And the day God breathed upon your still life, stirring into being the green leaf and the flower, bud upon the branch and light
upon your soul. Here you felt the earth’s air on your petals and your leaves, and squinted into sunlight, gazing high for heaven
until you felt the gardener’s hand gently turning soil and soul, and nurturing you, bud in radiant sun.
Cascading rain absorbed in warm earth turning, heaven of fragrance. What is that sound in the wind and dazzling light?
Oh, the sweet sound of your delight in God. Sometimes it is like the sound of running laughter.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Running the Great Wall

[On my recent trip to China I posted my previous blog from Shanghai but was unable to post when I got to Beijing. This entry was made on my return to the US. It is the second of two entries from Beijing.]

Sometimes you just have to do a thing. I mean, it is there in front of you for maybe one time in your life, and so you must. This was my reasoning behind my visit to The Great Wall of China. It was there. So I hired a driver and an English-speaking guide, and they took me there for a run. Mr. Ruo sat in the front and drove, and Emma and I sat in the back and talked. It was an hour’s drive from Beijing. She told me of Beijing’s original city wall that circled it with 11 city gates. Today only the city gates remain; the original ring of the city wall is gone. I saw one of the original gates along the road. It was a silent echo of an ancient culture filled with wonder. The sky was overcast, and I was primed for adventure. The Great Wall as a tourist site is divided into 5-6 sections available to the public. I visited the section called Mutianyu Great Wall. When we reached the parking area, we took a cable car up to the wall itself. She asked if I wanted my picture taken. I reluctantly agreed. She described how the path atop the wall went to the right some distance and that it went to the left a shorter, more difficult distance. She recommended that I go to the right. Beyond some distance either way tourists were not allowed, it was restricted. We agreed to meet in an hour and a half at a specified location near where the cable cars embark, and said goodbye. A light, pleasant rain – just a few drops here and there – fell around me and seemed to heighten my awareness to these magical surroundings.

I took a deep breath and ran to the right. Very soon I realized that running was going to be mixed with ascending and descending stairs and many other things. The wall was comprised of countless stairs. And it was made of outlook buildings and passageways and twists and turns. I determined to make this running thing work and just kept moving. As I went along and looked out across the horizon in any direction I was met with breathtaking views of distant mountains in the mist. I felt like I was looking into an Oriental painting. It was so beautiful and so very peaceful. The views alone would bring anyone into an immediate meditative state. As I maneuvered along the rim I felt calm and restful. It seemed that this adventure had become effortless. Eventually I reached the “Not open to the public - No Admittance” sign. I greeted several people there, turned, and headed back encountering more incredible views that stretched my sense of awe and wonder. When I arrived back at my starting point I had 15 minutes remaining until I was due to meet up with my guide and driver. I thought, “Oh, why not....” Then I headed in the other direction - more stairs, more passageways, more twists and turns, more wonderful, inspiring views from the heights of this ancient structure; more wonderment and glorious reflections of a mighty God. On distant mountain ranges I could just see in the mist other lookouts, further outposts where ancient military had scanned the horizon for possible Mongolian invasions. I made my way along this second leg of my journey, glancing up at my objective over head - I was headed way up there. Whoa! At last I was standing at the base of a very profound, very steep climb of stairs. I had no idea how many stairs there were, I just attacked them with a steady rhythm and kept moving. Finally, after what seemed an endless time, I poured out onto a plaza of sorts and looked out over the best and most wonderful view of all. There were a half a dozen people lingering on the plaza after their climb. Across on the far side of this plaza I found the “Not open to the public - No Admittance” sign. I looked out over the broad vista and breathed in the view. It was beyond all words to me. Worship comes easy when you are standing so close to the heavens. How will my experiences on the Great Wall touch me in the days and months ahead? Will those views from the wall weave through my thoughts and continue to inform me by the mere seeing of the distant mountain ranges and the seeing of the vast strand of the Great Wall strung out across the beautiful mountains, by the mere seeing of so much wonder and glory? Was my running on the Great Wall significant to me? Was the impression an enduring one? I hope so. I think it will be.

The seeing is important. René Daumal once said, “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” When we have been in the heavens, we still know; we still have awareness of deep and holy realities there. And God is like that for us. We can see His handiwork in the mountains and in the great structures from ancient cultures. We can see His glory.

