Finding God on the Running Course

By Kierra Jackson 04-01-2011

I started running because of my sister. Kim and I began when we were pre-teens. I believed running was the key to making me more like her -- 5 foot 9, lean, beautiful, and highly intelligent. There was one problem: I hated running. After forcing myself to do it for a while, I was disappointed. My dreams of who I would become were dashed, and all I got from trotting around was a lower resting heart rate and bulky thighs.

Years later, much has changed -- including my relationship with running. Following her multiple-sclerosis diagnosis in 2009, Kim, who was once a long-distance runner, has retired her running shoes. She hasn't hit the pavement in more than one year. I still run. Something in my spirit won't let me quit.

Last weekend, I completed my fourth half marathon in Washington, D.C. As I toed the start line, a story began to unfold. At 7 a.m., it was barely 35 degrees outside and still dark. I was surrounded by a sea of 16,000 people -- all of whom were present for one thing: to put their bodies to the ultimate test. This morning was all about endurance.

The first few miles of a longer run provide time for the body to warm up. Twenty minutes into the 13.1 mile race we were weaving through the streets of Capitol Hill, cutting down Constitution Avenue along the Mall. The U.S. Capitol was radiant with the light of the early sun. I looked down at my feet and noticed that my steps were strong and quick. The sun was rising and so were people's internal body temperatures. Up ahead, the road was lined with long-sleeved T-shirts, hats, and gloves scattered along the sides of the road shed by runners who were warmed up. And then, at Union Station, I felt God tell me, "Kierra, look up!"

And that's when I saw a group of quiet spectators bow toward the ground as joggers ran past the train station. These were not fans or family members of marathoners, but homeless men and women slowly collecting the gloves that runners had thrown away. Men in worn clothing covered their cold hands with the "throw away" gloves that each runner had received in their race packets the day before. I watched trash transform into treasure. I began to pray.

Listening to music is typically not allowed (or deemed safe) in most organized races. Many ascribe to the idea that the best running strategy is to divert your attention from the intensely hard work that you're doing. As a runner, it can be tempting to put on headphones to block out the "distractions" around me, but a couple years ago I decided that physical activity would become, for me, an act of worship to God. Running is meditation. I use the time to take in the sights and sounds around me, follow the pattern of my breathing, and listen to the beat of my feet as they pound the pavement. I engage in dialogue with myself and with God and that's exactly what I did that Saturday morning. I prayed for the homeless and those in poverty.

In the book of Hebrews, Christ's call to the cross is expressed as a test of endurance. It was the hope of redemption for all people -- "the joy set before him" -- that allowed Jesus to continue to pursue his divine call. Sometimes God calls us to face difficult and challenging work, conversations, and situations. When we try to distract ourselves and block out the "noise," we jeopardize an opportunity to be observant -- to hear the call of God. When people ask me why I run, I tell them I do it because it's difficult. It is a life philosophy that I live and see paralleled in my spiritual walk.

So, the next time you see a jogger whizz by, smile and remember that some of us are also praying. Truly, the two go together beautifully -- both intentions that aim glory and honor to God.

portrait-kierra-jacksonKierra Jackson is director of advertising at Sojourners.

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