Monday Runday: Montclair Sprint Triathlon Recap

Yesterday Robert and I competed in the Montclair Sprint Triathlon, my second sprint tri and his first.

It was a hot and humid day, but the race was superb. We had a great time, and it turned out to be a significant race experience for me:

That's a third place medal. What???

More on that later.

Race Logistics and Review

This is my first Revolution3 race, and I was very impressed by the communication and logistics of this race. I got a personal call from the staff the week of the race, asking if I had any questions and thanking me for registering. The 10-minute race preview video was helpful, and the athlete guide was very complete.

This would be a great first race for a new triathlete, especially one in the DC area--Montclair is south of Woodbridge near Quantico, so it's convenient. There's also a Splash and Dash for kids, which makes for a nice family-friend festival atmosphere. The Montclair community seems to take a lot of pride in hosting this race.

And the swag! Participants got a t-shirt, hat, and Rev3 neck gaiter (yes, we've got a long hot summer to get through, but then it will get cold enough to need a neck gaiter again). The participant medals were nice. You also get a latex swim cap, color-coded for which type of swim start you do. That isn't really a race premium, but it's nice to have backup caps.

The swim is 750 meters in a lovely tree-lined lake. Athletes seeded themselves based on 100yd pace and entered the water two by two, except the speedy speedsters who did a traditional wave before the rest of us. The race is small enough that you don't have to worry about being mowed down in the water, though I did have a guy t-bone into me while doing the backstroke. (Backstroke? Really?) Buoys are large and plentiful, with lots of safety patrols in kayaks. The swim concludes on a sandy beach, but then it goes to grass, so by the time you get to transition your feet are mostly cleaned off.

The transition area was spacious enough, and the racks are labeled with athletes' numbers AND names, which is a nice touch. People were friendly and helpful, though I find the intimidation factor to be high in triathlons. Something about the expensive bikes and bullet-shaped helmets make me feel totally out of my league, what with my basic swim unitard, and also Clifford the Big Red Bike, my serviceable but un-flashy ride that a friend gave me as a hand-me-down. And unlike running races, there are no costumes, nor even amusing shirts. I get that swimming makes a tutu hard to wear, and you can't fit a jester hat over a helmet, but you kinda get the feeling that the tri community isn't here to play. All well and good, just different.

The 12-mile bike ride consists of a double loop. It's hilly, but the hills are mostly gradual, and anyone who trains in northern Virginia would be well prepared for them. The bike begins with a nasty uphill, and the race announcer made a point of reminding people to park their bikes in a low gear, which was a friendly thing to do. The route was shady most of the way, which made a huge difference in comfort level.

The 5K run is also hilly, but again mostly shady. The first half was on the sidewalk alongside part of the bike course, and someone had written various jokes and sayings on the sidewalk in chalk. Thinking of 15 words that rhyme with "run" kept me mentally occupied for quite a while. The second half of the run course is on neighborhood streets as opposed to the main drag. There were at least two water/Gatorade stops, and perhaps a third if memory serves.

The finish chute is on the beach, and the announcer read each name as the person finished. I love when races do that. Crowd support was sporadically placed but enthusiastic, with neighborhood folks offering signs and encouragement.

Post-race amenities included various packaged snacks, plus thick French toast with little packages of syrup. This race also had several computers set up where you could print a receipt with your race time and standings. This was so cool, and I hope more races move to this. It did create a little drama for me personally, which I'll explain in the next section.

Overall I'd give this race an A. I'm already excited to come back next year.

Personal Goals and Recap

I hadn't done a triathlon since last August. I hoped to get a PR, but my main goals were modest and tactical: 1. To do freestyle for the majority of the swim segment. I had a goggles fail in August, which meant I had to breaststroke the whole way. And I've really been working on FS endurance. 2. To cut down on transition time 3. To push myself on the run leg, which despite being my main sport was the weakest of the three legs last time, at least in terms of relative standing in my division.

How did I do? Well, I did freestyle the whole time and felt strong--but ended up swimming the same pace as I did doing breaststroke last year. Which could mean that my breaststroke is comparatively fast... OR more likely, I need to work on freestyle form, considering I learned as a kid and have never really worked on technique.

I cut way down on transition time by picking a shirt with wide arm holes to throw on over my unitard suit, and slipping on my running shoes while keeping them tied. (I don't clip in. I'm a big weenie on the bike.) I also borrowed a race belt for my bib, but I lost some time when I stepped into it and the bib ripped. Had to reattach it using diagonal holes. Later Robert said, "Don't step into it, just put it around you and then hook it." Duh. This is why you practice transitions.

As for the run leg, I used every mantra I knew to keep going in the heat. I ended up with a 3-minute PR overall, thanks to faster transitions and a faster run leg. I definitely have room to grow--in all three legs, really--but one of my mantras was "as good as I am," and yesterday was as good as I could be that day.

