Swimming With Jesus - Or Not

Recently I ventured outside of my comfort zone - and I mean way outside. With the encouragement of some folks I used to call my "friends," I decided make the switch from running to triathlons. "You can totally do this!" they convinced me. And I foolishly believed them. I joined the local triathlon club and signed up for my first race, a sprint. (For the mono-sportsters reading this, that's a five hundred yard swim, a 13 mile bike ride, and a five kilometer run.)

Training for a triathlon isn't so bad, as long as you have an exra thirty hours a week to spend pruning in cold, heavily chlorinated water and hanging out at the local high school track. I spent at least five hours a week at the pool with my swim coach timing me on the race distance, roughly twenty laps. Even though I could do that with no problem, she told me there would be swim angels - lifeguards in kayaks stationed every twenty yards or so along the course. Thanks, but no thanks. Not going to need that, I was certain.

As for the cycling, well, the trick to performing well in a triathlon is having lots of expensive cycling equipment. At the very least, you need a nice road bike and a pair of those shoes that clip onto the pedals. Only I couldn't figure out how to UNclip them. "It becomes second nature," my fellow cyclists insisted. "Soon you won't even have to think about it." I'm not sure how *soon* this instinct to unclip should have blossomed - after my third or fourth ride, after my tenth ride, after my first race - but for me, it was... never. Eventually I learned to stop by falling off my bike. Problem solved.

Lastly, the run. You would think that would be the easy part, but you would be wrong. Turns out its not so easy to run three miles after a swim and a bike ride. Most traithlon training programs call for what multi-sportsters call a "brick," running a few miles immediately after cycling a lot of miles. I'm not exactly sure what the benefit of these bricks was supposed to be, since the runs never got any easier. Perhaps it was so that you knew in advance that the run was going to be slow and painful on race day.

So after a few months of training in all three sports, I was ready for the New Jersey State triathlon. I showed up on race day looking spiffy in my tri club uniform, lugging about fifty pounds of the equipment necessary to compete in this event. Ah, the transition area, where literally hundreds of bikes, each worth in the neighborhood of a monthly mortgage payment, dangle precariously from a long metal rack. The air is thick with the smell of Ben Gay and trialthlon lingo. The participants, with race number and age marked on their bodies in thick indelible black marker, meticulously lay out the items they will need at various points in the race. This was hardcore, friends. Goggles and the lime green swim cap that designated me a "female, aged 45-49" in hand, I headed down to the dock for the start of the race.

That's where my day took an unexpectedly ugly turn. I don't know why I was surprised to see that the water was dark brown. I walked in up to my calves, and couldn't see my feet. There was no blue line down the center. There were no lane markers. How was I going to swim in...this? I pushed the thought aside, and lined up in my "wave." (That's tri talk for the group of people the same age as you with whom you enter the muck at the start of the race.)

The race director counted down...4, 3, 2...go! People on the shore were cheering. I reluctantly put my face in the dark water and started to swim. It was chaotic. The kicking and punching during the first few yards reminded me of players scrambling to recover a fumbled football. Completely disoriented, I drifted off of the course. The water was too deep for me to stop to catch my breath. Panicked, I made my way to the nearest kayak and hung on for a few minutes. I pried my fingers loose and tried again. My heart was pounding. It took every ounce of energy and courage I had to swim...twenty yards to the next kayak.

Well, you probably have a sense of where this story is going, so I'll cut right to the chase. About twenty minutes after the race started, I got fished out of Lake Mercer by some very nice lifeguards, and onto a rescue boat with some other folks who had also changed their minds halfway through the swim. (Not surprisingly, however, I was the only one sporting an official tri club uniform.) The race officials were very nice and sympathetic, but the boat might as well have had flashing lights and a siren on top as it carried us back to the safety of dry land, where I handed my velcro timing chip to a race volunteer, signed some paperwork, and called it a race day.

In the months that followed the "tri that wasn't" I made peace with the fact that it was my panic that kept me from finishing, not my ability to swim the course. I thought about Peter, when Jesus told him to step out of the boat and walk on water. He was fine, until he panicked. Mat 14:30. At that point, Peter sunk like a rock. "Yep, Peter, I can relate. Me, too."

Fast forward eight months, to my second triathlon. I sat on the dock and looked down at the ice cold muddy water I was about to descend into to start the race. This time, I imagined the fish God created to swim there, and the algae He created to keep the water fresh to sustain the fish. It was a perfectly thought out system and nothing to be afraid of, I told myself. I pushed off the dock singing to myself a song called, "Let The Waters Rise." These are some of the lyrics: "when I swim in the sea, You will be there with me." I finished that swim with no problem whatsoever.

