We, runners, are a funny bunch. We see the world as divided in two; those who walk and those who run.
Runners can be pretty passionate about it too. Some of us are positively evangelical. If you aren’t running you must be mad.
Whereas the rest of the world looks on, thinking ‘you’re running, you must be mad’.
But I don’t care, I’m a runner and I enjoy it. I run when I can. It could be the morning before work or the evenings after or even the weekend. If I see an opportunity to run I’ll do it. Don’t do it and I can get, well a little grumpy and restless.
But really it all comes down to this; it’s just exercise, simple and effective exercise.
And my body thanks me for it.
The same way my body thanks me for healthy food, and the same way my soul is nourished by my faith.
Eat, pray, run. It’s quite a combo.
Here’s what I’ve learned about running and the surprising blessings it’s bought on my faith journey. I’ll tell you how. You may even find it inspiring.
But first an apology. As a runner, that will be the main form of exercise I talk about. However feel free to replace that with your preferred option, be it walking, cycling, swimming, whatever. I have indulged in all of these (sometimes to benefit my training) but have always come home to running.
Horses for courses. Runners for races (just made that up).
Unfortunately, as you read this, you may find part of this reflection at times a little boastful. That’s because it is. Runners like themselves. They are proud of their achievements. They can also be a bore to talk to. I will attempt to straddle this difficult divide.
For example, I’ve just completed a half-marathon in a reasonable time.
Thank you. No really, thank you.
For the day after the race, as friends and colleagues congratulated me, I became somewhat of an opera diva, milking the applause to the last drop, squeezing adoration from the audience. And as I soaked in the afterglow and nursed my lactic acid legs, I had a niggle in my mind. ‘It was just a half marathon (13 miles, 21km) not a whole. What’s the big deal?’
In previous years I’ve run marathons, the full thing, the whole nine yards (+ another 376 yards + 26 miles). Here’s how it shaped me (no pun intended) and how even exercising just a tiny fraction of this will bring some, body blessings.
So here it is, how running has transformed my faith.
Running encourages discipline
Discipline. Awful word isn’t it. Reminds you of school. If you’ve ‘been disciplined’, you’re probably a little traumatised by it. That’s because it’s the wrong kind of discipline. It’s probably really punishment and that’s a whole different thing. That has no place in exercise.
I’m talking good habits here. Positive self-care. Being consistent with the good things in your life, turning away from bad things such as more than one sugar coated doughnut a week (yes a week). I struggle with that particular discipline by the way.
But discipline needn’t feel impossible or unrealistically onerous, so long as your goals are manageable and work around your time and lifestyle. To do it, I’ve found you need three basic things; time, focus and consistency. If you miss out on any of these, you’ll likely remain stuck in a rut.
Amazingly, being disciplined with running and exercise opened the door for me being disciplined in other areas of life from work to devotional time.
‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’ Hebrews 12:11.
No pain no gain. Anyone in training for any sport will relate to that. So is it a coincidence that the first verse of the same chapter refers to running and completing the race? Maybe not.
The writer of Hebrews is talking about our spiritual growth being dependent on discipline and that it can feel hard. But isn’t that the case for much of our life?
Do you remember your first day of school; hard, wasn’t it? Studying for important exams? Boring. Painful but necessary. You name it, life demands discipline, right down to the daily demands of work and relationships. Get it right, as the writer of Hebrews says, and we reap God’s blessings.
In short, we grow up and I believe we become more who God intends us to be.
‘Therefore strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees! “Make level paths for your feet”, so that the lame may not be disabled but rather healed.’ Hebrews 12: 12-13. Runners especially take note.
Worship and prayer while running
Running, like a lot of activity helps us to switch off for a little while and focus on something else. I’ve written quite a few sermons and blogs in my head while out treading the pavements and I’ve found inspiration in other ways too. The very act of breaking your daily routine to get some ‘head-space’ does wonders.
It’s also a perfect opportunity to have a devotional time on the move. When running you can pray for people and things, meditate on a particular passage of scripture and even worship. I run in all seasons so I get to see how nature changes, even in my neighbourhood as I run through its parks over a year. I feel again what it’s like to marvel at God’s creation and to actually enjoy it! So for me, that’s worship time.
I know some people will put on worship music too while running. All for the better I say. It’s just up to you. The important thing is just to do it.
And when we do it, we are changed with each little step moving forward.
