9 months to race day

Only (only?) 270 days remain until the Carmel Marathon. I have never looked ahead to a race so far out. Perhaps that means I’m taking this race more seriously … or perhaps it’s just a function of the longings of deployment life. Either way, my sights are set on April 4, 2020, when I will run through my adopted hometown and, God willing if I do all the hard work and perform as I think I can, qualify for the 2021 Boston Marathon.


God willing?

So, I crossed out God willing, above. I first typed it because that’s what one says. It’s what I often say. “God willing, X or Y will happen.” But I will run a good marathon on April 4, 2020 not if God is willing, but if I do the work, if my body doesn’t break down, if I don’t get deathly ill, if the weather is not horrible, if I don’t get mauled by an alien panda along the course, and so forth.

Of course, in the classical sense of a God who is omnipotent and omnipresent and omnieverything, God can will that Chris Duckworth run a crappy race. I guess. And God can will that galloping unicorns shoot glitter laser bolts at evildoers of all kinds, too. But God doesn’t do such things.

My reading of Scripture reveals that God is much more concerned with the human heart, the faithfulness of those who call on God’s name, and the well-being of the poor than God is concerned with how a middle-aged guy runs a race. What does the LORD require of us? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). There’s nothing in there about running a marathon. If anything, my intermittent obsession with running risks becoming a trip down vanity lane and an exercise in self-idolatry.

And more … if we say “God willing” or “thank God” for everything that is actually a function of our own work, we get into dicey territory of claiming that our achievements are God’s will. And if my achievements are God’s will, then shoot … I’ve just made God in my own image and so closely aligned myself with God that my actions and his are indistinguishable. Bam! Idolatry again. And idolatry is dangerous for how we relate to God, to each other, and to ourselves. But more on that another day.

Here’s the deal: I’m pretty sure God doesn’t give a hill of beans if I run a fast marathon … but I do. And that’s good enough for me.

So, does faith have anything to do with running?

I am grateful to God for the relative gifts I have as a runner, for the introspection that running inspires within my heart and mind, and for the challenges that running presents to me. I avoid definitively declaring God’s will in my life. But I do give thanks for God’s blessings, if that makes any sense. Running is a blessing.

And more. God calls us to care for ourselves and others. Running is one of those ways that I care for myself. And, at times running has deepened friendships and fostered new relationships. Such relationships and friendships are sacred places of mutual trust and care – a real blessing.

Running buddies as sacred? Yes. Let me explain.

At the least, if I fall down in a ditch on an early morning run, I’m trusting that my running partner will help me up. But more. There’s something vulnerable about sharing in and enduring a physical struggle with someone else. It’s an odd kind of intimacy, of opening yourself to the limits of your own physicality, facing your own limits and daring to share and push those limits with someone else … all while they share the same with you. In my experience, that kind of mutual sharing of vulnerability is humbling, holy, and encouraging – and in my book, that’s a blessing.

Finally, I’m a better human being when I run. That, perhaps, is the best reason for me to run. It makes me a more pleasant person, a more faithful pastor, and a better husband, father, and Soldier.

OK. So faith certainly plays a role in my running. But I’m not going to say God’s will is for me to run a Boston Qualifer. That’s a claim too far for me.

Back to the boring running part of this post.


So, I have 270 days, approximately 9 months, until the Carmel Marathon. I outlined how I got to this point in my last running blogpost, a few weeks ago. This post is more of a long, boring status update on running – shoes, mileage, and weight.

Shoes

When I was home two months ago on emergency family leave I picked up two additional pairs of running shoes – my standard Brooks Glycerins, which I’ve been running in for years, but also a pair of Hoka Bondis.

The Hokas feel like I’m wearing a platform shoe. I had a great pair of stylin’ platform shoes back in the late 90’s, and these remind me of them – at least in the sense of lift they give me. And running on them for the first time this morning felt really awkward for the first mile or so … but then I forgot about them and ran as normal.

Currently I have two pairs of Brooks Glycerins that I’m wearing – one at 320.5 miles, and one at 277.9 miles. Based on my past history I will need to replace both of these pretty soon. I’m trying out these Hokas to see if I like them, and if I want to order another pair. Otherwise, I have one more new pair of Glycerins with me, and can switch to them and order additional shoes for the next few months. At the mileage I’m running, I’ll need a few more pairs of shoes for the deployment.

