Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Finishing Strong

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." 2 Timothy 4:7, NRSV

Finishing strong. This is what every runner hopes to do at every race and run. For long distance runners, it means running all those miles but leaving enough in the tank for that final push.

My running buddy Stephen uses a very Alaskan metaphor of a woodstove or fireplace. At the start of a marathon, he would remind me to pace myself, to time the "feeding of logs into the fire" strategically so that the flame keeps going. He also reminds me to leave enough for the final push. Then in the last mile, he goes, "Alright, Carlo, whatever logs you've got left, this is the time to throw it all in the fire! Time to go all out!" One time, I actually told him, "I don't think I have any logs left." I just didn't have enough in the tank to finish strong.

I've since learned to pace myself better and in the last race I did, I actually had enough left in me to sprint to the finish line!

Jim Truitt & Rev. David Valera
Last week, I had the chance to travel to Galena, Alaska with Jim Truitt and David Valera of the Pacific Northwest Conference (PNW). Jim is PNW's Disaster Response Coordinator and is in charge of the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) efforts to rehabilitate the homes in Galena which were either severely damaged or totally demolished by the recent flooding disasters due to ice damming. David is PNW's Executive Director of Connectional Ministries and a very gifted communicator. They invited me to join them and witness, first hand, the work that our United Methodist volunteers have been doing in helping this Alaska village recover from the disaster.

David taking a video of the morning devotion and briefing
David was there to capture the work in video because there is a story to tell. In fact there are many heartwarming stories of service, sharing, servanthood, cooperation, connections and grace. I was fortunate to witness those stories firsthand. I look forward to David's videos and when they are available, I will let you know. I, too, took photos and will share them later when I get home (I am writing this from DS Training in Lake Junaluska, NC).

Jim talking with Lou, his chief of building operations
Jim was there to coordinate the final push. When we were there, they had two weeks to complete what they had started: finishing up 4 new houses which they built from scratch and 7 remodels. FEMA, the government agency they were working with  and who had paid for the volunteers' airfare to be there, had set September 2nd as their deadline. They were on their last mile of this marathon that started in May of last year. 200+ volunteers have come and gone. Many of them have come back more than once because they believed in the mission. When we were there, they had just said goodbye to team 10 and had teams 11 and 12 on the ground working. Because of the urgency of the "last mile" and the availability of two teams, they had doubled the shifts in order to meet the deadline.

It was a blessing to be there and connect with our volunteers from all across the US. I was honored to lead them in devotions and personally thank them for their work in our state. It was heart warming to hear their stories.

Friends, as you read this, our volunteers have one week left to finish what they have started. They are on their last mile and would like to finish strong. Whatever is not done by the 2nd of September will remain undone. I commend them to you that you may join me in holding them in prayer as they make that final push and finish strong.

And what about you? Are you near the end of a project, a tenure or a journey? Know that you are in my prayers. May God grant you the grace to finish strong!



Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Prayer Run

I did it! This past weekend, I ran my first ultramarathon, the inaugural 49K Ultra here in Anchorage. And thanks to your help, I made it, running it in 6 hours, 12 minutes and 18 seconds.

I say "thanks to your help" because I know that you were with me. In my last post, Come Run With Me, I shared that I was going to do this race as a prayer run, dedicating a mile to praying for each of the churches in the Alaska Conference. And I invited you to join me in praying for at least one church. For those who were able, I invited you to run, walk, jog, or bike a mile as they prayed.

I am thankful to all of you who joined me on this prayer run. I certainly felt your presence! And it definitely was helpful, especially at the points when I wanted to quit. Prayerfully thinking about the congregations, pastors and lay people helped keep my mind off the pain in my tired legs. And it motivated me to finish.

The prayer run took on a whole new meaning for me with a woman I met during the race. One thing I love about running is that you get to know people and because of the long hours and miles that you share, you develop a certain bond. I met Irina at mile 5 of the race. She was casually chatting with a couple of runners and since they were keeping a good pace, I decided to run along. We chatted about random things: the weather, the coastal trail we were on, Anchorage, running.