Running creates a healthy body and a healthy mind
Did you know ‘your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit?’ (1 Cor 6:19). We shouldn’t take that lightly. We are also told ‘to honour God with your bodies’ (1 Cor 6:20). Eating poorly, not sleeping properly and not exercising is doing the complete opposite.
Our health is a gift from God and it is a fragile thing. If we neglect ourselves, we are not loving ourselves and that is to dishonour the most precious gift we have, life and health. That’s why recent problems like the obesity crisis are such a tragedy. A whole generation is slowly killing itself by not honouring their bodies.
If we don’t have any pre-existing medical conditions that prevent us from exercising, then we should do all we can to remain healthy. Of course, there is a balance; over-exercise can be as harmful as under exercise. But this a much rarer problem!
We should also consider our mental health too as much as our physical. The mind and body are shared, they are connected with each other. Regular exercise has been proven to reduce stress, improve confidence, prevent cognitive decline, alleviate anxiety, sharpen your memory and increase relaxation.
The research literature supporting this is so voluminous, it’s unquestionable. So what’s not to like?
Why not enjoy the simple pleasures that God has blessed us with in life? Relaxation, feeling good about ourselves and taking care of our incredible minds.
Get the ‘Eat, Pray, Run’ message out there
Perhaps then, we should encourage exercise for our church during the week? Why don’t churches run regular walking and even running groups? It could be a great way of bringing people together.
Maybe that’s something we can all get started?
Of course, there needs to be a balance. There is a cult of fitness out there that is all about worshipping the ‘body beautiful’ and finding some kind of health and diet perfection. Sadly, the fountain of eternal youth will not be found in constant gym sessions or on endless runs.
There is a nice little line that Paul writes to Timothy (who I’m convinced are both runners due to all the scriptures about running, but that’s my crazy thinking);
‘For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.’ 1 Timothy 4:8.
Even marathon runners need some reminding of what’s really important, our spiritual health, as that will really carry us to the ‘finish line’.
A running memory I’ll never forget
Talking of finishing lines, this brings me nicely back to some more runner’s boasting. The last marathon I ran was the Rome marathon, three years ago now.
It was a magnificent experience, the most memorable moment being the last 400 metres as I rounded the via dei Fori Imperiali, the Colosseum looming large into view, the finishing line waiting to embrace me and welcome me to the end.
But I was feeling it. The last 4km had felt like I was running through treacle. My muscles were shouting for relief, my body aching in places I’d never felt before. Time had seemed to slow and stretch on endlessly. ‘How much longer?’ I’d think to myself. But I was moving forward and I felt a last surge of energy, from God knows where.
The crowds meanwhile lined both sides and they were shouting, cheering, applauding us forward. I felt an ecstatic wave rise within as I moved slightly up a pace, the view of the finish line now blocking out the pain I was feeling.
And then it came, with the line now just a few metres ahead, I took those last running steps to experience an exhaled rush of joy, ecstasy, and relief. And all at the foot of the ancient Colosseum, home to the triumphs and glories of the gladiators. Amazing. I limped forward as an attendant placed the finishing medal over my neck, smiling warmly offering congratulations.
I made it. I did it! I began to weep, tears of joy and relief. A moment that I’ll never forget.
After the race, I removed my racing number from my shirt and it was then I remembered the scripture verse I write whenever I’m on the big runs, Hebrews 12:1.
‘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’
My run had become a living, breathing, meaningful metaphor for my Christian life. With those last few metres, the crowds willing me forward, the overcoming of my pain and my weakness, completing with praise and thankfulness to God.
I’d had a taste of heaven. Right there, right then. And I was deeply humbled that I’d experienced this at the place even where the earliest Christian martyrs completed their trial and finished their ‘race’.
When we pass over from death to life, we will surely see our family in the faith, our friends who supported us in our past and the great names of Christian history, known and unknown standing up in the heavenly stadium, shouting their cheers and applause, giving glory to God for another finisher crossing the line.
That’s the race I want to run, the stadium I want to finish in, where I say these lines;
‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ 2 Tim 4:7.
I hope and pray you finish your race too.
In the meantime, I’ll keep running.
© Not Only Sundays, February 2017.
Scripture quoted from the NIV translation.
If you’re taking up running or exercise after a while or for the first time, you should have a chat with your doctor or another medical professional about it and get some good advice on where to start. A nice article on starting running is here
Images sourced on www.pixabay.com image under a creative commons licence CC.