Running As Prayer: Eyes on the Prize

With a new year, I’m aspiring to a new goal–complete a marathon. I was able to complete my first half-marathon last October and it was one of the best experiences in my adult life. About a month after recovery running, I set my sights on the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon. Barring major injury (no small matter!), I’ll toe the starting line on Sunday, April 2nd. By the grace of God, I hope to reach the finish line–the 50 yard line at Neyland Stadium.

In years past I’ve written on my blog and preached about the close connection between running and prayer. But that was before I began training for a race. I didn’t know what I didn’t know about running. As I’ve begun running more frequently, I’ve discovered new parallels between the spiritual life and the running life. Both running and prayer require a patient process of learning and unlearning.

But running isn’t the only physical action that prompts prayer. Meditating on any physical action can become a means of prayer. Matthew Crawford has written about the formation of personal character within a craftsman’s workshop or a mechanic’s garage. Robert Farrer Capon has written about the prayerful aspects of cooking and food preparation in his book, The Supper of the Lamb. Handmade pastries can become an occasion for prayer. Any physical activity undertaken with a spirit of watchfulness and meditation can become a means of conversation with God.

Between now and the opening gun of the Covenant Knoxville Marathon, I’ll share a series of posts about how prayer and running intersect. Even if you hate the idea of running, I hope you might follow this series and think more about how physical actions become an occasion for prayer. While I’m writing particularly about my experience as a novice runner, I hope you might find parallels as you read for the habits and hobbies you enjoy.

A disclaimer about these posts: there’s nothing original here. I’m only discovering myself what St. Paul offered by way of athletic metaphors in his pastoral letters. And today I’ll begin meditating on running and prayer from St. Paul’s famous athletic verse, 1 Corinthians 9.24: ‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.’

Eyes on the Prize

First things first–I’m running to obtain a prize, but it ain’t winning the Knoxville Marathon. I’ve seen real, competitive runners and I’m not one. That has been abundantly affirmed in my speed workouts. I’ve begun incorporating sprint workouts on Thursday to increase speed. When my 400 meter sprint speed compares to the marathon pace of some runners who will run the Knoxville Marathon, then no, I’m not running to obtain the prize of winning the whole race.

I’m running to obtain a different prize–the satisfaction of finishing the race itself. As I said before I ran my first half-marathon, as long as I finish I’m promised a personal record (PR in running lingo). The same holds true for my first marathon race. If I finish the race, I’ll get a PR.

But the prize of finishing the race lies far in the distance. It will be a distant view from the starting line to the finish line on April 2, but the prize lies even further. It’s more distant than 26.2 miles; it’s a far off vision that is difficult to perceive in January. I have nine more weeks of training before race day. Every workout, rest day, stretching routine and nutrition plan finds its purpose from the end goal–the prize of finishing the race. That’s where my eyes must be fixed every day of my training plan.

Remember the End and Train Accordingly

In the spiritual life, pilgrims are trained to ‘lift up their eyes.’ An entire section of the Psalms–the psalms of ascent–were composed as traveling songs as Israel journeyed to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the destination, the goal of their journey.

For Christians, our sojourn in faith has a destination–the New Jerusalem. How often do I remember that goal? How often do I consciously lift up the eyes of my heart to remember God’s new creation and order my life accordingly? The ultimate end of this world and the beginning of eternity aren’t thoughts that enter my consciousness every ordinary Tuesday. But maybe they should. Without an end, a telos, a goal, or a prize, we wander aimlessly from event to event with no sense of purpose. And where there is no purpose, there is no lasting joy.

Just as a finish line determines a training plan, so the life of prayer takes shape around a goal. And the goal of prayer is deep communion with God. A runner’s training plan is the athlete’s version of the Christian’s rule of life. A rule of life is an ordered way of life in which spiritual disciplines such as prayer, solitude, service, and fasting help a person grow more in Christlikeness. Daily habits–which are often mundane–train your heart, soul, mind, and hands to ‘put on Christ.’

The Psalms, often called ‘the prayerbook of the Bible,’ speak about ordering life for the sake of acquiring wisdom. ‘So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom’ (Psalm 90.12). And Ecclesiastes 3.11 says that ‘God has put eternity into man’s heart.’ Eternal life with God and his saints–this is the prize upon which we fix our eyes. This is the prize for which we train in the life of prayer.

As with running, there’s much more to learn in prayer than simply knowing your goal. But remembering your end and fixing your eyes on the prize is the only way to make a good beginning.