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Running With The Wind
Long Distance Running as Spiritual Practice

Having started running for physical exercize and a greater sense of well being at the age of 60, I now see that running is also a great way to meditate. It has become a regular part of my spiritual practice. I’ve even been tempted to enter a couple of races. And in these years as a runner, I have come to see why many of those engaged in spiritual practice have drawn an analogy between the journey of faith and long distance running. 

It was no less an authority than the apostle Paul who originally compared the Christian life to running in a race. 

This was one of his favorite metaphors. As he said to the Corinthians, "All the runners at the stadium are trying to win, but only one of them gets the prize. You must run in the same way, meaning to win." Actually, Paul may be getting us off to a false start here, for as most runners realize, it's not about winning or competing. In middle and later life, most of us have no intention of winning a marathon, the satisfaction comes in simply being in the race, and completing it. I'm not sure that victory was Paul's point either. 

We find in the letter to the Hebrews a scene which recalls the finish of a Greek marathon. As the leading runners enter the stadium, the crowd rises with one voice to cheer them on. "With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too should throw off everything that hinders us, and keep running steadily in the race we have started." This is not so much a lesson in winning, but in completing what one has started. 

"That's how we all should run," said the writer of Hebrews, "throwing off every obstacle that hinders us ... and keep running steadily in the race we have started." 

In a real sense, all of us are long distance runners. Whether we travel from city to city or whether our journeys are largely those of the mind, we always seem to be off and running. That's why the whole region of the country, centering around New York City, where I live and run, is often referred to as the "fast track." For many who live in this region, life seems to proceed at a faster pace than it does elsewhere. Even if one chooses a life that is largely sedentary, still time itself keeps on rushing by, and the years of our life pass like the wind. The question is whether in our running we are going around and around in circles, or whether there is a sense of direction and purpose. It's the repetition of the merely routine that truly tires and fatigues my spirit. What about you?

Cleaning an apartment, for example, when you feel that next week at exactly the same time you'll have to clean it all over again. Or paying the bills, knowing that next month, at about the same date, you'll have to pay them again. Or going to work on a gray Monday morning, when work has lost its meaning and you know that once again you'll have to face the same dreary tasks, and keep on facing them until you retire. Or filing your income taxes, and knowing, that next year, on April 15, you'll be filing them all over again, and the only difference is, you'll probably arrive at that point in the future owing more. And you will not have arrived at the finish, but only another marker along the road in a race that never ends. 

We are all caught up in some activities that proceed without apparent purpose or direction, so that life seems more like a treadmill than a marathon. 

Like any great story, a road race has a beginning, a middle and an end. And at the end there's the cheering crowd and the welcome and congratulations of family and friends when you finish. So in the life of faith, the drama unfolds step·by·step. From birth to death, one draws closer and closer to the finish, nearer and nearer to that moment of fulfillment when one enters the very presence of God.

Moreover, in a road race, there's a sense of pace and timing, a sense of stewardship and strategy as you allow your body to run as fast as it can, but not so fast that you burn yourself out. It was this danger that St Paul had in mind when he cautioned the Christians of Corinth to keep, "the body in subjection." I read this phrase not in a narrow, moralistic sense, as though we must constantly keep a tight reign on our passions and emotions, but rather I read those words as a runner would. As Paul himself puts it, we're not just out there running around like chickens with our heads cut off, or burning strength and energy aimlessly like a boxer fanning his fists in the wind. We are "running to finish the race we have started."

A long distance race requires careful stewardship of one's strength. And so in this race we call our lives, there is an appropriate speed and pace for each one of us, given our stage and status in life. In our youth we have energy and ability seemingly to fly on wings like eagles. There's a time in our lives when almost anything seems possible. In middle age there's a slowing of the pace, a mellowing of the spirit, and we must slow down to a mere run. And then in old age, when we can neither fly nor run, nevertheless, God gives us the strength to walk.

The irony is that at each and every stage of life there are obstacles to be encountered, roadblocks and reversals of fortune that stymie ones plans and damped one's spirit. And one is tempted to withdraw, pull over to the side of the road, and quit. This is just as likely to happen in youth when one encounters a major disappointment, and bright ideals or shining hopes are so easily tarnished. Or in middle age, when one first begins to feel that the true obstacles come not from circumstances in the world, but from the limitations of strength and energy, perhaps even the flaws within. And then again in the final years of life, when one is tempted to say, "I've done all I can, I've struggled long enough or hard enough, what difference can I possibly make this late in life?" 