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. [Psalm 95:1-7]

And as we see His glory, as we know Him and draw near and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with Him, He teaches us. I think it is in these places that He gives us eyes to see - from the rim of The Great Wall and from the edges of our toughest challenges. When we are pushed into the heights of believing, He is there to guide and help us. And as we descend the heights, as René Daumal says, we can “still know” what can no longer be seen. Yes, our faith rides this thin edge of hope. It is a wonder and His glory.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Beijing and Movement on the Water

[On my recent trip to China I posted my previous blog from Shanghai but was unable to post when I got to Beijing. This entry was made on my return to the US. It is the first of two entries from Beijing.]

Shanghai had been interesting. I managed to get in another run to Central Park on Friday morning a few minutes after 5am. The air was crisp, the light was soft, and the streets were profoundly quiet as I headed out from my hotel. I laid down 7 miles in 1:16 hours of early morning wonder. It was a curious thing to see the park in growing light rather than diminishing. As the day awakened, the colors of the shrubs and flowers grew more intense, and the clarity of all things came sharply into focus. As the rising sun exposed more and more of my surroundings, I began to put the pieces together as in a puzzle. In fact, on my return by city streets to the hotel, I realized by the light of day that I had taken a wrong turn several evenings before. My way back to my hotel had required some additional navigation. The morning light was helping me to see things more clearly – I saw the error of my previous night’s run. It seems that my life is like that too. I look back at events of the past and realize in the radiance of His glory that I have made wrong turns that complicated things for me. And yet He loved me and guided me back to His way. For all of my life I have been drawn into the all consuming fire of His love and faithfulness.

On my arrival in Beijing on Saturday afternoon I hit the exercise room at my hotel for some serious cross-training on the elliptical and rowing machine. It was not until today (Tuesday) that I was able to go out for a run on the streets of Beijing. Again, as so many times before, I needed to push myself out of my room and out of the hotel, and just do it. “Just get out there; go for the run”, I told myself. I was already tired from my teaching that day, in fact, I was exhausted. But I knew I needed the simple discipline of running even if I did not think I did. I needed to push myself beyond my comfort and actively embrace the challenge set before me. And so I did. At 6:31pm I hit the streets with the temperature standing at 91.4F and crisscrossed the city streets near my hotel for 6.44 miles. In 1:11 hours I was back at the hotel drenched in sweat and feeling very blessed indeed. When I listen to Him and place myself in His care I am never disappointed.

This life we live pursuing this object of our love: the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in a field for which we will give away all that we own to possess only this one magnificent thing. He is an all consuming fire. He is our passion and breath. He is the Lord of Life and the Shepherd of our souls. He is Jesus Christ. We may travel to the ends of the earth and he remains the same.

He was with me as I ran on the streets of Beijing and thought about the people here. In small conversations over the last week and a half I have found myself speaking to a people that have – it seemed to me – little context for spiritual things. I felt they had very few categories for a discussion about faith or God. Maybe I was not hearing or have not been here long enough. But the closest expression they used to form categories for discussing religion or God or faith was to refer to these distinctions as “ways of believing”. That would be true. But this, it seemed, was the extent of their willingness to further probe and reflect on such monumental issues of the soul. How will they know that I love them? How will they know that He loves them?

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. [2 Corinthians 4:7-12]

Sometimes I cannot see the movement on the water.

"...waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had." [John 5:3-4]

I must cling to what Paul said, “…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” Oh, may I run hard and true. May I run the trails He has laid before me, and may I be a light, a radiant light, in a dark place, on any trail. Dear friend, come run with me. Let’s run this race that is set before us with a passion that surpasses everything in this world.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Shanghai in Dead Calm and Eternity

When you have a plan, try and stick to it. This was my challenge yesterday afternoon at 5:01pm – I had a plan to run, but I had at least a dozen reasons why I should abandon it in deference to less demanding activities. It all started with an hour of cross training including ellipticals (30), rowing (20), and a pinch of universals (10); then a visit to the Bund, capturing the cityscape on my camera, and looking around that area of the city. I discovered Old Town, drank tea in a little shop, and spent way too much time in the sun. Exhausted, I headed for the hotel. My intention was a late afternoon run, but I held off until the sun was pretty low before I ventured out to lay down a few miles.

