This past December I ran a PR (personal record) at the San Antonio Rock ‘n Roll Marathon. I had mixed emotions about this effort, because even though I managed to run a huge PR (personal record), I did not qualify for the Boston Marathon. I finished in 3 hours and 23 minutes. Just to give you some perspective what that means, I ran an average pace of 7:46 per-mile for 26.2 miles. I took 18 minutes off my previous PR, which was 3:41 the previous February at the Austin Marathon. However, I had been training and thought I was in shape to run a 3:10 or better to qualify for Boston.
Anyways, all of this running geekery is not actually the point of this reflection. However, allow me to make just a few more comments about running to get to my point.
Racing a marathon takes a toll on the body. Recovery is key. I took 10 days completely off of running after the marathon. This is a huge deal for me, because I typically run like clockwork, six days a week. I did some very easy bike rides during that time just to flush out some of the soreness. For the next three weeks after that I did nothing but very easy runs. This recovery time aligned well with the holidays, so I could fully indulge in Christmas and New Year’s delicacies.
So, over the past several weeks I have been easing back into more serious training. I’m trying a new approach with a new running coach (yes, runners sometimes need coaches). As I started to get back into faster workouts, I was quickly frustrated with the fact that I could barely hold my marathon pace (7:03 miles for a 3:10:00 marathon) for even three miles. It’s been difficult to figure out whether I just lost that much fitness that quickly, or whether I had trained myself into fatigue/exhaustion during the last training cycle. Running 60—70 miles per week for two months will do that to you.
I somehow doubt that I am that overtrained. I think that, instead, over the past six weeks or so, I have just lost that much speed and fitness. Though it’s difficult to earn these increases, they actually disappear fairly quickly.
I’ve heard it said that it takes three times as long to develop a good habit than it does to form a bad habit. The unhealthy, negative stuff just seems stickier. The good stuff takes some discipline and work. It’s more elusive.
It occurred to me on my run today that physical fitness does not work the same as spiritual fitness. While I seem to have lost some of my speed over the course of a month, I find that, in the life of faith, God’s love, God’s presence is not dependent on how hard I’ve “trained.” My prayers or fasting, my devotion and piety earn me no more or no less love from God. When I screw things up, whether intentionally or unintentionally, this does not somehow cause God’s love to lessen. When I preach a decent sermon or visit a parishioner in the hospital, this does not earn me brownie points with God.
This point was driven home in a recent conversation with some trusted friends. We had been discussing the baptism and subsequent temptations of Jesus. It was noted that God identifies Jesus as the beloved “with whom I am well pleased” before Jesus utters a single word in his public ministry. He had not restored sight to the blind (yet), he had not called his disciples or walked on water, he had done nothing of note to earn this God-given belovedness.
The theological term for this is grace. It is something imbued within us because we are created in the image and likeness of God. Grace and mercy are God’s default. And nothing we do, or don’t do, can change that.
Now, some might wonder, “Then why does it matter? Why should we make any effort to be virtuous and good? If God loves us no matter what, why not be selfish and self-serving?”
I read a story recently that answered that question better than any explanation possibly could, and so I want to end this reflection on the run with a story of how grace changes everything:
Malik, son of Dinar, was much upset about the profligate behavior of a youth who lived next door to him. For a long time he took no action, hoping that someone else would intervene. But when the youth’s behavior became intolerable Malik went to him and insisted that he change his ways.
The youth calmly replied that he was a protege of the sultan and so nobody could prevent him from living the way he wanted.
Said Malik, “I shall personally complain to the sultan.” Said the youth, “That will be quite useless, because the sultan will never change his mind about me.”
“I shall then denounce you to Allah,” said Malik. “Allah,” said the youth, “is far too forgiving to condemn me.”
Malik went away defeated. But after a while the youth’s reputation became so bad that there was a public outcry about it. Malik decided it was his duty to attempt to reprimand him. As he was walking to the youth’s house, however, he heard a voice say to him, “Do not touch my friend. He is under my protection.” Malik was thrown into confusion by this and, when he was in the presence of the youth, did not know what to say.
Said the young man, “What have you come for now?” Said Malik, “I came to reprimand you. But on my way here a voice told me not to touch you, for you are under his protection.”
The profligate seemed stunned. “Did he call me his friend?” he asked. But by then Malik had already left his house. Years later Malik met this man in Mecca. He had been so touched by the words of the voice that he had given up his possessions and become a wandering beggar. “I have come here in search of my Friend,” he said to Malik, and died.
– From Anthony DeMello’s, The Song of the Bird, p. 69-70.