Fitness for Ministry

Today I begin resume a new journey, a journey of fitness for ministry. You see, I’m not fit for ministry.

For the ministry of National Guard Chaplaincy, that is.

On and off for the past several years I’ve been discerning service in the National Guard as a chaplain. [In a future post I’ll write more about my discernment on this issue, which goes back to high school and to conversations with my grandfather, who was a Marine in the pre-WWII era]. National Guard Chaplaincy is a part-time ministry – the proverbial “one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer” – with a population of part-time soldiers that is mostly young, culturally diverse, and service oriented. It is a population that needs the comforting Good News and presence of our God. It is a population that is largely absent from our pews.

When I lived in Minnesota I had several conversations with the chief of chaplains for the Minnesota National Guard, and I was about to start the process of formally interviewing with Guard leaders and discerning this call within my congregation. But then an unexpected opportunity led us to Indiana, and that process was put on hold. While I have yet to reach out to the Guard leadership here in Indiana, there is one thing I need to do before I give this much more consideration.

I need to get in shape. I need to get fit for this ministry. There are fitness standards for members of the National Guard, including chaplains. And while I can pass the running requirements fairly easily, I cannot yet pass the sit up and push up tests, and I am not at the target weight. I have some work to do.

So today I will meet with a trainer at my city’s fitness center. I will begin a training program designed to get me into good enough shape so that, if I ultimately do decide to enter the Guard, my physical fitness will not be a barrier. I am told that my trainer is a veteran, and/or has done fitness training with soldiers. Either way, I’m in for a workout.

My hope is that this time of focusing on my fitness will be a time of discernment of my call to this ministry, a time of personal and spiritual growth, and a time of improved physical well-being. Keep me in your prayers, please.

The Provision of Health Insurance by Religious Employers

I'm a big advocate of the separation of church and state. Knowing this, the other day someone asked me how I felt about the controvery surrounding health care, contraception, and religious employers. Here's my line of thought:

  1. The government has an interest in guaranteeing non-discriminatory access to health care coverage.
  2. Medical contraception is part of health care, not only for legitimate pregnancy prevention purposes, but also for a range of medical reasons related to the regulation of hormones. "The pill" is not used only for contraceptive purposes, but for other legitimate medical reasons, as well.
  3. Medical contraception is used only for women. Denying such coverage affects only women. Thus, denying access to medical contraception violates the government's interests in ensuring non-discriminatory access to health care.
  4. In this country we have an odd, informal but long-held, "grand bargain" between employers and the government that employers provide health insurance to their employees. It is a benefit that employers offer, but is not required by law. 
  5. Employers could opt not to offer health insurance, especially if they find regulations too burdensome (morally, financially, etc.), and instead offer other benefits – such as increased salary – to attract employees. Such employees could then purchase health insurance on the open market.
  6. The Hosanna-Tabor case recently decided by the Supreme Court distinguishes between the staff of religious institutions hired for "ministerial" roles and those hired for non-ministerial roles. In that case, it was ruled that the government could not protect an employee hired for a "ministerial" role who accused her employer of unlawful termination. The government, simply put, does not interfere with how religious organizations employ or terminate employment of people serving in ministerial roles. However, the government continues to have an interest and role in protecting the rights of employees of religious institutions who serve in non-ministerial roles.
  7. If the government has an interest in ensuring equal, non-discriminatory access to health insurance (#1, above) and has a role in protecting the rights of staff serving in non-ministerial roles of religious institutions, it has a role and duty to ensure that such staff receive equal, non-discriminatory access to health insurance.
  8. The government has granted that organizations whose primary purpose is the propogation of the faith, and whose staff overwhelmingly comes from the faith, and whose organizations primarily serve people of that faith (ie, houses of worship) may offer health insurance to their employees that does not cover medical contraception, so as to adhere to religious teaching.
  9. Other church-sponsored organizations, whose employees and whose clientele do not necessarily come from the faith (social service organizations, colleges, etc.) and whose mission has a broad social reach, are treated just like other employers when it comes to the provision of health insurance. 

this post is about running … and life

I ran a marathon back in March, and I felt pretty darn good about it. But since then the running has fallen off a cliff. In two months since the marathon I've run less than 100 miles … in the last month I've run less than 10 miles. Pathetic.

Just over a year ago I got back into running for the first time in 17 years. Getting back into running was a great experience, and signing up to run the Army Ten Miler, then the Richmond Half Marathon, and then the National Marathon was great motivation to keep training. By the end of it all, I went from "Couch to Marathon" in one year. It felt great. I felt great.

