Tomorrow morning, just under twenty-four hours from right now, I’ll be crossing the starting line of the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon, my second race at that distance. A year ago, when I ran Hospital Hill, I basically just wanted to finish respectably. This year, I will feel that I have dropped the ball–or perhaps the baton–if I don’t break two hours. Succeed or fail, I’ll report here tomorrow.
On my longest training run, thirteen days ago, I did something I rarely do when running outside. I listened to music. Rich Mullins, a favorite of mine for many years, sang a song that I’d never really thought about.
The lyrics struck me powerfully enough as I made my way through my last couple of miles that I replayed the track. Here’s the chorus of “Let Mercy Lead.”
Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs
And in every footprint that you leave
There’ll be a drop of grace
Is there a better lyric for a Christian runner? My prayer for tomorrow and for my every endeavor is that the strength in my legs is not my strength and that the legacy of my footprints is not simply my work.
Should the first verse and chorus of that song not hook you, the second verse surely will:
You’ll run the race
That takes us way beyond
All our trials and all our failures
And all the good we dream of
But you can’t see yet where it is you’re heading
But one day you’ll see the face of love
I know where my 13.1 miles will end tomorrow, hopefully somewhere before 9:30 am, but I do not know the destination of the truly important race I am running. That doesn’t matter. Tomorrow’s race is more of a ritual, an outward symbol of an inward struggle. I can run as far and as fast as I need to when I’m sharing the road with someone who authored the mercy that will lead and the love that will strengthen me.
I have no problem with heights, despite those who would accuse me of being afraid of them. Quite the contrary, I would fully love heights if they weren’t always so far from the ground.
Yesterday, I pulled out an extension ladder and propped some eighteen feet of it against a horizontal branch of a large walnut tree, there to attach a couple of chains for a swing.
Yes, I know that swing-hanging is not exactly heavy-duty agrarian fare, but it might have been some other airborne pursuit that took me up that ladder hanging out over nothing. Indulge me here and I’ll try to make the trip worthwhile.
I assembled my supplies in advance. I had two lengths of chain, complete with quick links to close the circle, ready for the ascent. I’d also cut two strips of carpet to protect the tree’s bark. With these things in tow, I made my way up the ladder in a gusty wind. Roughly halfway up the ladder I paused, felt the wind pulsing against me, and headed down. I could do this thing later.
A few hours later, I decided to head up the ladder again. Again, I found myself halfway up and stalling out. I’ve really gotten better about my fear of heights (but only the ones that are far from the ground). I used to struggle with stepladders. Now, I can get onto roofs, hang over edges, and perform many other feats of derring do. But when the climbing has me hanging out over nothing–as opposed to leaning up against a wall, for example–my mind convinces me that I’m undoubtedly doomed to plunge to the ground.
As I stood there on that rung, I realized that I didn’t didn’t like the way I was carrying the chain and carpet up. I descended the ladder, tied the ladder’s rope into clove hitches around the two carpet pieces, and then tied the rope to the chains. This way I could ascend most of the way and then pull the supplies up to me.
Before my foot hit that first rung, I mouthed a quick prayer, asking for safety and nerve. I’d love to tell you that, post-prayer, I sprinted up the ladder, sat on the tree branch, kicked the ladder away, connected the chains, and then shinnied down to the ground. That’s not how it happened. Past that dreaded halfway point, each rung presented me with agony. Still, rung by rung, I made my way up to the height necessary to attach the chains. It took a long time to get the deed done. I dropped a quick link, but Penny managed to send it up to me. Eventually, though, both carpet pieces wrapped around the branch and both chains dangled to the ground.
Prayer did not push all fear of that precarious ladder from my mind. It won’t, I’m fairly sure, lead to me bungee-jumping or skydiving anytime soon. But prayer did allow me enough composure to do what needed to be done. That’s enough.
Urban/suburban society tends to want a sure thing. There’s a financial ad running at present where people are carrying around “their number,” the amount of money they’ll need to retire comfortably. Wouldn’t you love to have sufficient money in your coffers to ensure that you’ll never lack anything? That sounds great, but is there really any such amount of money? A lawsuit here or a spate of inflation there can make that magic number seem pretty meaningless.
Similarly, society wants education that guarantees kids a happy, healthy, prosperous life. It wants health care that performs quick and certain tests before prescribing a magic pill that fixes problems in a few hours. It wants cars that never experience problems and houses that perfectly fit our “lifestyle.” In short, urban/suburban society wants perfection, a guarantee. And to be realistic, many rural folk want the same thing.
Hanging onto that ladder, the wind gusts pushing against me, I recognized that I didn’t need perfection. I didn’t need magic prayers that completely banished my fears. I just need to get up the ladder and attach the chains. I can live with–I can get excited by prayers that get me there. I don’t need a sure thing in retirement or a health-care guarantee. I have prayers in those regards that I’ll trust to see me safely through my needs.
On this Easter Sunday, I celebrate the only sure thing that I can truly have and that I truly need. Despite my fears, weaknesses, and shortcomings, I know that God–through Christ–will not leave me up in the air. Anything beyond that is just a bonus.