Getting Reacquainted with Running

I haven't exercised much since 1993, the year I graduated from high school and won a state gold medal in the 4×800 meter relay.  Sure, I have purchased gym memberships and bike equipment, but I haven't used either much, except perhaps for the few months of biking I did just prior to my October 2002 wedding.  I gained weight, got warnings from doctors about borderline blood pressure and high cholesterol, and purchased larger-sized pants.  I haven't done much of anything to return to any semblance of the athlete I was in high school.

To be clear, I know that I'll never run a 4:23 mile or a 16:30 5K ever again.  And I'll never weigh in at 169 pounds, my high school weight, again (at 6' tall and a big frame, I was one of the biggest runners on my team).  And I'll never win a gold medal in anything again.  And I'm OK with that … now.  But that wasn't always the case.

You see, for me – someone who experienced significant success as a runner in high school – the past has been an amazing deterrent to my attempts to keep fit.  I think the past can do that to many men.  In recent years when I've gone out running I've felt dejected that what was so easy in the past had become so difficult, and I quickly lost patience and confidence.  The framed gold medal and photo of my relay team hanging on the wall was simultaneously a source of great pride and of great shame – Look at what I once did!  But wow, look at me now.

I think I've turned a page, however.  Since Easter my wife and I have been running again.  We started slowly, with the Couch to 5K training program.  [When I say slowly, I mean slowly – the first week of workouts consist of 60 seconds of jogging followed by 90 seconds of walking, for 20 minutes.]  We ran our first 5K on May 29, and now I'm up to running 4-5 miles on training runs three days/week.  Though when I'm running my mind and my body remember what it was like to run 17-20 years ago – and that experience surely helps me today – I'm quite happy these days with distance runs that come in at a 9:30 pace, rather than the 6:00 or faster pace I often ran on such runs in high school.

What made me commit to running now?  People, specifically my wife, a few friends, and many strangers.  It all started when a couple from church invited me to sign up for the Army Ten Miler in October, knowing that I was looking to get back into shape.  And since the race registration last year filled up in less than a week – and that's for 30,000 runners! – I didn't have much time to mull it over.  I said yes, got online, and signed me and my wife up for the run.  Then I joined the Couch to 5K page on Facebook, and was excited to post my updates on the page after each workout, and read how others were doing with the plan.  Finally, I joined DailyMile.com, a social network for runners, cyclists, and triathletes.  Sharing workouts, receiving advice and encouragement, and "meeting" other runners has been a great help for me as I've stepped up my running since May.

What does all this mean?  Like many people my age, and particularly many pastors, I am overweight and out of shape.  Getting reacquainted with a long-lost passion of mine has been a gift from God, for all kinds of reasons.  I am working on my health and investing time and energy into something I love to do, a commitment which forces me to re-evaluate my priorities, from the foods I eat to the schedule I keep to the amount of work I'm willing to take on.

But perhaps most significant for me is the way that returning to running has allowed me to reconcile who I was with who I am.  For many years I've sort of written off my former running success, so irreconcilable was the memory of my "glory days" with the weight gain and fitness failure of my 20's and 30's.  And though I am not the runner that I once was, I am a runner again … and that alone makes me happy beyond belief.  I'm on the road to health and fitness, and am excited for the 10K and Ten Mile races I'm running in August and October.

Well, there's more to say about this, but it's time to go to bed.  I have a 5:00am alarm set to wake me up for my morning run.

Our Television Testimony

We have three children – ages 6, 3, and 2 – all of whom enjoy watching television.  For a long time my wife and I struggled to regulate how much television our kids watched, at what times of day they watched, and what kind of shows they watched.  It was hard.  For one, our most lived-in room in the house – the family room – was laid out with the television in mind (all the seating oriented toward the television, shelves of DVDs, etc.).  The kids had learned how to turn on the television, change DVDs, and flip through their favorite kids channels.  And my wife and I had come to depend on the television as a lazy
parenting tool ("Hey kids, watch some TV and be quiet while I make
dinner/check my email/talk on the phone/waste time on Facebook").  Turning off the television sometimes involved arguments with the kids, and turning it on surely kept us more tuned in to the television than to each other.

