Sunday, January 25, 2015

Things I have learnt about life from running

Last year I joined ParkRun, as a stimulus and encouragement for my running (ok, maybe running is being a bit optimistic .... It's a more like slow jogging staggered between bouts of walking, all while gasping for breath... I am not built for running!)

This past week was reminded about a way for dealing with life - something I had noticed previously, but forgotten. I can't keep running for long without a series of small goals - I run from green bin to green bin, or lamp post to lamp post, or to the next tree, or street sign.... I need small goals to help me reach my big ones. The thought of running 5 kms is overwhelming, and I would give up before I even began if that was all I focussed on. (That's why I can't run in a treadmill - no goal points to aim for.)

So why is it that when it comes to things of faith, I do not employ the same principle? I want to go from zero to full speed, overnight, yet I know that's not realistic. Instead, I need to work on small steps,small  goals - hearing God once a day, rather than every minute, reading the Bible for10 mins rather than 3 hours. Of course, I have hear this before, and knew it before, but it was good to be reminded of this while running yesterday.

The second thing I was reminded of is that, when I run, the real competition is me. I can't compare myself to anyone else. That is just demoralizing, because almost everyone else is better than me, or seems to make faster progress. Rather, as long as I am improving against my own performance, I am doing well. Ditto for my faith. I can't compare the gifts I have, or experiences, with others'. This is not a race to see who can get to heaven first, or who seems to be the most holy, or whatever... This is a relationship in which I am he unique element, so of course my relationship with God, my gifts, my experiences, my faith journey is going to be different. And I have to remember that different is not wrong. Just because I am slower to learn a lesson, or reach a milestone, does not make me inferior.

Having said that, running (certainly at ParkRun) is a social thing. Families come, with dogs. I was reminded that in order to make the event enjoyable for everyone, everyone takes an interest in the welfare of the others who are present. Everyone looks out for the kids, and pet owners behave responsibly. The same is true of life in a faith community - we look out for each other. We behave (mostly) responsibly.

And finally, I was reminded of Paul's analogy - that our lives are a race of endurance, not speed. The goal is to finish well, to win the prize. It is to pace ourselves, and run with determination, up the hills, down the valleys, along the endless flats, to never give il and never give in, until we reach the finish line. Yes, we may trip and fall over tree roots, or broken paving, or on others' feet (if we're. It careful), but that's not the end... We get up, brush ourselves off, and start running again. Often in life, our faith takes a knock, and we may be tempted to think it's tickets for us, that we've blown it too badly, but all we need is to pick ourselves up, or allow God to pick us up, put our feet back in the path, and try again. In the words of Dory: "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming..."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Things I have learnt from my tree

For a while I've been thinking about a photo blog that my sister-in-law did - a photo a day of her suburb. I've toyed with the idea, because I'm fascinated with how one can be forced to see one's surroundings in a different light, which reveals surprises one would otherwise have missed. But I'm not sure that I could get a new photo every day from my environment... So instead I have been thinking about what else I could do that could help me to see the world differently.

Over the holidays I've started working on a series of blog posts that I'm entitling: what I have learnt from.... Originally, it was just going to be about what I've learnt about life and God from my dogs (and wow! There's a lot to learn! In fact, I think someone did write a book about just that - Lessons from a sheep dog, I seem to recall it was entitled), but then I realized that I've been learning about stuff from all sorts of things. Pondering that led me to decide to write this series, because I'm a teacher and I love teaching others the truths I have learnt, whether about DNA or matters of the heart.

This first post is not the first one I drafted, but it feels appropriate for today. Not sure why, but it is. So if you want to read the ones about my dogs, you'll have to come back another day.

This is the tree in my garden. When I first saw it, I hated it instantly, vehemently. Why? Because it is a Syringa. Syringas are horrid trees for a variety of reasons - they drop millions of mountains ofwhite blossoms  everywhere; they produce poisonous berries; they drop those berries on the lawn till it looks like a pebble-covered beach; because their pollen makes me sneeze. I was determined to chop it down as soon as possible. 