It was 30.3C (91.94F) with 42% humidity in a dead calm. With information from the hotel, I mapped out a simple course to the nearby Central Park – a recommendation of one of my daughter’s many international friends. This was one of the places within Shanghai where one could actually run. The prospect had me excited: a truly urban run. It was time to explore this urban jungle.

I made my way through a few streets to a broad boulevard called Central Avenue (of course) and headed in the direction of the park. Less than a mile away I came to Central Park – a sprawling area of green space, water features and little bridges, along with broad, stone paved walking areas. Much of the run was on flat stone sidewalks with small paving stone side paths for the meditatively minded or for those looking for anything interesting and challenging in a beautifully maintained public space. The park has a truly restful atmosphere. Roses in the twilight, water reflecting, couples strolling, and workmen working until there would be no light. Given the population of Shanghai, expected to exceed 19 million this year, I saw surprisingly few visitors to the park. It seemed as many people working there as wandering about. Well, I had a lot of room to myself anyway. After doing a number of varying circuits through this lovely area and garnering not a few odd looks as I kept passing the same people repeatedly, I headed back in the direction of my hotel. My run consisted of 5.66 miles of “urban trail” in 1:13 hours. This 12:59/mile pace was reasonable considering that I had to wait for long periods at numerous traffic lights along the route. I hope to repeat this run a few more times over the next days. It has a mix of street and park and people and noise and quiet and bustle and calm. I’d like to try early tomorrow morning with the sun rising.

With my miles logged and my run complete, I was thoroughly flat-lined. After showering, I lay down on the bed, and promptly fell asleep. I woke at 3:30am refreshed and ready for another day. But as you probably guessed, there is not much happening at that hour. Well, it did give me time to collect my thoughts and pray. Sometimes the “trail” leads us just where we need to be – at the feet of Jesus - listening.

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:38-42]

So, I’m not sure where your trail is heading, but I hope we meet some day. Lord willing, I will keep running these trails wherever they lead me, finding Him glorious and all-sufficient in every struggle, and sharing His joy with anyone I meet along the way. C.S. Lewis wrote, “You have never talked with a mere mortal.” I believe that every encounter is divine. These trails are special places to deepen our love and pursuit of Him. Let’s run with all our hearts, embrace the challenges, and tell our stories of hope to others along the trail. Maybe we can touch another eternal soul and help them home. Oh Friend, keep running hard and true because this running is worth our very lives – it is eternal.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Until We Be Caught and Loved

My greatest obstacle to getting out for a run this morning was me. I lay there in bed drifting just above consciousness. I was so comfortable, so… drifting… very comfortable; just right. What’s that? Run? Ah… drifting…, well I’m laying here, you see, and… At some point in my dream-like deliberations I knew it was go or stay. It was time to commit to an action. I quickly chose the run before I slipped irretrievably back into my sleepy sea of thought. Out of bed and down the hall, downstairs, get ready, grab some water, and out the door. It was 53F with a clear sky and calm, and it was 6:59am. It seems that I had exchanged one perfect dream for another. This was a wonderful morning for a run. And down the road I ran.

I headed for my nearby Birch Island Park to do an hour or two of trails and hills. Just easy, I told myself, I did a longer run a few days ago. So today was for the pleasure of it. Looking back, I stuck to this plan. Jeepers, I must have been walking! Actually, I wasn’t, but I did stop a number of times just to take it all in. It was a day to behold the grand scale of the world and the little details that enchant us almost daily. I was out here to run. Sure, I was keeping my pace easy. Somehow it took me 1:59 hours to cover 7.21 miles. Like I said, a very easy pace. Maybe it was because I was listening to a great sermon by Jordan Thomas entitled, “Apart from Christ, Let Nothing Dazzle You.” The message is very thought-provoking and upward-calling. I replay it from time-to-time to challenge myself and drive myself further into a love of God. Still, there were perhaps other reasons why I was likely distracted this morning. Maybe it was the mist across the marsh or the dew-covered spider web in the morning light or the sunny birches on the trail or the red cardinal hopping along the path or the red locomotive or a myriad other images to captivate me and call me more deeply into a pursuit of little things much larger than myself. And yes, my pursuit of God – or more clearly stated, His pursuit of me.

