What Are You Training For?

It’s hard to find mountains in Dallas, and yours truly wants to do more than just walk on flat ground. A friend invited me to join him at the Cedar Ridge Preserve. It has a variety of trails and some striking changes in elevation.

The Preserve is a place to make you feel good about your fellow humans. To start with, it is popular. We met there at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, and the parking lot, which had just opened, was already half-full. Lots of people already on the trails: runners, walkers, athletes, couch potatoes, babies and toddlers, old guys and young ones. There were also dogs and at least one chicken.

My friend is super-athletic and super-encouraging. When people passed by, we’d say hi but he would say more. “What are you training for?”

It’s a question that gets people talking. More often than I thought, the answer was something particular and interesting. A man up in years said he was going to hike some mountains with his son, who lived in another state—my friend knew the mountains. Many others, women and men, mentioned races.

But a very common answer was, “Oh, I don’t know. Life?”
That’s a good answer. We’re training for life.
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But: if we’re training for life, when is life going to begin?

Lots of the most interesting literature on the Camino de Santiago is about how training is actually just life put into a small picture: what you do while you’re training is a picture of what your life is as a whole.

Last week I was reading Joyce Rupp’s Walk in a Relaxed Manner. At age 60 she walked the Camino with a friend; this book is a record of what she learned and discovered. She describes sleeping with a roomful of people in bunk beds, many of them snoring or talking late or noisily leaving early; of toilets and showers shared and dirty; and so on. She doesn’t get graphic, nor does she linger, but she is honest: she found it very uncomfortable. And she was forced to face her discomfort, its implicit contrast with the privilege of her comparatively protected American existence, and so on. She realized the Camino was calling her to let go.

All of life is a lesson in letting go. This will preach, no? Job—that guy in the Bible—he loses everything, he has to let go. Job gets it: “Naked I came into the world, naked I will leave it.”
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So yours truly, with the help of his friends, is training for the Camino. But the Camino itself is training for life.
It’s all life, and it’s all letting go.
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Let’s be less “spiritual” and more specific. Life is about surrender to God. We practice that in a lot of little ways (and some bigger ones). But in the end it is not practice, it is the sum total of reality. We let go to God, or into God. We lose our life. We surrender to Jesus. It is not necessarily a nice thing. I think of the message of the wicked witch: “Surrender, Dorothy!” I think of dirty toilets and noisy and snoring people. But according to the best testimonies, the surprise at the end is that when we surrender to Jesus, we find out who we have really been all along.

U is for Umpire: A Secret Agenda?

A friend who was our parish secretary in the closing years of the last century recalls a certain baseball fundamentalism in yours truly. Then living in New York’s Hudson Valley, I was on record as holding baseball to be the most theological of sports. On top of that, I had a strong pro-Yankee prejudice. My friend notes that I have now gone nearly to the end of the divine alphabet before revealing my cards. Does theology conclude with baseball, she asks. If (as I recently wrote) U is for umpire, will we discover (she asks), when we get to Y, that God is a Yankee?
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    With the years, many sins and obsessions slide away, the gentle amnesia of memory letting us forget we were ever as crazy as we really were. My friend says that on one Sunday, when the Bronx Bombers were in trouble, I included the starting line-up in the prayers of the people. Perhaps they had just lost the World Series. Apparently, no one noticed except my son.
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    I do remember reading in the local newspaper that, since a baseball team had been founded in our county, we would no longer need to go to Shea Stadium to see minor league ball.
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    My daughter does not recall any of this. Instead, what is seared in her memory has to do with altars. We had built an outdoor stone altar dedicated to Saint Joseph. It was visible from the street and caught lots of sunshine. One day, I saw a cat sleeping on it. “Sacrifice!” I said.
    She seems to remember references to cat sacrifice appearing in sermons from time to time.
    It still seems to me that cats are instinctively pagan beings that belong more to Egypt than Jerusalem.
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    But I digress. What about God and baseball? Obviously the Father is depicted by the pitcher, the source and origin of the action of the game. The batter, I think, is the Son, who takes what is given by the Father and puts it in play. The ball itself seems to be the Holy Spirit. The rest of the team, and perhaps even the people on the sidelines and in the stands, are humanity, you and I, gathered together in a leisurely yet occasionally ecstatic enterprise, at once focused and unfocused. Sometimes we work and run and shout; sometimes we linger and watch.
    The umpire—for those who are wondering how God could be in the game and also umpire—is God’s eternal law, active in the lovely ways that Psalm 19 says: perfect, sure, just, clear, clean, and true. God’s law is not words on a page but dynamic, ever distinguishing fair from foul.
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    Out & About. This Sunday, September 5, I am to preach at St. Philip’s in Sulphur Springs, Tex., the very center of the diocese of Dallas; the eucharist is at 11 a.m. If you ever visit this fair city, it is worth going to the town square to inspect their public toilets. They are clad in one-way mirrors. (There’s a sermon in that too.)

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."