Twelve years later it is still here, and I have moved from hatred through tolerance and acceptance, to appreciation. (I'm not quite at the love stage yet, but I'm sure I will get there in time.) How was that possible? While staring at it one day, through my window, I realised that this tree didn't ask to be a Syringa. It just is one. It didn't ask to be planted in my garden; someone else made that choice, because they liked it. This tree doesn't choose to produce poisonous berries or drop its blossoms everywhere - it does that as a function of the type of tree it is (which it didn't choose for itself).

As I pondered those facts, I suddenly realized I was willing to give the tree the benefit of the doubt. Weird, yeah, I know. I started to see the things I now appreciate about it - it is a beautiful shade tree; it has lovely strong and spreading boughs - suitable for hanging multiple swings and things from and building a tree house (which is currently still just a dream in my head); its flowers are actually beautiful (and numerous); it is a lovely safe environment for Wit Ogies and other birds to hide in as they flit from tree to tree looking for food; the leaves make a beautiful sound as they rustle together in the breeze.

As I pondered these things I appreciated, I realized that in life, it is the same. We hate or dislike others because of what they are, forgetting that (often) they did not choose to be born into that family, or to be a certain race, or to be rich, or poor, or from a certain nation, or of a particular spirituality, or to think in a particular way. Often, all these things are a feature of our birth - whether genetics or the environment in which we are raised, or a combination of both. Either way, we cannot choose our genetics or our childhood environment. These two things make us what we are, fundamentally. (Of course, we can choose to change, but that requires a certain amount of reflection, a lot of hard work and deep motivation, which many people lack.)

In this extraordinary nation of ours, we celebrate diversity in public, but in private we are frequently much more conservative and exclusive. We love those who are like us and despise those who are different - different gender expressions, or ages, or social-economic status, or education level, or family status, or races, or nationalities, or different mother-tongue speakers, or body shapes, or thought processes, or priorities, or whatever - or we despise ourselves and wish fervently we could be like someone else instead.

How do we begin to bridge the divide? How do we begin to celebrate our diversity in truth, and. It just in name? Looking at my tree, I don't think the answer is in trying to find our commonality, nor to focus on our diversity. Focussing on our commonality denies the value that our differences bring, leads to exclusivity and make us more likely to hide who we truly are from each other. Focussing on our differences and celebrating them because they are different denies our common humanity and leads to pride. I think a third way is a better way.

When pondering my tree I did not look for commonality - my shared DNA (we share a lot more genes than you would think!), or that I am a strong woman (metaphorically) and it has strong branches, or that I shelter my children the way it shelters the birds... - nor did I look for our differences - to celebrate that it is larger than I, or greener than I, or a tree instead of a human. Instead, I looked to see what value it brings to my garden. That value is based on what the tree is - both a tree, and specifically a Syringa. By focusing on the intrinsic value it brings, I learnt to appreciate it. 

I love lying in the shade of my tree. I love seeing the birds resting in its boughs and sheltering in its leaves. I love to see the beautiful flowers it produces. I love to see my children playing on the swings we hung from it. I love the fact that when I drive home along a particular route I can see my tree before anything else - it marks the spot that is my home. This is the value this tree brings, not because it is the same as me, or different to me, but because it is a Syringa tree in my garden.

If I can see people in this third way, by putting them at the centre instead of how they relate to me (which is putting myself at the centre), for the value they bring because of who they are, and not for their similarities to me, or differences, then I think there is hope for me, and for my environment, and for my city. If I can, then I think I can avoid both pride ("I am better than them") and despair ("they are so much better than me/ I am worthless"); I think I could then overcome my fear of the other, and walk in true freedom with the other.

But how is this possible? Well, I'm not sure it is. I am so given to comparisons and snap judgements, albeit secretly in my head and heart, that on my own I don't think I can truly change my mind-set on this. Plus, despite my best efforts, I still have so many stereotypes rolling around inside my head, many of which I'm not even conscious of! But fortunately, I'm not on my own. Fortunately, I have a Helper. Even with His help, I know it will be tough, but nothing worth having comes easily or without a price tag. Still though, this will be something I will need to choose each day, every day - to allow the Spirit to open my eyes to the value of others, not because of how they relate to me, but because of who they intrinsically are.

Thanks be to God for my Syringa tree!