Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Confessions of a Non-runner Running

Save it! I don't want to hear it. Seriously. You know who you are...

Whenever I share how much I've ran recently, someone always comes out of the woodwork to declare how much more they run on a regular basis. "Oh, you ran three miles last week? I run that every morning." Yeah, I get that you're a natural-born runner, and that time is your moment to give your mind and body the indulgence of what comes instinctive to you. More power to you.

Can we please, though, stipulate that there are two types of people? Runners and non-runners.

Runners need to run. The adrenalin, the freedom and exhilaration are a genuine nourishment without which they experience a metaphysical emaciation. I know quite a few. Their posts on social media reveal that they are indeed "runners" and the miles they log dwarfs my remotest aspirations. The urge to get out and hit the trail or the road takes no great measure of discipline since it comes so instinctively to them. They often are natural athletes, and even may devote themselves professionally to a sport. It's a pleasure to witness them perform at the highest levels, and their example serves as an inspiration for what the human body is made to do.

Non-runners do not have the same instincts and appetites as runners do. Some exercise is intuitive, but mostly out of a sense of desiring fellowship with the more "naturally athletic." Non-athlete/non-runners have entirely different appetites. The "high"that the runner gets from running, the non-runner gets from a good book, learning something new or shooting their favorite firearm. While it's uncommon to find a runner who is out of shape, the non-runner could easily go in that direction. Unless they find an exterior motive to fuel the necessary discipline, exercise is not their default setting.

Contrary to perception of perhaps some of my friends, I would classify myself in the "non-runner," non-athlete category. When I was younger, I was more "athletic," but that was mainly due to teaching Kung Fu on a regular basis. Because I was a teacher, with responsibilities to train for and with my students, I trained martial arts regularly. This contributed to the perception of being "athletic," but it was always because I had established a sense of responsibility about it. I KNOW I will train kung fu multiple times this week...because I have multiple training times with students this week. At times when I was not teaching regularly, the discipline to train regularly - on my own - was far more difficult. The same can be said of other exercise. I've never been a bodybuilder, and haven't been one to work on muscles just for display (look up the new term "spornosexual"). Metabolism wise, I had a naturally slim physique up through my thirties, whether or not I taught kung fu regularly. Turning forty, though, changed that and for the first time I began describing my "disrespectful pants" which mysteriously had begun tightening for no particular reason.

The "disrespectful pants" were the "wake up call" to be mindful of what I ate, and make reasonable efforts to remain physically active even though my opportunities to teach kung fu were few and far between. For the non-athlete, developing an exercise regimen is not dissimilar from asking Helen Keller to first assemble a Rubik's Cube and then solve it. Where do you start? What do you work on? How do you exercise, workout, train? When should you do this? Who can offer reliable advice? The puzzle pieces are so daunting that many non-athletes simply elect to maintain the non-athletic lifestyle that a culture driven by information technology affords them. Such a divide has arisen between the athletes and non-athletes in a society catering to the non-athletic, that increasingly the imagery symbolizing both are the professional athlete at one end of the spectrum and the obese at the other. I found I could easily slide toward the latter since my days of being paid to be the former were far behind me.

So exercise and responsible eating became new foci; however, without a sufficient reason to maintain the discipline, workouts were sporadic at best. "Oh yeah," I'd say to myself, "it's been a while since I exercised. Better do some soon." Usually this was associated with some other stimulus like watching a "Rocky" movie (whichever episode; it doesn't matter). This is common among non-runners. About four years ago, it seemed wise to re-interject some outside motive back into the mix, and the decision was made to run a local 5K race. The thought was: "If I schedule it, then I'll train for it." This worked a bit in the short term, but I still had control over how often I entered a 5K race. I did one and found the sense of accomplishment from getting the finisher's medal appetizing. Still, it was a 5K race that happened once a year, so if I was to do more I'd have to find other races. Nothing grabbed me, so that phase quickly dissipated. Runners WILL find another race because they just HAVE to run. Non-runners will look at the one medal they got and say "I should do another one sometime."

