The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding

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A couple of years ago, during the same time of the year in which we find ourselves now, I wrote a blog post about the contrasts found in nature, which also seem to mirror the contrasts found in the experiences of our lives. I am grateful for the opportunity given me by Carlos Briceño, editor of Christ is Our Hope Magazine to revisit the post and update it to be relevant for today.

During the process of revision, it struck me how the same words written then still hold true today. Many of my loved ones are still suffering; watching them endure heart-wrenching experiences is still painful and there are days when I still feel utterly helpless to relieve their suffering. Yet these same written words also hold true—life’s moments filled with the darkness of hatred, despair, failure, betrayal and loneliness still can serve as the lifeless backdrop for a glorious unfolding to come. May we keep our eyes wide open so we might see it and recognize it and be empowered by it anew.

The Lifeless Backdrop for a Glorious Unfolding as featured in the March 2017 edition of Christ is Our Hope Magazine.

 

Sweetness of Body & Soul Found in the Embrace of My Enemy

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Continued from Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled My Soul

When after years of struggle I finally made the decision to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis, climb off my proverbial horse and embrace the leper in my life, my interior shackles began to loosen. That which predominantly tormented me spiritually and emotionally was my need to control life and the people in it. This need for control controlled me. It made me a slave to its every impulse. And as my husband, the psychotherapist taught me, one definition of crazy is trying the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result. I had to try something different if I was going to get healthier. Running was the last thing I ever wanted to try, but try it I did.

Giving alms and a kiss to this leper meant giving it the precious gift of my time and conjuring up some sort of affection for it. At first, the kiss I gave it was like the ones I was made to give as a child, on the cheeks of aunts and uncles and grandmas upon arriving or leaving a family gathering—obligatory, lacking in sincerity, sometimes followed by wiping the lips clean of the germs left by the one embraced. But like the good girl I was taught to be, I did it nonetheless.

»The Early Days

It was winter. Never would I have entertained the idea of running outside. Lucky for me, there was a new indoor track nearby. About four times a week, usually early in the morning (when no one else was there to whom I could negatively compare myself), I made my way there and I began to walk the straight parts and run the curves. I won’t lie, at first it seemed so boring and repetitive and a waste of my time, but I brought along music which became my saving grace. Music had the ability to transport me away from the monotony. It served to drown out the sound of my heavy breathing, so that I wouldn’t become discouraged when I heard how out of shape I was. It became my partner in this new relationship. Without it, I don’t think I could have kept up the routine past a couple of days.

I was nearly 40 lbs. overweight. Changing this reality was my main motivation for beginning. Slowly, but surely, I began to see that embracing my enemy was something I should have considered a long time ago. Nevertheless, what mattered now was to remain faithful to this new relationship in a consistent way. As I did, measurable transformation began to take place. Physically, I was becoming stronger and leaner. My endurance grew. Clothing became too big and new clothes had to be purchased. The number on the scale decreased steadily. As my confidence increased, so did my affection for running. It was giving to me things I couldn’t experience without it in my life.

When winter turned to spring, I moved outside to a track at a nearby college. By now I could run an entire lap, walk a lap, run a lap. And the fresh air was a change I welcomed. For years I had avoided the great outdoors. I hated the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow. I despised how uncomfortable it all made me feel and the mess it created. Feeling cold or hot or sweaty or wet was not in my comfort zone. However, since spring in Chicago is practically over before it begins, it wasn’t long before we were slammed with a hot and humid day. I was at a crossroads. Was I willing to leave my comfort zone in order to continue the journey I had begun, even when conditions were not within my control? Even when it would leave me feeling hot and sweaty and messy? Yet that which had once seemed so bitter to me, running, had slowly turned into sweetness of body. I looked better, felt better, slept better and somehow, the anxiety disorder that had plagued me since childhood, it no longer controlled my every move. The decision was made. I kept on running, even in the heat.

»Revisiting My Past While Looking Forward to the Future

Beyond the investment of time, I now found myself investing in a pair of authentic running shoes, a couple pair of running shorts and tanks. Before long I could run an entire half mile, then 3/4 of a mile. Finishing with sweat pouring down my forehead, my hair drenched; it felt strangely empowering. Who was this person I was becoming? Though I didn’t entirely recognize her, I really liked being with her.

