Monday, August 30, 2010

Run the Good Race

Since Monday is our day for non-work activities, I'll post a bit about why I spend most of my free time running through the woods.

A few months ago, I posted about an intended barefoot run of the Georgia section of the Appalachian trail. Due to several factors, the main one being reality, I had to postpone the adventure.

I am still confident that this run will happen, but I need to get a little more experience under my feet before I make the 80-mile run from Springer Mountain to the border of South Carolina.

In the meantime, I am training for two big runs in October. My inaugural trail race will be the StumpJump 50k in early October, followed by the North Face Endurance Challenge Half Marathon in mid-month.

Why spend the time buffeting my body out on my lonesome?

It's something like this: I do not believe that good character is something that just happens.

Virtues like patience, endurance, peace, and hope are woven into our souls as we get out and live. Out on the trail, I face fatigue, despair, and humiliation. They come in inevitable waves, and as I run, they play out a drama that teaches me to wait patiently through the slumps, to control my thoughts, and to rally my resources for a push up that steep hill or through those last miles.

I get to enjoy the rewards of discipline. After trudging up rocky hills for over an hour the other day, I emerged from the woods to find myself on the edge of a mountain overlooking a massive, foggy spread of forest.

There are also intrinsic rewards. I find myself relaxed and energized at the end of climbs that used to kill me. I can trace my progress as I increase distance and train for speed. I find my energy level more consistent and my moods brighter, even when I'm not running.

A lot of people talk about the importance of prayer as a spiritual discipline. But you don't have to be locked up in your prayer closet to pray. I feel like running strips me of my pretenses, puts me at the edge of my resources, and drives my emotions to a place where I can honestly commune with my creator.

Finally, here's a picture of me out in Utah, back when I was just getting started with this trail running stuff. It says a lot more than words could about why I run:

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Flesh and Spirit (Pt 6 - Epilogue)

Weeks have passed since I prayed with Jennifer's family.

That night, I felt a wonder at the narrative, the way it all fit together, the clarity of direction that brought us through it. Today, I sit in front of my computer, waiting for Jennifer and about 30 other kids to flood in with their homework.

The family whose house was haunted is moving apartments, and did not ask for any follow-up prayer or visits. The relationship with Jennifer's family keeps going, with exchanges of kindness and appreciation traveling back and forth. While the short story fit together in its own way, the ends still hang around, frayed and scattered in their own spaces.

So the questions I ask a week out are these: Did I follow this thing through? Should I have pushed harder for a conclusion? Did the story only seem orchestrated in a closed theatre?

So God and the Devil showed their faces for a week, and we did what we thought we had to do, and things went quiet again.

We write as far as we can, then we move on to the rest of the story, our flesh stumbling forward where the spirit leads, if and when it does.

The story ends this moment, with a knock on the door which I must answer, a thirsty kid asking for water. I leave the keyboard to answer him, knowing that I am at the end of what I can tell anyway.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Flashback: School Supply Handout

I remember being in school. I was not a good student. But the worst thing was showing up to school without paper to take notes on, without a pencil to write with, without an eraser to clean up my mistakes.

For me, it was a case of irresponsibility. But for many kids in our neighborhood, having proper school supplies is a question of finances. We wanted to make sure that any kid in our neighborhood had a backpack and basic equipment to get through the first weeks of school.

Thanks to some help from Mount Zion Baptist Church, we were able to collect enough supplies and backpacks to help over 60 kids get ready for the school year!

We let families in to register for the afterschool program and pick up backpacks one by one:

As they came through, we saw the pile of backpacks shrink:

Lizbeth, our upstairs neighbor, was especially happy to be returning to school in style!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Student Leaders

One of the main shifts in focus this year at the afterschool program is developing student leaders. We have picked out a group of kids, developed strong relationships with them, and given them shared responsibility for homework help, lessons, mealtime, and clean-up.

Last year, we would have scrambled to do everything for the kids. This year, we're mobilizing and empowering them to help each other.

So far, it has helped to unify the kids, create a rewarding environment, and prevented us from going crazy on days like today, where we had over 30 kids in our program.

