Recently, there was a meme floating around on Facebook that I found to be hilarious. Probably because it’s something I’ve actually said: “If you see me running, you’d better run, too, as there’s probably something chasing me.”
I used to be a runner. You’re probably picturing someone wearing a merino wool base-layer with compression running tights. Maybe a light-weight shell and the latest running shoes with energy-return technology? Perhaps a look of sheer joy and freedom on my face? No. Wrong. Not me.
Though I ran for many years, I never experienced that unicorn people refer to as “runner’s high.” Instead of euphoria, I experienced nausea; feeling like I was going to die the entire time, every time. I was committed to it, but I hated it.
It was only ever light-weight apparel for me, because a slight cool mist or a single flake of snow were enough reason to cancel. No need to buy winter running gear, because where I live, slipping on ice or getting hit by a snowplow are very real possibilities—and not that appealing to me. Besides, running in the cold makes me cough. So I didn’t run in the cold. Yes, I always had great sneakers, but that was about it. I was only running to stay fit. I was only running to get it over-with. I was absolutely a telephone-pole-to-telephone-pole kind of girl.
About four years ago, post-MRI, I was told “no more running.” My knees were done. They had used up all of their cushion and could no longer handle any impact. While I grieved the loss of my cartilage and the diagnosis of severe osteoarthritis, I was secretly relieved that I wasn’t allowed to run anymore. No more hustling. No turning up the music to drown out my own gasping. No more dragging my butt to the next telephone pole. I needed to find a new way to exercise.
As it turns out, the telephone-pole-to-telephone-pole technique wasn’t unique to my running. For years, it was how I did life. I was convinced that if I could just make it to the next driveway, to the end of the street, to the stop sign, I’d be okay. In real terms, if I could just make it through this busy weekend, if I could get my report cards finished, if I could punch my list of things to do in the face, then I’d be able to rest. I would be happy once I met the right person, once I paid off this debt, once this dispute was settled. I’d have peace once God fulfilled his promise to me, once I’d made it through another bedtime routine. I’d be less tired once my kids would sleep through the night, once hockey season was over, once the summer came. I’d be happy once I owned my own house, once I got a new car, once I had more time. But as I heard someone quote recently, “there’s no there there.” It’s a moving target. A dangling carrot. A hazy oasis on the horizon.
Just as the knee issue necessitated a change that forced me to slow down, so the terrifying nightmare of a potentially missed life scared me awake. Changes needed to be made. My soul had used up all of its cushion and could no longer handle any impact. I was sick to death of bracing myself, of limping along, of just trying to make it through alive. In my journal, I wrote:
I feel like I’m perpetually waiting for something. Waiting to get through this part, so that I can get on to the next thing. Waiting to finish school. Waiting for church issues to be resolved. Waiting for job security. Waiting for our house renovations to be completed. Waiting for the kids to stop fighting. Waiting until we pay off our debt. Waiting to get on with my life. Waiting to be in full-time ministry. Waiting to be meaningful. Waiting for things to be less stressful. Waiting until there is resolution. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting to get it ALL done. Waiting to live. Waiting to be myself. Waiting to have joy. Waiting to fully engage. Waiting to lock in with my life. Waiting for the hard part to be over. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. And in the process of just trying to get through; just trying to make it—I’m missing it! I’m missing the life that I have!”
The fear gave way to intentionality. I chose to accept that this is what life looks like; because if I didn’t embrace it and enjoy it for what it was, I was going to miss it. What if I suddenly woke up at 100 years old? I would be filled with the worst kind of regret! A life unnoticed and unappreciated. A life endured rather than a life lived.
And so, I learned to be glad in the midst of my busy, chaotic, sometimes heart-wrenching life. No more wasting it on waiting. No more plugging my ears and singing “la, la, la” to drown out the noise.
The shocking revelation that I was missing my life coincided with my discovery of Ann Voskamp’s book “One Thousand Gifts.” In it, she tells the story of how, after years of struggling with depression and grief, a friend dares her to write down one thousand reasons for which to be thankful. It changed her life. And it changed my life. I began practicing gratitude right there in the middle of the imperfect mess. I chose (yes, chose) to appreciate what life looked like, even when it was sometimes (often) hard.
Gratitude continues to be interspersed throughout my journals—I’m somewhere in the five thousands now—and the entries range from single words to short paragraphs, and from the mundane (1335. I smell coffee!) to the powerful (3208. This battle belongs to the Lord!! I’m believing 2 Chronicles 20). Sometimes the gratitude flows easily and other times, I feel like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel to find one good thing.
I wish I could say that I’ve applied the lesson learned continuously since that time. As humans we’re easily lulled into a numb state. We forget to stay awake, even though we may have already learned a particular lesson. That revelation that so impacted and changed us grows dim and we need a kick in the pants. I recently received such a kick.
We’ve been singing a song at church called “Enter the Gates.” A few weeks ago, while singing at the top of my lungs—on stage in front of hundreds of people—I felt the Holy Spirit’s boot connect with my rump. Instantly, I knew I’d slipped into old patterns of behaviour. I was back to waiting again. I’d returned to putting my head down and running the gauntlet. Without even realizing it, I’d put my fingers back in my ears and was singing “la, la, la,” waiting for it to be over. I’d hunched my body into a protective crash position that could handle impact and I was running like a maniac to get to the the other side.
While singing the lyrics “my soul will make this place an altar…” God invited me to stop. To peel my eyes from the horizon and to be present right where I was. To use all of the heavy rocks I was carrying to build an altar. Right there in the middle.
Sometimes we think of an altar as a fancy table at the front of a church, or as a place of sacrifice or maybe like the stone table in Narnia. The word origin indicates a place to worship, to sacrifice and to commemorate what God has done. I’m not really into sacrificing live animals, but the heart behind it is something I’m into. The practice of placing something of value on the altar; a relinquishing that actually costs us. For me, it’s my self-sufficiency, my effort, my control, my efficiency, my single-handed capacity to make it all work. An altar can be a place where we stop in the middle of whatever is happening and say God, you are faithful. I trust you. Right here in the middle.
And this is how we get there; to that elusive place we’re straining toward. That finish line that doesn’t actually exist. THIS is where true peace comes. By being thankful in the middle. Not by reaching the next telephone pole. And certainly not by making it across the finish line.
So, instead of gasping and enduring and hanging on until it’s over, I’m responding, once again, to the invitation to stop. I’m exchanging laboured running for intentional walking and frenzied hustling for thankful dependence. One by one, I’m laying down all of the heavy stones I’m carrying—my worries, my pain, my mis-guided attempts at controlling my life—but not haphazardly. I’m thoughtfully placing each one. As I lay each stone, I’m surrendering: “I can’t do this, God, but you can.” I’m building an altar that announces he is faithful. Not only there on the other side, but right here, right now.