Sunday, January 27, 2013

Running on Faith: Dodging Rattlesnakes

My daughter and I are training for a marathon--my fifth, her first. She's pretty excited about it, but it's early yet. When she's running 15 miles at a pop, it might sap her enthusiasm a bit.

Still, she intrinsically enjoys running more than I do. For me, going out for a run is a duty. For her, it's a joy. And she did run cross country throughout high school (she's a college freshman now), so she knows a thing or two about putting on the miles. In fact, she's teaching me quite a bit.

For instance: Never pick up a rattlesnake while running.

This was sage advice she picked up in high school. One of her cross-country cohorts (a guy, naturally), was chugging down a pathway when he saw a rattlesnake lying on the side of the road. "Look, a rattlesnake!" he said. And he stopped, reached down and picked it up.

Now, we all know that youth today are, in lots of ways, much smarter than I was growing up. Their lives are full of technology undreamed of back when I was in high school, when cell phones were the size of microwave ovens and people were still hanging out at video arcades. I think they're dealing with way more pressure, too--from school, from their peers, from their parents. When I talked with my kids about what they were learning in high school, I often felt that I needed a translator.

But maybe  we Gen-Xers do have one thing over today's Millennials: We know better than to pick up a rattlesnake.

The guy was bitten, of course. He was whisked off to the hospital and was just fine: The snake hadn't pumped any venom into the guy. The rattler, I'm guessing, was so flabbergasted that someone would dare to pick him up that he hadn't gotten his poison pumping yet.

It seems that cross country running is fertile ground for disturbing stories with important morals. One afternoon, members of the team were stalked by a mountain lion for a couple of miles. Moral: Don't run alone. Mountain lions are less likely to attack people in pairs. (I guess a secondary moral might be to run with someone who's slower than you, just in case a lion does attack). On another afternoon, a girl broke her leg from taking an awkward step. Moral: Don't run alone in case you break your leg. Forget Aesop's Fables: Try Adidas' Fables.

Most cross country morals, I gather, culminate in some variation of "don't run alone." Even the rattlesnake story had a similar addendum. While the primary moral was, of course, to not pick up rattlesnakes, the secondary lesson went, "But if you do, be sure you do so while running with someone else so you'll have someone who can drag your stupid self back to the car."

Our Christian run, I think, has a similar moral: Don't do it alone. When I was a younger--about the same as my daughter is now, actually--I thought that faith was something best done alone, through prayer and reading and introverted monkish pursuits. And it's probably no coincidence that that was the time when I felt the least connected with my faith. It's too easy to stray off the path when you're running alone. It's too tempting to do something dumb. You're an easier target. You're more prone, perhaps, to pick up a rattlesnake along the way.

With all due respect to all those saintly hermits of yesteryear, Christianity was always meant to be done in community. "For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them," Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:20. Most of Paul's letters weren't to individuals, but to churches--folks who joined together in order to worship communally. Hey, this Christian faith of ours can be tough at times--to tough to do by ourselves. It's nice to have company along the way: People we can trust to keep us on the right track, people who will be with us when things inevitably go wrong, people just to talk with: Not just about faith, but about anything. We need people to help us smile and laugh just as much as we need people to wipe away our tears.

I'm a recluse at heart. It's not in my nature to really seek out running partners--either for my actual runs or for my more metaphorical jog of faith. But whenever I do, I'm grateful when I find someone to share the journey. It's nice to know there'll be someone around if I should, y'know, a rattlesnake attack.


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