Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Hidden Treasure

Today's entry is a guest post by Joseph Elsakr. Joey is a 2:24 marathoner and studies at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. 

Running is kind of a hidden treasure that isn't very well hidden. 

Everybody knows about it but only a few people truly understand it. And those who do understand it are usually in love with it. They may run 50, 100, or even 150 miles a week. They sacrifice energy, time, hanging out with friends, just relaxing after a long day, and sometimes even work or sleep just to do it. When people hear that somebody runs 10-20 miles a day, they usually think they're crazy. When I hear that, I usually want to be their friend. 

I know why they do what they do. I know how joy and fulfillment can come from cruising on a mid-week 13 miler, totally unplugged and uninhibited, completely free. I know that when running is tough and uncomfortable and you struggle to accomplish something that should be well within your limits, you still end the day with more than you started with. The workouts that drain you are really fuel for your training, your mind, and your life. That is why when I meet someone who knows that I get excited. I know instantly that we share something special, something only a few of us understand, a common love, a hidden treasure. 

Christianity, like running, is also kind of a hidden treasure. Everybody knows about it, few really understand it, and those who do are usually in love. They make sacrifices for it, get excited about it, talk to their friends about it, and are always happy to meet someone else who shares their treasure.

Though the view of running as a hidden treasure may be unique to me, the same view of Christianity is not. Jesus goes through a series of short parables where He gives us an idea of what heaven is like. One of them is as follows: "Again the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."(1) 

I've always thought that this verse sounded a little weird. At base level, I think it makes sense. Jesus is telling us that heaven is valuable, desirable, and should be sought after. But what about this guy in the verse?! He literally sold everything he had just so he could have this field with the treasure in it. Doesn’t that seem a bit excessive?

Maybe it seems excessive because I just don’t understand the treasure, like a non-runner hearing about a guy who runs a ton and loves it—it sounds weird to him or her. But even then, that doesn’t explain it. I love to run, but I would never sacrifice everything for it for a couple of reasons. First, the sacrifice would be too great. There are other things in my life that, collectively at least, are worth a lot more than running. And second, even if, in some strange world, I wouldn’t lose everything or didn’t have anything to lose or something like that, I know I would never be completely satisfied with just running. Without a doubt I love running, it gives me fulfillment and joy that is very real, but I couldn’t live with only that. I’m not sure how to explain this as clearly as I feel it, but I need more.

In the past couple of years I’ve become a pretty big fan of a man named Fr. Meletios Webber. He is an Orthodox priest, former alcoholic, has some very inspirational sermons on youtube and an awesome book (admittedly, I am only one chapter in) (2). He has this theory that the natural state of the human mind is a state of depression. The mind is constantly aware of its mortality and recognizes that everything it experiences is fleeting and will eventually be lost -- relationships, hobbies, Chipotle, everything. So how do people function and not live in a constant state of despair if this is the case? Because the mind is very good at keeping us distracted. Each day, it can find a reason to wake up, something to look forward to, a purpose that keeps us going.

Recently, I feel like I’m becoming more and more aware of this in my own life. Whenever something goes poorly, or something I value is lost, I usually just divert my attention to something that’s going well. Most recently when things weren’t going well, I started leaning more and more on running. 

Training was going great and I was in the best shape of my life. But as any runner knows, nothing is guaranteed. My peak race a couple weeks ago, for unknown reasons, went absolutely terribly. And what I found on the other side was a whole lot of sadness. I had invested so much of myself into something I thought could make me happy but was really fleeting and fragile. Throughout this time, I think God (in large part via Meletios Webber) has been trying to teach me an important lesson: You won’t find true happiness by merely keeping yourself distracted.

This brings me to an important difference between running (or whatever your hidden treasure may be) and Christianity: “Christianity is not a philosophy, not a doctrine, but life.” (3)  While running is certainly a gift that can provide a lot of great things -- most significantly, in my opinion, an idea of what God’s hidden treasure is like -- it can also become a distraction of the type I’ve just mentioned. We cannot completely rely on running or any other earthly treasure. I think deep down we all know that, which is why the story of the guy who bought the field seems bizarre. Maybe it seems bizarre for a reason though. Perhaps Jesus is trying to highlight the idea that heaven is not like any earthly treasure, that it is actually worth giving up everything for.

