God is good, God is …

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...
Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, face detail of God. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On a twelve mile run deep into the woods of the Upper Salmon River in Welches Oregon, I realized that I grew up Christian, learning early in my life to fear and to love God, the same God who often took the shape of my “father” who snapped his black leather belt as warning when I misbehaved and who sometimes whipped me with it, blistering my thighs and back with red welts whenever I continued to defy him, the same God who also embodied my “dad” who bought me a brand new red and blue huffy bike with spider-mag wheels just because I told him I wanted one, meaning I can never extinguish belief in the divine, I can only interpret it. 

On the drive home, while flipping through the jangle of tunes and talk on the radio, I heard a warm and intriguing voice say,

For in him we live, and move, and have our being; Acts 17:28.

I fell under the spell of that verse immediately, with its pleasant assurance that all things are divine. The flow of the scripture spun my mind to running–for in him we move. I run, not to become faster so I can win races, not to develop fitness so I can stay healthy, and not to burn calories so I can eat  pizza and guzzle Oregon’s finest beers; instead, I run as an act of worship, each springing knee bent over the wild terrain honors the cosmos, moving me forward, bringing me closer and also distancing me from my ultimate destination. I am not a Christian, but I do feel God surging in my blood, heaving in my lungs, screaming at me to stop and also to push harder whenever I’m bouncing over the landscape of this vast planet. I grew up Christian, learning early in my life to fear and to love God, who sometimes takes the form of my “dad” and “father,” and who, at other times, takes the shape of the man casting my shadow.

Born Again And Again

It is 1991, the start of my Born Again Jesus is Risen Christian Phase at Skate Church in sunny California. I am meeting MJ for the first time. The church auditorium smells like popcorn; it’s full of half pipes, a live hardcore Christian music band, and skaters. Craig, the only pastor who resembles a pastor and not a skater, is introducing me to MJ. MJ just gave his life to Christ. I shake MJ’s hand. Before I let go, I notice that the veins on MJ’s skeletal arms are pocked with raised brown mounds of flesh. His cheeks are hollow. I can the see the strings of muscle ripple when grinds his teeth. But when I gaze into his eyes, I see a warm and friendly soul.

After a few weeks at rehab, I am watching MJ get baptized in the main auditorium. He is with Hope and Charity, two teenagers who came to Christ the same night as MJ. They are wearing white robes. When each emerges from the holy waters radiant and smiling, I believe. Yes, I believe! Jesus loves! Jesus heals! Jesus saves! Jesus is Lord of All!!!

It is a month after his baptism, our fellowship of Christian skateboarders drives over the hill to Sea Bright Beach in Santa Cruz. We roast hotdogs, drink soda, and talk about Christ. We are seated around a huge pillar of fire that is heating the entire west coast. Everyone around the fire is laughing. I spot MJ, he is away from us, sitting on a rock near the bathrooms. He is starring at the sand, his head bent low. I think I know why he is so depressed. The engine of his beat-up BMW was clanking and sputtering on the drive to the beach. I walk over to MJ. He says he’s worried about his car. I tell him that I will stay right behind him on the drive home in case anything happens.

The steep road curls. We are almost at the summit. A toxic black fog rushes over my windshield. It’s coming from MJ’s car. I flash my lights. MJ pulls over. He lifts the hood of the battered BMW, as soon as the hood click opens, flames jump out. They almost catch MJ’s sleeves on fire. He slams the hood shut and checks for burns. That’s when I notice the fresh needle tracks on MJ’s arms.

I drive MJ home in my dirty green 1970 mercury cougar with the white vinyl top. I should take better care of such a classic car. But I don’t. I talk to MJ about skateboarding. He gives me one word answers. His knees rapidly knock up and down. I try to steer the conversation to the ever loving forgiveness of Jesus Christ. But MJ chides me with silence. After I drop off MJ, I pray for his soul.

The next few weeks, I don’t see MJ at skate church. I am not surprised. Hope tells me that MJ is a “backslidden Christian”. He fell back into drugs. We hold hands and pray for MJ’s soul. Hope even speaks in tongues.

Our Christian fellowship prays for lost souls. Craig says, “There is power in unity.”

About a month later MJ returns to church. He wants to get baptized again. He gets baptized again and again and again.

Gradually the fellowship chips apart. Some move away. Some some attend seminary. Some quit church altogether. One by one, we each shoot off in our own direction. Unity breaks.

It’s well over two decades later. I have just finished a long run. I am stretching. My wife opens the front door. She has something to show me. She has to go upstairs to get it. I sit on the floor. She brings me a picture of MJ. She took it just before his first baptism at skate-church. MJ is wearing a white robe. His smile is warm and friendly. He is radiant. “Remember MJ?” she says. The memories wash over me. Before she finishes speaking, I already know what she will say.

Rest in Peace MJ.

Patron Saint for Runners?

St. Sebastian Patron Saint of Sportsman
St. Sebastian

I was baptized as a Catholic, I was partially raised Catholic, I took Catholic Communion, but I am NOT Catholic. Why then, am I tempted to pray to Saint Sebastian?

It all started a few weeks ago. It was a frigid, rainy day in Sandy Oregon. I didn’t at all feel like running 8 long miles barefoot on the rough and icy streets, not only because of cold, but also because the city was doing roadwork, filling the streets with the infamous tiny pebbles I have deemed “pain pyramids”. The stone triangular spikes must have been formed in the very bowels of barefoot-runner hell.

After watching some Youtube videos, sitting in front of the heater, and pretending to myself that I was not procrastinating, I finally convinced myself to put on my running clothes and hit the streets. As soon as I shut the door, the skies did not open and the sun did not peak through revealing a lovely rainbow, instead fierce black clouds swarmed above, an arctic blast surged over me, and the first biting darts of sleet struck my tender feet.

For the first few miles, my hands trembled and I wondered what the hell I was doing outside, then I noticed that according to RunKeepr, my last mile was a two seconds faster than the previous mile. Even though I was miserable, the encouragement from runkeepr boosted my pace–at the very least running faster would get me out from cold dark clouds faster. Around mile 6, the nerves on my feet were telling me they needed more skin. I ignored the pain. At mile 7.5 I stepped on a slice of glass or a metal scrap or a rusty nail. But I didn’t stop because I had only half of a mile left! I would treat the cut later.

When I finished my run, I wasn’t all that shocked to see blood prints behind me. I could see my life juices swishing with the rain and swirling peacefully into the gutter. When I examined my foot, I didn’t discover a shard of glass or even a gash on my foot. Instead I gazed into the tiny hole I had run into it.

Luckily, I was able to bandage the wound and run comfortably with sandals. I even comfortably ran 10 miles three days after the injury. Unfortunately,  the bandage must have altered my gait because I developed a pain deep in my ankle. It felt like a sprain, but worse. My foot swelled so I decided to take it easy until it healed.

As soon as I got back up to 11 miles for my long run, I caught a wicked chest cold. Cough cough cough, no phlegm just a hacking dry cough and not even dreams of sleep for about three days. I rarely get ill, but this virus sneaked past my defenses.  Maybe that’s because I weakened them by running barefoot through a storm.

I am well again. I am once again on my feet. If I were to pray to Saint Sebastian for anything, I think I would ask him to protect me FROM MYSELF.

 

May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.