In high school cross country, my most favorite race was on our school’s home course. It was also probably the hardest course in our league of schools.
The first mile was really nice paved path, a bit of up and down, but it overlooked water and beautiful mountains. The second was a relatively flat trail through woods.
The third mile started right around the time you hit what was (and maybe still is) infamously called “Goat Hill.” It’s only probably 30 feet long but it’s steep, narrow, and dusty, just a little opening in the trees. You obviously couldn’t pass anyone and in order to get up it you literally had to grab onto branches to pull yourself up. By the time you got up it and hit a paved road, your quads were screaming.
But oh no, it wasn’t over then. After you crossed that paved road you were about to hit 800 meters of uphill trail. Not steep, but not gradual either. At this point, you already feel like you just want to lay down on the side of the road and die, but there’s more. And more. And believe me, those 800 meters feel a lot longer than the first two miles.
If you’re a runner, maybe you just laid your head down on your desk or a tear trickled down your cheek and you whispered out loud “I’m so sorry . . .” Or you got this surge inside that made you want to put on your running clothes and hit the pavement. Or maybe both emotions happened at the same time. There is sort of this weird paradox or ambivalence I think all runners have about the sport.
If you’re not a runner, then you probably are confused or you just think I’m crazy for running in the first place. Stick with me, though.
The last time I ran the course at Farragut State Park was fall of 1999, as a senior. I still distinctly remember those 800 meters. I put my head down, dug in, and ran. And ran. And ran. I was passing groups of girls as I went. Even though it was hard, I felt a little bit superhuman. I was surprising myself.
After you reach the top, the last couple hundred meters are flat and then downhill grass into the finish line. It’s the reward, I suppose. It’s what everyone wants, right? Well, they want the finish line, but next to that, the grassy downhill feels quite nice.
Even at 17 years of age, I realized the downhill was not what I wanted. I am no different now. I want Goat Hill. And more than that I want that hellish 800 meters. When I run downhill I feel like I’m flailing, like I can’t control myself. Frankly, I feel kinda like an idiot.
I found this also to be true when I started riding my bike a few years ago. When I told Jason that I actually like doing hills he told me there are a few categories of cyclists. There are descenders, sprinters, and you guessed it . . . climbers. And inside I take some pride in the fact that I can call myself a climber. When I ride downhill I’m constantly wanting to hit my brakes. I can’t just let the bike go.
I have found similarities in labor and childbirth, too. The first time I labored, it was like I was running the hardest and longest race I’ve ever ran. But I put my head down and I dug in. And I did it. And again, I surprised myself.
I got a baby out of the deal, and that’s Ian. And it’s not like I wasn’t glad it was over. But I really liked that it was hard.
But what do you do after you cross the finish line and have achieved probably the best race of your life? Or, even greater than that, you hold that beautiful gift of a child in your arms? What do you do when everything is all congrats and happy times? To me, accepting these things is harder than it is to walk through hard stuff, if that makes any sense.
These “easy” times, these times of joy and peace, I resist them far more than those 800 meters. Or, the transition or the four hours of pushing a baby out. Or the steepest hill I’ve ever climbed on my bike.
I’ve had a lot of the hard stuff in this particular season. I’m not denying that it has been scary, excruciating at times, confusing. I’ve wanted it to go away, like right now.
But now I’m getting what I wanted. I’m having more good days, and I don’t know what to do with them. With the plenty, the energy, the clarity in my head, the predictability of the days, the motivation, the feeling like myself. How do you live life with God in that?
I still have some hard days and I cry out to the Lord (mostly). I need Him. But on the good days, it just feels like I’m flailing on the easy downhill that is this world, tempted to be satisfied and pleased with what temporary things are constantly offered to me–money, stuff, distractions, reputation, image. There is this weight of guilt just hovering about it all, and I can’t shake it off. I can’t just let go. But there’s got to be a way of running the downhill a different way.
And so oddly, I feel like I’m grieving the loss of feeling bad. I want a little more of it because it’s painful, it’s familiar. I know how to talk to God in the mess, and I sense deep down He hears me. Maybe I feel like I deserve it or I’m earning His love in some way. I haven’t quite figured it out, but what do I expect when I follow a religion, a Person, that is somehow simple and complex all at once?
The last few days the lyrics to a song I’ve been listening to by Tenth Avenue North have been stuck in my head. In fact, they were part of the inspiration for writing about this particular subject.
Don’t stop the madness
Don’t stop the chaos
Don’t stop the pain surrounding me
Don’t be afraid, Lord, to break my heart
Just bring me down to my knees
Don’t stop the uphill, Lord. Yet, yeah, I could use a break, that would be nice. I don’t know what I want, dangit, and I certainly don’t know what I need. Only you know that, Lord.
I know life feeling bad can’t go on forever. There aren’t races out there that are completely uphill, at least I don’t think there are. People wouldn’t run them (except maybe me and a few other crazies). And my husband and kids and family and friends can’t handle my uphill forever, and they shouldn’t have to.
The Gospel talks a lot about suffering, but it does talk about indescribable joy. There are times when the Lord is speaking of the receiving of it in eternity, but there are others when He means joy in our days on this earth. It’s not like we receive our inheritance then; in many ways, we are receiving it now and moving forward in it.
The Bible talks about the dead coming back to life, and the lame being healed. Jesus did not expect Lazarus or the beggar or Jairus and his daughter to go looking for some other fatal illness that would make life scary and miserable and end in paralyzation or death. Suffering would inevitably come again for each one of them, but He gave them indescribable joy in those moments of healing and in the times that followed for each one of them.
I picked up Brother Lawrence’s little book to help me see if I could resolve this a little more for myself. He has been a dependable help before. But as I read his words, all they did was irritate me. Practicing the presence of God just seemed to come so easily to him, even from the beginning. Being a glutton for punishment, I need some struggle! I suppose I should just keep reading, life gets miserable for everyone at some point.
But do you see, I’m still missing the point here? And so God leads me back around to try to learn this life lesson again.
Right now there are days when I’ve got to run the downhill because it’s part of my life’s course. There will probably be more of these days ahead. God will decide. So how do I practice His presence, live my life unto the Lord in the daily running about of getting things done? Or parenting, marriage, friendship? How do I not live in a worldly fashion, in a superficial way? How do I talk more to God than just think about Him?
And heaven forbid, how do I do the things that I really love doing and not feel like in some way I’m doing them disobediently, apart from Him, or avoiding Him? I told you, I’ve said it, I’m a glutton for punishment!
But, these are the things I tell myself: If I forget about God or my heart doesn’t want Him, I have grace. I still have Him. He holds all things together, regardless of their state. He’s in the uphill and the downhill, He’s in the plateaus, He meets us at the finish line. Although that “us” is corporate to followers of Jesus Christ, it also means me, because damn it, I’m His. When will this sink in? I hope it’s before I see His face.
On the good days, help me cling to these truths, Lord. Do not let my fingers loosen their grip.
Maybe someone reading this can relate. Maybe you’re a climber, too. Or maybe, you thrive on the downhill and your fist raises up to heaven when the uphill comes; that’s when you loosen your grip.
Either way, we keep going and we try to figure it out. And then we realize that trying to figuring out how to get up the hill or how to get down it is actually working against us. And then God helps us do what we’re called to do–let go.