Oh, I may think that it is me that pursues Him, but really it is He that pursues me. Yes, there are the many details that lovingly distract us and intrigue us, that chase our hearts until we be caught and loved. So I find myself running these trails and observing such designs of a world created to showcase the great I AM; and it does this in the littlest details, God-declaring details, glorious. When I look closely, I find Him. When I stand back and take in the whole of a night sky, I find Him. He has made this all to draw me into Him, to see Him and His worth more clearly and magnificently. Every detail cries out. This world reflects but a sliver of His brilliance, but it does reflect, and it is overwhelming to me. Along these trails, up the ascents and down the descents I turn these meditations over in my mind. Someday I will see much clearer, but today I will run. I will look for His radiance across the sky or in the beauty of a woodland flower. Come along, let’s run together. The road is long, and we are called to run hard and true. We better get moving. There is so much to see.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Gazillion Light Years

Yesterday I slipped out the back door at 6:17am and headed down the road. It was 46F with clear skies and a most subtle NE breeze of 6 mph. Perfect. The sun was just up a few minutes before, and I could feel the growing energy of the day. On into a glorious morning I moved, slipping into a steady cruise. I put down 15 miles in 2:47 hours, a pace of 11:07 per mile. This is good for me. Maybe if I work at it, I could even improve. But it is not the essential thing. Rather, for me each day it is a question of whether I love this running and these mornings and all the expanded opportunities to contemplate and pray and worship and wonder and just soak up the shimmering of each moment. It’s good to think about pace, but the day’s beauty and unsearchable dimensions - that's what I’m looking for. Where is the treasure and worth on this sparkling, bluish planet spinning wistfully in the middle of a vast, immeasurable space a gazillion light years from anything? And further, other than a speck, what am I?

At the end of my run I made my coffee and a smoothie, and sat back. Maybe I’ll figure it out someday. For today, though, I’ve got enough to think about already.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." [Matthew 6:34]

Maybe a second of cup of coffee today; this universe has a way of stretching me. The good part is that it seems to make my heart bigger, too. I better just keep running these trails and watching as my universe and my affections for its creator keeping expanding and finding rich, new glories; treasures along the trails and beauty beyond my heart. This could take me an eternity. I’ll keep running. Come on, hurry up, we may just miss the next surprise. Let’s just keep running hard and true.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

More Precious and Rare than any Run

I had run the day before yesterday, and it had been a good trails and hills workout. Pushing out of the house at 9:41am, and over the next 1:41 hours I put down 6.87 miles, ascending 1623 feet and descending 1638. For most of my run I danced along with some serious, driving Christian rock music that seemed to mirror a wild, crazy streak in my running heart that morning. The sun was rich and pulsating, and I wanted to cry out like the old traditional song, “You can have all this world, but give me Jesus….” The trails and the day were gorgeous. And I wanted another rocking good time with God dashing through the woods just like a few days ago. Now it was Sunday afternoon and I had just conceived of how I could slip a run into the remaining day. I was hungry for some trails.

For a few days now I had been saying to my 13-year-old son, “Hey, let’s go for a walk and I’ll show you the woods I’ve been running. You can bring your camera and take some cool shots. It’ll be great!” The typical response was something like, “Yeah, maybe….” So anyway, I was setting up for my run, changing clothes, filling my hydration pack, grabbing my watch, and then…. “Dad, let’s go for that walk.” What did he say? My thoughts bounced between the run and the walk. My hesitation was no more than a blink of the eye. Of course the walk; it held far more worth and promise than just another run in my life. Runs are great, but sons (and daughters) are far more precious and rare than any run will ever be. Plus, sons his age are not usually looking for ways to spend time with their dads. This was a special, rare gift to me on a quiet Sunday afternoon. I redrew my ideas for the afternoon, and a short time later we were out in the forest and on the trails enjoying the natural beauty, the trails, and the countless other things to catch the eye and captivate the mind and imagination in a bustling woodland in springtime. We wandered along. I showed him the west ridge trail and east ridge path, the twisting, climbing pathways, drop-offs and quick descents, and the views from the highest points in Birch Island Park. We practiced careening down a loose sand and gravel slope, and walked on the railroad tracks because they were there. Sure, we were careful to listen for trains, and we heard bees and squirrels. And we saw the sun brilliant through the trees and reflecting full-glorious on the shimmering water of a little marshy lake. And I think our hearts heard things other than words, things shared and enjoyed together, good memories of a quiet Sunday afternoon and a walk in the woods with my youngest son.