Monthly Archives: December 2014

CONFESSIONS OF A RUNNER AND CYCLIST

I’m often told – by people who don’t exercise – that sport and exercise are dangerous and bad for your health. These people take pleasure in insinuating that running has somehow contributed to little niggles like the degenerative arthritis in my knees and my chronic Achilles tendonitis! Where did they get that idea from?

My own son has actually claimed that running lowers the immune system and may have something to do with the number of colds I catch! What does he know, huh?

So here, in reverse order, are my top 5 anecdotes from about 35 years (on-and-off) of running and cycling, to prove them all completely wrong.

5.   I was just 15 when my first running disaster struck. The boys’ boarding school I was at organised a 25-mile sponsored walk along the South Downs from Amberley to Ditchlng Beacon. My memory of some details is a bit hazy now, but I think it was a whole school year of pupils that went on this walk – most boys probably being dragged along reluctantly (looking back, I don’t know how they expected so many teenagers to be able to walk that kind of distance. But then school was different back then).

I, on the other hand….

I decided it would be fun to run, instead of walk, the whole distance. Bearing in mind that, as a keen cross-country runner I’d never run further than 4 miles, this was probably one of my less bright ideas….

However, apart from the lack of training or preparation, it might have all been OK if I’d gone the right way at the beginning.

We’d travelled from the school to Amberley in 2 or 3 coaches, and some groups of boys and teachers had already gone on ahead. The coach I was in arrived at the car park, and we started walking the short path to the South Downs Way. I jogged on ahead to the SDW signs pointing left and right, then called back to the others to check which direction we were going. The vague, mixed responses of “Right! I think…” and “Left! Probably…….” finally settled into a consensus of “Right! Definitely right! …yes, pretty sure it’s right!”

So, right I turned, and off I ran.

And on I ran or jogged, expecting to catch up with the earlier parties very soon. And on and on I ran….several miles, but still no other boys or teachers up ahead.

It took a while before I concluded for sure that I’d been going the wrong way right from the start. I have no idea how many miles I ran before I turned back. There were no GPS watches in those days. And, I guess, not much attention to health & safety back in 1980. When I eventually arrived at Ditchling Beacon at the end of a worried mix of hitch-hiking and slightly frantic running, without any definite clue about directions or distance, the teachers seemed (somewhat disturbingly) unconcerned.

Running bad for you? If I hadn’t made that mad decision to run a 25-mile walk as a naïve young teenager and ended up hitch-hiking, I’d have missed this early life lesson in ingenuity and adventure…. Or something like that.

4.   I’ve only ever broken one limb. Cycling to work one morning at the age of 18, I came to a set of roadworks as I sped down the hill through Buxted village, where I grew up, and carried on through the green temporary traffic lights.

However, a car driver turning out of a side-road just ahead of the roadworks failed to see me and decided to save a couple of minutes by driving through the red light at his end. Although I spotted him, I was unable to avoid the collision. The car hit me (at quite a slow speed) and I lay on the road in mild pain and a bit dazed but otherwise pretty OK. I got up, dusted myself off and said I’d be fine, but saw the GP in nearby Uckfield later, who told me the pain in my leg was just bruising.

The next week, after hobbling around on a painful leg for a week, the GP sent me to our nearest x-ray department, 20-odd miles away in Eastbourne, where a fractured fibula was diagnosed and put in a plaster cast.

I might have struggled to walk on the broken leg, but legally the driver didn’t have a leg to stand on. This was one time when having a solicitor in the family came in very handy: my Dad helped me claim £400 compensation, which paid for my first car – a green Mk 1 Ford Escort with a red flash down the side, which of course was very uncool in a cool kind of way (well, I thought it was cool).

Cycling dangerous? It was worth breaking a leg to pay for my first car….wasn’t it???

3.   In third place is another cycling incident, this time from just a few years ago, that demonstrates the joys and benefits of exercise.

