Making Meaning on a Sunday Morning

I skipped church on Sunday morning.  It felt strange, for sure.  I'm a pastor, after all.  I usually work on Sundays, preaching a sermon, presiding at the altar, teaching a class, leading children in prayer.  I'm someone who finds great meaning and power in the Word and Sacraments and the fellowship of the Christian community.

But my Sunday apart from my routine of spiritual fellowship and leadership was not devoid of 09ArmyTenMilerStart meaning.  Quite the contrary.  I took off this Sunday to run in the Army Ten Miler, the largest ten mile race in the country (30,000 registrants; 21K+ finishers).  When I first committed to running this race, it was meant to be a capstone to a six-month return to fitness.  Yet, after an injury that kept me from training for two months, the race became less a capstone to my return to fitness than it was a gut-check as I struggled to stick to one of my exercise goals despite the set-back.

Truth be told, I had no business running the race. I hadn't run more than five miles over the past month, and when I tried for six miles on a recent training run, I crashed and burned with just under a mile to go.  But I ran the race anyway.  It had enough meaning to me that I ran.

And indeed, many among the gathered collection of humanity at the Army Ten Miler were running with meaning.  Sure, there were many people like me who made completing the Army Ten Miler a fitness goal, and many others who had goals of finishing in a certain amount of time.  Particularly in an age of rising health care costs and ever-increasing indicators telling us that we're unhealthy, such goals can be very powerful and motivating.

But people were also running as members of teams.  Over 700 teams competed in the race, from teams comprised of members of military units, to teams of staffers from military contractors, to at least one church team that I saw, to college teams, and so forth.  Their team camaraderie and dedication was fun to watch.

Most significantly, however, were those who were running in honor of soldiers serving overseas, and those running in memory of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Where my wife and I were running – in the back 1/3 of the pack – perhaps as many as 1 in 10 of the runners wore shirts revealing a deep and personal connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: shirts printed with the picture of a soldier killed in action; shirts printed with the picture of a friend or spouse serving overseas; shirts showing that the runner had served in a certain unit at a certain base overseas.  And then, of course, there were the soldiers in wheelchairs, having lost a leg or two in battle.  This race was for many a memorial event, honoring and remembering those who have served and those who continue to serve.

The Army Ten Miler was an amazing, meaningful experience.  Quite different, to be sure, than my usual routine of Sunday morning worship and fellowship.  It's like comparing apples and oranges – both fruit, both good for you, but nonetheless quite different.

It has become clear that fewer and fewer people are making meaning on Sunday mornings by gathering for worship and fellowship, or are making meaning during the week by meeting for Bible study or prayer groups.  But just because the church no longer has the lion's share of the meaning-making market doesn't mean that people are not making meaning.  It is soooooo easy for us in the church to suggest that folks who are outside of the church are leading hapless lives devoid of meaning and purpose (a sentiment I've heard stated more than once).  On the contrary!  Beyond the hallowed walls and stained glass windows of the church large throngs of people are deeply involved in groups and communities and activities which shape their identity and give them meaning.

In an era of church decline our call, perhaps, ought to be to put our ear to the ground and listen to what it is that gives people meaning and purpose, and to believe that God is doing something beyond our walls.  This is not to suggest that churches should abandon the riches of our tradition and faith for ten mile runs, or that God is at work in every activity that gives someone meaning.  Not at all!  But it is a call to take seriously how people today are making meaning, and to consider the experiences of those who do not sit in our pews as worthy of our attention and respect.

Doctor’s Orders: No Running for Four Weeks

Earlier this spring I returned to running for the first time in 17 years (thanks to the wonderful Couch-to-5K running plan). I began losing weight and feeling better about myself, but most importantly I just really enjoyed running. After a little while my days felt incomplete without a run, and during the day my mind would often wander to thinking about my next run. I can't overstate what my return to running has meant to me. I even blogged about the joy of getting reacquainted with running. It's been an amazing, life-giving experience.

Thus I can't overstate how disappointed I am that, on doctor's orders, I've been shut down for four weeks.  No running, he said.  Get on your bike instead.

But I'm a runner. Not a biker.

