Just past the peak of my obsession with running, somewhere in my mid-20s, I’d made the decision that enough was enough. I’d taken a couple years to work part-time at most and dedicate my time to see how good I could really get at running. It was time for a change.
The answers to my questions about how good I could get were satisfying to me, if not entirely conclusive. Perhaps a couple years of training might have gotten me down to 30:30 10K that I’d hoped to achieve. I still think that time would have been possible, under the right conditions. But things are never perfect.
Plus at 26 years old, there were other obligations of life starting to call me. I’d get married in 1985, have our first child in 1986 and dig into my first real professional position in 1987. I kept running, but not with the same competitive obsession.
With maturity came the dedication to family that should kick in about that age. And as we got into the rhythm of being parents, the routine of going to church became a consistent part of our lives.
Looking for God
That was how it was when I was growing up as well. My dad and mom dressed us up in cute little suits and took us to church at a Presbyterian church in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I loved Sunday school for the different set of friends I’d find there. And a boy named Tommy Golden always made me laugh. So it was fun learning bible stories and hanging out with God.
I used to stare up at the arched ceiling of that big church and wonder if God was floating around in the vapors. But a sign never came, so I had to be content with the beauty of the hymns we sang. The reward for my dedication came later at People’s Drugs where my dad would take us after church for a ‘sticky bun’ and a Pepsi.
Something from those days must have stuck in my brain because even after our family moved to the Midwest from Pennsylvania, I decided on my own initiative to sign up for confirmation class at a little church in downtown Elburn. Our class was filled with all kinds of people and it was like we’d formed our own little community.
Plus I lived next door to the pastor of the church. He once came over to play ping pong with me in our spacious attic on the table my father made for us. Somewhere during the match he realized he was going to lose, and I heard him mutter the word “shit” when he missed one of my slams. That’s the moment when I realized pastors were human.
During high school, I joined the group Campus Life, an evangelical youth ministry run by students and advisors from Wheaton College. Their goal was to create a safe environment for kids to explore Christianity. My goal was to get the cute girls from other towns to go out with me.
While I accomplished that goal, my adopted mission was to challenge the often formulaic presentation of Gospel as fact. At one point a counselor pulled me aside and said, “You’ll never be a Christian if you keep asking so many questions.” That didn’t stop me.
Then I eased off into Luther College, an institution named for the man who launched the Reformation by challenging the Catholic Church and its indulgent habits. The faith I took away from the college experience aligned with my earlier instincts that the “unexamined faith is not worth having.”
Running for my life
I also ran thousands of miles during four years of competition in track and field and cross country. During the middle of a bleak junior year when the weather felt it came out a cold version of hell, I had my first real fight with depression. This coincided, but was not caused, by enrollment in a class titled “Existentialism.” We read books by those dire philosophers Sartre and Camus. Then we sat in class with a professor who would squinch the skin of his forehead together in passionate consideration of the words we were reading. He was one intense dude. Some of my answers to his questions were not well-received. That is how college should be. Get your ass kicked a little.
But I’ve always thought that guy was a little bit like God. What other visage do we have to go by? We’re told by scripture to refer to God as the Father, and his son Jesus is an assistant coach of sorts, but also one with God. Then the Holy Spirit is floating around too. That makes up the Trinity. The God Squad.
Too much of that ontological theology stuff is garbage. My relationship with God is much more honest than a pile of terms. I admit that I’m a flawed human being and ask for insight. I confess that I’m a dick sometimes, and possibly a bit arrogant. But I also ask for help in finding and helping those in need. And try to respect all people. That’s the spectrum of faith.
Some of that, the more angry, dismissive part, squares pretty well with being a competitive runner. Being a dick and being arrogant to some extent helps you when you’re standing on the starting line amongst people who trying to beat you to the finish line. When you’re in stellar shape and know you have the ability to win, that is no time to be conciliatory. You go do what you’re trained to do.
During the opening mile of a five-mile race, a competitor once turned to me and asked, “How fast are you running today?” I think he meant to collaborate on the pace. But I turned to him and barked, “Faster than you.” Then I took off at sub-5:00-mile pace and won the race going away at 24:45. It was not my calling to help him in that moment.