Regular readers know my angst over whether to register in the Athena category, which is for athletes over a certain weight. Ultimately I decided to go for it. I love that recreational athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and it felt good to take a small stand for positive body image. The race had all the Athenas racked together in transition, and they were funny and badass.

When I printed out my finish time, they had sorted me into my age group rather than as an Athena. They got that figured out, but then it turned out they hadn't categorized any of the Athenas properly. While they were sorting that out, I printed a result that said I was 3rd out of 6 in my division. I was excited to see that 3--that meant a podium award--but I knew there were more than 6 of us. So there was a long time of waiting and wondering whether another Athena would knock me off the podium, and practicing the art of holding outcomes loosely. Something I kinda stink at.

Finally they got things worked out and I printed my final result:

And that's when I started to cry.

I have never won anything athletic in my life. My body was the thing that toted my brain around, and that was about it. I was the last kid picked for the team. When I played softball in middle school, I was a passable second base player on the last team in the league. Even today, I am a mid-pack runner on a typical day. And yesterday it was so hot, and I was so tired. And yet I had done something that for me would have seemed impossible even 7 years ago.

The podium finish was bittersweet. Very few triathlons have an Athena category, and I only have one more race on the calendar this season, and it's not an Athena one. And I may not even qualify for Athena much longer--I've been slowly losing weight over the last several months, and unless I stubbornly plateau, I'll be knocked out of the division next year. Which I have mixed feelings about, to be honest. I love the Athenas I race with, whether we call ourselves that or not.

But either way, I'll still be there on the starting line of Montclair next year. It was a great race. Though I wouldn't turn down a cool snap that day...

Monday Runday: On Being a Family of Runners

James is doing a running challenge with me, in which we're running 26.2 miles over the next 8 weeks. It's been astounding how dedicated he's been to this task. 13092151_10154101255193164_439828891086948370_n

Thanks to Facebook memories, I'm recalling that three years ago, I took the girls through Couch to 5K, two years after going through it myself. Since then, each girl has participated in Girls on the Run and assorted races here and there.











Robert also runs, although he's currently sidelined with a cranky Achilles.

Somehow, over time, we became a family of runners. 

I'm tempted sometimes to enroll my kids in club running activities--recreational track or cross country or somesuch. It's startling how easily that thought jumps into my head. My kids enjoy this, therefore they should do it in an organized way. It's what we do as parents. A kid's interested in the guitar? We get them private lessons. They like to do art? Sign them up for pottery camp. They want to learn tennis? We find a league to join. At least where I live, that's an implicit or explicit responsibility of a parent. We nurture through providing opportunities. And as the mother of a kid on the swim team told me a few years ago, it's never too early to think about a child's college application. (Her kids were in elementary school.)

Certainly there are benefits to team sports--a good coach can be one of those inspiring childhood influences that impacts a person's whole life. And while running is an activity that we most of us learn to do naturally as children, there's always stuff to learn. Still, I'm trying to resist the impulse to formalize this interest of theirs. Kids today are continually evaluated, graded, scantronned, judged and compared. Not with this. This is our limit.

Part of that comes down to money and time--there's only so many enrollment fees we can handle, and only so much carting around we're willing to do. (I have a friend who calls this phase of parenting "Carpool.") But on a broader level, I want my kids to have something they can do purely for the joy of it. They can set goals, or not. They can strive to improve, or not. It's entirely up to them.

And they're teaching me a lot. I realize, as I continue to claw my way back from last fall's injury, how easily I'd fallen into a mode of improvement and incessant goal-setting. This is painful to admit about myself, though will surprise nobody who knows me. (My friend J took a personality inventory that suggested she stop thinking about life as one big self-improvement project, and she was incredulous: "What else would it be???" Oh, my sister.)

And so, this is a new touchstone for me:





My hopes and dreams are to be able to run for my entire life, to stay healthy and injury-free, to get an occasional PR through smart training, and to have a spirit of adventure in what I do.

When James runs, he says, "Look how fast I am!!!" I suspect if he joined a kids' running team he would discover that, comparatively speaking, he isn't fast. That's the McKibben/Dana genetic lottery at work, and there's only so much you can do to overcome that.

But at the end of our runs together, when the house is in sight, he turns to me, waiting for the signal. I say, "Now, James, turn on the gas!" and he does, leaving his mother in the dust... busting through whatever 8-year-old hopes and dreams he has, scattering them like leaves in the wind.

Change Your Life on Wednesday

Wednesday, June 3 is National Running Day. If you've ever had the slightest interest in trying this sport, what better time to start? Everyone says "If I can do it, anyone can." But believe me: If I can do it, anyone can. Anyone. You.