Mileage

I ran 155 miles last month, and I expect that number to climb through the summer and into the fall, as least incrementally. Over the past few weeks I’ve run anywhere from 33-42 miles/week, and I’m feeling great. In the past I’ve only cleared 25 miles/week when I’ve been in a formal marathon training program. At nine months out from the marathon and running this kind of mileage – with two weekly speed workouts, a long run (currently at 12 miles, with a 14 miler scheduled for this weekend), and easy runs – I’m getting stronger and building more of a base than I ever have this far in advance of a marathon. I’m excited.

I broke my consecutive days streak at 50 days, and have since taken two days off. Two days off within a week was too many, even if it felt nice to sleep in one day (the other day my schedule wouldn’t allow for a morning run). I like running every day, even if it is an easy, slow 2-3 miler on a rest day. I imagine I’ll take a day off here and there, but otherwise I don’t see many days off in my future.

Weight

I’ve dropped probably about 25-30 pounds since the start of the deployment five months ago. I say probably, because I was so ashamed of my weight back in January and February, just prior to the mobilization, that I wouldn’t even step on a scale. I was 242 somewhere in late January, when one day I mustered up the will to weigh myself. Lordy, the pre-deployment stress eating was intense!

I last weighed in at 214.6 lbs. To meet my Army weight, I still have about 12-15 to go (203 lbs is the max weight for my height, gender, and age that doesn’t require the Army’s “tape test,” a body mass index-type of measurement). I attribute my weight loss to the structure of Army life where I have less ready access to a box of Goldfish crackers or Cheez-Its, increased physical exercise (both through running and lots, lots of walking), and to some modification of my diet. But to reach my weight goals – to get under 200 lbs and stay there – I’ll need to make more significant, and lasting, changes to my diet. That’s my next step in this process. It’s not something that will come overnight, but it will come.

Freedom

There’s a great song by the Soup Dragons that celebrates, with a great beat and bravado, that “I’m free to do what I want, any ol’ time.” This is the ideal in our society’s mind’s eye – we are free to choose what we want, to live how we want, to say what we want, and to believe what we want. Freedom!

And to an extent, this is what the American system is designed to do. The Constitution of the United States limits the power of the federal government to restrict individual liberties, providing for a great deal of personal freedom for everyone who lives in the shadow of the American flag. Exercise your liberties. You’re free to do what you want, any ol’ time.

But for we who also live at the foot of the cross and the opening to the empty grave, there’s more. Saint Paul writes that “You have been called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13). We live not for ourselves, but for others. We are free not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.

Elsewhere Paul writes that Christians are called to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, quoting Leviticus 19:18), pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), deny ourselves (Luke 9:23), and give for the sake of others (Luke 18:22). Central to the Christian faith is the call to serve our neighbors.

This Independence Day I encourage us not only to celebrate freedom, but to use our freedom for the sake of others. For indeed, freedom kept just for one’s own use is as useless as a light kept under a bushel (Matthew 5:14-16).

(Top image: John Trumbull, 1820, oil on canvas. The original hangs in the rotunda of the US Capitol – http://www.aoc.gov/cc/photo-gallery/ptgs_rotunda.cfm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1379717)

Let this sermon bury the dead (or something like that)

I’m preaching this Sunday. This Sunday’s texts from 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and, Luke 9:51-62 bring up images of call, service, and freedom. And the Soup Dragons (kind of). And Monty Python. And some personal wrestling about taking leave from my ministry here a two months ago to say goodbye to my father and tend to my father’s funeral.

1 Kings 19
In the first reading the prophet Elijah is called by God to anoint a new prophet and a new king. Change is underfoot.

A new prophet? I can’t help but wonder if God here is firing Elijah for his slaughter of the prophets of Baal, and his subsequent hiding from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Just before today’s part of the story, Elijah had a dramatic standoff with the prophets of Baal, and after the standoff he kills them all. That, predictably, angered the King who, though called to be faithful to the God of Israel, had sponsored these prophets of a Canaanite God.

[For some folks from New Joy the following commentary might ring familiar. I preached a sermon on this last fall, or last summer, I think.]

