IS that?

And what about joy? In the way The Book uses the term it has to be something more than joy in the sense of “wow, that was fun,” or “boy, that food was good,” or “I loved those praise songs we sang this morning.” James, the brother of Jesus, says, for example, “consider it pure joy . . . whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your fatih develops perseverance.” James 1:2-3. And “Blessed [or happy] is the man who perseveres under trial . . .” James 1:12. Joy? Trials? And the Psalmist talks about “desir[ing] nothing on earth” when he is with God. Psalm 73:5. That’s a whole different kind of joy or happiness than watching a good movie or a fun evening out. This is not an undemanding joy or cheap grace.

So, with God, I have this problem. The Book tells me that “love,” is his very essence. The Book tells me that he is longsuffering and slow to anger, infinite in mercy. But The Book also tells me he is all powerful, holy and perfect. I know very well that I am week, unholy and imperfect. How does a sullied and limited creature like me have any “joy” and fellowship with an unsullied and limitless God? How do we even understand each other?

About the last time a human being is recorded as having hand-in-hand fellowship with God was Adam before the fall of man. After the fall, which is my current condition, Adam didn’t enjoy God. Adam hid from God. Look around and you see mankind at war with God, not enjoying him. As a Christian, I know that Christ is supposed to be the bridge that reconciles me to God, so why is it so hard? And not just for me. It was hard for Superstars like the Apostle Paul. Even Paul begged to be set free from his struggle. (See Romans 7:14-25)

I was thinking about it this morning, and wondered that maybe what’s going on here is somewhat the same thing as when sedentary folks having no idea how endurance athletes can take pleasure in their effort. Or maybe like when mid-packers like me watch an elite athlete. Look for example at Kara Goucher pictured above. I can only dimly imagine the amount of pain and effort behind an elite 10k like she is just completing, but surely there is joy in her face. Indeed, I can only dimly imagine the amount of joy she's experiencing.

Similarly, to a sedentary person, how could I possibly “enjoy” training. What joy is there in a 3 hour long run or a century ride? How many times have you been called “crazy” for suffering like that? And was any of this fun or “joyful" when you first began it. Maybe it was always fun and easy for you, but I remember quite well the first training runs--the pain, the discouragement, the struggle. This was not fun. Now, however, after a little practice, and a little success, the training sessions are play, they are joy. In fact, they are usually (though not always) the best part of my day. But it still doesn’t look like fun to the sedentary crowd who call us “crazy” while they eat, drink or smoke themselves into sickness and death. And yet we’re crazy.

So, maybe my lack of Christian joy is partly a lack of practice. Maybe I’m a sedentary Christ follower. Do I need to work out more and improve my spiritual diet? More fruit of the spirit, maybe? Do I need more practice with God? If I do, will the pain and discomfort lessen? Will this feel less like work? More like play? How do I find the joy?

Now, go run. See you next week.

. . . To Glorify God . . .  

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Last week, I rambled on about the origins of the Westminster standards. The Parliament may have been concerned with questions such as “Who is in charge, episcopacy, local congregation, church, king or pope?” One of the revolutionary aspects of the Westminster Assembly was to answer, in large part, “none of the above.”

I had a few more thoughts this week about what that means: glorifying God.

There is a real sense in which you can see God’s power and glory all around you, so long as you permit yourself to see it. Like the Book says:

1 The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
Psalm 19:1-2

If you’ve ever been somewhere that the air is clear and there is no light pollution, maybe you have experienced what this ancient desert dweller is describing—wide horizons of inky blackness awash with seas of stars beyond number, all tracing the path laid out for them, all bespeaking a beauty and organization and distant power. I have a couple places like that, and it reminds me of how non-big I actually am.

And as I write this, there is a gigantic hurricane a couple hundred miles away with huge amounts of kinetic energy, organized by the laws of physics, which I believe God wrote upon the universe. Even with all its might, however, the storm is not even a teacup full in an ocean compared with the power of the one who formulated the laws that govern it.

