Once, I read in John 13, about a time when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and asked, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” I wrote in the margin of my Bible: “Almost never.” I seldom understand what Jesus has done for me in real time; only later when I look back can I hope to grasp the significance.
May 2018 has been a looking-back do-you-understand-what-I-have-done session for me. It marks forty years since I first started running, one of the most unexpected decisions I ever made. Having done nothing athletic up until that point in my life, it was an unpredictable and unbelievable change that forever altered my trajectory.
I started running in May 1978 for one reason: to win back the heart of a girl. As it turned out, I was successful. I’ve been married to Cyndi for almost 39 years. What I never anticipated when I took those first steps down the sidewalk was how God would use running to speak into my heart. I’m a better man because I run, I’ve become a deeper and more consistent follower of Jesus.
Through the years I’ve had friends who take up running after they hear me describe my spiritual encounters, and typically report back they never heard from God, but heard instead the voice of The Resistance telling them to go back home this was too hard and hot and painful and stupid and they should stop right now. Why is it different for you, they ask.
Not because I was a good runner. Even though running has been an important part of my life, I have never had any talent. For forty years I’ve been a stumbling plodder who’s only skill was I wouldn’t quit. Nowadays, what I call running looks more like unskilled race-walking to the casual eye.
So how did an awkward non-spiritual hobby like running become spiritual practice? For me it was running three miles every day, and then later five miles every day, in harsh weather, brutal dusty winds, cold rain, or threatening Texas heat. The intentional repetition eventually moved running from a discipline of my will to feeding my heart; moving my feet and legs was a calming influence that allowed my mind to wander toward God. It didn’t happen quickly. It took a lot of miles.
Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (NIV) There’s more to guarding our hearts than merely avoiding evil. Erwin McManus compared guarding our hearts to building core strength. Anyone who has worked out in the gym under an instructor for the past ten years, or read a magazine article about getting stronger, knows that everything comes from our core strength. In the fitness world, it is all about core strength training nowadays. It’s important in the spiritual context as well.
Proverbs doesn’t give specific instructions how to watch over our heart. For sure, it means to pay attention to relationships and influencers and activities, to know that what goes into our life tends to stay with lasting consequences. For me, running put both meditation and adventure into my heart, as well as fitness and strength.
Currently I do more cycling than running. I’m not completely happy about that yet, but I’m giving cycling a chance. The only things I’ve done longer than running are loving Cyndi, playing music, reading, and following Jesus. We’ll see what happens with cycling.
I first started running in 1978 to win the heart of a girl, but instead, I found God. He chose running to be one of the places he revealed himself to me. Through my time alone, on my feet, the God of my parents and my grandparents became my God. It was on the road and on the trail that my relationship with God became personal. We developed a friendship which grew bigger than church and deeper than rules of behavior.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32