So Elijah runs and hides in a mountain cave. God follows him and asks, not once but twice, “What are you doing here?” I can’t help but hear God asking this question with the annoyed – or even angry – tone of a parent finding a child in the wrong place at the wrong time. After twice reciting his response about being passionate for the LORD, that everybody else has abandoned God, and that he is alone in being faithful, God fires him. “Anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:16). You’re done, Elijah.

Elijah then goes to Elisha and throws his mantle on him, a sign that prophetic leadership has transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha understands what has happened, how is life is about to change, and asks to return home to bid farewell to his family. Elijah blesses him to do so. Slaughtering his animals as a sign that his old life has come to an end, Elisha takes up the mantle and follows Elijah in this new calling.

Luke 9:51-62
This Elijah/Elisha story contrasts somewhat with Luke 9:51-62, where Jesus rebukes his disciples who, taking a page from Elijah’s playbook, want to send fire from heaven to destroy a community of people who would not welcome Jesus. Yet where Elijah got it wrong with his treatment of the prophets of Baal, he gives much more leeway than Jesus does in blessing his disciple to bid his family a proper farewell before starting the new gig.

This Gospel passage takes place “as the time approached when Jesus was to be taken into heaven,” marking – as the 1 Kings reading does – a shift. Change is underfoot.

In preparation for “[being] taken into heaven,” Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. Along this road he will run into people whose interactions with Jesus reveal insights about his mission and Kingdom. A village of Samaritans rejects Jesus, but also three would-be followers and disciples seek to follow him. Jesus has no interest in quarreling with the Samaritans (though the disciples clearly want to reign fire and fury on them), and he simply passes them by. But to each of the three would-be followers Jesus does not extend the warm, “Come, follow me” invitation he uses when calling his twelve disciples earlier in his ministry. Instead, he offers caution and harsh words about the path he walks.

“Wherever you go, Lord, I will follow.”
“Follow me? Even wild animals have places to rest, but not me. Not my followers. This ain’t going to be an easy road to trod. At all.”

“Hey you. Follow me.”
“Coming, Jesus. Just first, let me go back and bury my father.”
“That’s not how this works. Let the dead bury the dead. But you, go proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

“Jesus, I will follow you, just as soon as I say goodbye to my parents. I’ll be right back.”
“Really? The Kingdom’s ahead of you. There’s no room for looking back in God’s Kingdom.”

Ouch.

What do we make of Jesus’ harsh words, after he rebuked the harsh designs of his disciples against the Samaritans? Do we take him at face value that one cannot follow Jesus and bury a parent or bid farewell to them? Well, yes and no.

Jesus speaks in hyperbole, after all. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If you cause someone else to sin, tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself into a lake. These are not precise prescriptions, step-by-step instructions for Christian living. Instead, these are colorful exaggerations intended to make a point, but not to prescribe specific behavior or clearly define the life of faith.

So too here. When Jesus tells the would-be follower to let the dead bury the dead, he is warning that the call to discipleship demands our attention and our lives. Plus, its a call to new life. Death – and burial of the dead – has no ultimate place in this Kingdom.

[Interpretations that the man’s father wasn’t actually dead yet – but that instead this excuse to “go and bury my father” was simply a way to delay the answer to Christ’s call – feel good, and serve to make Jesus’ words less harsh. But I just don’t see that interpretation supported in the text. Luke could have told us that the man’s story was hogwash … but he doesn’t. I think such readings of the text are meant to make us feel better about a Jesus who is, frankly, sometimes offensive and often demanding.]

And when Jesus scolds the would-be disciple who wants to bid farewell to his family, Jesus reveals the dramatic calling of the Kingdom – that God’s Kingdom could even come between us and our own flesh and blood. Choosing between God and the Devil is (relatively) easy, after all. But choosing between God and family? Well, that’s harder.

Two months ago I took leave from my ministry to go home, say goodbye to my father, and tend to his funeral. To no small extent I am the man in the Gospel saying to Jesus, “Yes, I’ll follow, but first let me ….” And I’m so glad I took that time. Jesus is Lord, I am not, and in those two weeks the Kingdom of God did not fail to come because I went home to grieve. Certainly, as with the would-be disciple whom Jesus declared not fit for the Kingdom because he wanted to first say goodbye to his family, I am not fit for the Kingdom. But that’s the point. I am not fit for the Kingdom. Neither are you. None of us are. If we were, we wouldn’t need Jesus, his mercy, and his grace in the first place.

