Longest run – 10 miles
Total miles – 16.5
Knee pain (out of 10) – 1.
Days until marathon – 17
It is amazing to be running again. Like so often in life it is only when something is taken away that we realise its true value. I know am not the first long-distance runner to have to confront injury but the experience of working through it has been profound.
It is the second time this year that circumstances (to a large extent of my own making) have brought me to a place of having to confront my limitations. In both cases I am retrospectively grateful for the experiences that were, at the time, uncomfortable, painful and humiliating. Is that no so often the case though? The heart-attack victim who, once recovered declares that ‘it was the best thing that ever happened to him’ because it brought an intense focus to a life that had become bland and humdrum. The disabled athlete who can say they are ‘glad’ to have their disability because it has made them the person they are.
Christian ministry can however be an environment that can have the opposite affect. We spend much of our time in leading others, speaking publicly to others, offering care, support and advise to others. People look to ministers for guidance, encouragement, direction, inspiration, insight, wisdom. They expect much and as ministers we are tempted to believe that we can deliver. The ego within us begins to believe that perhaps we can fulfil all these needs and expectations. We collude with those who would adulate us and put us on a pedestal. We work hard, and then harder, to maintain what has become a way of being, a persona and role that we find increasingly hard to slip out of the skin off. We have become gods to those around us and we rather like it. We have become gods to ourselves and started occupying the throne that we started out pointing others to. But this is unsustainable. There is only one God in the universe, and its not us. Yet there are too many stories of ministers who have hit the buffers. They have got the equivalent of an injury and cannot carry on. Sometimes these injuries can be healed, sometimes they spell the sad end of a ministry.
The only way to avoid hitting the buffers is what the desert fathers called askesis. It is what runners call a training programme, at least a realistic one that is not just about achieving a goal, but also about avoiding injury. Such a training programme must build in a humble respect for the power of the ego to drive us faster and further than our bodies are ready for. Askesis is that hidden discipline, that private regime, that makes the goal possible. It is not the thing itself, but the foundation for it.
We need similar training programmes in the realm of Christian ministry. We need more wise spiritual guides, ministerial physios of the soul, who can help us in our ego-focussed, programme-driven, consumer-church world to develop appropriate means of attending to our souls in realistic awareness of the temptations that ministry and the self place on them. We need far less attention and noise about growth, models, techniques and gimmicks and more attention on the spirituality required to be the sort of person people do not adulate, but emulate. We need less energy spent on what we do and more on who we are, and who we are becoming. Ministry is a marathon not a sprint.