This year's group of student leaders is pictured below:

Flesh and Spirit (Pt 5)

Jennifer's mom loves her kids in the way that many single moms do, with an exhausted, worried kind of love. She has a new boyfriend named Jesus. He's a tall latino with a crew cut, muscled and tattooed.

Jesus' presence in the room is the first surprise. He makes it a little tricky to talk about his namesake, the Son of God, without snickering.

The second and third surprises are the two young children from the photo in question. The fourth through sixth are the teenaged friends of the family. I have seen them before, but I can't remember their names.

I walk into the living room, and they are all there, looking a little out of sorts. I can't tell if it is the strangeness of this gathering or the photo.

Jennifer's mom shuts off the TV and tells everyone to listen to me. I survey the room and laugh out loud that anyone should listen to me. We swap names, and I ask how everyone is feeling about the photo.

Those who are scared say so, those who are skeptical say so a little defensively. I nod, and summarize what I think about the photo, that I'm really not sure what I'm seeing, but that I understand their fear, and that I believe it's possible that something supernatural caused it.

I relay a story from my past (see pt 1), and I offer them two pieces of advice:

1. Spiritists live on our fear. Do not waste your money on them. You'll come out broke and just as afraid. And they substitute hocus-pocus for real power.
2. There is real power over fear, and it comes from knowing Jesus (not this Jesus, I joke, pointing to the boyfriend, although I'm sure he's a good guy to know). Because when you know Jesus, when you turn to Him, His power moves into your heart.

We talk more, back and forth, and I notice that these teenagers are really listening, leaning forward, joking with me, asking questions, nodding.

I tell them that if they want, I can pray for them right now, and that if they ask, I can bring back a pastor and some church leaders to pray over them as well.

Melvin, Jennifer's younger brother, shouts, I'm okay with praying! Everyone close your eyes and bow your heads!

- No one has to close their eyes or anything, I laugh, I'm just going to ask God to be with you.

Still, eyes close and heads bow. Together, we pray for help.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Flesh and Spirit (Pt 4)

Crazy stuff happens in cameras, I tell Jennifer before she leaves the car, I'm not saying that there's not something weird going on. I don't know where that picture came from, but the worst thing we can do right now is be afraid.

She nods. She takes her bag and her new cd, and she leaves the car.

Ruthie studies the picture on her cell phone as we complete the short drive from Jennifer's home to our own. We see what Jennifer is talking about, but it's blocky, pixillated, small.

I dunno, I tell Ruthie, It doesn't look like anything to me, but I get a feeling.

Yeah, she says.

No one is really giving me anything to run with right now. I think. I pray for some sense of what is going on, and why this little photo seems so significant to all of us.

I call my friend David Park, and he's on his way to a speaking engagement. I tell David something like the following, except much longer: There's a crazy picture coming out of a house where crazy stuff happens, and everyone in Jennifer's family is scared, and I don't know what to think about the photo, but the fear is a bad thing. Also, I have a feeling that this is a good time to talk to them about Jesus.

I tell David I'd appreciate his presence when I visit the family, and he agrees, but tells me he can't be here until tomorrow because of this speaking thing.

I hang up, and a few minutes later, I get an overwhelming impulse, like a command, to talk to them before they go to bed.

I'm in a world beyond my strategies here, so I submit to the impulse.

When Ruthie and I make it back to Jennifer's at ten at night, I see why someone needed to be here now with some good news.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

(Intermission) Kids on Peace

This year at the afterschool program, we are orienting our craft and teaching time around a "Word of the Week." This week's word was "peace."

We gave the kids this quote from Robert Fulghum:

Then we asked the kids to write down one way that they could make, do, be, or give away peace. Here are some of their answers:

Tito: I do peace when I help other people

Kevin: I share my school supplie with my frifened in school!

Gabriela: Peace is kind of like loving yourself. You can't wish to love yourself, you have to do it for yourself.

Maritza: Peace Be in you. god prtekst you and other peopole But the mean peaple He prteks the holl world but down. Peaple that go to church are nice more in sunday.