It's common to meet adult recreational runners who played various sports growing up: "I played soccer." "I ran a little track." "I was on the swim team." That wasn't me at all. The closest I came to a sport was Academic Decathlon. I started running at age 39, and it was a bit of an accident---I needed to get ready for a big hike during vacation that summer, and I figured Couch to 5K would be a decent way to work on some cardio and muscular fitness. I made it up the mountain, though it wasn't pretty... but it didn't matter, because running was what I was really meant to do. The means had become the end.

Don't get bogged down in the equipment in the beginning---the tech fabrics and fancy socks. All you really need to get started is a decent pair of running shoes. It's best to get them fitted at a running store, but if you're starting with a program like Couch to 5K, you'll be walking more than running, so [I'm not a doctor] it's probably OK to go with what you have for the moment, unless [I'm not a doctor] you have some kind of chronic joint problem or other health condition that would require something fancier.

harriettethompsonsandiego15Perhaps you read this weekend about Harriette Thompson, the 92-year-old woman who became the oldest woman to finish a marathon---her 16th marathon since 1999. She did this through a combination of walking and running, which is a great approach for lots of people for lots of reasons. I have friends who run/walk all of their training runs---and many of them are pretty darn fast. I incorporate walking into most of my long runs and races. Not only does it diversify the kinds of muscles you end up using, but it reduces fatigue and also breaks up the monotony. I will probably never win my age group in a race, but I've never had a significant injury either, and if I live to be 92, I want to still be running. So if you'd like to run but are worried about stress on your body, consider a run/walk approach, especially to start.

The physical benefits of regular exercise are well known. (And guess what---running probably won't kill your knees. In fact running can actually be beneficial for them.) But here are some other benefits I've found:

  1. I'm better connected to nature. I've seen more sunsets and (especially) sunrises in the last four years than I did in the previous forty. Rain and lightning used to be vague inconveniences I paid little mind. Now I tune into the weather and scan the sky for telltale signs. (I also run in the rain.) I'm learning to see spring evolve in all its subtlety, from the early buds of Bradford pears to the heady aroma of honeysuckle that announces the imminent arrival of summer. And every neighborhood hill I blithely barreled over in my van is intimately known to me through the pounding of my feet and the puffing of my breath. Viewing nature at a pace of 5-7 miles per hour gives you a completely different vantage point.
  2. I view food differently. I still eat way more junk food than I should. But I've started to view food as fuel, and to think about the components of my diet. I am mindful about what I put into my body: will this nourish me and help me be strong, not only as a runner but as a mother, writer, spouse, human being?
  3. I've found a community. I ran the first three years mostly solo but have been doing more group runs through the Springfield chapter of Moms RUN This Town. I've met wonderful people through running groups and races. You can be as extroverted or introverted as you want on a run. Eavesdrop on the conversation going on around you while you huff and puff away, or join in (which is a good way to know you aren't going too fast---you should be able to converse comfortably on your easy runs!). There's something magical about the things that get shared when everyone's looking straight ahead rather than at one another---there's both an intimacy and a sense of personal space. And there are few places more full of inspiration than at the finish line of a race. Whether it's the first runner or the last, or the one in the middle wearing the "I beat cancer" T-shirt, a finish line is a "thin place" where heaven draws near to earth.
  4. It's a spiritual discipline. By spiritual discipline, I mean that it's a practice that will teach you about yourself. It will shine a light on both your strengths and your vulnerabilities. There's nothing like a hilly race in 97% humidity to teach you what you fear, and what you have the power to overcome. Running can also connect you to something larger than yourself---whether that's God, nature, community, or a sense of your own smallness in the world. I recently ran with a couple of women, one of whom shared some deep stuff she'd been through. Afterward we all agreed that it felt like we'd been to church. Some members of my mama runners' group have jokingly called me the group chaplain and I happily accept that honor.
  5. Competition loses all meaning. So much of our culture pits us against one another--who's the smartest? the prettiest? the richest? And on a basic level, competitive sports are no different. If you run with someone, one of you will inevitably be faster than the other. But there's always a host of complicated factors at play in that: genetics, motivation, age, injuries, amount of free time to train, etc. Running teaches me (again and again, since I need to keep learning this) that it's ridiculous to compare yourself to others. There will always be someone faster than you, and slower than you. Even world record holders know that future generations will be breathing down their necks. All the more reason to set your own goals and run your own race.

I will celebrate National Running Day at the track on Wednesday morning, where I'm doing a mile time trial. I'm nervous about it---I did my first time trial in January, and I've been working really hard on speed and endurance since then. I know I will feel disappointed if I don't see any improvement. I also know I have the climate preferences of a polar bear---the heat and humidity just kill me. So I need to be kind to myself. Yet I don't want to let the summertime conditions be an excuse to accept less than my best. (See item #4 above---it's not just a time trial, it's a dang spiritual wrestling match!)