In 2012, quite by random through clicking on an internet banner ad, I discovered Spartan Race. Spending time browsing it's web site, the "Spartan" motif appealed to my innate sense of adventure. In addition, the obstacles attracted a non-runner for breaking up what I found to be a normally boring enterprise (running) with a series of tasks that tested strength in other areas. That first year, it was clear that the registration fee would be cost-prohibitive for a family of five; however, Spartan Race has a program wherein one can volunteer for the race and then have their registration fee waived (paying only the nominal insurance fee). Thus we volunteered for a race in December 2012 to pay for registration in a race the following May. In May of 2013, we all participated in the Spartan SPRINT (3+ miles with 15+ obstacles). It was then that we "caught the bug" and decided that the Spartan races would be regular events for us. Having done one Spartan Race in 2013, the assumption was to do more in 2014. Fortunately, Spartan Race had scheduled multiple races in Texas for 2014. For this reason, we increased our participation goal to the vaunted "trifecta" (finish a SPRINT, a SUPER and BEAST in one calendar year). With the race expenses largely handled through volunteerism, the travel expenses were our chief obstacle. Spartan Race seemed to have addressed this also. Therefore, 2014 is seeing greater participation in athletic events than I have ever previously performed.

Having already planned the 2014 participation in advance, the schedule now required sufficient training to ensure that this participation resulted more in a positive experience than a negative one. This non-runner/non-athlete had planned to participate in several athletic/running events, and now must train for them, or else risk making them more bad memories than good ones. In a way, I had created similar accountability to what my teaching schedule did for me almost twenty years prior. I was not about to flake on a student back then, so I was honor-bound to train as much as the schedule required. In like manner, I was now going to prepare for regular participation in a Spartan Race because the schedule required it. Add to that my children's participation (for whom I needed to set an example) and the camaraderie of new "Spartan" friends, and the race schedule quickly became "etched in stone." As a result, each day I've been mindful of the next race coming that requires daily training.

A non-athletic, non-runner receives the Spartan Race WOD (workout of the day) email, logs miles of running (40+ in July) and concerns themselves with fitness related posts on social media, employing the power of "peer pressure" to connect with naturally athletic people for reminders of the who, what, where, how and why of fitness training. This makes some on social media think of me as "athletic." Instead, this confession must serve to clear the air. None of the training taking place is instinctive. No running session occurred because I love running. Visits to the gym are always more a matter of discipline than enjoyment. I use a Runkeeper app for the iphone that tells me how far I ran, and then shares it with social media, but that is only part and parcel to the "Spartan" lifestyle that has developed as a result of always seemingly training for a race. Nevertheless, this non-runner runs because the next Spartan Race is coming up, and I want that to be challenging joy...not a regretful drudgery.

I appreciate the runners in my life. They inspire, enthuse and set an example of life energy; and I enjoy having all of them in my circle of friends and acquaintances. However, someone must also speak for the non-runners; the non-athletes that perform these tasks as a matter of discipline; those for whom it's never gotten easy, never gotten instinctive, not become second-nature...
  • to get up early or stay up late, 
  • to strap on the shoes and head out the door, 
  • to head to the gym and sweat like a pig, 
  • to collect training gear like tires, ropes and weights, or
  • to run the extra mile
...because the next race is coming and they won't change the date if I'm not ready.

Someone has to speak for the non-runner who is running because they have to, but has no instinct to; for the non-athlete whose language has switched from "exercising" to "training" because they always are working out thinking of a date on the calendar, but had little inclination to otherwise; for the non-athletic/non-runner who suddenly finds themselves seemingly always fitness-minded because the vacation was planned around an athletic event they never thought they'd do in life.

For those that are training for an athletic event like Spartan Race, and preparing for it requires every ounce of discipline and willpower because it's never gotten to the point where it comes naturally, I salute you. I feel for you. I'm in the same boat. But this non-runner will keep running so long as some creative soul keeps concocting cool events that I can't wait to join in on one more time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mary as a "Church Growth" Model

As an Anglican Christian (or "British Orthodox" as my friend Johnny Simmons puts it), I maintain a position on certain matters firmly in the middle-ground of historic Church debate. Regarding the nature of the Sacraments, particularly the elements of communion, the Roman Catholics have asserted the "real presence" of Christ in them with Transubstantiation, while the Baptists have asserted the "real absence" of Christ from them with "memorialism." The Anglican position has been to declare them both falling victim to the folly of over-explaining what remains a mystery. Likewise, regarding authority in the Church, the RCC has over-emphasized papacy and church canons to a place arguably equal to the Holy Scriptures. On the other end, Baptist tradition has over-individualized the Faith by suggesting anyone owning a Bible is as authoritative as anyone else. The Anglican view is to see the Scriptures as supreme and uniquely authoritative, yet interpreted within the context of a faithful episcopate; a middle ground.