But there has to be some difference between the way a mountain or a storm or a night sky glorifies God, and how a human being does it. Sure, if you look at the body you were given, its design and its complexity, it can impress you in the same fashion as any other natural phenomenon.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

Psalm 139:14

But if that’s it, then we’re not much different from an inanimate piece of beautiful rock. I think there is more to it.

When a mountain or a night sky bespeaks the glory of God, it is doing what it was created to do. In that sense, it is no different from you or me. When we bespeak the glory of God, we’re doing what we were created to do too—fulfilling our “chief end.” The mountain and the night sky, however, have no choice in the matter. They are signposts, simply stating whatever the sign writer wrote upon them. We, on the other hand, have an election to make. We are singers, choosing which song to sing, not signposts.

Fe-Lady can choose or not choose to be a vessel of God’s caring and love by connecting with an autistic child. Iron Jenny could bike through each race without any awareness of her maker, or she could (as she does) pray and sing and (as a consequence) become a magnetic love-fest for 140.6 miles. Sometimes the choice doesn’t necessarily change what we do, only the reason we do it and the qualities we get from it. I can focus all this training solely on myself and a vain search for “abs of steel” and the like, or I can live and breathe and move with the motivation of being a good steward of the healthy body I was given.

I guess what I’m saying is that part of the life that God sparked into us was the choice to fulfill or to fail in fulfilling our “chief end.” We can’t just stand here and look pretty, and by so doing, just “be” and fulfill our “chief end.” That makes us different and unique among all the things that God created. Maybe it is this kind of choice to worship, so to speak, that the apostle encourages his readers to make when he writes:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.

Romans 12:1.

Anyway, some things to think about while you’re out running. What kind of a singer are you called to be? What choices are there for you, right now, or down the road.

Now, go run. See you next week.

On the Lighter Side  

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Could not resist this after referring to the creation story in the most recent post.

Believe it or not, this question is the product of a government committee. True Story.

As I understand the history, Parliament convened the group of lay persons and clergy, known as the Westminster Assembly, to hash through the important issues of the day. Many were concerned with such things as who was boss--King or Archibishop . . . or pope, or whether anyone could boss around the local church, what prayers would be said, what hymns sung, and whether Papists floated like a witch and should therefore be burned

OK, that was a gratuitous Monty Python reference. But suffice it to say that the assembly, like England itself, trying to figure out what or who had "authority" in a time of social upheaval. Everything was subject to question. England eventually descended into Civil War and regicide with the beheading of Charles I. In the midst of it all, the assembly suffered "Mission Creep." In response to Parliament's request, the assembly created the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Westminster Larger Catechism. The title of this post is the first question in that mini-catechim.

Gee. Thanks, Westminster. We're leaping off into the abyss, everything seems in turmoil, and you couldn't have given us something easy? You couldn't give us five steps to our "Best Life Now," or a rhyming "to do" list of how to improve our marriages or make our kids behave or get wealthier because "God Rocks" and wants us to be healthy and wealthy? Modern churchy life is way more practical.

Nooooooooooo. You have to start with, "What's the meaning of life, the universe and everything? Why are we here?"

Wait a minute. Maybe they had something there. Maybe this is the place to start.

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.


Isn't this always where we lose our way? Isn't this one thing, trying to replace God, the root of all the times I fall on my face? Every time I do the wrong thing? Even every time I do the right thing for the wrong reason? All those things I do that I should not have done and those things I omit to do that I should have done? What was it the serpent said in tempting mankind to do the one thing God said not to do? "You shall be like gods."

By putting this question first, it is as if the old timers know I need a daily reminder:

"There is a God, and you're not him."

Indeed, I am not him.

Pick up "The Book" and read the beginning. There is a description of God speaking light and energy and everything that is or ever will be into existence by breathing a word, "Let there be light." Gen. 1:3. Skip to the end and you see the implications of that power: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being." Rev. 4:11. Whether you consider this a "big bang" or a literal seven day creation account, does not really matter to me. There is one thing I know: I couldn't manage to create something from nothing in either way. The one who can create something from nothing is boss. I'm not.