One day in a bold move, she took me back to visit my old elementary school. At the very same playground where I had finished dead last in the annual mile year after year, she led me in a one mile run. This time I ran the entire mile, finishing in a decent time, with my head held high. Tears of healing and joy streamed down my face as I imagined speaking to the broken, demoralized little girl of my past. “You are stronger than you know”, I told her. “One day, things will be better. Don’t give up hope.” For good measure, I did a victory lap before I left the playground that day; the theme song from Chariots of Fire playing as the soundtrack in my mind. I felt unstoppable.

It was the beginning of June; my 40th Birthday was fast approaching. I set my sights on kicking off this new decade of my life by running my first race. There was one being held on my birthday on the lakefront in Chicago. It was a 5K race; 3.1 miles. For the next six weeks, I followed a training plan and ran more than ever. I ran off of the track and ventured into my neighborhood. Living within just 1/2 mile from a beautiful river, I decided to explore the trails alongside it and a whole new world was opened up to me.

»Undergoing Deeper Transformation 

Crossing the finish line at that first race on July 26, 2009 was, in retrospect, a definitive starting line for a deep spiritual transformation that continues to this day. Crystallized within me at that moment was the resolution to enter into a lifelong embrace with my former enemy. This embrace had already brought such sweetness to my body and mind in such a short time; just now was I beginning to savor the delights it brought to my soul.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that the healing of my soul was somehow tied to my resolve to do as much of my running as possible in the great outdoors. Predominantly, my miles have been traversed outside, in the rain, in the sun, in the wind, in the calm, in the extreme heat, in the extreme cold, in perfect conditions, in imperfect conditions and everything in between. Cooperating with nature several times a week, especially here in the Midwest, has demanded of me to become very flexible. Each day of each season presents to me a wild variety of requirements for the way I need to dress, the way I need to plan for my hydration, the route I need to take and the attitude I need to develop in order to accomplish my goal. Day-by-day, if I want to run, I am required to adapt and flex.

On days like today, adapting and flexing looks like checking the weather to assess the day’s forecast for precipitation and temperature in order to determine when is the optimum time for running before the sun sets at 4:24 p.m. It means dressing in three layers on the top, donning a hat, two pair of gloves and running shoes with spikes in them to prevent me from slipping on ice. Since my favorite route is temporarily impassable due to snow and ice, I will run the streets in my town and set my mind to be inspired by nature and the occasional sighting of dogs, squirrels and bunnies. With all of the outdoor water fountains shut off during winter, I will plan to stop by the local 7-11 for some hydration.

In the summer, adapting and flexing looks like planning on leaving super early, before the heat and humidity render me incapacitated. It means dressing as lightly as possible, with a headband in my hair to catch the sweat from dripping into my eyes. Since my favorite path provides shade, I will run along the river, through the woods and anticipate being inspired by nature and the occasional sightings of foxes, deer, beavers, turtles and the predictable encounters with Canadian Geese and Mallard Ducks (and their abundance of poop) along the waterfront. With all of the outdoor water fountains working, I will rely on them for hydration. However, if I am going to be running for awhile, I will to drive to spots along the path ahead of time and drop some Gatorade.

Slowly, but surely, I am being transformed through the ongoing embrace of running. The lessons to adapt and flex with every single changing condition, first learned in the physical and emotional realm, now have taken root in my spiritual life. With each stride I take, surrounded by the beauty of creation, I am awakened to the presence of the Creator, both outside of me and within. I am being taught to accept the things I cannot change, being strengthened with courage to change the things I can and being graced with the wisdom to know the difference.

»By No Power of My Own

Dominican historian, Fr. Augustine Thompson wrote this about St. Francis and the affect that his embrace of the lepers brought to him:

What before was truly ugly and repulsive now caused him delight and joy, not only spiritually, but viscerally and physically.  The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man. Just as suddenly, the sins that had been tormenting him seemed to melt away, and Francis experienced a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

More than seven years have passed since I crossed that finish line for the first time. In the process of training and completing seven half marathons, I have logged thousands of miles. Sometimes when I glance at my Nike App after finishing a run and view the total distances I have traversed, I am shocked that it is me who has accomplished this. Truth be told, even after all this time, I still don’t love the act of running itself. Yet what before was truly ugly and repulsive now causes me delight and joy. I sense by the grace of God and no power of my own, I am being remade into a different woman and a kind of spiritual rebirth and healing is mine.

This post was inspired by a podcast entitled, “Running as Spiritual Practice”, from “On Being with Krista Tippett”. If you would like to hear others’ stories of how running served to transform their lives, click here.

Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled my Soul

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It was at a very young age when I first began to hate physical activity. If I had to pinpoint the year, it was probably in first grade, circa 1975, when I was introduced to the President’s Physical Fitness test in gym class. It was a yearly assessment that consisted of crunches, pull-ups,the V-Sit Reach, a couple of sprints and the event that most tortured my soul, year after year, the dreaded mile run. This annual test was created in the late 1950’s by a guy who was concerned that children were losing muscle tone because of “the affluent lifestyle of 20th century America”. During President Kennedy’s term in the White House, the President’s Council on Youth Fitness created a Physical Fitness Curriculum for schools. Kennedy himself wrote two articles for Sports Illustrated in support of the program. One was entitled, “The Soft American”.

Children with low muscle tone, soft Americans; the words paint a descriptive picture. I could have been the poster child for the “why” such a program was needed in the schools of America. Apparently when I was being knit in the womb and the Creator was dealing out the metabolism genes, I was dealt a bad hand (at least according to the standards of the culture into which I was born). Pictures of me at the beach in my early years reveal a round and happy girl. Best of all, she is blissfully unaware her chubbiness, considered cute and sweet at 2 years of age, will one day soon become the source of lifelong struggle.

At five it became glaringly apparent that I was considered a not-so-good kind of different in comparison to others. In the kindergarten classroom, I didn’t measure up favorably in regards to the physical attributes girls are taught to highly esteem. But it was the day each year I was forced to run that mandatory mile when I felt at my most vulnerable. There was no way to hide my inability to keep up with the others. Finishing dead last, even after trying my hardest, was utterly demoralizing. Running became the embodiment of everything I despised about the unmanageable parts of my life. I felt as if I was a helpless victim of its mockery.

Born forth from these early experiences of failure, shame & embarrassment was the dominating need to control my environment and the people in it. In her article, “8 Signs You’re a Control Freak”, Dr. Shelley Prevost identifies some of the exact beliefs and behaviors I developed to function in life. Over time they grew in power and succeeded in achieving total control over me.

  1. You believe that if someone would change one or two things about themselves, you’d be happier. So you try to “help them” change this behavior by pointing it out, usually over and over. Check! [√]
  2. You micromanage others to make them fit your (often unrealistic) expectations. You don’t believe in imperfection and you don’t think anyone else should either. Check! [√]
  3. You judge others’ behavior as right or wrong and passive-aggressively withhold attention until they fall in line with your expectations. Sitting in silent judgment is a master form of control.Check! [√]
  4. You change who you are or what you believe so that someone will accept you. Instead of just being yourself, you attempt to incept others by managing their impression of you. Check! [√]

To think I somehow navigated through life in this condition, my soul confined by these heavy shackles, all the while managing to graduate from college, meet and marry my husband and become a mother; it still shocks and surprises me. But truth be told, it came at a high price. My husband felt judged and shamed; my anxiety was completely out-of-control and avoiding it dictated my every move; I was exhausted at working tirelessly to please everyone in the hopes I might be accepted and loved. The toxic repercussions of living as a control freak had infiltrated my mental, emotional and spiritual life. And the culmination—I could no longer hide that I was also in the worst physical shape of my life. The report following the mandatory physical in the pursuit of life insurance was filled with ugly words such as “obese”, “high cholesterol”, “elevated blood sugar”. It confirmed my worst fears and made me again feel like a helpless victim of life’s circumstances.

In the midst of this mess, my old enemy had the gall to show up into my life without an invitation. I hadn’t encountered it since the last Physical Fitness Test was done Senior year of high school. Out of nowhere, my husband began running, day and night, for miles on end. He had decided to train for his very first marathon after a long hiatus from running and became unstoppable. In the process, without even making major alterations to his eating patterns, he dropped 60 lbs. and the transformation wasn’t only physical. There was a confidence that returned to him and an overall sense of well-being pervaded his days.

Two years and two marathons later, living with this invader in my home as a regular part of his daily routine served to slightly weaken my defensive stance towards it. I too was looking for a way to achieve health and transformation, but nothing I tried seemed to be working. It was the one last thing I had not embraced. Coincidentally while in the midst of an interior wrestling match, I was reminded of the story of St. Francis and the leper. Francis abhorred lepers, but one day while riding on his horse, he met a leper on the path. Rather than turn away as he was naturally inclined to do and had always done, he conquered his aversion, stopped, climbed off his horse and embraced the leper, giving him alms and a kiss. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

Desperate to be freed from the shackles of perfectionism and control, longing for sweetness of soul and body, I conquered my aversion. Rather than turn away, as I was naturally inclined to do and had always done, I climbed off my horse and I embraced that which I most abhorred—running. I gave it alms and a kiss. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

Continued…