In addition, another "middle ground" taken by Anglican tradition is a view of Mary, the "theotokos" (the "God-bearer"), the mother of Jesus. From an Anglican view, the RCC takes the veneration of Mary to an unhealthy level, elevating her to co-redeemer, ongoingly influential with the Savior, worthy recipient of the prayers of the devout. The Baptist tradition however, at least in the American Evangelical strain, is to avoid her veneration at all. On the contrary, often Baptists will consciously avoid any hint of reverence regarding Mary because of fears it can appear "Catholic." The Anglican view does not suffer these fears though, for the Church of the 1st millennium venerated the memory and example of Mary without the imbalance that Rome would later fall into.

It is no small matter to remember the Saints like a tribal custom of venerating the ancestors. In fact, many cultures that revere their ancestors consider their lives and examples of such import as to see them as living concurrently with the living. Archaeologists frequently find burial of these ancestors below the floor of the house because the living wanted to keep the honored dead nearby. The Church knows much of this custom, with burial crypts often located under the floor of historic churches, or at least nearby in the courtyard. "Tribal Christianity" has been among those cultures keeping the ancestors of the Faith ("Saints") front of mind in this manner, and among those Saints few can be more relevant - apart from Christ himself - than Mary, the mother of Jesus. For this reason, her life is rightly examined for examples of how the Church is to operate; chief among them being "His mother told the servants, 'Whatever he tells you, do it'" (John 2:5), when she articulated the Church's timeless message to the world.

While there are many ways that Mary, the mother of Jesus, serves as an example to the Church and to believers everywhere, her life also offers a paradigm of "church growth" in the midst of a world full of corporate fads and business seminar models imposed upon the Bride of Christ. Since first entering Bible college over twenty years ago, I've spent my time since then in and around church ministry paying close attention to the trends and directions churches take in the ever-present pressure to grow their ministry, extend their influence and establish systematic methods for perpetual expansion. In other words, I've been an attentive student of the "church growth" models, paradigms and plans that have been fed churches of varying sizes, ages and demographics. Over these 20 years I've observed that most attempts to grow "a church" are based on corporate business models that, when applied to a church, rob it of essential characteristics of the Body (as described in New Testament texts, usually containing a "one another" phrase). Instead, churches grow most legitimately when they mirror the example of Mary. I'll offer a summary of this below and flesh it out after...

Mary was a young woman "betrothed" (sort of like "engaged" but more serious than our culture treats it) to Joseph. By all Gospel accounts she was a virgin, having engaged in no activity from which she could expect to become pregnant. Nevertheless, on a particular occasion an angel shows up and tells her - a faithful Jewish maiden - that due to no effort of hers, she's going to have a child - a son, to be specific. It seems God has caused new life to spontaneously grow within her, so that from her, no thanks to her, God's chief new work will be born. None of the cause is attributable to Mary, other than her faithfulness as a Jewish woman at the time. She had not prayed to get pregnant, as in the case of Hannah in 1 Samuel. She had not planned for it, for indeed the angel's announcement was a surprise. She had not worked toward it, for Matthew is specific that this was BEFORE she and Joseph "came together" (Matt 1:18). She's called "the virgin Mary" and Jesus is referred to as "born of a virgin" because this is well-establish tradition in Scripture.

Let us now consider the physiology of a young woman. When she becomes pregnant, she grows and expands. Her body swells and it is clear she is "with child," but this is for the specific purpose of growing an entire other person waiting to leave it in a few months. Can we be frank? When a woman grows and expands like that, and it is NOT because another person is soon to be born, we call that "getting fat." Mary was NOT about to expand and grow due to obesity. She WAS expanding and growing because from her would be born the Son of God, the Messiah, the unique work of God into the world, Emmanuel..."God with us." Mary's "growth" was not attributable to her activity, planning or preparation. It was all a work of God who had designated her from which to birth his Work.

