“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1
The above quotation sounds nice to my ears as I read it, at first. I say “at first” because there is a whole lot of potential conflict packed into these two sentences.
First, what does it mean to present our bodies as living sacrifices? Do we take care of our bodies? I think this is important and as an endurance athlete I could extoll the spiritual benefits of hours and miles out on the roads and trails. I would love for this text to be pointing us in this direction. But I’m afraid I would be reading my own desires into the text…a danger for every preacher.
Contextually, I’m convinced this text is part of Paul’s (the author) instructing his audience, and us on how to live as people of faith. The “therefore” bridges us to the earlier arguments against anti-Semitism. So to present our bodies as living sacrifices (as did Jesus) means to live the sometimes difficult life in defense of and love for neighbor. In this case, Jewish neighbors.
Second, what about non-conforming to the world? This sentence is so ripe for misuse. We could say we are not conforming to the world when we choose to persist in our stubbornness (whatever that may be).
As I think about this I am mindful of our problems with racism. Seeking to understand the privilege that is “white culture” is an example of what Paul is getting at. The easy thing is to ignore the issue, choosing to “just be nice” to everyone. I think that as we do this we somehow numb ourselves to the real challenges that are before us. Seeking to do what is good, acceptable, and perfect in God’s view is, I believe, to embark on that difficult journey.
This takes me back to endurance sports. Transformation from an overweight walker to a Boston qualifying marathoner came through the persistence, pain, and sometimes suffering of running long distances. Through this experience I know I can withstand anything. I also know that lasting change doesn’t happen overnight. While we may want to see quick results, we learn through endurance training that transformation comes, but only through patience and persistence.
Today I am personally thankful for: my pianist friend who used my running to reminded me yesterday that transforming doesn’t happen overnight; coaches and exercise instructors; the continued love of God.
Last day of running camp today. We met at 8am for a 5 mile run around Lake Mary, the shortest distance but highest altitude for running (8900 ft). I wasn’t sure how my run would go because I was a bit tired from the two days previous. My foot was a bit stiff, but I didn’t want to take anymore Advil (took 3 total throughout Monday after my two falls).
We started on a trail and for the first half mile I felt like I wasn’t getting any air. I actually felt this at the beginning of all the runs at altitude. I wanted to stop, walk, and catch my breath but knew that my body would adjust if I just kept going. It did! This is a good reminder to not quit when starting something that feels difficult. Sometimes the hardest part is starting.
Eventually my respiratory system caught up and the run became comfortable… except that we were on a trail and I had to concentrate to avoid tripping.
Just before 2 miles I caught up to the faster runners and our coach as they waited at the trailhead. We then received instruction to run on the road around the lake. I took off. My legs were incredibly happy to be running on pavement. Total mileage was 5.25.
After the run we hike just over half a mile to McCloud Lake. I soaked my feet again… this time leaving my shoes on!
We’re on our way home now and I’m thankful for the wonderful experience of my very first running camp and especially for everyone who participated.
Going in reverse order we ran the 2nd half of this race a year ago. We chose the 2nd half because my son wanted to finish near the baseball stadium…and, being a net downhill it was an easier course. The plan was to run the 1st half this year, and possibly the full marathon in 2018.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as time and how I would feel during the race. I didn’t have much training under my belt for this particular race. Most of June was spent recovering from Mountains 2 Beach (Race Recap). My longest run before this race was an easy 12 miles.
I also wondered about the hills. While the first part of the course is flat, we climb a steep hill to the Golden Gate Bridge and the rest of the race is up and down. I’ve often struggled (more than most) in running uphill. Historically, I am usually passed by “everyone” on the uphill and then I regain my standing while flying downhill at a faster pace than those around me. I was nervous about running too hard in the flat areas only to collapse on those hills.
In conversing with my coach, he thought I should aim for a 2:03, recognizing that while I am fit, its a hard course and I haven’t done any specific training for the race. I looked at a pace chart that had paces for this particular course, so I had an idea of what I would need to do each mile (average would be 9:23 per mile). Mile 6 would be the hardest.