Credit where due
When I finished, there was no call to point a finger at the sky and thank God for the victory. That would be truly arrogant. To assume that somehow God favored me over the other competitors that day is as absurd as claiming one could run to the moon. For one thing that’s a very long way. And for two, there’s no oxygen or traction.
Some things we clearly do on our own, and the thing for which we can thank God about that is simply being alive. We’re all composed of the same carbon and juice. Our blood saline is similar to saltwater. We go from dust to dust, trading genetic material and DNA for all we’re worth. Then the worms and germs come to eat us up and transfer that energy to some other life form. And unless you donate your body’s organs to help others or let science carve them up for research, that’s as close as we come to reincarnation.
Inside that shell is the beating heart that drives it all. Mine cannot meet the pace that it once did back in my 20s. The body naturally slows as we age.
And what of the mind? During all these years of a beating heart and the movement of feet in shoes and on pedals, how has the mind fared? What can it tell us about the nature of being? And is there really a God?
I think I know the answers to all those questions. I really do. And it’s this: There is a God if you want one.
That is not to say we create God ourselves, or that God does or does not exist. Those are questions designed to defeat the purpose or meaning of our existence, which is to commune with creation.
How we do that is a personal choice. And having spent 60 years of my life attending church in one form or another, it was an interesting exercise to sit down and make a list of all the things I did in those roles. That’s what I did in church this past Sunday.
It all added up to years of this and that. Taught Sunday School to middle schoolers for 10 or 15 years. Did the same with High School Youth Group at church. Sang in the choir for 15 years. Played in the Praise Band and even led the damned thing for a while. Served on church boards through building projects and pastoral transitions. Endured countless conservative sermons at the former church we attended where condemnations of evolution, homosexuals and the liberal social agenda were a regular thing.
But in the meantime, I was challenging the kids of the people who sat in those pews to realy think about life. About God. And where the two intersect. I followed no books or guidelines. Just opened the door and welcomed those young minds into the space where God could indeed enter in.
Why did you stay?
You might ask, “Why did you stay?” And my answer would be, from a sense of duty and commitment to principals that mattered, such as family, and friends, and keeping one voice alive in that space of dogma.
But even my late wife tired of the constant harangue pouring out from the church denomination in which she’d been baptized and confirmed. So we said our cordial goodbyes and then refused the political invitation by some members of the church elders to say bad things about our former pastor.
One of the things that I’ve learned from all these years of religion is that the church can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be the height of evil. In times of joy or crisis, the body of Christ can be quite sustaining. It’s those patches in between where drama is lacking and people get bored and bickering that can produce the heights of evil and the depressing antithesis of God.
What prayer can do
I’ve been through the death of a spouse, and I know what prayer can and cannot do. I’ve had prayers directly answered, and I’ve learned that some forms of prayer need to be reconsidered. Asking for miracles is not a good habit to abide. Accepting the miracles that can occur if you keep an open heart and mind is a very good practice.
That is why I say there is a God if you want one. My atheist friends are content to ignore that invitation, and I don’t judge them. But I do think everyone has a god of some sort. A thing they trust either in the universe or themselves. That is what I was trying to find as a child looking up at the ceiling of the church in Pennsylvania.
And that is what I have been communing with during all these years. God is a very mobile dude (like the Big Lebowski) if you keep an ear open. I once lay on a pole vault pit after work, so angry at some transgression by a co-worker that I could not even stay at home with my wife and kids. And somewhere out of the gray sky above me, a voice spoke and said, “Forgiveness.”
I went to work the next day and forgave that guy every wrong thing he was trying to do. And two weeks later, he was fired from his position. Sometimes giving in is the most powerful thing you can do in this world. Just ask Jesus.
There is a God if you want one
So like I say, there is a God if you want one. At times in life, I’ve made other things my God. For a while, running was one of them. I gave it my all, and more. And having experienced that level of zealotry and the self-indulgence it can ring from your soul, I quickly recognize it in others. As John Irving once wrote through a character in his book Hotel New Hampshire, “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”
All that means is that with focus, we can achieve many of the things we set out to do. Having a God isn’t like that. It’s a combination of pursuing truth and letting it come to you. That is the race we set out to run from birth. Learning our limits and at the same time, pushing them.
That is the God of existence.