Most "church growth" models are interested in growing "a church" more than "The Church." Lacking a strong Ecclesiology, they default to business paradigms most familiar to their Evangelical elder boards stacked with corporate middle-managers and executives. The marriage of north American Evangelicalism and a free-market economy is on full display when church consultants advise pastors to "structure for growth," develop your "5 to 10 year plan," consider locations and buildings as transient, develop strategic processes and "remain visionary." The advice typically resembles something similar to the following plan:
  • examine the congregational makeup (demographics, distance, etc.)
  • determine the congregational values (actual vs aspirational)
  • formulate the congregational mission that will most likely affect ministry success
  • articulate the congregational vision to be pursued into the future
  • plan and execute the congregational strategy for realizing the vision by pursuing the mission
The congregational elders love it because it so resembles the process whereby their respective businesses have achieved success in the marketplace. The consultants love it because it appeals both to the church and corporate marketplaces. Because of the cross-pollenizing that naturally occurs between pastors and corporate peers, it appears a "win-win" all around (homage to Stephen Covey). Businesses do well following the principles outlined in advanced strategic planning, but do churches do just as well? Is all growth for a church positive when they strive for it as businesses do?

Remember, Mary was not planning to "grow," nor was she doing anything to cause it. It was an act of God. She was simply being faithful, and God decided the timing. If a church experiences spontaneous growth, due to no effort of its own, this may be Providential timing to expand "The Church" by starting a whole new Body. Otherwise, bodies are designed to be a certain size, and beyond that they are unhealthy. Most "church growth" models, by applying business growth paradigms to an organic entity are simply a "weight gain program" (as opposed to a weight loss program). Somehow, having a fat, sedentary, "expanding" body is a mark of success. In some societies this is actually the case. The fat chieftain's obesity is a sign of the abundance supposedly enjoyed by community. Is that the type of "body" that a church should really pursue?

Not to dive too deeply into a fitness analogy, but we know that when bodies become too obese they lose much of the abilities that a "normal body" is supposed to have in terms of running, jumping, climbing, digestion, health, circulation, etc. My experience has been that churches can grow too big, to expansive, too "obese" to perform those tasks that the New Testament describes for a local church body. Churches in the New Testament, particularly those to whom is addressed the Pauline epistles, are normal sized "bodies," fit and able to perform all the "one another" admonitions...having the "body" of a normal sized Galilean woman (a.k.a. Mary). If they expand due to a spontaneous decision of God, then it's to send out people and start a new church, not just get fatter, bigger, larger.

In twenty years I have witnessed churches grow and lose their capability to "be a church" in the process because of numerical "obesity." I've witnessed other churches TRY to grow in the same manner, only to die off because people perceived this move toward business models and decide they'd rather go to a "church" down the road than become part of a corporate flow chart. I've also witnessed churches remain faithfully the same size, and IF they experienced any growth, it was Providential for them to "birth" some new work out from them (a new church, sending out missionaries, training new clergy and sending them out). In this the last category was following the example of Mary, though without calling it that.

Corporate growth models are fully appropriate for businesses, but when applied to churches they have a negative effect often not perceived by those elated by the expansion of the enterprise. After all, in a culture where success is always interpreted as "Divine blessing," success is seldom scrutinized as to whether we succeeded at the right things. Particularly in relationship to the Body of Christ, it's frequently true to "climb the corporate ladder, only to discover it was leaning against the wrong wall." If there is ANY business model than can be applied to churches, it should be noted that under the "Starbucks model," the Church overtook the Roman Empire  - the most powerful regime in the world for it's time. Under the "Walmart model," however, Evangelicalism in North America has been a "flash in the pan," experiencing rapid decline after a relatively short period of cultural dominance.