I was taking quite a long break from running following a meniscectomy (keyhole surgery to remove a small, ragged piece of cartilage from my knee), but needed some exercise, so decided it was time to get back on my bike.

[I’ll skip the story from a few years previous to this when the driver of a flashy Bentley parked in Eltham High Street opened his car door without checking his mirrors first and my very nice British-built racing bike collided at 900 with the door, bending the bike frame and damaging the Bentley’s door so it wouldn’t close!

The driver, who was clearly at fault and no doubt knew it, had the cheek to blame me for the incident and was threatening legal action against me while I stood there bruised and dazed. Unfortunately, by this time in my life I had no practical way of pursuing a small claim against him for the bike, and of course I never heard from his insurance company as he knew he was to blame.

But the reason I mention this story in passing – which I clearly haven’t just told – is to point out that that was my last racing bike and after that I made the decision to purchase a mountain bike, to pursue more off-road cycling.]

So there I was, enjoying a little jaunt on my mountain bike, along the seafront from Hastings to Bexhill, via Galley Hill, a little grassy hill leading down to Bexhill seafront. Ahead of me were two small ridges set into the slope, and it seemed like a great idea at the time (to this completely inexperienced mountain biker) to pelt downhill as fast as I could to each ridge, flying off each one before carrying on down the rest of the hill. I remember cycling downhill as fast as possible towards the ridge. I have no recollection of what happened next.

The next thing I remember is waking up to the sound of two strangers’ voices talking to me and calling an ambulance, as I lay next to the bike with a bleeding head wound and no idea what day it was. In fact, when I was asked what day it was, I’m not sure I even quite understood the question.

The paramedics who turned up knew me, because I work for St John Ambulance and my office is next door to our local NHS ambulance station. I persuaded them, against their better judgment, to take my bike in the ambulance and drop it off at the station (taking a sizeable detour) on the way to A&E. “But don’t tell the boss,” they said.

As I drifted in and out of consciousness in the ambulance, with a bandage now wrapped around my head and aware that I was suffering concussion, I kept thinking of the Fawlty Towers episode where Basil has his head bandaged and starts acting even more bizarrely than usual. It’s the famous episode, “The Germans” – the one with the immortal line “Don’t mention the war!”

My train of thought and speech also became erratic, and the comedy of the moment wasn’t lost on me, even in my semi-delirium on the way to hospital.

I was home from A&E after a few hours and took the next day off work to recover. During that day off sick, I searched up the famous Fawlty Towers episode on YouTube. Usually finding this old sitcom pretty funny, the sense of identification with Basil Fawlty this time struck me as hilarious and I laughed my socks off.

Cycling dangerous? Maybe, but if I hadn’t had that incident, I would never have enjoyed that moment of comedy with such hilarity……

2.   This little story, from the early ‘90s, nearly made it to No.1 because of its fond memories. This time, my little bright idea was to cycle to Devon for a holiday, from Eastbourne where I was living and doing my nurse training.

The first day I cycled 90 miles – not a huge distance for some seasoned road cyclists, but equal to the longest I’d ever ridden in a day before.

The second day I rode 110 miles, stopping for the night at a youth hostel just by the Devon border. Unfortunately, I wasn’t just knackered; my knees were so painful, I couldn’t cycle up even the gentlest hill. Somehow, through a combination of freewheeling down hills and pushing the bike up hills, I made it to Barnstaple, where I visited a church-based café for a drink.

There I met a wonderful, warm, Christian couple, whose names I wish I could remember now, who heard my tale of cycling woe and invited me to stay at their house for 2 or 3 days while my knees recovered.

So for a few days I enjoyed their hospitality, while I walked and prayed around the beautiful Braunton Burrows and talked with the couple about spiritual things, my dreams and the struggles I faced as a new-ish Christian.

I’ve always highly valued this kind of hospitality and have sought to pass it on to others now that I have a house and family of my own.

My knees didn’t really recover that much in 2 or 3 days and I took a train back home from Exeter.