But six weeks ago we decided to cut the cord … no more cable television at our house.  The decision was driven by a perfect synergy of both financial and lifestyle considerations.  We are saving money and our children are spending much less time in front of a television screen – both of which are good things.

In fact, we moved the television out of the first floor altogether, leaving my old computer and a stereo as the only electronic entertainment devices in our children's play area.  We still have the television, connected to a DVD player, but we move it to our bedroom … and it gets used about once a week for the kids to watch a Disney movie or a Backyardigans video.  And yes, the kids will sometimes watch partial episodes of Clifford on www.pbskids.org or Little Einsteins on www.playhousedisney.com, but overall their screen time has dropped dramatically.

And somewhat to our surprise, our kids didn't instigate a violent revolt.  For sure, the week after we cut the chord was a pretty tough transition.  But in the days and weeks that followed, we have watched as our kids have gone from complaining about being bored to coming up with their own games to play. 

Over the past six weeks the kids have built more living room forts and set up more make-believe yard sales and cooked more make-believe meals in their play kitchen than they ever had in the previous year.  Our six year-old, who is not the strongest reader, will sometimes grab a book and try to read by herself, and our three year-old will get a book, too, just so she can be like her big sister.  Instances of sidewalk chalk art have skyrocketed, as have the numbers of puzzles completed.  We also find that the kids need to take more frequent baths, since they are playing more often with markers or with dirt or in ways that get them quite sweaty.  It's been amazing.

It is highly unlikely that we will go back to television anytime soon, even if I do miss watching sports.  And I doubt that we'll be a family that owns a video game system, either.  Banishing the television screen to our bedroom where watching a movie becomes a weekly special event has been a great move for us, and there is little reason for us to increase the amount of time that we or our children spend in front of a screen.

So, a word to all you parents who struggle with the amount of time your children spend in front of a television screen: If cutting down the time your family spends in front of the television is hard to do, consider cutting it out altogether.  It is possible.

Saying Goodbye to an Amazing Caregiver

Today is the last legal working day for our current au pair, Ann, a wonderful young woman from Thailand who for two years has lived with our family and taken care of our children.  When she arrived to our family our youngest was not quite five months old, and hardly able to sit on his own.  Our middle child was in diapers.  Our oldest was in preschool.  I was on internship, and my wife was teaching with the informal title ABD – All But Dissertation.

In the two years that she cared for us – and I say for us, for her caring, her work, and her support was more than just for our children – our youngest has learned to crawl, then walk and talk.  Our 3 year-old child is reading letters thanks to Ann, and eager to learn so much more.  Our oldest is about to complete first grade.  I've been ordained and began to work in a new church, Jessicah defended her doctoral dissertation, and we moved to a new home and new community.

And then there are the little things – her willingness to work a few extra hours when an emergency came up, her wonderful jewelry-repair skills, the smell of Thai food that filled the house regularly, and the way that she would somehow always know when I forgot something and text me or come running outside with the forgotten item (as she did on Sunday when I nearly left home without my alb and stole for an afternoon service).

All this is to say that Ann has been there with us, at times carrying more than any wage-earning caregiver should be asked to carry, helping us through some amazing transitions.  She has been an amazing blessing and support to us.  We will miss her incredibly. 

With tears in our eyes, we say Goodbye, Miss Ann.  We love you.

“Kids Have No Manners Today”

Kids running around the mall food court, kicking and screaming in the grocery store, or running laps in the church hall during coffee hour.  "Kids have no manners today," we say.  Though that statement clearly reflects some selective memory at work – as if kids were entirely well-behaved 30 or 60 years ago – there may be an ounce of truth to it.  Po Bronson, in a recent interview on NPR's Tell Me More, says that the poor behavior of 4-5 year-olds is, for many kids, the expected side effect of a very good parenting strategy that will pay dividends in years to come.

I think there's this fear that kids today have no manners. And I don't know that they understand the scientific context of this, which is that we don't hit kids anymore, and that is great. And we don't demand strict obedience. We reason with our kids. We try to get them to think it through. But when they're 3, and they're 4, and they're 5, and they're 6, they're not really good at that. So the short term is that they maybe are going to be a little more restless around the table at dinnertime.