Yet in this whole process running never quite became an essential part of my life. Sure, it was something I did five days/week, and to an extent I became obsessed with running during this stretch. But once I achieved the goal of completing a marathon the motivation died down.

A lot.

The desire to wake up at 5am and run 14 miles diminished. Unlike other runners, my days didn't feel incomplete if I didn't go for a run. As much as I enjoyed the experience of a good run, I also enjoy many other things. Such as sleep. And time with my family. And a bedroom that didn't smell like a locker room.

But it wasn't just these various comforts that led me astray from the straight and narrow running path. Running – particularly marathon training – is an emotionally and physically draining experience. I learned in this process that I have room in my life for one additional, intense activity beyond my family and my work.

For a time that one intense activity was my marathon training. Since the marathon, however, my emotional energy has been focused on our family's move from Arlington, VA to St Paul, MN later this summer, and my transition from my current church to my new congregation. Though I am terribly excited about what lies ahead, I am also sad to say goodbye to many good people and places here in Arlington and on the East Coast. The transition is emotionally exhausting.

Nonetheless, I need to run. For my health (I've regained weight since my marathon), for my sanity (the time alone in my thoughts and non-thoughts is great therapy), for the challenge (I did enjoy watching my progress from week to week, race to race), running was and still can be such a powerful and meaningful part of my life … and an activity that keeps me grounded during a hectic time of transition (thanks, Christine, for helping me realize my need for some grounding). Perhaps not as intensely as I did in my marathon training, but I need to get back out there and make running an important part of my life again.

So the challenge for me is this: to turn running from an activity that is purely goal-oriented (run my first ever marathon) into a life-giving activity that becomes part of my day-to-day routine.

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More of my posts on running, including some that describe my "Couch to Marathon" journey, available here.

Faith, Flesh, and Blood

I've been feeling quite carnal recently.

Don't worry. This blogpost is not rated NC-17.

For nearly eleven months now I've been running, and I've found that engaging in something deeply physical – that pursuing an activity that tests my flesh as well as my will – is profoundly transforming. Indeed, exercising the body has fed me emotionally and spiritually. It has nourished my whole being.

Of course, we are whole beings. Our emotions are connected with our bodies, our bodies with our souls, our souls with our minds, our minds with our passions, our passions with our bodies. We are whole beings, not a sum of distinct parts assembled like a LEGO creation or a Mr. Potatohead toy. This is why these words from C.S. Lewis are so rediculous:

You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body. (source unknown)

If we rearrange the syntax a little bit, this quote sounds like something that Yoda would say:

Have a soul you do not. Soul you are. Body you have.

And while Yoda might be a great Jedi Knight (but not a great warrior, for we all know that "wars make not one great"), I'm not taking my cues on theological anthropology from a muppet.

For Christians, the ultimate reality of God comes to us in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, God incarnate who comes to us as a real human being. The early Christians rejected docetism, the heresy that taught that Jesus only seemed to be human, but in reality he was not human at all, but only divine. But in fact, the church teaches that Jesus came as one of us to save all of us, taking on our nature to redeem it.

Moreover, if the pinnacle of our existence is supposedly spiritual – trumping the flesh and blood for things cerebral and ethereal – then what are we to do with all those references to carnality in the Bible? What about that rich feast of fatty foods and wine that is promised in the time to come? What about the sensual celebration of love we find in Song of Songs? The prodigal son comes home and is welcomed with a grand feast. Jesus is raised from the dead and eats fish. Paul writes of the promise of the flesh and blood resurrection for all. We eat real bread and drink real wine, not to have a spiritual communion, but a true communion with Christ and with all who share in this sacred meal.

In addition to the blessed carnal reality of human existence, a prioritization of the spiritual over the tangible places nature beneath the spiritual whims of human beings and denies creation's inherent goodness. All of nature gives praise to God, yet an overemphasis on the spiritual journey of humans denies the God-blessed nature of nature. In fact, some Christians who adhere to an overly spiritualized understanding of the Chrisitan life (and afterlife) have little concern for care of nature, since the ultimate reality is spiritual and the ultimate goal is heaven, anyway, and not earth.

(I recently updated an old a post concerning the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead, something that directly relates to the flesh-and-blood nature of our faith.)

Back to running.

Or playing guitar and singing. I was talking with a friend who was very thankful for the spiritual rejuvenation that has taken place as he has picked up his guitar and begun to write music for the first time in many years. For him, strumming the guitar strings, feeling the frets under his fingers, and singing – a deeply physical, sensual experience – has heightened his faith and drawn him closer to God. It was not through ignoring the physical, but rather through embracing it as a means of spirituality, that my friend has grown in faith.

