18 October 2011

My Big Run, Part I: A (Slow) Part of the Faceless Mass

I ran a half marathon on Saturday.

  1. Because it was there, I guess.
  2. Also because I was turning 30 the next day and wanted to feel like I wasn't an old man yet.
  3. And also because I am overweight and wanted a goal that would make me exercise regularly.
I do some of my best thinking while running. And during the 2:33:34 that I was running on Saturday, I thought about some things that I wanted to share with you, my beloved Intarnets. So, since I am notoriously bad at blogging, I decided it would be best to run a miniseries instead of wasting all my bloggery in one post. So here goes.

 The race started at 7:05 a.m., so by 6:30, the starting area was already getting pretty crowded. After a quick stop in a very filthy mobile intestinal relief facility, I joined 5501 of my newest friends behind the starting line. Despite the October chill, most of us weren't wearing much more than shorts, T-shirts, and maybe sweatshirts. Some were wearing substantially less (e.g., the man dressed in a cape, briefs, and a lucha libre mask). We expected to get very warm very quickly.

A funny thing happens when you are in a tight-packed bunch of live bodies on a cold morning: you get to share their body heat. I knew somewhere in the back of my head that humans are finely tuned heat machines, generally running temperatures between 96 and 98 degrees. Nonetheless, I'm not sure I ever really felt this truth the way I did in that chilly pre-dawn moment when I realized that I was standing outside in 40-degree weather and wasn't even a little bit cold. It was comforting to know that, even in a massive, faceless crowd, we could provide each other with a little bit of comfort on a cold day. It almost made me feel like one with those around me. And then the race started.

After the starting pistol sounded, the crowd surged slowly forward like a fell dragon flexing his wings. I started about a quarter mile back from the line. Following thousands of others, I went from a slow walk to a leisurely jog to a full-on run as I hit the sensor strip at the starting line. Once we had crossed that fateful line, we were no longer partners against the cold -- it was every man for himself, and Devil take the hindmost.

For the first couple of miles, I felt more like an extra in a zombie film than a contestant in a road race. I glanced around at my competitors, looking for signs of infection and trying to remember if it was possible to crush the spinal columns of the brain-hungry undead with one's bare hands. After all, here we were: thousands of people, all running the same direction, a river of humanity flowing inexorably to a common sea. What else could explain this madness besides some brain ailment? Or the allure of cheesy medals, I guess.

It was a surreal experience to run with 5,000 other humans toward a single finish line. It emphasized everyone's common humanity: we all were flesh and bone, constructed of basically the same materials and on basically the same plan. However, it also highlighted our differences. I, a short, jiggly man with creaky knees, was not even in the same class with the tall, muscular demigods who dominated the race-course, finishing a full marathon in less time than it took me to run my measly half. (I am not joking. The winner of the full marathon lapped me about 1.5 miles from the finish line.)

I intend to get into more detail about the run itself in subsequent posts. For now, I will close with a few numbers.

5,502 people started the half marathon with me. Of those, 4,796 finished. And of those, I came in 3,955th. Not great. And my time of 2:33:43 was more than 20 minutes slower than the average finish time.

But, hey, at least I wasn't the pitiful sack of carbon-based life who came in last.

04 October 2011

Hutchmoot II: In Which I (Finally) Make It to Nashville

As you may remember, a dirty low-down debit card thief prevented me from attending Hutchmoot 2010. I am happy to report that no such thing occurred this year. However, my own sense of inadequacy very nearly had the same effect on my soul that last year's thief had on my wallet.

From the moment I walked through the doors of the venue, I was intimidated by what I perceived as greatness on every side. Some of my favorite musicians and writers were there, including Jason Gray, Andrew Peterson, Andy Gullahorn, Jonathan Rogers, A. S. "Pete" Peterson, and S. D. Smith. The first night, there was a show by the Square Peg Alliance, which was amazing. As I watched and listened to the music, I couldn't help but wonder what I was doing here.