Race morning was absolutely beautiful. The sky was clear and the Bay Bridge was stunning in the predawn light. The temperature was in the mid 60s. I felt good in my warm-up. I was ready for a no pressure, enjoy the sights run.
The first third of the race felt like a warmup. My body wanted to pick up the speed, but I was a bit nervous about those hills! Since we were running with those doing the full marathon, this was probably the most crowded race I’ve run to date (27,000 runners among all races). We had one little hill at Fort Mason. I took it easy, yet discovered that I’m no longer the slowest runner up the hill. Not the fastest, for sure, but this was a nice surprise. Yeah strength training and hill work!
There was a woman running near me who was my age of a bit older, I couldn’t tell for sure. She had a fanny pack and something in it that sounded like peanuts in a can. Clink Clink Clink Clink…in a steady rhythm. It was annoying. Clink Clink Clink Clink. I passed her before that first baby hill, but then she caught up. Clink Clink Clink Clink. I had to speed up to get away from that noise.
As we approached the Golden Gate Bridge, the weather was noticeably cooler. It was foggy, and to my surprise it was windy. I chatted with another runner about what a wonderful morning it was! We both agreed the coolness was great but we could do without the wind.
The middle third of the race was the most challenging. This included the climb up to, over the bridge, and back again. It was so foggy that visibility was about 20-30 feet and everything was wet, very wet. There were slippery spots on the bridge and I was very careful so as not to slip and fall. I saw one person go down, but I think the crowd around her just picked her up again. The bridge was the most crowded part of the entire run.
The hardest part of this section was the wind. As we approached the northern side of the bridge, the wind was stronger and stronger…a man in front of me lost his hat in the wind and my husband lost a lens out of his sunglasses. I felt the wind push me from the side. At the turnaround we caught a glimpse of the sun, but then quickly ran back into the fog and wind.
The final third. After leaving the Golden Gate Bridge we had another nice hill to climb, followed by rolling hills to the end. At some point in this section I realized that if I could hold my pace, I would finish in under 2 hours. That was nice incentive. The only race I’ve so far done in less than 2 hours is a flat, slight sloping downhill race in Oxnard (Santa to the Sea). Last year I did the easier, 2nd half of San Francisco in 2:04:51!
When I discovered that my Garmin was not going to match the course I didn’t let it phase me, but pushed harder and finished in 1:59:37 (Garmin read 13.26 for distance). This was not an official PR, but in terms of course difficulty, it was the best half marathon I’ve ever run. I even finished 10th in my division (out of 267). I had so much fun I’m going to do the full next year…and get a Club 52.4 Hoodie!
When I first began reading (and trying to understand) scripture, this particular part of Romans 8 was very significant for me. It was confusing, annoying, and helpful. The confusing part first. Paul writes:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (8:26)
How can we possibly not know how to pray as we ought? Prayer is our communication with…or communing with God. We just do it. Right? I discovered some people develop formulas to that others can pray as they ought! This idea of praying as we ought, turns prayer into an activity that intimidates (lots of books are sold to help us pray as we ought). This intimidation leads many of us to be nervous about praying aloud within the confines of a group. For what if we don’t pray as they ought? I’ve discovered that many of us Lutherans are intimidated here. Although I’ve sneakily got most of you to verbally share your prayer concerns…which I believe is sacred…and thus a part of our prayer. But I digress.
How can we not know how to pray as we ought? Even if our prayer is silent, we know that God hears us. Maybe Paul was referring to a self-centered kind of prayer that focused on me…me…me. I don’t get that sense from this passage. So I struggled to understand just what Paul was getting at. Is there a special kind of prayer that we must do? Or, maybe we are supposed to pray for certain things? This was confusing.
Then my dad had a battle with colon cancer, and another, and another. And each time they thought they got it all, only for the cancer to return more aggressively than before. I watched his body waste away in his last year of life. We continued to pray for healing.