What is the result of completely relying on God, or investing everything one has into Christianity? Unfortunately, I cannot speak from personal experience here. But from 24 years of listening and reading and watching and learning, I think the result is a feeling of complete fulfillment that all of us are trying to find, even though we are usually looking in the wrong place. If we gave up everything for God, we would find that we end up with more than we ever head. This idea is hinted at John 10:10 (having life more abundantly through Christ) and Matthew 16:25 (He who loses his life for Jesus’s sake will find it)(4). 

So how can we get to the point where we are completely invested in God? I think that is the topic of another post (by a much smarter author), or maybe a book, or perhaps more likely a lifetime of reading, learning, and participating in the life of the Church. But I think recognizing that this is where one wants to go is the first tiny baby step, and it is the step that I’m currently trying to take. 

Thanks for letting me share.

(1) Matt. 13:44 (NKJV)
(2) Webber, Archimandrite Meletios. Bread & Water, Wine & Oil: An Orthodox Christian Experience of God 
(3) Webber, quoting Archimandrite Sophrony
(4)The most striking example of this I’ve seen recently is the guy (and his mom) from this video. This is someone who has truly invested everything in Christ and, as a result, is unshaken by even the most terrible situation. Instead of a great loss leading to a state of depression, it becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the amazing magnitude of God’s love.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Hello, Unexpected, My Old Friend

There is only one kind of shock worse than the totally unexpected: the expected for which one has refused to prepare. 
-Mary Renault, The Charioteer

ZACCARIAS WAS in settled, comfortable place when he was suddenly faced with the unexpected (1).

What do we do when the unexpected storms into our lives? Here are a few things that have helped me.

1. Don’t Over-Think It
I try not to over-think or over-interpret what has happened [wife laughs]. Sometimes this fast-forward thinking is why God brings the unexpected in the first place. We are walking, consumed  in the dark fog in our thoughts: “He said that; she said that; he did that," over and over and we fuel our thoughts and they get worse and worse and worse. Then, “Pop!” the unexpected comes in as, seemingly, the only way to pry us out.

2. Replace Fear with Gratitude
Replace fear and insecurity with confidence and gratitude for all the life experience that God has given me. Sometimes, when the unexpected scares us, the fear is the result of deep insecurities we faced at the beginning of a relationship or a career. This may be a certain type of project at work, one you immediately react to with fear, anxiety and insecurity.

Certain things, strangely, scare us no matter how many times we face them and come through successfully. 

The epistle says “Give thanks in all circumstances”(2). When we fail to thank God in all the million little successes, we fail to acknowledge the growth in our abilities. So, unexpected events, encounters, or challenges are scarier than they should be.

Kevin, surprised by the expected.
3. Was it Really Unexpected?
Also, one might ask herself, "If I really look back on my life, and the way things have been going: Was this event really unexpected? Did I do things to bring the unexpected and unwelcome event into my life, even in a small way? Did I contribute to the slow deterioration of a relationship that is now on the brink? Am I contributing to the slow ruin of something good that I/we had? Is it possible that God is really sending me this warning signal to highlight something that maybe shouldn't be so unexpected?

4. Clinging 
Is it also possible that the unexpected is so troubling because I cling to the story of my life, as I've written it? Every event that does not correspond to that narrative is a source of pain. Jeff Edmonds writes,
This is the disadvantage of memory: it imposes a burden upon you. It makes you draw an arrow. We remember, for example, being young and powerful and we dream of returning to that state. But is this an arrow that is possible to draw? Or is it simply melancholic nostalgia for a past that cannot be recreated. If the past is too powerful, too good, it can make us reject the future and create a melancholic temperament that mourns the loss of that idyllic past (3). 
5. Offer the Anxiety
Another thing we can is to offer our fright to God, to stand before Him, pull the anxiety out from our heart and place it front of Him, saying "Here it is: I am panicking!" See what insight you might receive in that quiet quiet time. Insight can be a very comforting thing. And God can I give us that insight if we stop, slow down and take both feet out from the normal river of stimulation. 