If you're in the Northern Virginia area and you'd like to run on National Running Day---or any other day---I'd love to run with you. Get in touch!

For other stuff I've written about running, click here. Or check out these specific posts:

I Am Neither Slow Nor Fast Grace in the Running Magazine

I Am Neither Slow Nor Fast.

54274601 Not long ago I was speaking to a group of pastors and church musicians. The focus of the conference was on small congregations--their particular gifts and challenges.

It's easy sometimes for small churches and their leaders to feel down about themselves. They often feel an abundance of the family vibe, but a scarcity of resources. They may have lots of down-to-earth authenticity but lack the programs and "flash" of larger churches.

After the presentation a man came up to me, thanked me for my comments, and handed me a small piece of paper. "This quote has really helped me keep things in perspective," he said.

Here it is:

Avoid adjectives of scale. You will love the world more and desire it less.

This is former poet laureate Robert Hass, paraphrasing the poet Basho. And I can see why this colleague has been carrying it around. It's been working on me for the past couple of months. I love the distinction between loving the world and desiring it. To love the world is to love what is, to experience contentment and joy. But desire... desire is insatiable. We are never satisfied.

Love is a hand, relaxed and open. Desire is a clutching fist.

Through the lens of this quote, I've been seeing anew how much of consumer culture centers around comparing ourselves to others---usually in a way that draws us up short.

Too fat. Too old. Not wealthy enough. Not white enough. Less popular. Not as talented.

Or we compare ourselves to our past selves:

I wish I had that body back. Look how many more wrinkles I have!  My marriage was more romantic back then. 

Of course it's fine to want to better ourselves. Last year I had only one running goal: to get faster. I didn't have specific time goals, I just wanted to improve. And I did: I achieved PRs (personal records) in three recent races of various distances recently. There's lots more room to grow, and I hope to finish the Marine Corps Marathon faster than I did Disney, even though it's a tougher course.

But why? If I'm pursuing these goals out of desire, I will never be satisfied. I will always be slow compared to someone. But if I set goals out of love for the sport and for discovering what this 43 year old body can do, I can't lose.

The running group I belong to uses Facebook to set up group runs and share running successes and challenges with one another. Without betraying the confidentiality of that space, we constantly check each other when using words like "slow." Slow, compared to what? To whom? Everyone's slow compared to Shalane Flanagan. Everyone's fast compared to someone sitting on the couch.

Part of what adjectives of scale do is put us in our place. Many of you know Brene Brown, professor of social work, writer, researcher on shame and wholeheartedness, and big sister I wish I'd had. She told Krista Tippett not long ago that shame hinges in two basic thoughts:

1. Not good enough. 2. Who do you think you are?


I wonder whether these messages are at work when the mama runners (including me) share a happy milestone, but feel compelled to add a qualifier: "I hit a great pace on this run--for me." "I ran X miles this month---but I know others are running even more." It's the tendency to downplay our own belovedness and to be much kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Other people's achievements are celebrated. Our own come with an asterisk.

Much better to say, "I felt strong on the hills." "I've improved a lot." "That was a crappy run, but I'll try again tomorrow." "I'm running X miles at Y pace this weekend; who wants to join me?" Much better to see ourselves as we are, and to describe that as faithfully and graciously as we can.

Captain Obvious: I'm not just talking about running anymore.

Sooner or later, whether due to age or other physiological factors, I will plateau and decline. And that's as it should be. Continuous growth is not sustainable for our planet; continuous improvement is not sustainable for a body, either. So I'm working on embracing the spirit of Gandalf, whose cheeky comment to Frodo (above) feels a lot like radical contentment. I am neither slow nor fast. I am the speed I am meant to be right now.

On Competition and the Church

medium_8947586993 I ran a race on Saturday morning, the Fairfax CASA Run for the Children. Our church has gotten connected to this organization, which provides volunteers to support abused and neglected children making their way through the court system. It was a beautiful day for a run, and we had 8 folks from Tiny Church participating in the 8K run and 3K run/walk.

I love road races for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones is that it gives me perspective on my competitive nature. I've always been competitive, which is strange since I'm not much of an athlete and never have been. So my competitiveness would come out in other ways: trying for first chair in the junior high choir, taking part in speech/drama events, and competing with the Academic Decathlon team.

A drive to improve and achieve can be an awesome thing. It can also be harmful to one's self and one's relationships. (Sometimes it's neither great nor harmful, it just shuts down the fun. Just ask Robert about The Canasta Incident.)