Cycling bad for your health? But if my knees hadn’t suffered in that way, I’d never have enjoyed that particular experience of warm Christian fellowship and the couple wouldn’t have had the opportunity to serve a brother in Christ in this way…

1.   This anecdote is No. 1 because it’s the most recent, the one that inspired this blog post and, in my opinion, the funniest.

While staying with my in-laws in Weston-Super-Mare (Somerset) recently, I stepped out for an obligatory run along the coast. Before long I needed the loo – and not the kind of loo stop that a bush would suffice for. Fine when you’re running close to home and you know where all the public toilets are. But in unfamiliar territory and now miles from a town, it became a bit of a conundrum, and I became too uncomfortable to carry on running easily.

I was in a village called Kewstoke, where I thought there might be a public toilet. I asked a stranger, but alas, there were no public loos in Kewstoke. Maybe a pub or café owner would let me use their loo, so I carried on jogging, looking for a café or pub. Up ahead was the Village Hall – a huge, new, brick building with a large car park in which were a few cars. So it looked hopeful that there were people in there.

I knocked on the door – no reply. I tried the door – it was open. So I stepped inside and noticed the toilets to my left, the main hall up ahead, and stairs to my right leading up to an office. I called out, “Hello!” – still no reply. Maybe there was someone upstairs who hadn’t heard me. Or maybe it’s an open public building, I thought.

So I did what anyone would do in the circumstances. I nipped into the loo, of course. I mean, wouldn’t you?

Ah, relief!

As I sat there, I heard some noises. Someone coming down the stairs, perhaps.

That wasn’t someone just going out the door, was it? I called out, “Hello!”

That wasn’t the sound of someone locking the front door behind them, was it?

I finished what I had to do, came out of the toilet, and sure enough, I was locked inside the village hall, without a phone and a long way from anyone who would hear me if I started knocking on the window.

All I could think was: This is a scene from a sitcom. But this is really happening!

Do I venture upstairs to the office and see if there’s a phone I can use? Do I see if I can open a window (but then how will I make it secure again after I’ve gone out)? Do I just wait till someone shows up again? But how long will that be?

Eventually I found an emergency exit door in the hall – one of those with the push bar, that self-locks on closing – and managed to get out without any fuss or breakage, and no burglar alarm being set off.

So in the end, all was well. But it was a worrying moment. Most of all, though, it was a comedic moment. Utterly sitcom material.

People who warn of the risks involved in running or cycling fail to see the potential for comedy in these escapades. Or is it just me these things happen to?

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Perhaps I should heed the Bible when it says that “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8) and I should focus on spiritual more than physical training. Then again, perhaps I do already.

At the same time, the Bible also says that “God works all things together for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28) and even my mini-disasters have had positive benefits. At least, that’s how I justify my escapades….

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My Goodness! (And Yours)

(The following article was originally published in May 2014 on the American blogsite We Occupy Jesus. Here it is again, with a few revisions).

My goodness! Your goodness! In fact, everyone’s goodness… The goodness of man – something worth celebrating. Worth talking about.

All around me I see people trying to do the right thing. People displaying kindness and thoughtfulness.

A colleague going the extra mile to get a homeless person rehoused.

A friend spending scores of hours and buckets of energy raising thousands of pounds to help a paralysed boy learn to walk.

People speaking out against racist and discriminatory politics.

A relative inspiring others to support fair trade.

My work colleague who died suddenly in 2014, who had spent years providing humanitarian aid overseas, then using her nursing skills to volunteer with homeless people.

People of all kinds of theological persuasions – atheists, agnostics, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc, filled with a warmth towards other people, driven with a social, ethical conscience, bearing concern for equality and relief of poverty, and in many other ways being ‘good citizens’.

Man’s capacity for altruism is remarkable.

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 “I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying ‘I love you’… And I think to myself: What a wonderful world”  – Louis Armstrong.

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The Goodness of Man

A member of my family, who’s not a Christian or religious, commented on how amazing man’s capacity for forgiveness is. I think he’s someone who’s both received and given forgiveness and realised you don’t have to be religious to experience this.