So, what does it mean if I'm willing to accept that I'm not the boss, in any given moment? Hard to say, but I think when I'm willing to get out of the boss' chair, I am able to make my actions an offering of thanks to the one who breathed it all into being. The race and the training or the job and the family, anything and everything can become an act of worship.

In one of my favorite lines from Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell tells his sister, Jenny, "I believe God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure. . . . To win is to honor Him." I have only rarely made my life an act of worship like that. If I do so, it is only because I am jolted into it.

For example, the first time I did the Wildflower Long Course triathlon, I was with a large group of friends with whom I had never raced. I was worried about how I'd do, how I would look, and what they would think of me. Notice how many times "I" and "me" appear in that sentence. The result was predictable. I had a horrible swim and was struggling through the bike--until my focus came off of myself. While I was in the aero bars, I looked down at my wrist and saw the red "band of hope," the emblem of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. In an instant, "woe is me," vanished, and I realized how thankful I should be. I am physically able to ride a bike. I was healthy enough to be outdoors in the sunshine. The pedaling did not get easier, and I did not win the race, but I felt "his pleasure," if only briefly.

Like The Book says, "[W]hether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." 1 Cor. 10:31. What is your act of thanksgiving and worship? Do you experience that searing in your lungs or the pain in your legs only so you can get higher, faster and stronger. Or is it an offering to the one who stitched you together, a sacrifice of praise for health and power? Of the 38,000 steps in the marathon, how many belong to you? Who are you running for?

More on this next week. Now, go run.

Why This Blog?  

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Welcome to the Confessing Runner.

**Kind of a strange name. What in the world is he confessing? That he’s a runner? That he’s an addict? A running addict? I don’t get it.**

Yeah, I know. It’s a bit strange, and it probably calls for an explanation of who I am and what I’m trying to do here.

This blog is intended to be a sacred space of inspiration, mostly targeted at runners and endurance athletes, but open to everyone. The “confessing” portion of the title refers to several things.

First, and as a foundation, this blog confesses Christ—the Christ of scripture as confessed when Christ followers across the centuries have said, “Jesus is Lord.” I am trying to figure out what “Jesus is Lord” means in the 21st century, especially in the life of a middle-aged dad and husband who sometimes wonders whether he really believes that, and often does a pretty poor job of living it out daily.

Second, the “confessions” referred to in the title of the blog refer to the historic confessions of the Christian faith. I intend and hope to use those confessions and scripture as a weekly springboard for exploring life and faith, especially through the eyes of an endurance athlete. If I carry through on the plan, expect a weekly post in time for your weekend long run.

But, why these confessions?

Well, a good reason would be that I’m certainly not smarter or wiser than the people in history that wrestled with truth and theology. Anyone who searches for truth while reinventing the wheel is likely wind up with a decidedly unround, Rube Goldberg machine. Indeed, one of the deficiencies of the modern church (and modern spirituality) is to forget the foundations of the past (or even deny that there are such things as firm foundations) fight the same debates over and over again, and then wonder why the ride is so bumpy. I’d rather recognize my own limitations, start with a wheel that worked in the past, and see if and how it still rolls.

Another good reason? When I believe, I believe that the confessions are true. I am an elder in the Presbyterian church; but my journey, even since being ordained, has included times when I am secure in my faith, and times when I wonder if any of it is true, times when I live out my faith, and times when I fail completely.

Even as I write these sentences, even as I contemplate trying to write this blog, I have voices in my head doubting whether I should continue, whether I really still believe it all, and saying quite forcefully that such an unsteady Christ follower has no business starting a blog like this. I imagine people who really know me wondering, “who does he think he is writing a God blog?” I don’t know. Maybe I’m even starting the blog in an effort to believe again, an effort to become more steady.

Suffice it to say, as the writer of this blog, I am not the authority. I am just the conversation starter. Persons of any faith or no faith at all are welcome in this conversation. I will put out a post on which you can comment here or on which you can meditate and chew while you run. If you choose to comment, there’s only one rule: the Golden Rule. Treat others (including me) with the same kindness and respect that you would want to receive.

Now, get ready to run.