A church is a "body," not a business; and like a body, it's designed to be a certain size, with certain capabilities that require a certain size. The Church conquered the Roman Empire by making many such bodies, not by making any of them in particular obese symbols of abundance. A church is a body, and even resembles a "body" in the young, Galilean, Jewish woman sense. If, for reasons which seem good to him, God causes her to expand, it is with the intent to "birth" some new work (a church, a missionary, a minister). If she is "pregnant" with new life, then that church must plan to "birth" that new work by training those families they will send out as a new church, training the missionaries they will send out into a new culture, or training those clergy they will send to lead a new congregation. But they are content that they are the size of a normal body, and should not expand beyond it otherwise.

Let's talk real numbers... with 100, or 120+/- (150 maximum) members (accounting for seasonal attendees), a church is a "normal sized body," able to operate in a manner described in Pauline Epistles. At this size a pastor is still a pastor; able to know names, be present in peoples' lives and keep the pastoral connection to people without the need to delegate pastoral duties to other staff. I once had "church growth" professor suggest that visitation was no place for a pastor, but instead that should be assigned a staff member or volunteer so that the "senior pastor" is free to focus on vision-casting and strategic planning; that a congregation should not get tied down to a building because it restricts the possibility for growth; that worship processes should remain fluid, and be regularly evaluated for widest appeal; and that supposedly everything "but sound doctrine" was "on the table" for a church dedicated to strategic growth planning. When I asked him, "What about developing a sense of 'scared space' for the congregation in a building through reverential architecture?" His response..."Sacred space? Where do you see THAT in the Bible?" This prof, who had little to no sense of sacred space, sacred times, sacred offices, sacred objects or sacred rites was a church growth and strategic planning professor, author and consultant whose influence has been widely felt in Evangelicalism. His advice fit well in the halls of Dallas Theological Seminary, but is wholly out of place in an Anglican context, or any other church wanting to resemble the triumphant Church of the 1st millennium.

A healthy, local church should strive to resemble Mary, the mother of Jesus. It remains faithful as a local body, not planning to grow by any effort of it's own. However, should God decide that it begins to swell, it is in preparation for "birthing" new life, a new ministry, a new minister. In this way, "The Church" grows even though "a church" does not. "Purpose-Driven" churches, strategic planning churches, seeker-friendly churches, "cell group" churches...all are striving to be the fat chieftain, symbolizing abundance. They no longer fit among the warriors, the maidens or the sages. They are the "fat man" sitting at the far end of the smoke-filled tent. That's what "strategic growth" churches are working to resemble, not Mary. Instead Mary, the "God-bearer," gives us an example for growing The Church that local churches should learn from.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Evaluating OCR experiences

My sons and I just enjoyed completing and volunteering at an OCR (obstacle course race) near Austin, TX today. Now it's time for the post-race evaluation...

Miles of Mud is an OCR company that organizes races reflecting an increasingly popular recreation/sports activity; that being, the challenge of a 5K race (or longer distance) with the inclusion of obstacles designed to test strength and athletic endurance in the rest of the body. For the rationale behind this trend, one need look no further than the playgrounds frequented by children in which they can run, climb, hang, crawl and exercise all their muscle groups. Our first exposure to this fantastic activity was through participating in a Spartan Race. There's a sense in which we were spoiled by Spartan Race (a company leading the field in OCR organizers), and all other experiences have been measured against that benchmark.

For Miles for Mud, we devised four categories to measure the experience. Our experience is twofold in nature: (1) as racers, and (2) as volunteers. Many OCR companies (including Spartan Race, though some do not) have a process wherein volunteers can race for free, having donated time and labor to help the event come off well. For those with a limited budget, this is a great option that also includes the satisfaction of helping others have a positive experience. Financially, our family needs this option to participate in the race, but also we enjoy being part of the "team," the crew, the network of labor that helped make the race a success.

As the boys and I spoke about Miles of Mud on the way home, the four categories we came up with were as follows...