Enough said. The pinnacle of human nature is not found in celebrating the fleshly nature, but neither is it in denying it for some supposedly disembodied spiritual realm. The physical and the spiritual are utterly connected and cannot be divorced. Thanks be to God.

Having Serious Doubts About 26.2

"Just go home," I told myself , about one mile into yesterday afternoon's sixteen mile run.  "Turn around.  You can get your long run in later in the week."  I was weary after a lock-in with nine youth from church on the night before, and a morning service project with those same youth pulling invasive English Ivy out from a hillside at a local nature center.

And so as I struggled up and down over the rolling hills of the first four miles of my workout yesterday I tried to talk myself out of the run, until finally my legs and breathing fell into a steady rhythm as the route plateued and then headed downhill toward the Potomac River, where a wonderfully flat three mile stretch of a canal tow-path awaited me.

In the final few miles my doubts returned.  "Stop here, call Jessicah, get a ride home," I told myself as I ran past a grocery store.  And again, at a split in the path where I could have made a quicker route home – but would have falled short of the sixteen mile goal – I once again tried to psych myself out.  "Go right, head home, be done."  My knee began to ache.  Finding the strength to stride over curbs and onto sidewalks became a serious challenge.

Nonetheless, I stuck to the plan and finished the run strong, despite the wicked hills that I faced after about mile ten.  In fact, this was my best long run to date – I hit every mile under 9:00, and my half marathon split was much faster than my time at the Richmond Half Marathon two months ago.

Yet when I got home I was worthless.  My body was extremely achey, and despite stretching, my muscles siezed up, making it very hard for me to move.  I couldn't eat much, I was thirsty for hours, and I was exhausted.  I fell asleep about 90 minutes after my run, woke up a few hours later, and then went to sleep for the evening.

Ever since running the Richmond Half Marathon in November, I have been eager to run a marathon.  I chose the National Marathon on March 26, because it would give the motivation to train during the winter. Furthermore, I loved the idea that I could go Couch-to-26.2 in one year.

(I began running last April, after 17 years of inactivity.  At the start, I couldn't run for two minutes without getting winded, but thanks to the Couch-to-5K program I got to the point where I could run a full 3 miles.  I wrote about my return to running in a blogpost last June, Getting Reacquainted with Running).

But I'll admit that I'm having doubts.  I got my butt kicked on – and especially after – yesterday's run, even as I put in one of my best workouts to date.  About 20 hours after my run, I still feel like garbage.  Do I really want to keep doing this to myself?  Perhaps I should dial it back and run the half marathon instead?  Or, should I be preparing for and recovering from my long runs differently, so that I'm not in such horrible shape a day later?

I'd greatly appreciate any advice that my running friends can share.  I'm not sure if I'm simply being plagued by fickle doubts – as I was on yesterday's run – or if I indeed need to dial it down and get more mileage and fitness before I try to conquer the 26.2. 

I know I can run a marathon, but simultaneously, I'm not sure if I can … right now, anyway.

Why I Love to Run

I've sat down with my computer several times in recent days to write a post about my new love of, and obsession with, running.  While words often come to me quickly, I've had a hard time writing about running, and each of those draft blogposts have ended up in the pixel dustbin.  My new discipline is not terribly profound, and I haven't much insightful to say about it.  I'm a pastor, but I find myself uninspired to write spiritual or theological words about my almost-daily, pre-dawn routine of running solo.  I just love running for how it makes me feel, and I'm not sure that Jesus or metaphysics or great insights are to be drawn to or from it – or, at least, I'm not sure that I'm the person to draw such insights.

[Well, I've tried to be thoughtful and theological about my running in a few past posts, including Making Meaning on a Sunday Morning, about skipping church to run the Army Ten Miler, and The Kingdom of God is Like a 10K Race, a parable about running that I imagined coming from the mouth of Jesus.]

I just love running, plain and simple.

My running obsession was fueled this week by a few post-run weigh-ins that measured my mass at 216 pounds – far less than the 235-240 pounds I was carrying around just a few months ago.  At 6 feet tall, I still have a ways to go, but I'm making progress.  Even at my 18 year-old fitest, I was one of the heavier (yet one of the faster) runners on my track team at 169 pounds.  I'd be thrilled to get down to 200 pounds these days.  But I've already made some good progress.  My belt buckle is joining forces with new belt holes to keep my oversized pants up, and the number of chins on my face is reducing.  It's a great change.

