This morning while walking the dog I turned the corner and the view down the street was perfectly composed. A rising sun seemed to be following a course through the space between the trees. Of course that’s all an illusion of perspective. Just like stars in a constellation, the space between these objects in our view exists in a flat plane of reality.
But the fact that you’re up at such an hour grants you the right to impose whatever reality you’d like to make for yourself. Early risers see a lot of things the rest of the world ignores. We see early morning creatures slinking home from their nocturnal journeys. We hear birds waking from their naps in the trees. If you rise early enough to hear the bird chorus in its fullness, life itself feels more real and rich.
Those of us that pull on running shoes and put in a few miles before the sun comes up know about these things in an intimate way. When you run alone, there are times when you wish someone else was there to witness these revelations. And yet, it is a gift of heaven here on earth that the world can seem perfectly composed for our appreciation and understanding.
It is my contention that faith itself is dependent on appreciation of this connection. When Jesus teaches about spiritual concepts he frequently uses examples from nature to illustrate his points. In my book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age, I wrote that understanding the entire bible depends on these roots of organic fundamentalism. It is the symbolism of nature that conveys concepts such as the tree of knowledge, the river of life and the yeast in the dough that teaches us how faith can grow.
So it’s not just a circumstance of life’s rhythms that so many people rise early to run, ride or swim. The difficulty of rising from bed at such an early hour is a gift of strife. God does not promise that we’ll all sail through life without difficulty. It is often the toughest parts of existence that form our character in important ways. These experiences can be revelatory. It’s what we seek in events from 5Ks to Ironmans. The struggle that reveals the human spirit.
I recall a moment during an intense period of training in college when my college roommate Dani Fjelstad got me up from sleep to run an 8-miler before our first class at 8 a.m. Dani is one of the most disciplined people I’ve ever met, and my training with him brought me to a fitness equal to second man on the squad much of the season.
Together we ripped through those eight miles together without a word. Just the sounds of September birds muttering through the yellowing leaves. Our footstrikes kicked up puffs in the dry dirt. Then we rolled back through our quiet college campus to the dormitory, a shower and then a quick breakfast at the Union.
We half-jogged across the campus quad to the old building just in time for our 8 a.m. class in Anthropology.
Our instructor was a brilliant man named Clark Mallam, whose research on the mound builders of northeast Iowa helped led to the establishment of Effigy Mounds National Monument, a sacred space on the bluffs of the Mississippi overlooking Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. This is where early Americans created mounds in the shape of animals to commemorate the human connection to the earth.
As we walked into Anthropology, Clark winked at us and watched us sit down. Then he turned to the class and said something on this order. “Good morning everyone. I want to share something with you before we begin. As I drove to class this morning I saw two young men out training on the road. Dani and Chris here were getting miles in before today’s classes. How far did you guys run this morning?”
Dani quietly stated, “Eight miles. 6:30 pace.”
Clark gave that remark a moment to sink in. “These guys are up before class every day running like that,” he said. “I know it, because I see them every morning on the way to class. It’s what makes you good, right?”
We both shook our heads yes. And with that he swung into teaching the class. I’ve always thought it significant that an anthropology teacher made that acknowledgment. He knew the sacrifice going on, the dedication it took to rise so early. Later I’d see our Anthropology professor standing on the sidelines during the All American Cross Country Invitational our school hosted on campus.
It is the study of human nature, I believe, that calls us all back to nature. Connecting those dots leads us even deeper into the mystery of existence. You don’t have to read the Bible to find connections to the miraculous cycle of life available to us every day. But if you do, keep an eye open to the metaphorical foundations of scripture. Our words and metaphors playfully and yet significantly interact with all of creation. And there you can find God if you look, and the spirit of evolution as well. I believe there is no conflict between the two.
Skip the labels for a moment and think to a moment when you’re up early. You might be driving to a swim practice at a local pool, or clipping in for a ride through an early morning mist. You might be running through your neighborhood when a coyote or fox cuts across the street in furtive wanderings. You realize that despite all appearances at times, you are not alone in this world. Nor disconnected. You are neither superior or inferior to the blue jay calling its mates from the trees. You are simply an early riser trying to make the most of the day. And whether it is a call to prayer that you feel moved to engage, or a conference call with colleagues, your mind is opened to an entire universe of possibilities when you are through with your workout.
Early risers really do get the worm. The organic truth of that paradigm is that you understand at some level that worms literally make the earth, and you are not separate from it. You may run across its surface, or ride over the ground as if you were flying like a swallow, or swimming like a fish. These elements are part of you, and you are part of them. That’s your real carbon footprint. From the ashes of time you have come, and to ashes you will go in due time.
But first and first again you will rise and call the day into being. It will answer, and you can converse at will, given enough awareness. Early risers have a head start on that process. You must know that for all the difficulty, grace itself awaits you. Go run. Go ride. Go swim.