Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Ruminating About Running

It’s a beautiful day, and it started off well. After having a quiet time, I went to run at the Victor Ashe and Northwest Greenways. Pretty nice little trail—especially the part that goes along Third Creek—and surprisingly few people using it. I probably only ran three miles today. I’m still not going very fast and I am struggling (especially up hills) but I’m finally noticing some improvement. I’ve been running consistently again for four weeks, since the week after my dad died, about three days a week. I look forward to when I can run five or six miles at a decent pace. I haven’t run at all since last fall—and didn’t do it consistently then. I decided to get serious about this for a number of reasons:

1. I’ve lost 30-35 pounds and have kept it off for two years but have plateaued (weight loss-wise) at 172-175 pounds. I still have a flabby belly and need to get in shape. This was the plan: first lose weight and keep it off, then get in shape. I tried several times to get in a habit of running again when I weighed 200+ lbs. and it hurt my knees and back. I totally get it! It was like having a 35-pound backpack strapped on! Crazy!

2. Someone recently said I looked “frail.” I guess it’s better than “fat” or “fiendish” or “frightful” but I don’t like the idea of being frail. Truth is, I’ve resisted the temptation to lift weights (something I enjoy doing much more than running!) because I tend to get thick and don’t want to look that way (or have to buy new clothes). Opposite of frail, I fear working out can make me look like I am vain or take pride in my muscularity (maybe not at my age! I could be just telling myself that!). Admittedly, I’m kinda suspicious of 50-year-old men with noticeable muscles (especially when they have a great tan and gold nugget jewelry). I think I would rather give off the impression of humility. I’m not naturally skinny. I’m naturally stocky. It’s amazing how quickly my body wants to return to default setting! I have to fight it all the time.

3. My dad was disciplined physically and always encouraged me to be. He ran, as long as he was able, his whole adult life. I’ve thought about this a lot since his decline and death. I always respected him for this discipline, and probably because of it he lived longer than any males in his ancestry that we know about, despite having cancer!! His father and grandfather both died in their fifties.

4. I’m fifty! Besides my Sparks heritage, I’m not getting any younger and it’s not going to get any easier to get in shape!

5. My stage in life has finally allowed for more flexible time to do so. I only have one kid who is still at home (and she’s leaving for college in June) who is driving, busy, and quite independent. Thankfully, the church is in a place staff-wise that does not require me to spend as much time as I have in the past doing more than I should. Yes, it's still very busy, but my schedule is more controllable (versus being more in control of me!). Thank you, Lord. Truth is, time (or lack of it) is usually the primary factor determining whether or not I am working out.

Back-in-the-day flashback. Had to work
to GAIN weight back then. Not now.
6. The weather is great this time of year. I wanted  to get started running months ago but the weather was a discouraging factor. I know, call me a wimp. I’m just practical. I know that I need the right conditions to get started if I’m going to stick with it. Hopefully, the worst part is now in the rear view mirror. God, help me to stay with it. I’d love to find a chin-up bar and place where I can do some push-ups and sit-ups and I’d love to play something like tennis or basketball or racquetball regularly where I can get some supplemental vigorous and fun exercise. But those might be hard on the old man joints and back. I still wake up most mornings with a stiff and mildly painful back (11 years after surgery). And I don’t want to get an injury and have to have more surgery. And I really don’t want to do the very popular HIT (high intensity training) or CrossFit as a few of my friends are doing. For one thing I hate being sore! I was sore for over a decade of playing football and other athletics when I worked out hard. And I really don't have the time and don’t want to be looking like a fitness nut or a weight lifter (not that I could or that there’s anything wrong with any of that, just not the goal)!

Here’s my real motivation: I just want to be reasonably healthy and do everything possible as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9, “to become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (verses 22-23). Paul says we should “run” in such a way as to win the prize. And just as athletes exercise self-control, I should “discipline my body and keep it under control,” literally, “pummel my body” (v. 27). The prize we desire is not like those trophies or benefits that perish, but is a much greater “imperishable” one (v. 25). Whatever that is, that’s what I want. He said that he did not want to be “disqualified” “after preaching to others.” I’ve thought long and hard about what that means. I don’t think it means we would be disqualified for heaven. I think it means that there are “preachers” out there (not just professional preaching pastors, but Christians who are proclaimers of the Gospel) who are considered “disqualified” both in the minds of those who hear their words (even if they preach the truth of God) and perhaps in the view of God himself if they did not practice what they preached or believed. Among other things, we preach that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit who indwells us. His temple should reflect our respect for him. We preach that our highest goal is to bring glory to God. Just as our homes should not be sloppy and an embarrassment since it is a reflection on our God, neither should our bodies be. They reflect our diligence and care. We preach that God wants us to live circumspect lives and to do all things “as unto God and not men.” So we do not seek physical fitness or anything else “aimlessly…as one beating the air” (v. 26) but as one who has a purpose. That purpose is to glorify God. Paul said to his disciple and young pastor, Timothy, “bodily training is of some value…” but he is quick to remind him what is much more important: “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1Timothy 4:8).

I’ve been around athletes, health nuts, and people who want to look athletic all my life. For much of my life I’ve pursued physical fitness and athletic excellence. Here’s one of those places where a proper balance of moderation and self-discipline should triumph. Like other good things, a lack of wisdom and proportion can make good the enemy of best. I’m speaking of my own situation not others’, so please don’t misunderstand. I know there are all kinds of variables regarding physical fitness for everyone, and we’re all different. I just know my sinful heart. If I’m not struggling with laziness, I’m struggling with the temptation to compete and be obsessed over the next athletic goal. Been there. Not going back. Lord help me.

