The Spiritual Life and Athletics
Tod Bolsinger has a great six-part series called Lessons from Tri-ing which chronicles the lessons he learned from training for and competing in the Ironman Canada this last Sunday. His posts are the posts that I wanted to write, and wished I had written as I have been training for the Chicago Marathon in October.
Sometimes when I used to sit and listen to a sermon and the pastor would make constant references to athetics and drawing analogies that compare the Christian life and the athletic life to one another I would sometimes scratch my head. I mean, I have played sports in my life but it sometimes seemed to be a little too much. But recently I have really been thinking about the lessons I have been learning as I train for the Chicago Marathon, and they have taught me valuable truths about the spiritual life, and vice-versa. In 1 Timothy 4:8,Paul says, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” So it has some value, but in comparison to the spiritual life it is wanting. But there is still value in it, and Paul plays on the importance of this metaphor in some of his other writings such as 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
One Lesson I Have Been Learning
Probably the biggest lesson that I have been learning has been the importance of pacing myself. It was real easy to look at my training program and to want to go out, “pedal to the metal.” Some days I would find myself wanting to push my program farther and harder than it suggested. I mean, what is up with these two and three mile runs, days after I had run eight or nine miles. I would think, this isn’t helping me out at all. I would also find myself sprinting the last half-mile to quarter mile of a six mile run when I was supposed to be taking it easy. I was not content with pacing myself, resting, or taking it easy. That soon led to a hamstring injury in like week five of my sixteen week program, and I then I found myself having to take a week off, or risk possibly never seeing the starting line of the marathon.
A marathon is a long race. 26.2 miles. And the training program is long as well, 16 weeks, or four months, I don’t know which sounds longer. And this is sort of assuming you have some type of running base already. I am now only 8 weeks away from the race and I feel pretty good about what is happening. Today I completed 18 miles at a pace that would bring me in around 4 hours, but I know that my goal is a sub-four hour marathon, and I know I still have two months of training left. But today was rough. I have never run 18 miles before. The farthest I have run till today was 16 miles. And before that 12 miles and on and on. My body knew I had never run 18 miles before as well, and so the last two miles were miserable as my mind and body battled each other for control. All that to say, this is unchartered territory for me.
I have a goal in mind and the goal is to bring me to a place I have never been before. To get there, I have to trust and rely on those who have gone before me. What they say about nutrition, training, rest, shoes, running shorts, gel packs, etc, etc. There is a community that has gone out before me, and I am relying on them to help me reach my goal. But in order to reach my goal, I have to listen to my body and I have to pace myself. I can’t go out too fast in my training and I can’t push my body too much or I may burn out or cause injury. Half-way through this training I already find myself a little bored and exhausted and I am beginning to realize how the glamour of the marathon has begun to fade and boredom and exhaustion are beginning to set it.
So for now, I have to keep pushing forward even when it doesn’t seem fun, even when the runs seem boring and my legs ache. Deep down inside I know that all of this work is worth it and that it will help bring me closer to my goal and help me accomplish a feat that I have never done before.
Start of the College Year
Every year as school starts and students come flooding back into ministry it takes all the energy that I can to get them to slow down. Beginning with our Leadership Retreat, students tend to bite off more than they can chew, and we are off at blazing speed. But after five years in this ministry it is somewhat easy to predict what will happen. Four weeks into school students will be so exhausted from the fast start and then now have to begin studying for midterms. And our numbers will shrink as many skip church to study. And then they will return a little tired, but then the pace picks up until about week nine when they begin to prepare for finals in week ten of the quarter. And then they disappear again. And this cycle will repeat itself in the Winter and Spring as well. Coming out of the blocks in the Fall seemed like a good idea, but about half way through, most students realize that they have not paced themselves and may not have the stamina to finish the school year strong or where they had anticipated.
This sometimes happens to our faith as well. Many students come to faith in Christ during college and they are enamored at this new relationship and they attend every Bible study they can go to, every worship service that is available. They can not get enough. But then inevitably, months later they come to me disappointed that their early feelings towards their new found faith are no longer there. Pacing. It is everything.
This is not to blame students or point fingers at them, because they are just like me, and they are just like you. Whether you are in school, or in a career, we all come out with our guns firing. And sooner or later, wisdom tells us that we cannot keep that fast pace up and that we are going to have to learn to pace ourselves if we are going to be healthy. And we too do this with our faith. We get excited about certain aspects of our faith and head down those paths as fast as we can run, and sooner or later, we too are burned out and we then begin to wonder, “Where is God?”, or “I can’t hear God’s voice”, “Or I don’t feel like praying”, etc., etc.
The spiritual life, like the athletic life is about pacing. The spiritual life is a long race with ups and downs and if we don’t pace ourselves we can easily find ourselves sitting on the sidelines bored because things don’t seem to be working out, or injured because we have gone out too fast ahead of ourselves. Part of training for a marathon involves experimenting with diet and sleep and shoes and all kinds of things. Part of the spiritual life involves experimenting as well. Trying out different methods of prayer and quiet time and Bible reading. What is most beneficial for one person may not be the most beneficial for the next. But when you do, you will better be able to pace yourself.
My Role as Pastor and Your Role as Community
If I am to be the pastor of these students then it is my job as well to help them in their pacing. Part of my role is instructing them and teaching them, and helping them say no and set boundaries so they don’t get burned out. Part of the reason they get burned out in school and in the spiritual life is that I sometimes don’t do a good job of mentoring them and teaching them how to live in a balanced way. And it is our role as the community and the students role in the ministry as the community as well, to guide and help teach one another. Many students in our ministry are farther along the road in their journeys with God and they can offer valuable insight and discerment in being a Christian, and in pacing yourself for this journey.