Believe and Obey

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The Breath of God

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Really, Peaking at 15

Well, I would not say that I peaked as a human being at 15.  I am still waiting for that to happen!  I will lay claim to reaching an athletic peak at the ripe age of 15.  That may be somewhat dispiriting, but there it is.  I don’t look on it as a total failure.  I mean since the age of 15 I have not worked at it very hard.

In any event, one cannot know for sure when one reached a peak at any activity until you have some distance.  In fact, you really cannot tell a peak for certain until it’s all over.  But then you’re dead and it doesn’t matter anymore.  At that point, if anyone cares to tally it up, it will be those you left behind.  That said, I am fairly certain of pinpointing my athletic peak, since being past the age of 60 I am not likely to scale even the modest athletic heights I did in my younger days.

I know this all sounds like the start of what Bruce Springsteen called boring old stories from his iconic Glory Days song.  Rest easy, it is not about that.  It is about looking back and realizing that even from the beginning I felt God at my back.  Let me explain.

A Run for the Ages

It was the summer of 1978, and I was in summer training for the cross-country season fast approaching.  Our coach, a rather crazy ass Jesuit would take some of the team out in the evenings two or three times a week.  He would drive us to an unpaved county road that was miles and miles of up and down terrain.  It was an excellent training ground for aspiring runners.  Of course, we were supposed to run on our own on all the days we were not training as a team.  Of course, I did no such thing.  Instead, I would “rest” up on the days in between the coach orchestrated evening runs and try to maximize the benefit of each of these country road sessions.

It was working well enough for me, as I was in good shape and feeling positive about the upcoming season.  It was now August, and I was preparing to go on vacation with my dad.  It was a raft trip down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon.  It would turn out to be the best vacation of my youth, but that is a story for another essay.  The point is, I had one more training run before the vacation, and then formal practices would start.

So, I rested for a couple of days, and had fresh legs.  As it turned out the day of the run was one of those fall preview days in an otherwise hot and humid Omaha summer.  As I stepped out on the porch to grab the morning paper, I could feel the freshness of the air.  I knew that it was all coming together for this run.  I wanted to finish the training season with a bang, and nature was cooperating.

Our crazy Jesuit coach picked us up and drove us out to the country road.  Dutch Hall Road north of Omaha.  That night we were running 9 miles, rather than the usual ten.  I am not sure why he picked that distance but so be it.  I was ready.  Coach informed us that the record for 9 miles on that road was somewhere around 54 minutes.  He was anal that way, having records for multiple distances on various roads.  So, I took it as a challenge to go for the record.

The run was everything I hoped it would be and a great deal more.  We took off with a fast pace and it only got faster.  I honestly do not remember much about the run, except for the feelings of pure exhilaration.  The miles floated by; I mean I was literally floating over the gravel road.  It was a pure runner’s high.  I had never experienced anything like it before or since.  Everything came together in that run; my physical ability, the weather, my drive to accomplish something, all of it converged into the greatest run of my life.  I did, in fact, beat the 9-mile record for Dutch Hall Road.  My only regret is that Coach did not urge me on to go for the ten-mile record, because I could have run another 5 miles at that pace.  I could look back and be sad that my athletic peak occurred at age 15, but then how could I be sad at such an intense experience as this.

Why Any of This is Important

The point of telling this tale is that not long after I had this intense experience, I realized it was not just me on that road.  The way I began framing this experience is that during the high of this run with my muscles coordinating my movement, my heart racing and my body flooded with adrenaline, I could feel at my back the breath of God.  In that moment I could see before me, not only my own potential, but the potential for all humanity.  A potential more sublime and uplifting than any I had thought possible.  That is a hell of a mountaintop for a 15-year-old to be placed upon.  It was nothing short of a pure gift from God.

The tragic thing about this is that as my faith unraveled due to the burden of thinking I had to earn God’s love, and knowing full well that I could not, I forgot and/or suppressed this mountaintop experience.  Imagine that, throwing away something so precious as that intense, unfathomable gift; sinful to say the least.  It was only after I came back to the faith that I rediscovered this gift and contemplated what it meant.  I also came to realize that I had faith within me all along.

A more mature faithful me now understands that these mountaintop experiences are amazing gifts from God.  They are rare, precious and to be kept close to your heart.  Yet, we do not get to live on the mountaintop any more than Peter got to stay on the mountain after Jesus was transfigured.  These experiences, these gifts from God are to be seen as feeding us, nourishing us, strengthening us for the life we must live in the valley (or street, in todays parlance).  They give us glimpses of the divine, and feed our souls for the responses we give to the gifts of God’s grace upon grace.  They empower our ability to be the hands and feet, eyes, and ears of our Lord here on earth.  Also, they are the gifts that keep on giving.  I need only close my eyes and tap my memory to be taken back to that moment when I glided over 9-miles of gravel road all while feeling the breath of God.  Then I can remember what we as humans are capable of.  That will get you past the miasma of the 5 O’clock news every time.

I have had other joyful mountaintop experiences since then, none nearly as intense.  I could be sad that this greatest of all mountaintop moments occurred so long ago, but instead I choose to be grateful it ever happened at all.  My deepest prayer for you is that you may have such moments in your life, or if you already have, that you cherish them as the grace filled gifts, they in fact are.  Use these moments to fuel your response to the faith God has placed within you.  These moments just cement our belief and fuel our obedience.

Praise Be to God

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