Christians have an unfortunate reputation for emphasising the badness – or sinfulness – of man. Show people how sinful they are, how much guilt and shame they should feel, so they can better understand how much they need Jesus as their Saviour.

So the theory goes. Well, that might work for some people. But it doesn’t seem to be how Jesus went about doing things. That approach seems to be more in line with Pharisees than the Messiah.

People were drawn towards Jesus for all kinds of reasons, and followed him for all kinds of reasons. And Jesus seemed to make people feel better about themselves – and become better people.

I was initially drawn to Jesus not so much because I felt I needed saving, but because I became convinced that he was the Truth. I’m now convinced that he’s not only the Truth but the best thing since unleavened bread – and he’s saved me as well, in all kinds of ways.

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Working as I do with broken, vulnerable people, I see all too well the effects of a sinful world – the products of abuse, poor choices, injustice, inequality, selfishness and downright evil. In order to help these people effectively, I need to believe what the Bible says about them – not just about their amazing potential, but about their actual, immeasurable goodness and worth to the Father now.

I believe what I read in the book of Proverbs, and in Matthew 25 (the sheep and goats parable), and in the letter of James, that ‘the poor and the marginalised’ somehow represent God in our society, and that how we treat them is the measure of how we treat God (someone please tell this to our Government, by the way).

I believe that God sees these people (and all people) as special, wonderful; often through tear-stained, longingly affectionate eyes. That he sees them as good.

By seeing them that way myself, I may be able to divulge the Father’s irrepressibly passionate heart; I may be able to instil in them some self-belief, some hope for their future, maybe even faith in a Higher Power.

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Original Goodness

So obsessed have Christians been historically with the whole concept of sin, that theologians have all kinds of terminology to explain it. Terms like Original Sin and – here’s my favourite – THE TOTAL DEPRAVITY OF MAN!!! Isn’t that wonderful (he says with an ironic smile)?

The term, ‘the total depravity of man’ doesn’t mean that everything about mankind is bad; it describes the idea that everything we do and think is tainted by sin; that nothing ever comes from totally pure motives.

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‘Original Sin’ refers to that first act of rebellion against God, involving a tree and a snake in the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve (either allegorical characters who represent the rest of mankind or the first real, historical people, who handed down a sinful nature to all their descendants).

Personally I take it as allegory, but whichever way you interpret it (if the Bible has significance for you), you’ll probably agree that before Original Sin was ‘Original Goodness’.

Adam and Eve were good before they were bad.

God made man and everything else, and saw that it was very good: mankind in particular, because we were made ‘in his image’. Mankind was made to reflect the love and creativity of God as his children on planet Earth – and we still do, in our imperfect, marred kind of way.

Although Original Sin and the Total Depravity of Man have some biblical basis, they’re not biblical terms, even though historically they’ve been so accepted and deeply interwoven into evangelical thinking.

And yet when did you last come across terms for equally biblical concepts like Original Goodness or the Total Goodness of Man in a church or Christian book?

(You may have come across these if you read books by writers like Steve Chalke or Rob Bell).

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Humanism and Christianity

Christianity and humanism seem to have always been in opposition: humanism suggesting that mankind is basically good and can get better with the right kind of education and development; Christianity asserting that man is basically bad and can do nothing to resolve the problem without help from above, from a higher power, from a Saviour called Jesus Christ.

What if the truth is somewhere in the middle? What if Christianity has so emphasised sin that it’s (we’ve) neglected to affirm the goodness in all human beings?

What if God looks at people’s hearts and loves it when they act in selfless love because, despite their faults, they’re still reflecting who he is – because they’re a chip off the old block?

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The Evolution of Empathy

Now here’s a thing:

Modern evolutionary biology has struggled to comprehend why humans display any sense of altruism; and yet it’s found the inescapable fact that people are naturally, instinctively altruistic and empathic.

An article in the New York Times, for example, describes the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, who has for many years studied the cooperative side of primate behaviour.

