I absolutely love Eugene Peterson. Few theologians have the insight or writing ability of him. Right now I am reading through his book, “Eat This Book.” And there is a beautiful passage in there about running. As you all know I am on a running kick myself. I am running the Chicago Marathon this weekend, which is the culmination of 19 weeks of training for me. I couldn’t get enough material on reading. I read magazines, books, rented DVD movies about famous runners. If it had to do with running, I was reading and studying it. Read below as Peterson takes the activity of running and ties it so eloquently into our spiritual lives.
The participatory quality of spiritual reading struck me forcibly when i was thirty-five years old. I had taken up running again. I had run in college and seminary and enjoyed it immensely, but when I left school, I left running. It never occurred to me that running was something an adult might do just for the fun of it. Besides, I was a pastor now and I wasn’t sure how my parishoners would take to seeing their pastor running thinly clad along the back roads of our community. But I was noticing other people, doctors and lawyers and executives whom I knew, running in unexpected places without apparent loss of dignity, men and women my age and older, and realized that I could probably get by with it too. I went out and bought running shoes–Adidas, they were–and discovered the revolution in footwear that had taken place since my student days. I began having fun, enjoying again the smooth rhythms of long-distance running, the quietness, the solitude, the heightened senses, the muscular freedom, the texture of the ground under my feet, the robust embracing immediacy of the weather–wind, sun, rain, snow…whatever. Soon I was competing in 10K races every month or so, and then a marathon once a year. Running developed from a physical act to a ritual that gathered meditation, reflection, and prayer into the running. By this time I was subscribing to three running magazines and regularly getting books from the library on runners and running. I never tired of reading about running–diet, stretching, training methods, care of injuries, resting heart rate, endorphins, carbohydrate loading, electrolyte replacements–if it was about running I read it. How much is there to write about running? There aren’t an infinite number of ways you can go about it–mostly it is just putting one foot before the other. None of the writing, with few exceptions, was written very well. But it didn’t matter that I had read nearly the same thing twenty times before; it didn’t matter if the prose was patched together with cliches; I was a runner and I read it all.
And then I pulled a muscle and couldn’t run for a couple of months as i waited for my thigh to heal. It took me about two weeks to notice that since my injury I hadn’t picked up a running book or opened a running magazine. I didn’t decide not to read them; they were still all over the house, but I wasn’t reading them. I wasn’t reading because I wasn’t running. The moment I began running again I started reading again.
That is when I caught the significance of the modifier “spiritual” in “spiritual reading.” It mean participatory reading. It meant that I read every word on the page as an extension or deepening or correction or affirmation of something that I was a part of. I was reading about running not primarily to find out something, not to learn something, but for companionship and validation and confirmation of the experience of running. Yes, I did learn a few things along the way, but mostly it was to extend and deepen and populate the world of running that I loved so much. But if I wasn’t running, there was nothing to deepen.
The parallel with reading Scripture seems to me almost exact; if I am not participating in the reality–the God reality, the creation/salvation/holiness reality–revealed in the Bible, not involved in the obedience Calvin wrote of, I am probably not going to be much interested in reading about it–at least not for long.
Obedience is the thing, living in active response to the living god. The most important question we ask of this text is not, “What does this mean?” but “What can I obey?” A simple act of obedience will open up our lives to this text far more quickly than any number of Bible studies and dictionaries and concordances.
Not that the study is not important. A Jewish rabbi I once studied with would often say, “For us Jews studying the Bible is more important that obeying it, because if you don’t understand it rightly you will obey it wrongly and your obedience will be disobedience.”
This is also true.