  • Staff - Were the event staff friendly, professional and patient? Were they accommodating of needs for water, food or bathroom breaks? Did they make an effort to help us volunteer together? At registration, were they warm, welcoming and organized?
  • Logistics -  Did the event seem organized and well thought-out? Were sufficient materials brought to meet the attendance demand? How well were staff supplied with materials to perform their tasks (shirts, medals, radios, water, etc.)? 
  • Obstacles - Were they well-constructed? Did they offer an athletic challenge? Did they need explanation or were they self-explanatory? Was there a penalty for failing the obstacle? Was it also safe while being difficult?
  • Trail - Was the course designed for a decent trail run? Did the outside venue (ranch, field, stadium, etc.) allow for the run itself to be part of the challenge with topographic variety (hills, canyons and plains)? 
For each of these categories we rated it on a scale of 1 to 5; with 1 being completely lame and inadequate, and 5 being excellent with no improvements imaginable. Spartan Race has always scored so high on all of these levels that - in all honesty - we're likely just comparing these other OCR organizers to that standard. Nevertheless,  it's a place to start. This year we've experienced three other OCRs besides Spartan Race: Trojan Race Series, Gladiator Rock'n Run and today Miles of Mud. We should have applied this eval to the first two while they were still fresh in our minds, but I offer our assessment of the third below.

Our evaluation of Miles of Mud today scores as...
  • Staff (5/5 points) - We found the event staff very friendly, warm and accommodating. I had even received a personal phone call from them two days before confirming that I'd received all the volunteer news and directions. Once at the event site, they were welcoming and fully willing to find volunteer assignments where the boys and I could be in close proximity to each other. We were thanked regularly for our volunteer time with "You're the ones that make this all happen." When it came time for us to run the course (following our volunteer shift), even the announcer made a big deal of us starting out on our own since we were - quite literally - the last racers on the course. As we ran the course, the head staff person met us at strategic places (driving the four-wheeler) to explain obstacles and ensure we had adequate water. We found the entire staff patient with us as we completed the course, being the last racers to return back to the festival area.
  • Logistics (2/5 points) - While I'm loathe to focusing on the negative, an honest assessment is needed. Too few t-shirts were ordered to supply volunteers with appropriate sizes and, because they were so sparse, it was requested we turn ours in when the shift was over. Too few finisher shirts were ordered to supply racers with the requested size. For such a hot day, little to no shade was offered. No canopy or covered structure existed with seats or benches for people to escape the sun. No radios were supplied volunteers, or other communication method, in case of emergency over an injured racer. Six port-o-potties were present at the site, but no changing tent. While they did make accommodation for us to race after the volunteer shift, it was not part of a "volunteer's heat." The announcer was quite surprised that three more racers were leaving the starting line. We received no bib numbers, timing chips or means of tracking the time we took on the course. Half way through the course, our motivation to finish quickly was so that all the remaining finisher medals wouldn't be packed away and the festival area broken down when we got back.
  • Obstacles (3/5 points) - Though the event is called "Miles of Mud," approximately 20' of mud still existed when we went through the course. Very little mud had been built into the course, and the majority of what had been prepared was all dry when we went through. No process was established for keeping it wet in case of a final "heat" of volunteers (speaks also to logistics). No water obstacles were built into the course, which for such a hot day would have brought welcome relief. Some obstacles did not function properly, such as the hoist wherein the rope was passed through a top carabiner instead of a pulley, obstructing the rope's movement for lifting the weight. Some of the obstacles were well-designed however, such as the tire drag, the cargo nets and 4, 6 and 8' walls. While the wires over the low crawls were sagging, showing haphazard assembly, the climbing ropes were secured well and high enough to offer timely challenges twice on the course. For obstacles we found a middle score fair.
  • Trail (5/5 points) - Whether by virtue of the ranch it was held at or the selection of the trail for the course, the running path was excellent. Snaking through the trees and brush, it offered a variety array of hills and canyons, climbs and descents. After running up a hill, which excited the heart rate and burned the legs, we would descend down into a creek bed with zigs and zags that made each turn a thrilling discovery. As trail runs go, a better track could not have been mapped out. In many cases, an OCR might be held in a field or venue that does not offer a trail run such as that. This one was outstanding and challenging in all the right ways. 
Overall this gives Miles of Mud 15/20 points from our perspective, or 75%...a solid "C" grade. Admittedly, some of the lower scores we encountered may have been because of our experience as volunteers (e.g. late race start). Nevertheless, from our perspective it still was a fun day and we're glad we went. The boys thanked me for the taking them and we would have done it again.