“We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr de Waal writes. “Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.”

(The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths).

De Waal emphasises that human empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed.

Like Dawkins perhaps, he argues that “biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

Despite de Waal’s rejection of religion, his biological claim neatly (and unsurprisingly, in my view) converges with the Bible’s assessment of man as being essentially good.

I don’t know about you, but I love it when science, philosophy and the Bible all concur. In those points of convergence lie some deep, exciting and important truths.

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Goodness Over Evil

Don’t get me wrong: I do understand and adhere to the importance of sin as a Christian concept. Like a sickness of the soul, we do need to face our need for healing and to allow Jesus, who died and overcame suffering and death, to embrace us with his healing arms.

But we’ve under-emphasised how wonderfully good we are. We’ve under-estimated how crazy God is over all the people he’s made, and how much he enjoys all the ways we reflect him in this world.

I think I’m a pretty self-aware person; and being a Christian, the Holy Spirit living in me gives me a sharpened conscience. But I’ve given up beating myself up about my faults.

If I dwell on my sins and shortcomings, I miss out on the power of God’s smile to change me. If, instead, I believe that my Father sees me as good, as someone incredibly appreciated and valued, then I don’t take myself or my mistakes too seriously.

I laugh at my faults and discover that the hilarity of God’s grace gives me the power to trample them into the dust.

Well, goodness me…….

(Love always looks for the best – 1 Cor. 13 The Message)

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The highest pursuit

There are many reasons people pursue integrity, morality, and freedom from character defects.

Some have seen the effects that their own addictive patterns – whether anger, selfishness, alcohol, lust or drugs  – have had on their relationships and seek to achieve happier ways of living, healthier ways of relating.

Or their destructive habits have caused such painful feelings of guilt and shame that they become desperate to shake these off.

Others just want the world to be a better place and realise that it starts with them.

Christians aspire to follow in their Father’s footsteps.

Christians aspire to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

Christians, like me, aspire to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, and/or live to please him out of gratitude for what he’s already done for us: for giving his life, and for the spiritual transformation we’ve received directly because of that gift.

All the above motivate my life to one degree or another.

But there is one driving desire that I believe must be the over-riding motivation for the Christian when it comes to ongoing transformation, and it’s contained in this well-known statement:

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

However, the beautiful truth of this declaration that Jesus made, which I’ll attempt to unfold, can be obscured by gross misinterpretation.

The potential problem with this verse is that religious people, like me and like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, can see this as a call to earn favour with God by being good. Becoming God’s favourites by having better morals, like children earning gold stars at school for outstanding performance.

Even having believed that we’ve been brought near to God purely as a free gift (‘by grace’) simply by believing, we can start to think misguidedly, without even realising it, that we can become ‘better’ Christians than others. Letters written to counter that kind of skewed reasoning in the early Christian church were so crucial, they were included in the New Testament, and remain as relevant today as then.

Seeking self-improvement to ‘please’ God in this way leads to arrogance and a failure to empathise with others in their struggles, as we see strikingly with the Pharisees.

So what is this over-riding motivation for purification? It is this:

INTIMACY WITH GOD

When Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”, what I believe he means is:

Happy are the people who desperately seek intimacy with God, to know him as a close friend and Father, to see him as he really is. For they will find what they’re looking for. As a spin-off to this search, their hearts will become pure.

Happy are they who mourn their lack of spirituality and their moral human failings (“the poor in spirit”) and who hunger and thirst after more of God. They will become pure in heart in their search for God.

Purity of heart is not the thing to seek for. Purity of heart is (almost only) a means to an end and if it’s not seen as such, it becomes an idol – another barrier to knowing God.

Seeking purity for its own merit breeds pride, and therefore becomes a self-defeating mission. It takes our eyes off the answer – the grace of Jesus – and leads us into failure, shame and defeat.

Those who seek God himself, however, will refuse to allow pride, resentment or deceit, for example, to take hold in their hearts, because they understand that these would create a barrier to closeness with their Father.

