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Running on Empty, Praying on Full

by Jonathan Folts

A couple of weeks ago, I began walking through a book by Fil Anderson entitled Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers. And I mean that sentence quite literally. During the past several Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’ve been reading Running on Empty while walking on the treadmill, exercising the mind at the same time that I’m exercising the body. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, by contrast, I subject myself to the sadistic whims of a trainer friend of mine at a gym. I don’t get any reading done while loudly slamming medicine balls down on the floor as people stare and walk quickly by, or while doing multiple squats and push ups and dog pointers (unfortunate name) - but those mornings do get me thinking about prayer regardless. So be on the lookout for a future section on PRAY FIRST entitled Prayers to Make the Pain Finally Stop and Prayers for Healing in Places I Never Knew I Had.

At this point last year, I wistfully recall, I was in much better shape. I wasn’t walking on the treadmill or on the roads; I was running on them at a fairly good clip. I was participating in races – and once, I even forgot to use my better judgment and participated with family and friends in a Flashback 5K at 1:50 AM on a Sunday morning. (Look for Sustaining Prayers During Times of Temporary Stupidity.)

But life happens. For me, I allowed an event in my life to throw me off my game…and I slowly began drifting back to old habits. Then my gym unexpectedly closed for a period of about three months…and the drift became a rip tide. I quit the treadmill, put away all my running toys, and threw myself into my workaholic ways. I would arrive at the office early each morning, leave committee meetings around 9:00 each night, and stay up until around 11:00 or 11:30 before rinsing and repeating. I soon didn’t dare try on the jeans I owned a year ago for fear that 911 would be called for an extrication rescue.

Personally, I was thinking that all was good – my prayers for denial were seemingly being granted. But then an epiphany moment happened on Easter Sunday. A genuine friend, whom I dearly love and respect, came out of one of our many services, patted my stomach, looked me square in the eye and asked, “What’s that?” I’m not sure who was laughing harder at that statement…God or me?

That was my call back. It wasn’t the first call back that I’ve received in my life and I know that I may well hear it again, creature of habit that I am. Life happens: we succeed at times and we fall at others. And when we fall, it’s important to remind ourselves about what we know. For instance, I know that if I want to enjoy better physical health, then it’s up to me to make that happen. And I know that if I want to enjoy better mental health, then that is also up to me to make happen. And I also know that if I want to enjoy better spiritual health then…then…

Then what? Is that up to me as well? We sometimes behave as if that’s the case, do we not? And we behave that way because we have been sadistically trained and told to think that way. If we want to succeed at something, we’re taught that we have to work at it. And if we don’t see or feel the results that we want, we convince ourselves…or we're convinced by others…that we’re obviously not working hard enough. And so we re-double our efforts or we quit in despair!

How often we treat our relationship with God as something that must be earned! How often we view God’s love as something that must be deserved and striven for! “One of the biggest lies we believe,” Fil writes in Running on Empty, “as we try to draw nearer to the heart of God is that we are responsible for the success of this spiritual enterprise” (p. 73).  What I think Fil means by this is that we can become so entrenched and mired in our sense of identity as self-made people that our performance in all things --  including having a relationship with God -- becomes inexorably tied to our personhood. The lie is that we have to make this “relationship with God thing” happen and, if we feel a fail coming on, we should self-identify as being a failure. The lie is that we somehow have to cultivate a relationship with God independently from God! And independence from God, Fil reminds us, is the fundamental nature of what we refer to as being sin (p. 59).

Truth be told, God is always chasing us, busy, hectic, frantic people that we are. God is always trying to get us to hear and to accept the reality of our being loved. God is alongside us in all of our moments, whether those moments be in the kitchen, or in the office, or even in the sweaty God-forsaken gym that really isn’t God-forsaken at all.

Put away those books that talk about starting a relationship with God…and acknowledge that your relationship with God is already there. Don’t allow the lie that you have to earn a relationship with God be perpetuated with each fall. Instead, nurture the truth that God loves His relationship with you, falls and all. Consider this piece as your call back into a relationship that already was and is...and take heart. Although some areas of your life may seem as if you are running on empty, your relationship with God always comes with a full tank of love…premium grade.

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