I'm not a professional artist, or a writer, or a musician.  Even worse, I don't really have any intention of becoming one.  I work as a business analyst for a company that does third-party administration services for life insurance companies. I used to dream of singing or writing for a living, but those dreams fizzled out when I realized that you can't eat art or pay a mortgage with it.

So, at Hutchmoot 2011, I found myself playing the familiar role of a poser.  It reminded me of I Samuel 17, where David's brother Eliab accuses him of having a presumptuous, evil heart -- except, in my case, the accusation was justified.   I felt like a little boy who had abandoned his sheep to come down and gawk at the Giants.

I knew intellectually that this wasn't true. In his welcome speech, Andrew Peterson had made it clear that each person there was an important part of the community. None of the Square Pegs exuded haughtiness or a sense of superiority. I knew that I was a welcome person who had valuable contributions to make. But I'd be jiggered if I knew what those valuable contributions might be.

As I compared myself to all the great artists and thinkers who were gathered in that place, I had a  hard time believing that I was very important to anyone. Nonetheless, I played my role well, having paid attention in my junior high drama class.  In sessions, I tried to say Important-Sounding Things and nod my head sagely at the right times. To myself, of course, I was a phony, but that didn't stop me from putting on a good show.

In the end, what saved me from this dismal state was love. (This should come as no surprise, since love is all that saves any of us from anything.) In this particular case, it was Jason Gray's humble love for the people he was ministering to in Friday night's concert.

In some ways, Jason was the greatest giant of them all.  A bona fide Christian artist who gets airplay on Christian top-40 stations, a deeply spiritual man with a lot of challenging ideas about faith and godliness, and one of the most genuine, honest singer / songwriters I know of -- for me, being around him was like being around some sort of mythic hero.  And I was dangerously close to committing idolatry.

But Jason sliced through the mythos with his honesty, authenticity, and humility.  Rather than building himself up as some sort of CCM demigod, he treated his audience as a group of brothers and sisters.  He saw his role as leading us into worship, not as our superior, but as our fellow-worshiper.  Jason taught us parts to sing along with him, so we could join right in with him as he ascribed worth to our Father that night.  In short, he took the role of priest, not the role of idol.

During that show, some fleshly thing within me snapped.  Suddenly, I found myself truly believing what I had merely known before: This wasn't a contest.  I wasn't competing with others to see who was smartest, or most talented, or most successful.  I wasn't any less valuable because of my lack of artistic efforts.

That night, as I worshiped along with 100 other followers of Christ, I felt like I had become a true part of the community.

I could write a lot more about Hutchmoot.  I could tell you how amazing the sessions were, how incredible it was to listen to Sam Smith, Andrew and Pete Peterson, and Jonathan Rogers talking about literature, and how fun it was to play Settlers with Jon, Ashley, Todd, Jud, and Sherri.  However, others have probably said those kinds of things more powerfully than I can, so I won't belabor the point.

To me, the most wonderful part of this year's Hutchmoot will always be that moment on Friday night when I realized I am not just an inferior junior member of God's kingdom.  Rather, I am a true child of the Creator-King, and it is my birthright to engage in sub-creation.

I'm still working through the implications of that night, but I think one of its effects will be to encourage me to start writing again.  Too often, I have avoided writing for fear of failure.  I've told myself I would never become a great writer because I can't do it full-time.  I've let myself forget that I don't love writing because it might make me "successful"; I love it because of how it allows me to make beautiful things where there was nothing before.  God put that love in me, so He must want me to use it to the best of my ability.

To sum up: Hutchmoot 2011 taught me that, regardless of my insecurities and fears, I do belong in His family.  I can (and must) use my gifts to build His kingdom, and one of the ways I can do that is through writing.  So I will write.

It might take the form of more posts on this blog, or it may reside in a notebook for now.  Somehow, though, I am going to start working seriously and regularly at making beautiful configurations of words.  And if I do ever receive worldly success from these efforts, I must take care to use it like the shrewd servant in Jesus's parable, to get as much gain as I can for God's kingdom.