You see, by early August I was getting comfortable running 7+ miles twice/week. My last long run was an 8-miler to the Washington Monument on August 9.  After a day of rest, I went for a short 4-miler on August 11, but didn't even last 2 miles.  I felt a shooting pain in my left shin, and a throbbing pain in my right. After feeling this horrible pain on another run following several days of rest, I went to the doctor, who told me to stop running for two weeks.  Two weeks came and went, and I went out for two short runs – 1.5 miles – on Monday and Tuesday of this week.  While I felt better, the sharp pain persisted in my left shin.  And so I called the doctor back, and that's when he gave me the four-week extension to my running moratorium.

I went to the running store last week, before the call to my doctor, and in hopeful anticipation of a cautious return to running this week. The guy at the store looked at my shoes – purchased in May at another running store – and said, "they're shot." "But they have less than 200 miles on them," I said. He then told me that they had a 180 lb limit (I weigh, ahem, a bit more than that), and that he himself had prematurely blown through a few pairs of this brand.  So while I don't want to blame my current predicament entirely on a poor choice of shoes, there's part of me that wants to find the guy who sold me those shoes and have a word or two with him.

Well, I bought new running shoes, the pair I wore on my two short runs earlier this week. They feel great, and hopefully I'll be running with them in a month or so.

So my hopes and plans to run the Army Ten Miler in October and the Richmond Half Marahon in November are shot.  For even if my shins feel great after four weeks, there is no way that I could get my body ready for the Ten Miler in less than a month, or for the Half Marathon in about five or six weeks.  These goals are now out of reach. For this year, anyway.

So today or tomorrow I'll take my bike to the shop, get it tuned up, and pretend to be the kind of person who likes bicycling. And tomorrow I'll go to the gym for a training session to learn how to use the machines properly, and pretend to be the kind of person who likes the gym. Let me be clear: I'm not the kind of guy who really likes cycling or the gym. Bikes and gyms don't come close to matching the simplicity and purity of running. Cycling is complicated – special shoes, helmet, gloves, and a bicycle with hundreds of parts, riding on busy roads or crowded paths where you've got to dodge pedestrians, runners, and cars, stop for cross traffic, and so forth. The gym is equally compliclated – what machines to use, how to use them, what is the proper weight? – not to mention the stale, sweaty air inside.  Running is so much more straight forward – strap on your shoes and run according to some plan. Running is the only kind of fitness I've ever really liked or enjoyed. Running is so meaningful for me (see that blogpost I referenced earlier). Shifting gears is going to be hard.

Well, this is the test, isn't it, to see if I'm so dedicated to this running thing (and to my general fitness) that I'll do anything – even ride a bike and do gym workouts – to get my body ready for an eventual return to running? I hope and pray that I can do this. I may even come to like it. But like it or not, it's my only option.

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, 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.

Health Insurance for Clergy, for Church Employees, for All

The church is not immune to the health insurance crisis that is sweeping the nation.  From the worse-than-average health of clergy today to the huge ranks of retired clergy supported by church plans, the church is facing a crisis that pits the costs of health care against mission funding.  Today’s Washington Post has a nice article on this issue (Escalating Health-Care Costs Hit Churches: Insurance for Pastors Draining the Coffers), including a quote from John Kapanke, president of the ELCA’s Board of Pensions.

Particularly in this election season in which health care will be a major issue, we in the church should be involved in conversations about health care – both nationally and within our church, for the two are intimately connected.

Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).  Quality health care for all of God’s children is part of the abundant life God intends for us.  Let us work toward a future where heath care for all is no longer a dream, but the reality.

Life, Blog Updates

This weekend Northern Virginia is expecting an ice storm.  Oh, to live in a climate where rain is rain and snow is snow, and ice appears only in the freezer.  Oh well.  That’s not where I live.  The storm is supposed to be pretty bad – they’re calling for freezing rain to fall all day, on top of 1-2 inches of snow that will fall tonight.  Ice skating, anyone?

My lovely wife is sequestered in a hotel through Sunday, making a concerted and focused effort to get her (insert expletive here) dissertation done.  She is so close, but with a new full-time job and three children at home it is tough for her to find the time to write.