But road races are a great check on competitiveness. Half a mile into any race and you get how ridiculous it is to compare yourself to other people. Yes, there's a certain kick of motivation you get when you turn on the gas to pass someone. But how meaningful is that? For all you know, they're nursing an injury, or just started running a couple months before. (Then there was the woman who passed me in my first half marathon wearing a T-shirt that said, "I just finished chemo three days ago." Fierce!!)

I spent most of Saturday morning ten paces behind a guy who looked to be at least 75 years old. OK, that was a little depressing. Until I realized he's a living reminder that I can keep doing this for the next 30 years, maybe not breaking any speed records, but keeping fit and having fun.

The drive has to come from inside yourself, and be directed internally.

You'd think the church would be a good model for cooperation and mutual support, especially among clergy colleagues. We are educated in a theology of call in which it's all about "fit" and the work of the Holy Spirit. But it's complicated. Search committees still look for certain traits, whether overtly or subconsciously. The deck is still stacked against women and people of color. Sometimes youth is an asset; other times the congregation wants "experience." In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have cleared the way for LGBT people to be ordained, but it's a tougher sell in many congregations.

And as church membership rolls continue to shrink and full-time positions decrease, there will be more and more contention for fewer and fewer slots. If you're one of those folks whose livelihood is on the line, it's natural to read those glossy Meet Our New Pastor brochures and think, "Why did they choose that person and not me?" We take vows to be a friend to our colleagues in ministry, but jealousy rears its snarky, catty head. All the time.

This stuff was on my mind as I spent time with The Well last week. We have "tall steeple" pastors and pastors of small churches. We have folks who've been open to a new call for a long time, and others who frequently get contacted by churches even though they're happy where they are.

But just like the road race, it's silly to think comparatively. There are too many factors at play. Several of our members are geographically limited because of their spouses' jobs or other factors. Others have had the benefit of stay-at-home spouses who manage home life so the pastor can pursue a career more intensively. And then there's the fact that many of us simply don't want the kind of positions that others might clamor for. (God might surprise me, but I am having too much fun doing writing and part-time parish work to imagine going back to a full-time pastoral position.)

All that said, members of the Well have been in contention for the same ministry positions. This has happened at least five times in our six years together.

So far, we've weathered these situations well. We're not perfect at this, and it would be hubris to say that we're immune from the hurt or resentment that can come from being passed over, or the "survivor guilt" of being the one chosen. But we have learned some things along the way. Again, I offer our experience for the benefit of other colleague groups.

Transparency. Our norm is that if we find out another member is interviewing for the same position we are, we talk to that person. It's tricky because we don't always know, but we do our best. (Third parties who are in the know can help this along.) We picked this up from another group's experience. One year they met and had a member of the group come down at dinner time wearing a suit and heading off to an interview. The next day another person came down, similarly dressed... and off to an interview at the same church.

Grounding. Within the safe space our group, we see our role as to build one another up when a tough call is wearing the person down, AND to keep the person's ego in check when he or she starts to believe her own press. And outside of the group, we have that person's back 100%.

Increased Accountability. We've started talking about how we can hold one another accountable to good self-care and boundaries. We have a check-in time at the beginning of every week, but it's easy to gloss over the hard stuff. A member of the group suggested an intentional question to ask each person: Is there anything else going on that you need to tell us?

Discernment among Friends. When I was discerning whether to stand for vice moderator, I talked with members of The Well. All were helpful in making sure I was thinking well about the situation. And one person put it plain: Give me three reasons why you want to do this... and be honest. I am grateful to her.

What do you think? What is your experience?


photo credit: mino2006 via photopin cc

Find the Kenyan Within

Starting line! That was just one of the signs I saw while running the DC Rock and Roll Half Marathon, my first race of this length. There were also variations on that theme: "Run like the Kenyans, then drink like the Irish." (Hey, it was St. Patrick's Day weekend.)

Along those lines, saw several signs that said, "Worst Parade Ever."

The signs really do help pass the time. I noticed they got more PG-13 when we got to Adams Morgan. Lots of "That's What She Said."

Then there were signs riffing on a meme:


And then the two signs together: "You can do this!" right next to:


Biggest wow, yikes moment: running across the Memorial Bridge and seeing the metal teeth between the segments bouncing up and down. Power to the people!

Biggest OMG: the guy who was juggling beanbags while he ran. Even bigger OMG: passing him and seeing that he was wearing the blue bib, not the red. Yep, 26.2 miles of juggling.

Let me be an encouragement for anyone who would like to try this crazy sport. I am thankful for Facebook timeline because I can report that exactly two years ago, I started Couch to 5K, having never run before. Never. I was the nerdy kid in school, remember? So if I can do it, you can (assuming you don't have a condition that rules it out, of course). It's a cheap, convenient mode of exercise.