When hospice came and set up a hospital bed in the living room I was thankful that he could be home with family. I have precious memories of those last two weeks of his life…memories that I would not trade for anything. Alongside those precious memories are memories of pain and suffering that was beyond description. One day I was sitting there watching TV with him (probably sports of some type). Together we watched a commercial advocating routine colonoscopy screenings, because “colon cancer is curable when caught early.” My dad’s cancer was caught early… during a routine colonoscopy. It was minor they said. But cruelly it would not stay away.
As my dad’s suffering increased I wanted to pray. But I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. Do I pray for a cure? That seemed unrealistic given conditions. Do I pray for his death? That didn’t seem right either. Do I scream at God for the unfairness of life, and the taking away of Cecil, my stepdad who over the years truly became my dad?
And then I saw these words as if for the first time. And I understood.
“…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (8:26)
The words or the how of my prayer didn’t matter at that point. Not because God didn’t care but because the Spirit was already interceding for me, for Cecil, for my mom, for the rest of the family, for you, for all of us. The Spirit was there, in that suffering.
This entire chapter of Romans is about God’s care for us in our suffering. Unfortunately some passages are used out of context, twisted in their meaning, and thus become annoying. So that verse 28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Becomes distorted to mean that God won’t allow bad things to happen to those who truly love Jesus. But this is not the meaning of a verse that is in the middle of a passage about suffering. In the context of suffering, Paul is telling his audience, including us, that this present suffering…this present difficulty is not the end. But just as Jesus suffered and died and rose again, we too have that promise of new life. Sometimes that promise is most profound and understandable when we are in the presence of death. It is this promise that can free us to truly live for today.
And this takes me to what has always been the most helpful passage in all of scripture…for me. I call this section the “there is no worse thing that can happen clause.”
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? … Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The no worse thing that can happen clause… Paul is convinced, and through his words we too can be convinced, that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. That means that in the midst of struggle… of turmoil… of frustration… of suffering… of not knowing what tomorrow will bring… In all this we are guaranteed the love of God, the love of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not because we deserve this love and presence, but because that very love guarantees it.
Maybe you too struggle in prayer… that’s ok because the Spirit intercedes for you.
Maybe you’ve been hurt by words that imply your present struggle (or our present struggle) is what God wants to have happen. No, our struggles are human made…but mysteriously, in the midst of the struggle we can become stronger… which means something good can come out of that struggle.
Maybe you’ve felt alone or unworthy of God’s love. Maybe someone has told you that you must change something about yourself to receive this love. Know this. God loves you! And there is absolutely no way you will ever be separated from this love.
I think we are living in hard times. We are living in a time where we are told to fear our neighbor and to only take care of ourselves. We see suffering around us. Some of us are suffering now. This is the reality of life. But this is not the only reality.
The other, more powerful reality is that God loves each of us… and there is absolutely nothing that can ever separate us from that love. May that love empower us to boldly live, loving God and loving our neighbor.
“There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” -Romans 8:1-2
The promise is of forgiveness, of acceptance, of unmerited and unconditional grace. It is this promise that frees us to live…joyfully and freely. Sometimes we struggle with this freedom, telling ourselves (and others) that “you must do this, and this, and this, and that, so that God will truly love you.”
For all of us the this, this, this, and that is different. But I think that many outside the church hear a clear message of, “you don’t measure up and until you do God will not accept you.” In fact some hear the message, “God will not accept you until you actually invite Jesus in to your heart, which also means changing your behavior.” When I was younger I heard the message from Christians that my life was not one that Jesus would approve of. They didn’t approved of me either…so I wanted nothing to do with Christians or church.
Maybe that distorted message has its roots here, in Paul’s letter to the Romans. I say distorted, because to focus on what we must do, or on what others must do, distorts Paul’s words and makes the invitation to bask in the grace of Jesus unrecognizable. If we are required to do something to receive it, grace is not free and it is certainly not a gift.
But grace is a free gift. And because it is free and unconditional, we don’t have to believe the right thing. We don’t have to do the right thing. We don’t have to be anyone other than who God created us to be. This is the truly good news. It was when I began to understand this that I truly began to live.
Do I live perfectly? Far from it! But I make my mistakes knowing that none of them have the power to condemn me. For this I am grateful.