So what do we do with Jesus’ words? Are we to neglect funerals for the Kingdom, or abandon our family when we hear the call? No. At least, not because of what Jesus says in these verses. As hyperbole, these sayings serve a function not of literal instruction but of moral and theological emphasis. We cannot adhere to them strictly – to try to do so would be idiotic. Instead, these sayings instead serve as a kind of law. Martin Luther talked about the law being so hard to fulfill that it drove us to our knees to seek forgiveness and mercy from God. We cannot give Jesus and his Kingdom the kind of loyalty and attention it demands. At least, I know I can’t. Jesus’ words in this passage are exaggerated yet true – they can be both at the same time – showing us the all-encompassing claims of the Kingdom and, in so doing, revealing to us our own lack of fitness for God’s Kingdom.

So where does that leave us?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
That leaves us to the reading from Galatians. In this passage we hear Saint Paul’s powerful description of Christian freedom. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13).

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus frees us from the power of sin. This is the heart of the Gospel. But what is the purpose of that freedom? To go to heaven? Sure. But, what about before then? Too often as Americans we think of freedom only in terms of what we’re free from. Free from tyranny. Free from debt. Free from oppression. But free … for what? Too often we answer that this freedom is for ourselves.

Saint Paul writes in Galatians 5 that we are freed from the power of sin for the purpose of serving our neighbor. Martin Luther echoed Saint Paul when he wrote, “A Christian is a free Lord, servant to none. The Christian is a dutiful servant, subject to all” (The Freedom of a Christian). Many historians interpret Luther as among the first freedom fighters, setting in motion efforts to topple hierarchies and rulers in Europe and the Americas, and ultimately the individualistic ethos that characterizes the West. That’s too simplistic, and certainly wasn’t Luther’s intent. For Luther, and for Saint Paul, freedom is not (something we use) for ourselves, but (something we use) for others.

We are free from having to fulfill the law to please God.
We are free from having to climb the ladder of righteousness into heaven.
We are free from having to prove ourselves worthy of God’s mercy.
We are free from having to live perfect lives to earn ourselves a seat in God’s Kingdom.
We are free from all this, for the purposes of loving and serving our neighbor.

Freed from having to prove ourselves, live perfectly, demonstrate our worthiness, we instead pour that energy and effort into our neighbor. We don’t have to earn the free gift our Lord gives; instead, we are free to use that gift for the sake of others. All of Christian living is a call to humility, to service, to sacrifice, to putting the needs of others before our own (Philippians 2:4). Being a Christian is about following Christ in service to our neighbors.

Hence, when Jesus rebukes his disciples for wanting to send fire down from heaven, he rebukes them for having their interests, their anger, their desires first and foremost in mind. No! We serve others. And serving others begins with not killing them (duh!), and letting them be even if and when they reject us. But it goes much beyond that, too.

When the would-be disciples come to Jesus and ask to follow, Jesus reminds them just how hard it is to put the needs of others before the needs of their family and themselves. These echo what Saint Paul writes in Philippians 2, that we are called to put the needs of others before our own. Or again, in Galatians 6, that when we bear the burdens of others we fulfill the law of Christ. Christian living and identity is entirely wrapped up in the care and welfare of our neighbors – a life that is free for the sake of the world.

Been Running Lately

I’ve been running lately.

In my deployed setting I have both time and opportunity for fitness. In fact, fitness is part of my responsibility as a Soldier. But I realized early during the deployment that these months overseas are the best chance I will have to get into the best running shape of my adult life.

And so I run. A lot.

Back history:

In 2010 I was inducted into the Haverford High School Sports Hall of Fame. It was a thrill to see my coaches Jay Williams and Mike Ahlum again.

I was really fast in high school, but certainly did not maximize my potential. I ran a 4:23.1 1600m as a sophomore … but never got under 4:25 after that. My head got in the way – teenage angst and all. My 400m and 800m times improved throughout my high school career, and as the lead-off leg for the 4×800 I helped my team win states in 1993 and get a school record. To this day that state championship is one of my most cherished accomplishments.