So a time of disillusionment can come at any point along the way, when one is tempted to abandon hope or surrender the dream, thinking if only to ones self, "This was never meant to be." The fact is, I don't think that any of us can sail through life without ever coming up against what appears to be an insurmountable problem. We feel tired and discouraged; we are tempted to quit the race. 

To this, I've got just one clear and resounding word: don't give up. Struggle through, expect inspiration, tap into the power that is greater than yourself. So that at the close of life, you need never look back with regret, but can say with the writer of old:

"The time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race; I have held fast the faith."

Of course, you understand I'm not simply talking about a road race.

You don't have to run in a marathon to prove your strength. For there may actually be a time when the body is literally incapable of walking. But even then, you can throw yourself with abandon into the race which only the soul can run.

In one sense the spiritual life is the greatest long distance marathon of them all. For in prayer a person can reach out in every direction as far as the mind can see. In meditation we can identify with people who live in the most distant reaches of our world. We can walk the ruined streets of Baghdad, pleading for peace; in prayer, if not in fact, we can travel to the Middle East, working alongside volunteers who bring Israelis and Palestinians together. And in our prayer, we are not limited to the boundaries of our planet, but we are quite literally capable to traveling to the farthest reaches of the universe into the presence of God where there is no limit at all. As people of the spirit, in whatever state of health or stage of life we find ourselves, each and everyone of us is perfectly capable of running like the wind.

As long as one has life enough to let the spirit run free, it is possible to share in the sense of exhilaration captured by the prophet, "Those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary."

Finally, the long distance race is an apt metaphor for the Christian life because Jesus lived it that way. 

From his birth in Bethlehem, to his death in Jerusalem, Jesus was literally on the run. In the attempt to spread the word of God as far and wide as possible, he traveled throughout the villages of Galilee and Judea. He stopped here and there to touch and talk and heal whenever he could, but he was no sedentary teacher. In the short span of just three years, he crossed the length and breadth of his native land, and he took his disciples deep into the territories of neighboring countries. He made it clear, his gospel was not for the people of Israel alone, but for all the world.

From the beginning he seemed to realize his race was against time and fate itself. And as he struggled toward the finish in the capital city, his enemies conspired against him.

They took him at night in the garden of Gethsemane. They came out with swords and spikes to crush his body in the vain hope that they could also stamp out his restless spirit. But even when he was nailed to the cross, his spirit continued running free. Even in the final pain of crucifixion, he could not be deflected from the course he had chosen, and he continued, running with the wind.

As a runner hurtles across the finish in a final burst of speed, so in the pain of crucifixion Jesus threw himself across the line which separates life and death. In that moment defeat was turned into victory, and the doors of the kingdom burst open. In one stroke, the possibilities for our lives were extended far beyond the reckoning of the mortal mind.

In the obit section of the Times not long ago there appeared this story. "Dr. Paul E. Spangler, 95, dies, while on a seven mile run near his home in California." Spangler, a retired Navy surgeon took up running at the age of 67. In the 27 years that followed, he claimed 85 national records at various distances. In his last competition, he won several gold medals at a Senior Olympics in Palm Springs. By the time he began running in 1966, Dr Spangler had lived what many would have considered a long and complete life. He had served with the Navy in World War I, he was a graduate of Harvard Medical College; he was an accomplished aviator, as a singer he had formed barbershop quartet groups all over the world. At the age of 92 he completed the New York City marathon. In his final decades of life he wanted to prove that one's lifespan could be increased with what he called "proper living." It's hard to imagine a better illustration of how one can live, fully and completely, until the very end. Dying at the age of 95 on a seven mile run." 

But the thing is, if an individual in the ninth decade of life can run 26 miles for the mere satisfaction of completing a road race, how much more can any one of us accomplish in the effort to make God's justice and God's peace real in the world? If the cause is incomparably great, so is the inspiration to complete it. "For those who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." So let us complete the race we have started, let us strive toward the finish, confident that as God runs with us, we shall each and every one of us be running with the wind.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.