6. Pulled from the Cocoon
Sometimes we are locked in a cocoon of self-centered behavior and self centered looking and God wants to pull us out. Think of the very subtle difference between Zaccarias' and Mary's responses to Gabriel. Because, you know, both of them express a sort of a questioning, an astonishment. But there was a very subtle, and yet key,difference: Mary says “How shall this be?” But, Zaccarias says “How shall I know this?” Mary was focused on the miracle in her life. Zaccarias was focused on the “I.” The big "I" was at the center of his question, the center of his problems, and the center of his thinking.

7. Ever-Weakening Waves
By continually facing us with the unexpected, like waves that seem to keep hitting us hard, eventually God succeeds in teaching us that the idea is to change and strengthen the inside and not worry so much about controlling outside events. As Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”(4) Eventually, if we are wise, we become stronger and stronger and the waves become smaller and weaker, or at least that's how they seem, because we are grounded in God.

(1) I was invited to give a homily on last Sunday's reading from the Coptic Lectionary (Luke 1:1-25). This is the gist.
(2) 1 Thes. 5:18
(3) Drawing the Arrow, Some Reflections on our Historicity
(4) Luke 17:21

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Monsters in Mind

"I have observed many men in the world assailed by anxiety, by worry, by the need to talk...and I have seen them run away from the madness of their bodies.” 
-St. John Climacus (1)

As a kid, I'd  stay up late at night reading murder mystery novels, typically an Agatha Christie my mom had given me for Christmas. As I'd switch off the light, I'd have an irrational discomfort that the killer was lurking outside my room. (Was Jane Wilkinson just around the corner? In the room across from mine?).

Some 25 years later, am I so much different? How often, as I lie in bed, do phantom fears bounce off the inner walls of my chest?

A friend described anticipated conversations with her boss: "I'll hand her the report. She'll make this comment in that tone. I'll say this, then I bet she will say this..." Back, forth, back forth. By the end, she'd find herself, alone in her car, utterly furious at a conversation that she never ended up having.

In my experience, people are far less monstrous in person than in my imagination. Real people are often much more humane and reasonable -- "softer," if you will -- in person than they are in imagined future conversations or exaggerated past interactions. Future events (a confrontation, an unfair criticism, an over-your-head work assignment), if they ever face us at all, are usually much more horrific and intolerable in our imagination than they are in reality.

Runners who regularly experience pre-race insomnia know just what I mean ("I'm racing 26.2 miles in 7 hours!"..."How fast per mile?"... "26, for real?"... "Less than 7 hours now."). The thoughts escalate, then the heart pounds faster. This escalates the thoughts, which spurs on the pounding, which further escalates the thoughts... 

Then, you wake up (if you slept at all), lace up, the gun goes off, you run, you finish. Nothing to it.

If the "monster" events, people and interactions are imagined, who is the real monster? I'd say it's the little, often repetitive, internal voice cooking up future scenarios: 
  • "My 12 year old said this, so she will end up saying that, then doing this, and end up like that as an adult. OMG, OMG, OMG."
  • "I am going to have to figure out [insert: vague, imagined project at work], and I won't know what to do, then so and so will be angry and complain to so and so, and then I will be in trouble. Then I will..."
  • "My husband probably didn't do what I asked. I am going to be so annoyed. Then, he will give me that same excuse. He is going to try and turn it on me by saying that. Ugh!"
In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon, advising a junior demon, writes: 
We want a man hag-ridden by the Future -- haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth -- ready to break the [God's] commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. 
We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present (2).
In an age of texts, emails, messaging, and posting, so much is lost, laundered, twisted and misconstrued, making the following quite relevant "Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full."(3) 

It seems to me that we should never, ever deal with a charged, or potentially charged, situation through such means. If at all possible, I'd not even do it over the phone. Meet the other, face-to-face (yes, eye contact and everything). Take in the person's presence, her humanity, her vulnerability. See for yourself that she is just a person, of the same nature, with the same basic fears and hopes as you. Watch grace flow into the situation and the monster evaporate.

(1) Climacus, John. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 2
(2) Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters, XV
(3) 2 John 1:12