They might have a little more behavior issues than in – kids in the past, when they're 5 and 6 years old. But the long-term outcomes are clear. Kids are more independent-minded and more autonomous, and handle problems for themselves down the road. But American society is looking at the way our 4- and 5- and 6-year-olds behave and going, oh, my gosh, it's terrible the way that they're behaving – and not realizing this is perhaps the side effect of what is really, fundamentally, a good thing.

Snoverkill: Will The Schools Ever Reopen?

I've lost track of how many days of school that my daughter has missed due to the snow.  It's just ridiculous.  Arlington Public Schools (APS) Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy has done a good job of using email and text messages to keep in touch with families about school cancellations.  In an email on February 8, he wrote:

This afternoon I had an opportunity to tour the community with County
officials to assess the progress that has been made. Despite almost
three days of round-the-clock work by our crews, many residential
streets remain impassable and very hazardous to navigate. This means
that bus routes in many neighborhoods remain unopened, and the pathway
on a significant number of our bus routes throughout the County are
still blocked. In addition, many walkways are snow-covered and bus
stops have high snow banks in front of them, making it unsafe for
children to walk safely or access their bus.

What jumps out at me about this comment is what seems like a high threshold to re-opening the schools – impassable residential streets, snow-covered walkways and bus stops blocked by snowbanks.  If that is the criteria for returning our community's children to school, we might be keeping kids home from school for yet another week while we wait for the snow piled up on sidewalks and at bus stops to melt …

Because it is likely going to be some time before the condition of secondary roads, sidewalks and bus stops improves, at some point the schools will need to open with limited transportation, or even without providing transportation.  Growing up in the Philadelphia area, I remember listening to the school closing and delay information on KYW and noting that many schools would be announced as "open, no transportation."  Can Arlington Public Schools do the same?  Virginia Code ยง 22.1-176 does not mandate school boards to provide transportation to pupils; it only authorizes them to do so.  The Arlington Public Schools provides transportation in accordance to its own policies:

Safe transportation to school will be provided at public expense to transport students pre-k through grade 12 living beyond a one mile walking distance from elementary schools and a one and one-half mile walking distance from middle and high schools (property line to property line).

Section 50-5 Transportation (opens in a PDF)

However, I don't see any provision in Arlington School Board Policies Section 50 Operations, Facilities, and Equipment for suspending transportation. 

The streets are far from perfect and in many parts are impassable for a school bus, but many people have figured out how to drive themselves to the store or to the best local sledding hill.  APS could perhaps suspend bus routes, and/or create some temporary bus routes along major roads (such as Washington Blvd and Lee Highway in my neighborhood).  To accommodate an increase in parents driving children to school in such a situation, the schools could offer an extended period in the morning for parents to drop off their children.

I know that there are no easy answers.  My mother has been a school district superintendent in Pennsylvania for the past 10+ years.  I know the difficulty she has in making decisions about school opening and closing in bad weather.  But our kids need to get back to school, and snow piles at bus stops shouldn't get in our way.  I hope that the APS administration can find a way to open our schools next week, even if the roads, sidewalks and bus stops are not in ideal condition.

The Gift of Worshiping with my Family

I'm a pastor.  I wear the funny shirt, the robe, the stoles.  I say the P parts of the liturgy.  I sit up front.  And I love it.

But one thing I don't love so much is that I no longer sit alongside my wife and children in worship.  Before I was ordained, I loved worshiping with my children. Yet I no longer worship alongside them, hold worship books for them, whisper instructions to them, or help them with their Bible story coloring sheet.  I do enjoy seeing their faces as they worship from my seat up front, and I cherish the opportunity to declare the forgiveness of their sins, and to place the sacrament in their hands.  But still … I'm no longer there, by their side, holding them, whispering to them, coloring with them.