Yesenia: Peace is what I give away and what I give away is kindness. And some of my love of course NOT all of it. Thats peace!

Flesh and Spirit (Pt 3)

This is what it feels like to be in ministry most of the time: Running around from here to there, taking care of this or that, hoping that God will intervene at some point. When He does, I have no idea what to do.

Jennifer sits in the back seat, Ruthie and I in the front.

An hour ago, we registered over 60 kids for our afterschool program and gave out over 30 backpacks. Now we have a window of time to get Jennifer to Best Buy and help her pick out a CD for her fourteenth birthday before figuring out how to get backpacks and school supplies for the thirtysomething kids who didn't get any.

- Ruthie, my mom wants to know if she can send you something, Jennifer says.

- Send what? asks Ruthie.

- It's cause there's this picture, and it's so scary of Leslie. I couldn't sleep last night, and my mom was crying.

As Jennifer tells it, the story behind the picture is this: Jennifer's mom has a friend who lives nearby, and the kids play together while the moms hang out. Jennifer's younger sister, Leslie, has a white hoody which she wears whenever she can, even in the heat of July in Georgia. So Leslie goes with her mom to their friend's house, plays with the two younger kids, and goes home.

The next day, a picture shows up on the friend's cell phone. In the picture, the friend's two youngest kids are walking in the foreground, and a figure wearing Leslie's hoody sits in the center on the bed. But where Leslie's face should be, a pale, grotesque, masculine face stares straight at the camera.

- Well who took the photo? I ask.

- No one remembers it, Jennifer says.

- And you're sure it's Leslie? She was there on that day?

- Yeah.

- Did they have a mask or something?

- No, but that house is haunted, Jennifer says, there's a ghost that throws stuff and makes noises.

I tell Jennifer to send us the picture. I'm a bit of a cynic about spiritual manifestations, and I still wonder if my experiences in the Philippines were just vivid products of my sleeping mind.

Still, I feel familiar chills moving up my spine and crawling into my skull.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Afterschool Program Re-opens!

Flesh and Spirit (Pt 2)

There are the days when I can only believe in glimpses, and there are days when I can't seem to believe at all.

But there are words, with which I spend a great deal of time, because they build a story. If you ask me why the idea of God will not leave me alone, and why I give myself to the teachings of Jesus, I will respond that The Story is one that points to Him.

How it all adds up and fits together is a question I can't answer. The math is beyond me.

I find it absurd that a guy who can barely scrape together enough belief to keep living is here, in an international neighborhood easily overlooked by the Bible Belt that surrounds it, with the charge of living and speaking the Love of Christ.

But I am willing, and that seems to be enough for now.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Flesh and Spirit (Pt 1)

I sat behind the driver, on the passenger side. Outside the jeepney, vague yellow lights advertised a vacant city.

The vehicle looked like any other jeepney populating Manila's streets. Vivid patterns adorned the ceiling. Two cushioned benches ran along the sheet metal siding, from front to back.

He did not turn to face me. I only saw the back of his head, his hair black and shiny, typical of filipino men.

- I go to Faith Academy, I told him.

The small missionary boarding school felt as if it was around us in the dark, somewhere undefined behind the electric lamps.

Something entered the dream. I felt it lock me in.

The driver turned to me, his face pale, grey, hollow. I know your school, he said, as something dark worked its way around under his skin, like blood, rushing, cascading from top to bottom.

- We have several students there. Our blood runs in their veins, he said.

I could not breathe. I twisted, turned. His glare was gripping. It was all around me. It was the jeepney, the night, the yellow lights. He went on, but his words were deep, indistinct, a fierce growl, and I reached for the name of Jesus. I tried to call it out, but I had no breath. A rasp.

Jesus, I said from the bed. I was awake before The Name left my lungs. I was eighteen, sleeping in a bunk bed below Jon, across from Brendon. Faith Academy and all of its other dorms were asleep, except me and God and the Devil and only they knew what else.

Our dorm stood still atop its hill, and a GE wall fan rattled from side to side as I placed my feet against the cool wood of our floor.