Regrettably, I didn’t run in college. I didn’t even run local 5Ks. I just stopped. Again, teenage decisions. Sigh.

But many years later I got back into running when a member of my church encouraged me to sign up for the 2010 Army Ten Miler. “Pastor, registration opens in two days, and it usually fills up within a day. I know you talk about how you used to run a lot. Maybe this is your chance to get back into it.” Without much time to hem and haw, and with her encouragement, I registered.

Jessicah and I began running on April 6, 2010. In fact, April 6 is on my Google Calendar as our “Running Anniversary.” We sometimes trained together, but usually we ran separately so that one of us could be home with the (then quite little) kids while the other ran. I would eventually get into long runs on Mondays with my dear friend Christine, a pastor who also took Mondays as her day off. Jessicah ran several mornings each week at 4:45am with a great group of women in our neighborhood.

Couch to 5K got me to a 28:00 5K effort (9:01 pace) in Chestertown, MD, on Memorial Day Weekend in 2010. I ran through the summer, endured a shin splint injury, but got to the starting line of the Army Ten Miler in October. What an inspiring race! So many people running for friends who were killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with many injured veterans themselves running on prosthetics. This was my longest run up to that point, and I ran it in 1:41:03 (10:07 pace).

I ran the Richmond Half Marathon just a few weeks later (“what’s an additional 3.1 miles,” I thought?). Christine, again, was a great encouragement, and she ran it with me (well, she was way ahead of me, but she drove us down and was very supportive). I ran 2:04:52 (9:32 pace).

Two days later I was running on the W&OD Trail in Arlington, VA and another runner asked, “Whatcha training for?” I was wearing a shirt with the words “IN TRAINING” emblazoned on the back that I had picked up at a discount table at the Richmond Marathon race expo. “Oh nothing. Just doing a seven mile recovery run after Saturday’s half.” “Seven mile recovery run after your first half? You should run a full! We have a great full in March downtown – the National Marathon. You should run it.”

I don’t know if my seven mile recovery run was particularly impressive, but his flattery seemed to have worked. I signed up for the marathon, and trained using a free plan I found online. Weekly long runs with Christine, some speed work on the W&OD trail, and lots of miles got me to the starting line. Jessicah trained all this time, too, and ran her first half marathon on the day I ran my first full. The weather was perfect that day, and I ran 3:52:12 (a 8:52 pace).

I ended up going Couch to Marathon in just under a year. It was great.

We then moved to Minnesota, and two years later to Indiana. Training got interrupted. In Minnesota I ran few half marathons, but got injured and did not start a full for which I had registered. I ran the TC One Miler, a one mile road sprint in 6:03.9. It was so much fun! I topped out my half marathon time at the Med City Half Marathon in Rochester, MN (1:41:55, a 7:47 pace). That same weekend we announced to our kids that we were moving to Indiana.

In Indiana I hit the ground running, and improved my marathon time by 26 minutes at the 2014 Carmel Marathon (3:27:24, 7:55 pace). Shortly after that effort, however, I found myself with new work and new priorities, and running took a back seat. Chris (a buddy from church) and I have run together on and off for years, pushing and encouraging each other. More often than not, though, I found myself putting on too many miles too quickly, resulting in injury or illness.

Fast forward to early this year. My National Guard unit gets put on Active Duty Orders. After nearly two years of very low mileage, I laced up my shoes on my second day at the mobilization station and began running. I logged 39.7 miles in February; 65.5 in March; 102.4 in April; 117.3 in May; and I should log approximately 150 in June. And while I’ve had some aches and pains, they were mostly early in the training and back in the states. Since arriving overseas I have felt great, despite the heat.

And yes, it’s hot here in the desert. It is anywhere from 83 to 91 degrees every morning, with winds out of the west that range from kinda/sorta refreshing, to full blast hairdryer in your face life-suckingly hot. Dehydration, dry mouth, a blazing sun that rises before 5:00am, and running routes that are mostly packed sand or gravel are all factors to contend with.

I’ve run every day since May 10th, my first day after returning from Emergency Family Leave. On some days I’ve run as short as 2 miles; others as long as 8-10. During this time I realized that my initial goals of simply building a base and getting into decent shape were too modest. It became clear to me that I had the chance to get into the best running shape of my life here. Best running shape of my adult life? Ramping up the goal gave me a new kind of motivation, and helped me think in a new way about the possibilities.