Yes, I am constantly discovering new ways to put my faith in God, because He's there with me no matter what crazy sport I'm participating in. He was even in the murky waters of Lake Mercer - I just couldn't see Him. Or my feet. But whenever we step outside of our comfort zone, we can call upon the name of the Lord and He will deliver us from all our fears. Nothing else, and no one else, offers that kind of assurance.

Running More Slowly With Jesus

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Psalm 34:18

Have you ever found yourself in one of those categories, brokenhearted or crushed in spirit? Yep, me too. It’s an uncomfortable place to be. And yet, it’s been my home for the past six months or so.

Funny things are happening in my life. My daughter, my first born, graduated from high school a few weeks ago and will be leaving for college shortly. She’s growing up, or maybe grown up is more appropriate. My fifteen year old son is right behind her.

So do you think it was it part of God’s plan for menopause to coincide perfectly with our children’s independence and eventual departure? I’m not sure, but it certainly feels to me like someone took a divine sledge hammer to the younger woman who ran an eight minute mile and smashed her to bits. “Take that, spring chicken!” Bring on the saggy skin, hot flashes, and mood swings.

Maybe “crushed in spirit” sounds too melodramatic. I’ve been accused of it before, like when at eight years old I might have overdone a fake coughing spell to get out of school, earning me the nickname Sarah Heartburn. While I admit to occasional feeling amplification in the past, this is different. I feel legitimately tired, spent, and just plain old.

True, I’m only reaching the half century mark and not quite ready to be put out to pasture just yet. But I’ve begun to grasp the new reality that some things are just not going to happen for me. The 2012 Olympics are about three weeks away, and I realize I will never be an Olympic athlete. Well, that’s probably a bad example since I’ve never really accomplished much as an athlete, other than recently placing second in the “older ladies” age group at a triathlon. Oh, I still do my weekly speed work at the track, but it really only keeps me from slowing down too much. My [barely less than five hour] marathon time places me firmly in the category of people who participated in the event, rather than actually raced it.

I wanted to hang out and wallow there for awhile, bonding with my menopausal cohorts in air conditioned knitting studios and sobbing that my husband and children don’t appreciate me. But I am reminded: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Phil 4:8. These feelings of uselessness, surely, do not belong on a believer’s heart. I cannot allow myself to dwell there.

So I must reorient and regroup, despite my heavy heart, and search for God’s next assignment for my life. I am certainly not the first woman to find herself in a house that is too quiet. God has been near to many brokenhearted menopausal women before, I’m sure. When every part of my flesh is fighting to stay mired in the bitterness of aging, I try to reach for a God who will save my spirit. I try. Some days I want to reach out, and some days I just want to cry for the young girl whose dreams for her life didn’t quite come true. The Supreme Court never came calling. I’ve got hundreds of typewritten pages, complete with dedication, and yet nothing that even given the most generous interpretation could be considered a manuscript. And I long ago lost touch with my best friend from high school.

On my own, my mind wants to park itself right here, shamefully curled up on the sofa seeking sympathy and chocolate covered almonds. So I struggle to get on my knees and ask God to draw near to me with His plans for the second half. Placing my trust in Him, as I have learned to do during the first half, those plans can’t miss. As long as I seek them as I seek God, with all my heart.

Why Not Run With Us?

I believe in diffusing tense situations with humor, as if you couldn't tell that by what I've already written in this blog. It works in my life. Rarely is a situation so dire that it can't be lightened up in some way, just a *leeeetle* bit, right?

But a few weeks ago during a Bible study I ran across a passage that absolutely terrified me, and has haunted me ever since. Try as I might, I cannot lighten this message up, which tells me that perhaps it isn't meant to be made light of. My husband and I have been discussing this passage on our runs, trying to find some interpretation other than the painfully obvious. No luck. I'm afraid Jesus's words here are crystal clear. The passage is 1 Cor. 6:9-11:

"Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sancitifed, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God."

Ouch. Now, I don't know what crowd you run with, but at least three words in that list aptly describe my past, and I'm not talking only on Saturday nights! Then I was washed and sanctified and now my sins are as far as the east is from the west. And how thankful I am for that I can't even begin to tell you, because, well, I had some sin in my life. Some nasty sin. Some sin for which I thought God could never forgive me.