God, I just want to make the most of the days you’ve given me on this earth. I just want to be able to communicate your truth without being a distraction or detriment in any way. I want you to be seen and known and loved and obeyed. I want to be completely yielded to you so that I can be used by you. Help me to know where physical training fits in to all this. I love you.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Eventful" Is An Understatement

I'm a pretty sorry blogger. But if I've ever had an excuse for not writing new posts, 'tis now. In the last few weeks my father quickly declined and passed away, my daughter's boyfriend asked our permission to propose to her and they were engaged, and I turned 50! I've also been writing in hopes of one day publishing a book about my father. All of this is in addition to pastoring and teaching at Providence Church!
I'm not seeking sympathy. In fact, I'm a little concerned that I'm feeling as upbeat as I do!
Big sister Duncan on the left in 2004 at age 8. Big
time daddy's girl. Now she's getting married.

I have always dreaded the day my little girl would be engaged to be married. I'm the guy that has always had to turn off the radio when any of the many songs like "Butterfly Kisses" comes on. I just can't hardly bear to think of it. But God is so gracious. My daughter, Duncan, couldn't have found a better guy. Ben Davenport is the one for whom I've been praying for over 21 years, since when we found out that Darla was pregnant with a little girl. Ben is humble and loves Jesus more than anything else. His character is strong. He loves and esteems Duncan and treats her with the utmost of respect and gentleness. He's a hard worker and is honest to a fault (if that's possible). When I say "Duncan couldn't have found a better guy," I truly mean, God found Ben for her. She has always had extremely high standards for guys, hardly dating at all in high school, and has taken some ribbing from friends for that reason. Ben is why girls are wise to be picky. When I say he's "the one for whom I've been praying," I mean he's not just that future husband "somewhere out there" who I prayed for, but he's the kind of man for whom I've been praying for my daughter.
Duncan and I at the beach.
I pray (and did again even now) for the woman who God has for Drew, and the man God has for Dara. Far more important than getting our kids through college and on their way to a healthy and financially stable and happy life, is that they marry godly people. This is, from a worldly perspective, the single most important factor that determines all the rest. I believe God is in control of this and that they, by yielding their lives to him–trusting him with all their hearts, he will "direct [their] path." And it is true for anyone.
So I am joyful in my heart about Duncan's engagement.

Coach Ken Sparks with his
game face circa 1988.
I was playing at CN during this time.
My father's decline and death was a seismic event in my life. He has been without a doubt the most influential person in the world to me. Even in his last month, I watched him continue to grow closer to Christ. He read a book about heaven. He wanted to talk with me about dying well. He wanted to work on a book about how the Gospel had changed him and others through him. He told me of how he understood the sovereignty of God more than he ever had and talked about God's perfect purpose and will. And he wanted to go to be with Jesus. The last three or four days of his life were brutal. He was so weak. He couldn't even turn on his side or sit up by himself. He was trapped in a body. But despite his pain and helplessness, he still exhibited the fruit of the Spirit. My phone was accidentally silenced when Carol (my stepmother) called me to tell me he had passed away. She tried several times early that Tuesday morning. She finally called Darla who told me. Upon hearing, I was immediately thankful and relieved. A couple of days beforehand, I had begun praying that God would take him because he was suffering and wanted to be with Christ so desperately. God answered.
My dad, sister, and I in August 1971. That's
our red 1968 Volkswagen dad bought new
that later became my first car.
The funeral was all good. After the private burial with family and his coaches and their families, we had the longest receiving of friends I've ever seen! An exhausting four-and-a-half hours. My feet were killing me! Dad had asked me to do the funeral. You can see it here. Other than a very brief battle with emotion in the first few minutes of the sermon, I never struggled or cried. Still haven't! I have felt a little guilty about this. "Why have I not broken down and shed tears about my dad's passing?" I have asked myself. Well, because I've had almost five years to say goodbye. And because I know how ready he was to see Christ. As long as I can remember, he has been talking about that day when he would "shed his earth suit." Well, that earth suit was ready to be shed, let me tell you.
The last thing I said to my dad was, "I love you." And the last thing he said to me was, "I love you too." I am profoundly grateful God let me be his son. I want to live up to his example.

Turning 50 is no big deal. It's kinda fun to joke about. I got my AARP card. Funny, I got one when I turned 20 for some reason, so I guess Darla's right that I've been kind of like a senior adult for 30 years now! Truth is, I feel great, I lost 35 pounds about two years ago and have kept it off, and I've been running since my dad's death. Someone said I looked frail. Frail?! Perhaps flabby or funny or fifty, but frail?! That's a first, and it kinda hurt a little. I haven't run in several months, so I decided it was time. Sadly, I didn't even own a pair of shorts I could run in! All I had were either too big or the elastic was worn out. My shoes are so out of style. My over-sized sweats hang off my body like I'm a kid wearing my father's sweat suit (actually it is a sweat suit my dad gave me). Running isn't very fun when you're out of shape. I'm past the soreness stage, now I'm just trying to increase mileage (I can run about two miles right now) and make it worth the effort. When I get to where I can run six miles, I might be able to eat about anything I want (that seriously motivates me)!
I remember not too long ago when 50 seemed so over-the-hill! I came to Providence as a 29-year-old and our oldest member was 50!! Wow. It doesn't feel that old to me. I just embrace it. I'm happy. I just pray that God will perhaps help me overcome some of my long-time hangups and struggles and favorite sins. I want to be more like him. I want to be useful to him. I'm not really wanting to live too long, however. My grandmother turned 100 in February, and I really don't think I want to live that long. And having watched my dad decline, I'd rather not die slowly from cancer. I think I'd like to go quickly, perhaps on my knees shouting "Jesus is Lord" as an Isis swordsman beheads me. That would be better. Until then, I just want to be faithful and consistent and ever-growing closer to Jesus.