That realization prompted me to sign up with Matt Ebersole at Personal Best Training in Carmel, IN, for coaching as a look to hit new running goals. I now receive weekly training plans from him and shoot emails back and forth, all in an effort to get me in my best shape for the 2020 Carmel Marathon and a possible Boston Qualifier in 2020 (either at Carmel or later in the year at the Monumental). The BQ time for my age is 3:20, though I’d like to run even faster than that. I’m sure I have the talent to reach this goal – now its time to do the hard work to earn my spot on the starting line at Hopkinton.

But the goal of running Boston aside, running on deployment has given me a big non-Army goal and activity to look forward to each day. And, as I continue to grieve my dad’s death in April, and handle the stress that comes with being a deployed Army chaplain, the daily runs are truly a life-giving ritual of prayer, reflection, discipline, and camaraderie (I run with a group several days/week, and am so grateful for Allison and Ken as running partners, but also as colleagues and friends). Running, more than pretty much anything else, will get me through – and help me thrive – on this deployment.

I’ll never quite know what kind of runner I could have been, but I’m grateful for the runner I’m becoming now. Still, I realize that my current running routine is only a few months old. I have miles and miles to go before running shifts from being a much-needed deployment therapy and fitness goal to being an essential lifestyle.

In fact, the true test will be when I get home – will I keep running even as I get back to family and church and home responsibilities? I sure hope so, because I imagine that I will need the life-giving ritual of running when I get home just as much as I need it now while deployed.

It’s ok to be weary

It's ok to be weary
tired
exhausted
spent
worn out
done
it doesn't feel ok, of course, to be weary.
I know it doesn't feel ok,
and so does your co-worker, neighbor, and friend.
Your boss knows too, but probably won't let on.
Work needs to get done, of course.
You see, we all know it, about weariness,
but we hide it behind our caffeinated smiles
and perky social media profiles
and conjured-up can-do attitudes.

But it is ok. You have permission.
To be weary
tired
exhausted
spent
worn out
done
Because life ... is hard
especially when you're going it all alone
or your kids are suffering and you just can't make it better
or you have to be in many places at once
or you work in unbearable conditions (but you need the paycheck)
and you can't, just can't, hold it all together
And that kind of hard makes you weary
and maybe a little grouchy
and withdrawn
and distracted
and not who you want to be

It's ok to be weary
to bear the side effects of living, of working, of loving, of giving,
of outpouring, of stretching, of trying really hard.

It's ok to be weary
you're carrying a lot. A whole lot.
Of course you're weary
and cry in the rest room
or have those moments where you won't allow yourself to cry
because if you start crying you're not sure how it'll end
Of course you're weary
You nearly lose your shit before pulling it all together
so that you can keep on keeping on, weary or not,
because it's all you can do.

Weary is your option,
because stopping, quitting, giving up, caring less
is not an option.
It's ok to be weary
tired
exhausted
spent
worn out
done
You're making it, you're a survivor, you're stronger than you think,
one weary step at a time.

Listening is love

“Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” – James 1:19

Christians, and especially preachers, are known for speaking. We are called, after all, to proclaim God’s Word. Whether the preacher in the pulpit, the evangelist on the street corner, or the Facebooker with lots of faith to share, Christians are known for speaking.

Yet more often than we may care to admit, the best posture for a Christian is not that of speaking, but of listening.

Listening is an exercise in putting someone else’s words before your own; putting someone else’s needs before your own. It is prioritizing them over you. Their needs, their words, their pain, their joy, their desires, their ramblings take precedence over your own. Sit, listen, receive, and honor what your neighbor has to share.

“Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.” – Philippians 2:4

Listening is humbling oneself in front of another and seeking their good. Listening is a posture that bears, honors, and holds in trust the very heart of another.

“Bear another’s burdens, for in so doing you fulfill the law of Christ.” – Galatians 6:2

This posture of listening is the posture of love.

“Love is patient, love is kind … it doesn’t seek its own way.” – 1 Corinthians 13:4-5

Love doesn’t seek its own way or it’s own interests. Love seeks the interests and care of our neighbor.

