To quote Ron's big rival, just do it!
Saturday, 25th October 2008: the day I beat Ron Hill. Mind you I’m not sure Ron was trying. For him the Standish Trail Race was just a walk in the park, a mere 10k. Moreover he was still recovering from his 70th birthday party the night before! Sadly Ron died this week, at the age of 82. Most people, I guess, will know him more from his eponymous sporstwear brand. I myself refuse to run in any other socks than the legendary Hilly’s, For Ron used his PhD in textile chemistry to pioneer today’s lightweight, water-resistant running gear. However, it was his marathon running which made him a prominent name in British athletics in the 1960’s/1970’s. Remarkably he was only the second runner to break 2 hours 10 minutes in the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games. Ron competed in 115 marathons in all, winning 21, and ran his last in 1996. In a distinguished track career he represented Great Britain at three Olympics. For the record, I did run against him a few times in club cross country races, with Ron, a Bolton Harrier, invariably beating me by miles. Until Standish, that is. A truly dedicated runner, Ron did not miss a day’s training for – wait for it – 52 years. From 20thDecember, 1964, to 31st January, 2017, he ran every day, covering an amazing 158,628 miles. Even surgery didn’t stop him, remarkable. And that’s the secret, and not just in athletics: a day-by-day discipline, come what may. It’s the one thing running has taught me and has had a massive influence for my spiritual journey. Except nowadays, to avoid injury, I only run alternate days and no more than 10k. Like Ron but not to the same tenacious extent, the daily run has become part of me, of who I am. However busy, whatever the weather, however I may be feeling I go for a run. Certainly if I am ever going to beat Victor, there is simply no alternative. And of course, daily discipline is at the heart of the Christian life. Each day represents a challenge. As Jesus taught: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). Like running, taking up our cross each day, every day, is something God calls us to do – however we may be feeling, whatever the cost, where ever we may be. It’s a mindset. And so we need daily discipline. There is simply no alternative if, in the words of the apostle Paul, we are going to win “the crown of righteousness.” (2 Timothy 4:8) For myself I grew up with what came to be known as the Quiet Time, an invaluable daily discipline. At its very least it would involve reading a passage from the Bible guided by a commentary: in those days I used Scripture Union. Then a short time of prayer, usually guided by the passage. Simple but effective. And over the years my QT has evolved, just like my daily run. However, this discipline seems to have fallen out of favour for today’s disciples. Maybe we have become too attuned to our feelings and allow them to guide our behaviour. Possibly there is a reaction to discipline as a drudge, just going through the motions with no apparent benefit. Or more often than not, we are simply too busy or that our day lacks structure. Going back to my running and especially when I was in parochial ministry, right at the beginning of the day, even before I got up, I would decide when I would run. Often there would be only a very narrow window of opportunity which could mean moving a meeting, if only by 15 minutes, to make the time. Such is the priority for my run, even more so for my Quiet Time. The old adage: “If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy!” We simply decide to make it happen – even in that particular situation means we do it not very well. We do it nevertheless.
And there’s a balance between the sheer discipline of just doing it with making sure this focussed time with God engages and enthuses us. Over the years I used different Bible reading aids: Scripture Union, the Salvation Army’s Soldier’s Armoury, Every Day with Jesus and currently BRF Guidelines. In fact, this morning’s commentary from Mark’s Gospel by Steve Motyer was excellent. Jacqui uses the app Bible in One Year with Nicky Gumbel. You can download it for free from Google Play Store or Apple App Store. And similarly for my time of intercession. Nowadays I use no less than three prayer diaries to guide me in my intercessions – from Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Church Mission Society and Operation Mobilisation. Again I find that they give both structure and content for my prayers. Such spiritual discipline is hugely important: therefore, a spiritual battle is guaranteed. To quote the Methodist Samuel Chadwick: “The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, and prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.” Moreover, as we engage with God as individuals, we become better team players as members of Christ’s church. This is certainly the experience of Henri Nouwen: “Whenever we pray alone, study, read, write, or simply spend quiet time away from the places where we interact with each other directly, we are potentially opened for a deeper intimacy with each other.” So when it comes to daily devotions, there’s just one quote from the world of athletics, from Ron Hill’s great rival, Nike no less. “Just do it!”