And He wouldn't have forgiven me if I hadn't taken Him up on the best deal in town! The disciple John wrote, "[f]or God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." John 3:16. Did you catch it? The secret was right in there in one of the most well known verses in the Bible: whoever BELIEVES in Him! That's it! You have to believe in Him. And once you believe in Him, you have "redemption through His blood" and "forgiveness of your trespasses." Eph. 1:7. It sounds quite easy, does it not?

There's a lot at stake here; namely, eternal salvation. It's not something we tend to think too much about during our everyday activities. Heaven, the world's end, death, they all seem pretty far away while we're waiting on line in the grocery store, picking up the dry cleaning, and riding the train or bus to work. But the importance can't be underestimated. If you've never seriously thought about where you, or your family and friends, will spend eternity, why not? Consider this scenario.

I was at a funeral for a friend recently, someone with whom I had frequent, but casual, contact. I mentioned my church attendance and Bible studies, but never encouraged her to join me. I spoke frequently about my love for Jesus, but never offered to introduce her to my Lord and Savior. For her part, well, I'm pretty sure she never knew Him. And so during the eulogy her family spoke endearing words about her life on earth and promised they would see her again in heaven, and that stung. As lovely a person as she was, I had some real doubts that she was going to heaven unless either she had accepted Jesus Christ on her death bed in some silent, last chance confrontation known only to those who pass over that threshold, or everything the Bible says about receiving salvation is wrong, and I highly doubt that.

I think this is called "moralism," the widespread belief these days that as long as you're a "good" person you'll go to heaven. You can get there believing in a happy mixture of religions and doctrines so as not to offend anyone. Buddahism seems cool, so you might keep some of those fat little statues around and rub their bellies for good luck. Yoga might inspire some interest in Hinduiusm so you might start to consider the divinity within yourself as well as the divinity within the trees outside your window. And your coffee cup. And how about getting some tickets to see the Pope say mass at Giants Stadium the next time he travels to the United States?

This is not what John means when he talks about "believing" in God. Jesus Himself tells us "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow ME." Not "ME" and a fat round little man with a big belly, or "ME" and a totally vegan diet, or "ME" and a seamonster in the Pacific Ocean. Just "ME." It continues, "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it." Matt. 16:25-26.

Let me acknowledge right off the bat that there are a few words in that passage that aren't entirely appealing. For example, Jesus tells us to "deny" ourselves. Hmmmmmmm. "Deny." That right there sounds more difficult than trying to be really nice to people. And that bit about taking up a cross? That's troubling. The first thing that comes to my mind is that Jesus was crucified on one of those.

The truth is, from all I've learned through my years of informal Bible study, following Jesus can be pretty difficult. To my original point, according to 1 Cor. 6:9-11, when we follow Jesus we don't engage in adultery, drunkeness, idol worship, nor even covet what our neighbors have. Makes you stop and think about your reaction when you saw the new Mercedes Benz parked in your neighbor's driveway, doesn't it? We have to live as He would want us to live, and that includes not feeling envy because the diamond in your sister in law's engagement ring is bigger.

According to the Bible, the easiest way to avoid these feelings is to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior and be guided by the Holy Spirit. In the earliest days of my sobriety, when I still had shakes, people who had accumulated some clean time told me to pray for the obsession to use drugs to be lifted. So I did. Pretty inartfully, but I mumbled something like "God please don't let me use drugs today." And I remember pretty early into it, one day I noticed that it was already the afternoon and I hadn't once thought about drinking. It got better from there. Soon, days would pass without feeling the desire to drink. God had taken that away from me. I'm certain of it. Something felt different. I wasn't using willpower. I just simply didn't need to drink. The change had occurred on the inside.

A miracle! A real, true miracle! I started to do this all the time. Whenever I found myself falling into a sinful thought pattern (in "the rooms" we called it "stinkin' thinkin'), I prayed for God to take those feelings away. It didn't always happen overnight, but it always happened.

Romans Chapter 8 talks about how when we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, the Holy Spirit comes to live inside of us and guides us to make some better decisions for ourselves. We can turn things around. Life doesn't have to be a struggle, or a trainwreck, or a rut. It's all easier when we choose to follow God and live in daily fellowship with Him.

Walking with Jesus, to the extent it requires putting down the bottle or doing any of the other things we do that we wish we didn't do, may not sound easy, or even appealing, at first. That's okay. If we are sincere and want to take up our cross and follow Him, He'll help us. He'll give us the strength to walk away from bad habits, addictions, materialistic lifestyles, and anything else that will keep us from taking our place with Him in heaven. Because as pleasing as these things seem here on earth, God promises us that they result in eternal death. I'd rather skip them in the short run, and inherit the kingdom of God for eternity!