Tonight I received a special gift as I attended my wife's cousin's wedding (yes, a wedding scheduled on the Monday after Christmas!).  There we were, Mommy, Daddy, and our two daughters sitting in the pew together (Naaman, our two year-old son, was more than glad to romp around in the nursery.  We were more than glad to let him!).  I held my 3 year-old up high so she could see the pastor's gestures as he said the Words of Institution.  I took her to the bathroom during the Prayers of the Church.  I struggled to hold a hymnal as I held her in my arms.  Yes, by doing these things, I wasn't tuned into every moment of the liturgy.  But I was participating and praying with my children, gathering with them around the table and at the foot of the cross, held with them within the Body of Christ and surrounded by the sights and sounds of God's people at worship.  It was a beautiful thing.

And so tonight I am grateful for this wonderful Christmas gift – the gift to worship as a family. I wouldn't give up my job for anything.  I love what I do.  But I also love when I get the chance to worship alongside my wife and children.  Thank you, Ben and Marissa, for getting married this evening.  You've given me a wonderful gift!

Blessings to Ben and Marissa, and to all in this Christmas season.

Unable to Understand the Gift

This was first published in my congregation's December 2009 newsletter.

It was a magnificent gift for a little train-loving boy – a battery-powered Micky Mouse train that came with its own track and made all kinds of train noises.  The toy was clearly labeled "Ages 3+," but my 6 and 3 year-old daughters wanted to give it to their brother anyway, who was turning 2.  As soon as Naaman saw it, his face lit up and he gave out an enthusiastic, "Choo-Choo!"  He loved this gift.

Yet, he didn't really understand it.  Sure, he knew it was a train, but the toy had a complexity – specifically, a pretty neat track – that only a 3 year-old could truly grasp.  Naaman, however, is just two, and he struggled with some of the toy's features.  He knew it was a wonderful toy.  It made him smile.  He loved it, even if he didn't really appreciate just how wonderful it was.

As I watch my older two children, Tali (age 6) and Cana (age 3) in the First Communion class, I feel much the same thing.  They know that church is special and that Holy Communion is the most special part of our worship service.  They want to receive communion, to participate fully in the life and blessings of the church.  And indeed, my wife and I want that for them, too.

But, like their brother with the train toy, do they really understand what they're receiving?  Do they know what this gift means, and how it changes their life … indeed, how it changes the world?  Surely they do not.  But then again, do any of us truly understand the wonder of this gift?  We know only in part, St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12.  Only in part.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes that in receiving Holy Communion we receive "forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation."  Of course, entire libraries can be filled with books written on these subjects … yet Tali is just learning to read, and Cana can just about recognize her name.  Sin and salvation are concepts that challenge the faith and intellect of older youth and adults, let alone children.  Though I certainly hope and pray that some of what we're learning in the First Communion class is sinking in, I'm sure most of it is over their heads.  Yet if they don't grasp it now, that's fine … learning and growing in faith is a life-long endeavor.

But something Tali and Cana do understand about the sacrament is this – that the sacrament is God's gift for them.  Holy Communion is a special gift from God, a special way that God shares with them his love.  They know that it is a time that all of God's children gather around his Holy Table to eat special food, food that connects us to God and to each other.  What a great foundation they have as they grow into the mysteries of our faith!

In this Advent season of expectation and anticipation, of waiting for God to come and be born among us, I wonder if we're not all somewhat like my children – not entirely sure of what this gift means, of what it really does.  For who can truly grasp what it means for divine and human to be joined together, for the eternal God to take on finite flesh, for the Holy One to dwell with quite ordinary ones such as us?  The birth of Jesus, together with his suffering, death, and resurrection, changes everything.  The order of the universe has been turned on its head – death now leads to life, poverty is the path to riches, the least are made the greatest.

Until our Lord comes again and gives us all knowledge, we will not truly comprehend what this means.  But this much we do know – just as the gift of the Sacrament is "for us," so too with the gift of Jesus.  For he is is called Emmanuel, "God is with us."  However much else we might struggle or wonder in our faith during these Advent and Christmas seasons, let us hold fast to this promise – that in Jesus we come face to face with God who is truly with us and for us. 

So what about all the rest of the details?  Just as Naaman will grow into the 3 year-old complexity of his new train toy, and just as my girls will grow into the richness of the gift of Holy Communion, so too will we grow into deeper knowledge of and faith in our Lord, and the gifts of forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation that he brings.