Besides looking better – if I do say so myself – I feel better, too.  I can run up the stairs without getting winded.  I feel better at the end of the day these days than I did at the end of a day several months ago.  I have more energy, even as I expend much more energy.

But I'm enjoying the workouts themselves, and not just the results of those workouts.  I find running alone for an hour or two to be wonderfully freeing.  Just me and my thoughts, and the world around me.  Some people say they get bored on their long runs.  Not me.  I run through wonderful parks and across streets, alongside an interstate and, increasingly, nearby national monuments.  I see people and observe wildlife.  I notice poorly shoveled sidewalks and spy planets peeking out of the dark morning sky.  I watch the sun rise, and I hear Metro trains rattle into town.  I work on sermons and think back to long lost friends.  I replay discussions and make plans for Sunday School.  I listen to my body and worry if I dressed appropriately for the weather.

I also love the physical challenge.  Though I don't often press too hard or push myself to the limits, I like trying to improve my pace, run longer distances, and pile up miles day after day, week after week.  In the I-climbed-the-mountain-because-it-was-there category, I like the challenge of training for a marathon simply because the 26.2 miles are there, taunting me to run them.  I get my butt kicked by long training runs … and then the next week I tack another mile on to my long run, just to stick it to the run from the week before.

I love to run, simply for the space, the adrenelin, the fitness, and the feel-good it gives me.  Not the deepest words I've ever posted on this blog, but perhaps the better things in life aren't always honest or deep … simply great experiences that causes one to give thanks to God.

Oops.  There I went, drawing God into this after all.  But somehow, even if my eyes aren't entirely open to seeing it in theological clarity, I think He was there the whole time.

"Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." – Hebrews 12:1-2

Running on the Dreadmill

I have really enjoyed my return to running.  In the past two months I have run in the Army Ten Miler and in the Richmond Half Marathon.  I'm no speed demon, but I run and I finish, and with that I am quite pleased.  In my post-half-marathon runner's high, and as motivation to keep running during the cold, dark winter months, I signed up for the National Marathon on March 26.  Morning runs are now part of my routine several days per week, and I look forward to my runs as one of my favorite parts of the day.

However, here in Washington DC we are having an unusually cold start to the winter, and my willingness to run in the predawn darkness when the temperature hovers around 20° is being tested (my friends from colder climates are probably laughing at me right now!).  I have a flexible schedule and live next door to my office, so I've been known to adjust my work schedule so that I can run in the middle of the day, when the temperature soars to a balmy 35°.

Of course, the other option is to go to the nearby gym and use the dreadmill, ahem, the treadmill.  The treadmill is that dreadfull device that, though located in a climate controlled environment where the temperature is approximately 68°, provides you with a running experience like no other.  There is no wind on your face, and you don't actually go anywhere. There is no scenery passing by, no puddles to jump, no birds or squirrels crossing your path, no trail alongside a rushing creek.  The sounds you hear are of grunts dropping weights, friends chit-chatting, and the bad radio station the gym manager has decided to play that day.  As someone who enjoys the many facets of outdoor running, the treadmill is just dreadfull.

Screen shot 2010-12-08 at 7.00.48 AMAnd then there is the pace.  When we run outdoors, we run at a pace that is influenced my multiple factors, both physiological and environmental.  For amateurs like me – and perhaps for more elite runners, too? – pace is not perfectly consistent.  At right is a chart showing my pace over a recent 8 mile run.  While I ran a fairly consistent pace for the 8 miles – my splits ranged from 8:40 to 9:00 – as you can see, my pace within those miles varied to some degree.  What created those pace spikes and drops?  Street crossings, uphills and downhills, fiddling with my hat and gloves, playing with my stride, getting warmed up, accomodating that little kink in my ankle that pops up from time to time … any number of factors contribute to pace variations.

You don't get that kind of variation when running on a treadmill.  The pace is established by the machine, which runs a consistent pace without variation.  Surely you can program the treadmill to simulate a course or a workout, with various hill simulations or pace increases or decreases, but it doesn't allow your legs and body to run with the natural pace variation it might otherwise want or need to.  You either run the machine's pace, or you get flung off the machine.  Take your choice.

I know that I might succumb to the treadmill soon enough, especially if the unusually cold temperatures remain.  My gym is open 24-hours, and there is only so much schedule-juggling that I can do to accomodate my preference to run when the temperature peaks higher than 25°.  And I might yet learn to run in the predawn darkness with temps in the teens or single digits.   But I'm preparing for what might be the inevitable – and dreadful – decision to get on the treadmill and run.  Wish me luck.

UPDATE: A helpful article from Active.com, Treadmill Training for Winter Fitness.