And this brings me to my tattoo. I told the story of why I got it last week (We Made a Pact!). Today I share what it means to me.
4 words: gratitude; breathe, live, run. A girl running.
Gratitude. The foundation. It is what grounds me, allows me to live, and sustains me through difficulty.
Breathe. When I think of breath, I think of the Spirit’s breathing over the waters of creation. I remember that without breath there is no life. To breathe is to live.
Live. We have one life to live here on earth. Let’s make the most of it. It’s easier to do when that life is based on gratitude.
Run. This is what I do…joyfully…except when it hurts in a hard race or a hard training run. Then I’m joyful at the end because I proved to myself that I could persevere.
The words form a hill, a visual reminder that we must do the hard work of climbing. The color swash also forms a hill, this time reminding that life is not all an uphill struggle. It is up and down, hard and easy.
In 2014 I ran my first marathon with a time that barely beat the course limit of 6 hours (5:51:02). In April 2015, I vacationed in Boston. It was the week before the marathon and race stuff was everywhere. I began to dream of someday running this race. The following September I improved my marathon time by about 45 minutes (5:04:36).
Realistically Boston was just a far off dream. I would need to run a marathon just under 4:10 to qualify…almost an hour faster. Still, I set a goal to do it in April 2018, giving myself a couple years. I began working with a coach, whose first response to my stated goal was, “that’s a goal!”(see That’s a goal!).
I knew it’d be very hard to achieve…and honestly, I had my own doubts. Which is the basis for a conversation that happened way back then.
It was with my friends Michele and Steve and it was about tattoos. I don’t remember it exactly, but I imagine we were talking about my daughter Megan’s latest tattoo. Somehow the conversation turned to the topic of whether any of us would actually do such a thing.
So I said, “If I qualify for Boston, I will get a tattoo.” Michele said, “If you qualify for Boston, I will get a tattoo.” Steve said, “Me too.”
And all of us probably thought to ourselves, “no way that’s going to happen.”
We went together last Friday to get our tattoos. We had a pact. So we did it!
I’ll write about the meaning of my own tattoo in another post.
When have you had to follow through on something you thought wouldn’t happen?
Five years ago my daughter, husband, and I ran our first 5k races at the Channel Islands Harbor 4th of July 5k and 10k. We’d started running earlier in the year. Megan and I were close together but she had a better kick and beat me at the end. She still has a better kick. We both remember our excitement at completing this first race. My time was 36:16. I’m very proud of that time because it is a marker on a new, fit way of life.
We don’t do the race every year because we sometimes travel for Independence Day, so my next race was in 2015, this time a 10k. I was training for my second marathon at the time and this race was in the middle of a longer run. I was absolutely thrilled with my time of 1:04:44. I remember finding one of the coaches for the training program and excitedly showing her my time.
I didn’t run this race in 2016, but ran a 10k on July 23rd in 55:22. I don’t remember the same level of excitement that day. Maybe it was because I was also running a 5k…and it was hot! But I was certainly pleased with the time.
Today I ran the 10k…just my third 10k. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I just started hard running last week, after my recovery from the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon (Recap here). I raced a 5k last Wednesday and was disappointed with how hard it was for me…and for my time. My coach thankfully told me I should be happy that a bad day was better than my best day a year ago. Ok, I’ll take that!
Then on Saturday I had a nasty fall 1 mile ito a 9 mile run. I’m still battered and bruised…and I completed the run.
My goal today was to beat my 55:22 from last year…and not crash at the end the way I do in a 5k. I started a bit conservatively, felt good after the first mile, and pushed the pace a bit. Almost every mile felt good, with miles 5-6 being the hardest (as they should be). I got a cramp in my side for part of mile 6 but then it went away. I sprinted the last .2 and finished with a time of 51:56. That’s a 3:26 PR! WhooHoo!
A lesson in all this is that progress happens when you stick with it for the long haul. Another…enjoy the journey along the way.
Today I’m personally thankful for: community races; all the volunteers who were out there this morning; and FREEDOM, may we not squander it.