I get emotional sometimes during races. I don't sob when I cross the finish line or anything, but certain scenes or images will choke me up. It doesn't take much: the guy handing out Jolly Ranchers, or the other one giving out "free high fives." But the one that got me was the sign that said:

Trust Your Training.

Yes. Yes.

I had a short moment of doubt before the race started, then remembered that I'd already done the hard part: all those weekday and weekend runs to build up strength, endurance and awareness.

That said, I also like that there was some mystery to it. I'd never run more than 10 miles before Saturday. There was a surge of excitement when I got to that mile marker and still had a 5K to go. Beyond this place there be dragons.

If you struggle with the demons of competitiveness, as I do, races are a great way to exorcise them. There really is no way to measure oneself against anyone else. And no point. To whom would I compare myself? The woman with the T-shirt that said, "I just finished chemo 5 days ago"? Or the guy running with the knee brace? Or the person who's run since she was in high school? Or the person twice my age? Such calculations don't even make sense.

I did my best, and I had fun. Next stop: who knows?

What About Barsabbas? -- competition, the Olympics and faith

MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church July 22, 2012 Parables and Pop Culture: The Olympics Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

What About Barsabbas?

It's the beginning of the book of Acts and the beginning of a new chapter of ministry for the disciples. And with Judas out of the picture, there is a slot open among the twelve:

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, "Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus -- for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry." So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

After some prayer and the casting of lots, which was an ancient way of discerning the will of God, Matthias is chosen. Thus Matthias goes down in biblical history as one of the inner circle, one of the twelve disciples. By contrast, Barsabbas is so utterly forgotten that when I mentioned the title of the sermon to someone this week he said, “Don’t you mean Barabbas?” (the criminal that Pilate released in place of Jesus).

Poor Barsabbas. He is the first runner-up to the most elite circle of apostles of the church, and yet he’s less well known than a common criminal—a murderer, even.

Matthias is chosen… and Barsabbas is not.

I wonder what made things go Matthias’s way.

Admittedly, I have Olympic fever right now, but I wonder... did Matthias just... train harder? Did he want it more?

Was it a close call between the two men? A photo finish? Like the photo on the cover of the bulletin (above), were Matthias and Barsabbas so similar in gifts for ministry that the others couldn’t choose, so they decided to cast lots? (Casting lots is not unlike flipping a coin—which incidentally was what the US Olympic officials considered doing in the case of the tie on the front cover.)

Whatever the circumstances, Matthias is in and Barsabbas is out. And we don't know how Barsabbas responded, but let's hope he accepted the news graciously. Maybe he scheduled a press conference following the disciples' time trials and said, “I’ll try again in four years for a chance to serve on this incredible team. In the meantime I’m going to keep training and running the race God has set out for me.”

The Olympic Games are coming, a spectacle that’s one of the most compelling displays of competition we have. But that sense of competition is pervasive in our world, not just in the Olympics. We live in a competitive, achievement-oriented culture. I imagine some of us here in this sanctuary relish competition and push ourselves hard to do well.

Perhaps there are others of you who don’t have the competitive urge. And yet all of us, I suspect, long to have a sense that we matter—that our gifts are important and valued. It feels good to be acknowledged and affirmed. So I can’t help but wonder whether Barsabbas felt at least a little stung by being passed over. I don’t think we would blame him a bit; it’s a very human response, even if the thought of “competing” with Matthias never once crossed his mind. We've all felt that sting, whether it's being the last one chosen for the pick-up game at recess, or not getting the job we thought we were perfect for.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about competition as it relates to faith. I’m not sure how competition and faith jive theologically, because competition is so often framed around scarcity, about striving for one spot. The Olympics will captivate us for days and days, in no small part because there will be winners and losers, grand victories and bitter defeats. People will run and row and swim and shot-put their hearts out, and in the end only three individuals or teams will stand on those podiums. No matter how fast all of the runners are, only one will win the gold.

And no matter what Barsabbas’s good points, only one person fills the empty slot among the twelve.

There's a scarcity mentality at work. (I know twelve is a holy number, but they couldn't have thirteen disciples?) And scarcity lies beneath our economic system too—businesses compete for a finite set of customers, individuals compete for a finite set of jobs… Yet theologically it’s hard to square this kind of competition with the promise of abundant life in Jesus Christ.

Competition is a tricky concept biblically as well. Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ suggests a partnership—like parts of a human body, we work together for the good of the whole.

“Can the eye say to the hand, ‘I’m better than you’? ”

Or how about the fruit of the spirit?

“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,”


“Pain, gain, ruthlessness, relentlessness, scarcity, opposition, obsessiveness, rivalry.”