At mile 6, after water and Gatorade at an aid station, our two companions decided to dial down the pace a little but Irina wanted to keep pushing. I was still feeling good and so I joined her. We continued chatting, getting a little bit more personal. We shared our names, where we're from, where we live. Like me, she is an immigrant and now lives in Minnesota with her husband. She was in town just for the race. And like me, she was doing her first ultra (although unlike me, who signed up for this race months ago, she decided just that morning to switch from the regular marathon which she originally signed-up for to the ultra. I guess she was feeling really good that morning!)

Then we got to talking about why we ran. She said she loves the freedom that running gives, and how it clears her mind. I agreed. I asked her if she had always been a runner. She said no. She only started running to cope with the death of her son 9 years ago. She was running races as a way of honoring her late son who died in his youth. I said I was sorry and that I was joining her in honoring her son that day.

Then she asked me why I ran and I said it was mainly to stay fit but, like her, it was also a spiritual thing and a stress-reliever for my job. Then she asked me what I did and I said I was a pastor and that I was doing the race that day as a prayer run for UM churches in Alaska. Her eyes brightened and she said, "Would you pray for my son?!" With tears in her eyes, she went on to share that her son committed suicide at 25. And to make things worse, when she went to ask the clergyperson of her church to bless her son and do a memorial service for him, she was denied because of the way in which he died. They wouldn't even let her light candles at the church in his honor. That is why she asked me if I would pray for her son! All these years, she was bearing all that pain of loss and rejection and trying to cope with it through running.

I said "Yes, I will pray for your son." I reminded her of God's grace and love that was available for everyone. She thanked me and said, "Now I know why I switched to the ultra. If I had stuck with the marathon, I wouldn't have met you because it starts an hour later." I couldn't agree more (although I think even if she did the marathon and started an hour later, she would have still caught up to me.)

Soon we lost each other in the crowd of other racers. Irina picked up a fast-paced pack and stayed with them. I settled down to a more manageable pace and got back to praying for the churches. The course had a couple of turnarounds, so I had a few more chances to exchange high-fives with her later in the race. But I was sure she would already be gone when I finished, lost in the crowd of runners and spectators at finish line. I was just thankful for the chance to meet her and share a few, grace-filled miles.

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw her after I crossed the line. She had waited for me to congratulate me for finishing and to thank me for praying for her son. The picture here was taken right as I finished. I introduced her to my wife Radie and the boys. After the photo-ops, we exchanged email addresses, congratulated each other and said goodbye.

There are many among us like Irina, in our schools, places  of work, communities and churches. With the death of Robin Williams, the spotlight has been trained yet again on those who have taken their own lives because it seemed to be the only choice left. We focus on the victims almost forgetting that in the wake of such tragic deaths are loved ones and families who are left with burdens of grief and rejection. Yes, there is work to be done to prevent suicides from happening. But there is also work to be done in reaching out to those who have been left behind. You and I can walk with them. You and I can run with them.

Friend, if you know of someone who is struggling with the loss of a loved one due to suicide, I invite you to walk with them and remind them of God's grace. And if you are struggling with the painful death of a loved one who committed suicide, please know that I and many others are willing to walk with you. You are not alone. We are with you. And more importantly, God is with you.

Irina, thank you for sharing your story with me and for giving me permission to write about you. You will be in my prayers. It was an honor sharing a prayer run with you.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Come Run With Me

I will be running my first ultramarathon on Sunday, August 17. An ultra, as it is fondly called, is any race longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles or 42.1648 kilometers. I will be testing my limits in the inaugural 49K Ultra of the Big Wild Life Runs here in Anchorage. And while it is "short" compared to the standard ultra distances (50K, 50 miles, 100 miles and beyond), it is probably the longest I am willing to run, for now...