Listening is such a love. And love is the heartbeat of Christian faith.

On belief, unbelief, and grace

On any given day I believe in God. At least, I think I do. I mean, yes, I believe.

Usually. Maybe. Most certainly.

But there’s plenty of time I don’t believe. Or, perhaps better put, that I’m not sure what I believe. Or, maybe that my faith fails to provide the precision often demanded of faith, and I find myself in a gray area that few people care to occupy. Especially people of faith.

Certainly, faith is not a crib sheet for the tough questions of life. At least, my faith is not. When does life begin, and who decides? What is freedom, how far does it extend, and for whom? Are there any acceptable exemptions to the commandment “thou shalt not kill”? Is God all powerful and all loving? Do miracles happen? And if so, by what power, why, and why not more often?

If a man getting out of the burning car can thank God for his rescue, what role do we attribute to God in the death of three people who didn’t escape the flames?

Easy answers are hard to come by.

Sure, easy answers work for easy questions. But when you ask harder questions, second order questions, simple answers fail. Miserably.

This is not to say that I’m bound by the paralysis of theological perfection, unable to say anything with certainty without circling back to theology books I read back in seminary or to books I’ve purchased but haven’t (yet) read (if I ever will). I’ll gladly answer the questions above with a full and confident voice after some theological hemming and hawing. But I also reserve the right to say something different tomorrow. Or next Tuesday.

Because easy answers are hard to come by.

Now, there are some tough questions I’m better at, even as I acknowledge that they’re still tough questions and my answers might have more nuance than a slice of pizza has grease. For example, even though Jesus clearly and unequivocally teaches that divorce is wrong (Matthew 5:31-32), I’m ok with divorce. And by “ok,” I mean, I’m not advocating for a divorce in every pot.

No. I’m no fan of divorce, but I get that we need it. Broken people get themselves into broken relationships, after all. Some of those broken relationships really need to be undone. This is not willy-nilly disrespect for the covenant for marriage. It’s acknowledging that human brokenness is real, and that freeing people from bonds that might serve only to perpetuate pain and dysfunction may be necessary and good and even holy. And that’s ok. Divorce can represent the freedom that Jesus promises … even if the Gospels record that Jesus himself was no fan of divorce.

No Biblical literalist am I. Obviously.

Thank God. Otherwise I’d be worshiping a rock (Psalm 18:2), cutting off my hand (Mark 9:43), and as a minister of the Gospel condemning siblings in Christ to death for their acts of unfaithfulness (Acts 5:1-9).

Actually, no Christian is a literalist. The Bible is full of metaphor and hyperbole and story and wonder that conveys the truth and power of the grace of God. The stuff of the Bible is not meant to be forensic, scientific, literal truth, like an oddly written text book, or the transcripts of a eyewitness statement – which, we know, are not perfectly reliable. Instead, the truth of the Bible and of the church is meant to be like a supernova that unleashes an immeasurable grace into the community of the faithful for the sake of the whole world.

Let’s do another “for example.”

I embrace that yes, Cain, we are our brother’s keeper (Cain didn’t think so and killed his brother – see Genesis 4 for the juicy details). Jesus affirms that we are our brother’s keeper in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), wherein Jesus portrays a member of a much-derided religious group as an example of righteousness when this man gives generously to care for a neighbor in need.

We all love the Good Samaritan story. But let’s just pause here for a moment and let it sink in that Jesus didn’t just teach us about being good to our neighbors. He didn’t just use the example of Jane Do-Gooder. Jesus deliberately told this story using a member of a reviled, rejected religious group as an exemplar of righteousness. That in and of itself says something. Pay attention to Jesus’ storytelling – not just for the “moral of the story,” but for the way in which he tells the story. The form in which Jesus teaches us about caring for our neighbor itself teaches us what care for our neighbor looks like … especially for our neighbor who neither prays or nor looks nor acts like us.

James writes in a similar theme about care for neighbor, saying essentially that “thoughts and prayers” are a bunch of crap when we are instead called to actually provide for our neighbor’s human needs (James 2:15-16, and following).

So the Bible is abundantly clear. We are to care for our neighbor.