Two out of three kids in my family are sick enough to make sleeping difficult, but not sick enough for the doctor to be able to do anything for them.  Did I mention that my wife is in a hotel this weekend?

I’ve applied for copyright permission from Augsburg Fortress Publishers to use an amended form of Responsive Prayer on my new Daily Prayer Delivered blog.  A friend reminded me that I was probably violating copyrights by posting this material online, so I made my petition to my former co-workers at Augsburg Fortress.  I’ll let you know what they say to me.  (For a good, short plea for a new approach to copyrights and permissions for liturgical material, check out this post – The Church and Copyleft – from Father Chris, an Independent Catholic priest who was raised in the Lutheran Church.)

I’ve been dabbling with a custom theme on this blog, but Typepad doesn’t make it easy for amateurs like me.  If this blog looks funny to you, it’s entirely my fault.  But I’m tired and I’m not fixing it for a few days.  Here’s the banner I was toying with:

Banner44 Have a good weekend.  For all who are battling ice and snow, please be safe!

No More Cheez-Its

I’m giving up Cheez-Its.  Not for Lent, but forever.  After eating six of these suckers tonight I spent the evening nauseated as if I had feasted at Taco Bell followed by a never-ending roller coaster ride.  This ain’t the first time, either, that I’ve suffered a Cheez-It attack.  It is the first time that only six of the damn crackers did this to me, however.

I love cheese crackers – particularly Cheez-Its and Goldfish.  The Goldfish are still fair game, so to speak, but they have moved to the Watch List.  As much as I love the taste of these things, they’re terribly unhealthy and they do unpleasant things to my innards.  And considering my most recent physical was nothing to boast about, something needs to change.  I’ll start with the Cheez-Its.

O Where, O Where Did My Disciplines Go?

The results are in from my annual physical, and they’ve got me pretty down:

I’m overweight.  I’m out of shape.  I have bad cholesterol.

Things have to change.  But with three children, a church job, little disposable time or income, and questionable will power, how do I make a change?

And after a week in which I feel that my lack of self discipline led me to prepare my sermon and adult forum at home on Friday and Saturday nights rather than during the week at church, I’m feeling pretty crummy about the state of my disciplines right about now.

Things have to change.  I need to make the time and space for better habits, better disciplines, better living.  But how?

Perhaps I should start with reading a Joel Osteen book . . . 😉

Fitness Failure #27

(Writing from a hotel in St. Paul, MN, where I am briefly in town for my cousin’s wedding – congrats Rob and Caitlin!)

Yesterday I wrenched my back while picking up my pudgy 11 month-old daughter off the floor.  Those of you who are unfortunate enough to frequent these pixels know that back in February I was stricken with a similar ailment doing the same thing.  This current wrenching is not as bad – I can walk, for instance.  But once again I am reminded that I am:

a) not 18

b) not in shape

c) overweight

And how many times over the past 10 years have I vowed to exercise, eat healthier, and get in shape?  I made this vow back in February, and at least one other time over the history of this blog.  How the hell do I do this?  Do I need a Martin-Luther-in-a-storm kind of experience to scare the bejeezus out of me to finally change my ways?  With 14 years of relatively bad habits under my belt, two little kiddos and a third on the way, and with internship and my wife’s new job approaching – how the heck do I improve?

My Fitness Evaluated

Today I went to the YMCA for my fitness evaluation.  I underwent various tests – strength, flexibility, blood pressure, heart rate (at rest and after three minutes of exercise), sit-ups and push-ups, among others.  They punched all the numbers into a computer that tells me my body age (using the Polar Body Age system).  Here’s what I learned:

I’m not as unhealthy as I thought I was.  I’ve been concerned/ashamed about my weight for a while, and I was gratified to learn that I’m not a fitness lost cause.  But I’m not out of the woods, either.  I’ve got work to do.  My test showed me that:

