Running in the Dark

A while back, I was participating in a continuing education/spiritual development retreat. I was gathered with a bunch of freshly-minted pastors in a large camp out in the middle of nowhere, as we were required to do about once a month.

During the few hours in the evenings without scheduled programming, my colleagues and I would find various things to do. There were usually games of some sort in our common area, and some people would make a trip into the nearest town for cell service or forgotten toiletries or a late-night snack.

The particular week of this gathering was, for me, right in the middle of quite a busy season. I knew I would need to be on my A-game as soon as I got back into the hustle and bustle of life at home, so I wanted to maximize the ‘retreating’ I was able to do. With a long to-do list lingering in the back of my mind, I decided I would go for a late night run.

Running for me is an enjoyable hobby. I am not particularly good at it, and I am not especially fast. But I find it to be paradoxically relaxing; there is something about running that allows my mind to focus on nothing and everything all at the same time. In the seasons of my life that I am most busy, then, running is especially important for me.

It was well past 10 PM by the time I headed out. Just outside of our cabins there was a lighted and paved path, and I knew that it made a loop of about a mile around the camp. I decided that evening to leave my cell phone back at the cabin, figuring the poor cell service would mean I could not use the phone to stream music for my run as I often do. What a cool opportunity, I thought, to be unplugged from everything. Just me and the open road and the stars in the night sky!

This, however, turned out to be my first mistake. Because it turns out the path I was running on only has lights for about the first 100 yards. I might have known that if I’d ever bothered to look at the path before, but I was a little caught off guard when the lights suddenly ended. And by a little caught off guard, I mean I couldn’t see anything.

It was a moonless night, and out in the middle of nowhere it was dark. Real dark. Like, I can hardly see the edges of the path I’m running on dark.

My second mistake was that I didn’t turn around to get a flashlight or grab my phone. I thought my eyes would adjust (they didn’t) or the moon might magically decide to come out for the evening (it didn’t).

While I was running in the dark at a snail’s pace (which is only slightly slower than my usual jog), I began to reflect on the mistakes I’d made. And I thought I’d share a couple of those reflections with you.

In the darkness, I began to reflect on the difference between freedom and independence. These words are often thrown around in our day and age, both in church circles and elsewhere. Sometimes they are used interchangeably, but as I was running I thought there might some important nuance between the terms. In the Christian sense, to live in freedom is to live with the assurance that God knows and forgives and loves us. We have a tremendous amount of freedom to act autonomously within a system – a set of guidelines on what it means to be a disciple. It involves having a particular relationship with God and with others.  As far as faith is concerned, however, to live in independence is to pretend that we are our own gods and that we can do and act and live in whatever way feels most gratifying to us in the moment. It implies that my whole goal is to watch out for myself regardless of what my community, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience provide as guidance. (Paul Young provides a brilliant and intuitive analysis of this kind of independence in his book The Shack.)

Freedom is taking time in the evening to go for a run; independence is refusing to use the good tool of portable light to guide my way.

And here’s what I learned from that: there are consequences to going your own way. The first is that it is ultimately slow and hard slogging. If we want to make it further into the goodness and beauty of life that God has imagined for us, we are wise to use the good lights available for the path.

Another consequence is that it is a bit dangerous. Of course, going at life as a Christian doesn’t isolate us from the dangers or the ugly parts of life, but it does help illuminate some tripping hazards. It also provides the tools to move forward when life catches us off guard. I realized while I was running that night that any pothole or rough seam in the asphalt would have sent me tumbling into an injury that could be pretty devastating. I also realized I’d be pretty upset with myself if I had to limp my way alone back to the cabin.

Here’s an interesting thing about that danger, though: I spent a lot of time guarding against hazards that may or may not be real. I was running slow to avoid potholes, but it turns out there weren’t any. (There was that one fallen branch though…) When we live a go-it-your-own-way kind of life, we end up worrying over things that aren’t even there. In faith, it means we spend time fearing God and neighbor instead of serving both. Elsewhere, I think the American concept of rugged individualism too often promotes unnecessary fear of what someone else might be plotting or pursuing against us.

Also, my timid running and desperate attempt to make sense out of the darkness prevented me from clearing my head like I had envisioned. It also prevented me from noticing the beauty of the stars and the night around me. And that’s how it goes in life: when we insist on running in the dark, we miss a lot of the beauty around us.

After an embarrassingly long time, I finished slogging the loop. I was more tired than I ought to have been and feeling a bit foolish. But I made a quick detour back to my room and grabbed my phone for the flashlight. I returned to the path for a second time around, and it went much better. And perhaps this is my final reflection from running in the dark: life is full of opportunities to begin again. Often in life, we are presented with the occasion to make things right through a second chance. And if we’re willing to learn from our experiences in the dark, that second chance will go a whole lot easier than when we are running in the dark.