But then come the hard questions, for which I have no easy answer (remember, there are no easy answers). To what extent do we care for our neighbor? Give our cloak, and shirt, too (Luke 6:29)? Spend our last mite (Luke 21:1-4)? Offer up our own lives (Mark 8:34-38)?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Anyone who says there are is trying to sell you something, or justify themselves, or both.

We live in a broken world full of sinners, and I am chief among them.

People in dire need visit churches all the time. During the week, usually, when only the church staff are there. It’s the safest time for someone beaten and kicked to the margins by all kinds of human brokenness to make their way to a church door. And for all the times I’ve been able to help someone, how many more times have I turned away such people, dear children of God, from my church?

There I am, sitting in my air conditioned office, with my well-maintained car in the parking lot that drives me to and from my home in a fairly affluent community. I turn her away, I turn him away, because I, because we, didn’t have enough to help with an electric bill. Or groceries. Or rent.

Bullshit. Lord, have mercy on my soul.

This is the stuff I worry about. I rationalize it enough to get by – I’d go nuts if I didn’t – but I seriously wonder what that conversation will be like with Saint Peter at the pearly gates when he asks me how I’ve lived my life, what I’ve done with the Gospel entrusted to me, how I’ve cared for the least of these? Oh, Lord have mercy upon me. I believe in grace, but not so much that it frees me from the sense of responsibility I have to the Gospel and to my neighbor who bears the very image of God (Genesis 1:27).

And so forth and so on. I could write for days about the conundrums I find myself in when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because easy answers are hard to come by. And if we live as Jesus lived, as he calls us to live, we’d end up where he did, dead on a cross. But I actually like life. So, there’s that.

Which is why my favorite verse in the Bible these days (yes, it changes from time to time) is Mark 9:24.

“Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!”

In this story a father brings his son, who is tormented by a demon, to Jesus’ disciples for healing. Jesus was up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John at the time, so the other disciples decided to try their hand at it. But they couldn’t cast out the demon. They couldn’t heal the child.

Anxious father. Sick child. Frustrated disciples. And naysayers – the legal experts – arguing with the failing would-be miracle workers. What a chaotic scene.

Then comes Jesus. After a mountaintop experience in which the three disciples he hand-picked to join him didn’t really understand the revelation they were privy to and were just plain awkward when they encountered the enveloping presence of God (and to be fair, wouldn’t we all be a bit afraid and awkward in such a situation?), Jesus approaches the bickering crowd and begs, perhaps with an eye roll and a sign, “What are you arguing about?”

The worried dad of the sick child tells Jesus the whole desperate story. My kid is possessed. I brought him to your disciples. They couldn’t heal him.

Jesus scolds the crowd. “You faithless generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” But then Jesus goes on. “Bring the child to me.” Jesus doesn’t let his anger get the best of him. He doesn’t make the suffering of the child and the faithlessness of others become a moment for finger-wagging. Instead, it becomes a moment of grace.

Jesus examines the suffering child, and then asks the father how long this has been happening. “Since he was a child,” dad says, the long-suffering angst surely hanging in his voice. “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!”

Now, this is one of those scenes where stage directions would be great. Does Jesus respond to the father with a scolding tone? A generous tone? Was he incredulous, or matter of fact? I’ll leave that to you to imagine.

Jesus answers the desperate father. “‘If you can do anything‘? All things are possible for the one who believes.”

“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” dad responds. Tears, I’m sure, are streaming down his face.

And to the desperate father’s statement of faith and non-faith, of belief and unbelief, Jesus says nothing. No grumbling about “this generation” or “kids these days.” No push-back to the dad, “So, what is it? Do you believe, or don’t you? You can’t be on both sides, bucko.” No. In response to this amazingly honest statement of a faith that both is and is not, Jesus acts. Jesus casts out the evil spirit from the child, and the child is restored to health.

The disciples couldn’t heal. The father couldn’t bring himself to believe, fully. And all throughout this scene the know-it-alls were mocking them for their failures.

This is the setting of my faith, dear friends – somewhere between belief and unbelief, with fellow followers who struggle to make it all work according to the teachings of our Savior. I keep trying, hoping, expecting, yearning, believing even when I don’t believe, that grace will show up. Because that’s what the Bible and the ministry of the church has shown me – that grace shows up.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

Amen.