It's been a rough winter. You may have figured that out by the fact that I haven't posted in almost a month....and I apologize for that. Let me tell you a little about what has happened....and what I think it has to do with Lent.
On Dec. 28, while out for our anniversary dinner with my wife, I began to cough. I thought to myself, "this can't be the flu, I had a flu shot this year." But, like many folks this year, I discovered that my flu shot didn't quite give me the protection it was meant to. The flu hit hard. It was followed by a major bout with bronchitis which lasted for weeks and was, in some ways, worse than the flu. Following that I had a difficult case of tonsillitus. It was as if all the germs that I've held at bay (I'm usually pretty healthy) got together and said, "Ah ha! he's been sick. We'll all attack at once while his immune system is down."
This would have been difficult enough except for the fact that in January I turned 60. Sixty. Thirty-eight years ago my mother turned sixty, was diagnosed with cancer, and died before her next birthday. You can imagine that being sick and turning the age that she was when she died was a bit of a wake-up call to my own mortality.....sort of a private version of "remember thou art dust; from dust you came and to dust you will return."
Being reminded of my mortality....my humanness....my age.....I did what I've always done when I need to buck myself up in the face of such matters.....I went to the gym. I know, I know (you can see it coming-I didn't). It was dismal. It felt like I was starting over....which at one level, I was.
On top of this, I decided that I was going to reach into my "bucket list" and pull up something to challenge me on this 60th year.......I was/am going to run a marathon. Those of you who know me well.....we'll wait til you quit laughing before we go on........know that I am not a runner. I've always stayed in shape, but running has never been something I particularly enjoyed. Then why do it? The closest thing to an answer I can come up with is 'because I will never be able to fight for a world title at my age; and I can't go climb some major moutain peak....but I can run a marathon if I put my mind to it.'
The real reason is that I said to myself, "my mother turned 60 and died; I'm going to turn 60 and run a marathon." I want to do something that affirms that I am alive and capable of some new challenge.
What's this got to do with Lent? Why isn't this just some bit of weirdness brought on by getting old and having a mother who died young (okay, I'll admit that's there as well).
When I talked to my friends who do run-one of whom does the ultra-marathon thing-they told me three things: 1) go find a program that starts you from 'can't run' and takes you to 'finished marathon'; 2) tell people you're going to do this and pick a marathon to sign up for; and 3) remember that your goal is to finish....nothing else.
I went and found a program. It has me starting out with a 30 minute run and....listen carefully....says that the goal of this time is to teach the muscles how to run, to burn into them the muscle memory of running. Whatever Lenten discipline we've taken on, the early part of that discipline is the building of the habit. Burning the memory into soul and psyche so that we miss that discipline when it's not there in the future and that the spiritual 'muscles' learn how to engage in the discipline of prayer, or forgiveness, or acts of compassion and charity.
When we take our ashes and share with others what spiritual discipline we are taking on, we commit ourselves to that effort in a way that is different than if we hug that commitment to us and do not share it with others. Trust me, having shared that I'm going to run a marathon in October with you here and with others will be a motivator for me to do the work to get there (like the run I need to make tonight).
Finally, the goal is to finish. St. Paul said, "I have fought the good fight; I have run the race; I have finished my course." The goal is not sainthood....or to be able to set some record for the marathon....it is to finish.. The goal is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to not let the little failures or slack days defeat us, and to finish.
The old saying that "life is a marathon, not a sprint" is true. Few of us are capable of running the whole way......it's okay to walk sometimes......just finish. Some days we're lazy and don't run like we ought to, or pray like we ought to, or live in charity with our neighbor like we ought to......don't let that become habit.....get up tomorrow and go run....or pray.....or act with compassion. Because the goal is to finish. The goal is to grow. The only thing that will defeat us is to quit.
Prayer becomes habit. Running becomes habit. Compassion becomes habit. Living til we die becomes habit. Sometimes all it takes to get us started is the reminder that all we have is today...then to dust we will return....to give us the boot in the rear we need to say, "I will do this....one step, one day at a time."
Hope your Lenten experience is a good one.