What makes this race different from other races I've done in the past, aside from the longer distance, is my plan to do it as a prayer run. 49 kilometers is equivalent to 30.44860 miles. There are 28 United Methodist Churches in my area of responsibility. I would like to dedicate a mile for each of these churches. As I run each mile, I will prayerfully hold the church assigned to that mile, their pastor/s, lay people, missions and ministries. I will bring the following list with me:
Now here's the kicker: I invite you to run the race with me. No, I am not asking you to physically run 30+ miles (unless you're up to it, of course. I'd definitely love the company). What I'm asking you to do is to join me in praying for the churches of the Alaska United Methodist Conference on Sunday. I invite you to pick a church (or two) from the list and promise to set aside time to hold these ministries in prayer. Each church name above is a live link to their website or Facebook page to give you more information about them.

On race day, I may average anywhere from 10-12 minutes per mile. Can I ask you for 10-12 minutes of your time on Sunday to pray for a church in the AUMC? Or perhaps your are a walker, a jogger or a biker. Can I ask you to find time on Sunday to walk, jog or bike a mile as you pray for the church you pick?

Will you come run (and pray) with me? 


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Running Buddy

When asked for advice about training for a marathon, one of the first things I always say is, "find a running buddy." And I say this with much conviction every time because it is born out of my own experience.

With me in the following pictures is Stephen, my running buddy, trainer, encourager and friend. Stephen runs ultramarathons (yes, the 100 mile type). He has been my inspiration in running.

Stephen ran my first 5K with me 5 years ago.

He was the one who said, "I think you can run a marathon." He ran my first three marathons with me. I would not have been able to finish these races without Stephen. I would not have gotten to a point where I would be ready to even run a marathon if not for him.

Mayors Marathon in Anchorage
Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks
Winter Solstice Marathon in Willow
A running buddy is not only one who runs with you but someone who holds you accountable. When you don’t feel like getting up in the morning, they are there. When you don't feel like running at all but you need to, they are there. When you are tired and want to quit, they encourage you and push you on. When you are slowing down, they run in front of you and pace you back. In distance running, they remind you to hydrate, to eat, to pay attention to your body. They remind you to stretch after a run and to take time to rest. They give you tips on fitness, food and footwear. They know when to trade stories with you while running and when its time to just run alongside you in silence.

I am truly thankful for Stephen. And I am thankful for those who are my running buddies in this race called life, those in the past and those who still are. The apostle Paul constantly expressed his thankfulness to his partners in ministry in the different churches he planted and served. To the Philippians, he wrote, "Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us..." (Philippians 1:3-5a, The Message).

Right now, I am thankful for those who were willing to fill-in and preach at Chugiak and First UMC. You are great partners in ministry. Thanks for running the race with me and with these two churches.

Crystal Feaster is a great "running buddy" at the conference office. She has been very helpful and very patient with me as I learn the ropes. And talking about partnership, as I write this piece, Lonnie Brooks, our conference lay leader, is working with Crystal, going through old files in the office and providing the much needed historical knowledge and church systems expertise to determine what needs to be kept and what can be discarded. Lonnie, of course, has been and will continue to be one of my go to people for advice and opinion on church matters. Thank you, Lonnie.

I wouldn't be able to run this race without my wife Radie and our boys. You have been wonderful partners in life and ministry!

I have many other "running buddies" and partners in ministry. You know who you are. And you know how thankful I am for you.

What about you, my dear reader? Who are your running buddies? Mike Slaughter, in his book "Momentum for Life", underscores the importance of "investing in key relationships." Who are the people running the race with you? Who are the people you listen to, whose words matter to you? Who are the people you model your life after? Who are the people who help shape who you are?

Are there people like this in your life? Or have you been going at it all alone? Remember, life is like a race, a marathon. And if you want to stay in it and finish strong, I would give you the same advice I give "would-be marathoners": find a running buddy.

May you find running buddies for this race called life. May you, like Paul, be thankful for these people and find time and ways to express this to them. And may you be a running buddy to someone else beginning today.