So where does that leave those of us who thrive on hearty, no-holds-barred competition? Or who love to watch it, as so many billions of people across the world will do over the next few weeks? Is competition even appropriate if we are to follow the One who was humble in his strength, who went willingly to the cross, who had all the power in the world, the power to save himself but did not?

This is personal for me, because I have a competitive streak. Not so much in sports, but in academics… and board games. Just ask Robert about what we’ve come to call The Canasta Incident.

A competitive drive can encourage us to work hard, to pursue goals with determination and vigor, but competition can also become an obsession.

Some years ago I was talking about my competitive tendencies to a friend and mentor, and just wishing that I could stop being that way when my mentor said, “Stop trying not to be competitive. That is part of who you are. Just figure out how to take that competitive nature and use it to God’s glory.”

Her words changed my perspective on this issue. Is it possible for a competitive nature to be a gift to God? Maybe it is, provided we do it in the right way and for the right reasons, and with the proper regard for others.

As I see it, there still aren’t many biblical models for Christian competition, but there is one, in Roman 12: “outdo one another in showing honor.” This passage is often read at weddings, and it serves as a reminder to spur one another on to do better and better. “Outdo one another in showing honor,” not for one’s own glory or to lord it over someone else, but to the glory of God and in thanksgiving for God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ.

In a world in which the events of Aurora, Colorado are possible---what could be more important than striving to outdo one another in showing honor, grace and love?

Maybe Paul's words can be a guide for all of us. Whether your life’s work is being an elder in the church or raising children or working in an office or playing sand volleyball, that’s work that God has given you and it’s worth your very best effort. Eric Liddell famously said in Chariots of Fire: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

That's the famous line. But he also said:

“You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It's hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul.”

I wonder whether we can watch the upcoming games in London not just as an opportunity to see feats of strength and strategy and speed, but as parables---stories that inspire us to bring our best effort to the work to which God calls us, whatever the result of that effort might be.

In preparation for this sermon I asked you all for your favorite Olympic stories. Some people shared stories of incredible athletic prowess. My favorite example was Bob Beamon, who broke the world record for long jump in 1968 in Mexico City. Records in this sport are broken inches at a time, but Beamon broke the record by almost two feet. The only proper response to an event like that is awe… awe at seeing something truly transcendent.

But most of the Olympic stories that we cherish aren’t about breaking records. They are about triumph over adversity, or succeeding despite the odds… even if success does not mean a gold, silver or bronze.

When I think about “Outdoing one another in showing honor,” I think about Ashley Nee and Caroline Queen, who have trained together for years in the sport of kayaking. They are close friends, and they talk about how their friendship and competition spur one another on to do their best. They are happy for one another’s successes and mourn each other’s losses. They both made the Olympic team this year.

Or remember Dan Jansen, the gifted speed skater. Jansen won a gold medal in 1994 and set a world record. But it was his performance in 1988 that captured our hearts, when he skated in memory of his sister, who had died that very day of leukemia. He skated, and fell… but he won the Olympic Spirit award that year.

May we run the race that is ours to run, to paraphrase Paul... and may we outdo one another in showing honor.

We don’t know what became of old Barsabbas, the first alternate to Jesus’ Olympic Team of Twelve, but I like to believe that he persisted in his ministry. He wasn’t in it for glory and recognition anyway.

And that is good news. Because the truth is, we are all Barsabbas. Whether we’re wired for competition or not, we all fall short. There is always someone smarter, quicker, more successful… or more spiritual, more fluent in the Bible, more dedicated. And yet, we persist in “running the race,” and we strive for excellence in all that we do for God.

Consider the Olympic marathon race in 1968 in Mexico City. [story from the August 2012 Runners World] A runner from Ethiopia won that year, finishing the 26 miles in 2:20. One hour later, after the stadium had mostly emptied and only a few thousand spectators remained, a Tanzanian athlete named John Stephen Akhwari loped into the ring. He had fallen hard at some point in the race and his knee was badly hurt.

Medics were begging him to quit but he would not. He broke into a halting, painful jog, to a smattering of applause. As he continued around the track, injured but undeterred, toward the finish line, that applause grew into a wild crescendo. This was not the Olympic champion, the applause was saying; this is the Olympic spirit incarnate. Akhwari finished in 3 hours 25 minutes, more than 19 minutes after any other runner.

Later Akhwari would be asked why he did not stop, given the seriousness of his injury. He answered, “My country did not send me 11,000 kilometers to start the Olympic Marathon. They sent me here to finish it.”

And so he did.

And so may we.

My Kid Won't Swim the Olympics

Caroline competes each summer with our pool's swim team, and last week their coaches had given them an assignment to watch some of the Olympic time trials held in Omaha. It was fun to watch elite athletes swimming at the top of their game and to listen to Caroline's observations about the different strokes.