Those who seek intimacy with God will find intimacy with God – and purity of heart along the way, as all that they are and do becomes finely tuned towards knowing God.

Even David – no, especially David – who poured out his heart in penitence in Psalm 51 after his spectacular sequence of sin – was never motivated primarily by guilt or a search for self-improvement, but by a yearning to know his Lord and Shepherd even more intensely. Even when in a literal desert, he longed for God’s presence more than water itself:

O God, you are my God;     

I earnestly search for you.

My soul thirsts for you;     

my whole body longs for you

in this parched and weary land     

where there is no water.

– David, in Psalm 63:1

Because those who seek God will encounter the darkness of their own hearts – and are never content with their own progress, they steer away from judging others and are able to enter with others into the despair and sense of failing of those people.

Yet at the same time, they encounter with increasing depth the majesty of the Father’s grace, his magnificent tenderness and beautiful, patient love towards them, his children.

Despair is dispelled by grace and distilled into dignity.

They discover that God is not the cruel control freak sometimes conveyed by religion; they unearth the timeless truth that he’s better than they ever thought possible! For them, the Bible turns out to be bizarrely true when it tells us that God is found in the most surprising places, with ordinary, broken people, and not necessarily with the religious.

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They will remain poor in spirit – perpetually aware of their own failings – and yet joyously satisfied with Abba Father’s intimate embrace by his Spirit, achieved once and for all through the perfect love-gift of Jesus at the cross.

They crave intimacy with God because they’ve already tasted his goodness and, however much they may be tempted and at times diverted towards all kinds of distractions and unfulfilling desires, they know that only closeness to God can truly hit the spot.

They never lose that craving for intimacy with God because deep inside they share his deepest longings for the people of this earth and they know that the only way they can effectively offer hope and freedom and healing to others, in a way that neither religious nor secular programmes or plans can achieve, is by walking in close union with him.

In other words, they pray “Your kingdom come!” from the heart, praying that they will be part of the answer to their own prayer.

Those who yearn for intimacy with God will never be content with mere religion. Worship styles, church politics, theology and doctrines pale into insignificance for those who have “tasted and seen that the Lord is good” and hanker after more of him.

In case you’re wondering whether I’m writing about myself….. I think the answer is: this is who I want to be. And to some extent, it is me.

And if this is not fully me, you’d have every reason to question: how can I write these things?

The best answer I can give is that, despite my foolishness and my slowness to grow in faith, I’ve become convinced over time, through the scriptures I believe in, the faith and relationship I have with God, a little experience and a deep instinct, that to be intimate with God is the highest pursuit.

And that he’s planted that desire in every heart, including mine. Perhaps you sense that too?

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The loneliness and happiness of integrity

The late contemplative, recovering alcoholic and uniquely human being Brennan Manning made this insightful statement about ‘standing alone’:

“The poverty of uniqueness is the call of Jesus to stand utterly alone when the only alternative is to cut a deal at the price of one’s integrity. It is a lonely yes to the whispers of our true self, a clinging to our core identity when companionship and community support are withheld. It is a courageous determination to make unpopular decisions that are expressive of the truth of who we are – not of who we think we should be or whom someone else wants us to be. It is trusting enough in Jesus to make mistakes and believing enough that his life will still pulse within us. It is the unarticulated, gut-wrenching yielding of our true self to the poverty of our own unique, mysterious personality.

In a word, standing on our own two feet is often a heroic act of love”.

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LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary?

Who may live on your holy hill?

He whose walk is blameless

and who does what is righteous,

who speaks the truth from his heart.

Psalm 15:1-2

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It is this courageous integrity that is unpopular

when honesty means disagreement;

yet which society yearns for in its leaders and role models;

that the Bible and Jesus commend so highly…and frequently;

but can be so elusive in ourselves and others;

and to which I aspire and cling,

inevitably evoking mixed responses:

Integrity that I have nevertheless chosen not to regret

as I stand in the security and happiness

of my Father’s grace.

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