  • my blood pressure (128/79) is at the high end of acceptable, but is not ideal.
  • my cardiovascular system is working pretty well – I achieved a level of "good," a Max VO2 of 50.  I’d like to get that number up to about 52 by the end of the summer (the higher the number, the more oxygen I can use during exercise)
  • my bicep strength is at the high end of "fair," but my sit-ups and push-ups are at the high end of "poor."  I’m a weakling.
  • my flexibility is "fair."  Even when I was in great shape I was not very flexible.  I’m not terribly worried about this one, but I do hope to be able to touch my toes eventually . . .
  • body fat: 22.3% (she used calipers to measure the fat on about seven parts of my body).  This is "moderate," but they recommend that I get down to about 14-19%.
  • I am 6’0" tall and weigh in at 230 pounds.  I should be in the 190s or lower, depending on muscle mass, etc..  I’ve got work to do.
  • Overall, my "body age" is 32.  Whodahthunkit?  I’m 32 years old!  At least it didn’t calculate my body age in the senior citizen levels . . . .

As a former high school track "star" (oodles of medals, a state championship, etc..) this is terribly pathetic.  I know (in my head) that I am not an 18 year-old running the 1600m in the low 4:20s, or the 800m in the mid 1:50s.  But emotionally – in terms of my ego – it is hard to separate myself from that memory.  I know running, I know fitness, I know exercise.  But when I go for a run today, or when I lift a few weights, the experience is completely embarrassing and pathetic.  It is hard to return to a familiar task at a much lower level.  But rather than try new tasks – swimming, bicycling, aerobics, etc. – I hope to turn my knowledge of running and fitness into an asset as I strive to get into shape.  I may never run a five minute mile again – or even a six minute mile – but I hope to return to the point where running up the stairs is comfortable and easy, where jogging for 30 minutes is routine, and where looking at my stomach is not a cause for shame.

I’ll share updates throughout the summer.  My goal: to get below 220 lbs and gain a little upper body muscle before the end of the summer . . . Four cardio and three strength workouts per week this summer should help.

I used to be a track star

It’s true.  Back in high school I was a track star. 

Nearly every weekend I collected a few medals or even a trophy at
track and cross-country meets, some for individual accomplishments and
many more for my role on a relay team.  My highlights include running a
4:23 mile (at that time the third fastest in my school history) and leading off for
the 4×800 relay team, which set a school record, won the state gold
medal in 1993 (my senior year), and clocked one of the fastest 4×800
relay times in the nation that year.  Most importantly, I was healthy
and in shape, and looked pretty darn good in that skinny yet muscular
middle-distance runner’s body.

Well, let’s just say that today is a different story.  I weigh in at
around 230 pounds, which with my 5′ 11" frame is slightly on the rotund
end.  Indeed, at my height and weight I fall somewhere in between
"overweight" and "obese" on WebMD’s Body Mass Index scale
(link opens a new tab or window).  This is not good.  I don’t like
being obese – not only for the harsh connotations of that word, but
also for the impact it has on my health.  Cancer runs in my family and,
as I’ve seen countless times in the hospital, healthy and fit patients
fight disease much better than overweight patients.  But cancer fears
aside, I can’t run up the stairs or go for a long walk pushing the baby
stroller without getting winded.  That’s just pathetic.

I’ve tried working out and improving my diet.  A few years ago I did
the South Beach Diet for about a month or two, and last year at this
time I was running several times per week, a practice that lasted about
three months.  Yet with countless Americans, I have failed to sustain
my dieting or exercising habits over the long haul.  In the end, I
return to the Goldfish crackers, pork roll sandwiches, and the convenience of sodium-laden prepared dinners such as Hamburger Helper.

This is not an announcement of a new diet or
exercise regimen.  No.  Rather, I’m starting this thread simply to give
myself a dedicated place to think and journal about my health (I’m contemplating starting a new blog on the topic).  When he was my age my uncle battled testicular cancer and, thanks to his great health,
he won the fight.  But how would I fare if I was stricken with cancer tomorrow?
Furthermore, as I look forward to a career notorious for it’s health
pitfalls – parish ministry – I want to make my health a high priority
and key learning goal during my congregational internship next year.

You’re welcome to walk with me – but not too quickly at first, lest
I get winded – on this journey of reflection on health, and how it
impacts or is impacted by my work, family and faith.