I took particular note of Davis Tarwater, who was once described as one of the best swimmers never to make an Olympic squad. The announcers last week noted that he has a 30 hour a week job designing banking software for third-world countries. I wondered how having a job like that impacted his ability to train at the highest level. As it happened, he failed to make the team in all three events he attempted, only getting a slot in 200 m freestyle after Michael Phelps opted not to swim that event in London.

Don't get me wrong--Tarwater is an elite athlete, holding a national record. And it sounds like he feels a sense of mission around his "day job"--I don't think he's doing it for the money. But it was a reminder for me of the roles that circumstance and privilege play in achievement.

The other day our swim coaches posted the ladder with the kids' times thus far. In the 9-10 age group, Caroline is currently 6th in freestyle and backstroke and 4th in breaststroke and butterfly. Caroline is a good swimmer technically, and she loves the sport. She's had some fun victories and finishes this season, but she is not in the top tier of her teammates. Then again, she's competing against kids who play various sports year-round, including kids who swim competitively for a program that is supposed to be amazing but costs almost $2,000 a year.

The pressure to achieve, to give one's kids the best of everything, is huge around here. As a mother, I am in it, even as I disdain it. I felt a little torn when I read the ladder this weekend. If we had the time, energy and money to invest in her swimming, maybe she would move up from the middle of the pack. But we just don't have the extra bandwidth to make that happen. I already push my job to the limits of its flexibility; I wrote last week's sermon on deck at the pool, for heaven's sake. One of those elite swim programs meets at 4:30 in the morning. Yes, you read that right.

Caroline doesn't seem all that interested in upping the intensity of her swimming, so I'm certainly not going to push it. This post isn't really about swimming. Rather I'm struggling with how we talk to our kids about privilege. How do we understand our own privilege? How do we frame competitive events like a swim team in a way that encourages kids to do their best, while acknowledging that some kids have an advantage by virtue of circumstance?

And can we explain all of this to our kids in a way that doesn't foster bitterness, but rather a hunger for justice? I don't want my kids to resent the only child with the mom who can devote time and energy to driving them to extra practices. But I do want them to wonder about kids who don't even have the advantages we do. Our upper middle class swim problems are small potatoes; read this article that profiles six people who live at the different levels of income disparity in the U.S. and extrapolate it out. You think competitive swim team is expensive? Have you checked out four year colleges lately? What does all of this look like for the Pallwitz kids (page 3 in the article), whose parents are barely making ends meet? What will achievement look like for them?

When the playing field is uneven at many levels, what does it mean to "do well"?

On the Eve of FFW

I leave this evening for the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, a gathering I've been hearing about for years but never been able to attend. I'm eager to soak it all in, hear some inspiring speakers, deepen friendships, and network. If I'm feeling extroverted enough, my little box of Sabbath in the Suburbs postcards will be empty when I come home.

I've been to tons of writing things over the years: workshops, conferences and such. They provide a huge boost of energy and mojo. And if there is a lot of posturing and jockeying for attention, they can also bring out demons of competitiveness. I can't account for why these group dynamics occur in some gatherings and not in others. Probably a chemistry thing---one or two people can really shift things into an unhealthy place. With any luck and grace, I am not one of those people.

However, there's no denying that I am a person of ambition. I thrive on competition, particularly in academic pursuits. When this is channeled inwardly---when the competition is with myself---it's a great source of motivation. When it's not, well, let's just say that Robert and I still do not speak of The Canasta Incident.

This has been a topic of discussion and reflection for me recently. You know how themes and ideas will keep coming to you when you're working something out? That has happened to me. I appreciated this article by my friend Becky, who wrote about healthy ways to be driven to develop one's skills.

And a friend shared this article about two best friends who are highly competitive in the area of Olympic-level kayaking. The relationship spurs them on to be better and better. I find this thrilling and hopeful:

Both Ashley and Caroline are training hard - the former near her home in Maryland, and the latter down in North Carolina. Caroline says it'll be tough to face each other at the upcoming Olympic trials, since "we both want to be number one."

But if nothing else, she says, it'll strengthen their friendship... and their skills.

"It's a very positive thing," she says. "We push each other."

Ashley agrees: "Ideally this year we're pushing each other to get to that next level, to be able to compete with this international crew. Ideally, we're training each other for the Games."

I have been blessed to have mentors and spiritual directors who have said to me, "Stop trying not to be competitive or ambitious. Instead, keep pondering how to use that gift in a life-giving way." Unhealthy competition means comparing oneself to others, making one's self-worth about achievement, and being selfish and unsupportive. Healthy competition believes in abundance: one person's achievement does not diminish another person's; there is room for many offerings of gifts. It also means striving for personal excellence in one's life, art, or whatever.

After all, competition is scriptural! Paul writes that we are to outdo one another... in showing honor.

So be it.