My journey toward faith began with an iPod.
It was an unlikely and auspicious start to a faith journey. At that point in my life, I had wandered aimlessly through the world of “spiritual but not religious,” a relatively new term at the time that I liked. I still prayed, albeit rarely, and I thought of myself as having some sort of spirituality to me, but one that was best left undefined. To offer definition drove me into the realm of organized religion, which is where spirituality went wrong, in my thinking at the time.
I had great reason to believe in this. The church that raised me had hurt me deeply and college had revealed to me just how narrow-minded and problematic their theology was. On the one hand, I grew up believing in a God who looked down on my sin with a certain tyranny because my sin would drive me away from God and away from God’s blessings. If I wasn’t at peace, it was the result of some sin in my life that I had to do something about. If I wanted to get some money for something, the problem was the sin in my life. On the other hand, this God supposedly loved me as I was and wanted the best for me, but only if I met certain standards of morality. That morality, turns out, was paramount in the teaching but not in lifestyle, for the church quickly proved that it did not live into its own morality.
Faced with such hypocrisy, I rejected organized religion all together. If God was real, God could not be a tyrant. I believed too much in the power of love and the idea that love could conquer the world. Perhaps, God was simply an outdated metaphor for that love? At that phase of life, I never did sufficiently answer that question; it was enough to think that it could possibly be true. So, I went about my life, occasionally playing the role of devout Christian as social convention demanded, thinking that God was perhaps love and that, anyway, my chief role was to love others as best I could. And I could do that probably without God.
Then came the iPod. At that moment in my life, it crashed my intellectual pursuit of religion.
The iPod led me to go running, frequently. I wanted a use for the iPod and I was tired of being fat. So, I went running, doing a rudimentary and early version of a couch to 5k. Running, I quickly discovered, is super painful. I was constantly out of breath, sometimes after only a few hundred feet, and on my small college campus, that was super embarrassing. Running turned out to create physical pain and the pain of humiliation.
Music formed an escape from the pain. I tried playlists and music with a heavy beat to get me into the groove of running, but the beat just served to prove how out of shape I was as I could not keep up. One night, somehow, I turned over to Coldplay and began listening to their newest album, A Rush of Blood to the Head. Running remained painful, but somehow Coldplay muted the pain.
Future runs found me listening to slow Mumford and Sons-style music from local bands, more Coldplay, U2’s more thoughtful music, and other such slow, methodical, pieces. In the fourteen years I have run since, such music has formed the backdrop to all my runs, with Dave Matthews Band and Mumford and Sons now often featured.
Such music, in terms of its slow tempo and much less than throbbing beat, does not lend itself to running, but I found it a distraction from the pain of running because such music, while running, became magic for my soul.
As I listened closely to the lyrics, my head could not help but begin to really examine questions like whether or not God is simply an outdated metaphor for love. My head wandered from there to questions of God’s existence, of the nature of religion, of the nature of my spirituality, of my experiences, now painful and scarred, with religion, and of what I was learning in college that stimulated my thinking.
Very often, I went running after dark, in the evening, and would find myself staring up at a beautiful night sky on our rural college campus, thinking deeply about the nature of life and existence. Aided by lyrics by the likes of Bono and Chris Martin, I would find my way not to some new and astounding truth, but into the recesses of my soul, into some untapped depth of which I had little previous awareness.
The iPod revealed faith to me.
Faith came on these runs not as a conscious choice, for that would be belief. Faith came as an admission, a realization, that I had a depth to me that needed attention and examination.
At the time, I could offer no explanation to this depth. It simply was and the only way I knew to nourish it, to give it the attention it demanded, was to run.
So I ran, frequently. I wish I could say I lost all sorts of weight, but my discipline did not yet extend to my eating habits. But while my waistline may have remained more or less the same, my faith developed.
Often, it seems we speak of developing faith as an intellectual exercise. We read our Bibles, or we read religious material, or we study some religious book or doctrine, or we have some deep spiritual conversation over coffee with a friend, and declare that our faith has been developed. Perhaps that does occur sometimes during these intellectual moments, but they remain simply that: moments of the intellect, moments of our brains conforming to a conscious choice to believe in the existence of something divine, however loosely or definitively we define it. This is the development not of faith, but of belief.
The development of faith can never be an intellectual exercise because faith is not intellectual. The intellect resides in the realm of logic. When we reason our way through spiritual issues, when we try and discern some great truth by applying logic, we do theology. Such is a powerful tool in religions, for reason has given Christianity the Trinity, it has developed a sophisticated and powerful understanding of self-awakening in Buddhism, and had similar effects in other religions. We need not check our brains at the door when engaging in the life of the spirit.
But faith demands that we engage more than just our brain. Faith demands that we engage our depth. The Psalmist declares “deep calls to deep,” revealing a truth that I experienced on my runs. There’s a depth to the human experience that can be accessed and experienced even as it defies definition and reason. Channeling into that depth, experiencing it, finding our way to it, requires practice and a conduit. For me, running formed the first conduit.
It formed a conduit first, as I recall, through Coldplay’s song Clocks. It’s gorgeous and hypnotic piano melody spoke into my very being, into my soul. I cannot explain how it speaks to my depth, seems to lift me up and affirm my existence through experiencing a certain melodic intoxication, and yet it does.
Running formed a conduit in the same way through the lyrics of Bono, as he discussed shining like a light in City of Blinding Lights or as he painted a picture of extreme poverty and the human need for response in Where the Streets Have No Name. Gradually, as I ran, these lyrics became not places for my intellect to dwell, but for the depth of me to find its home, affirming my humanity and my responsibility to affirm the humanity of others. I did not consciously think of these things; rather, I felt them in a deep, powerful, and affirming way. These realities became a part of who I am, rather than something I believe.
My depth, my soul, began to find its home in the early spiritual mentors of Bono and Coldplay. I had grown up thinking that the soul’s home was in a particular religiosity, following a moral code for the benefit of myself so that I could receive the wisdom and blessings of God. My religious upbringing taught me that my soul should be pure of anything worldly that intoxicated it with poor behavioral choices or images that could destroy my relationship with God. The soul, then, was something to guard, first and foremost, and then, in guarding, I would find the blessings from God.
And yet, running with secular music, I discovered the affirmation my soul desired in the lyrics, in the melodies, and in the night sky that somehow sparkled with its magic as I ran. My soul, my depth, needed no guarding; indeed, guarding it against the secular world to experience God guarded me against experiencing God in the world. For I began to discover that God is in the world: in the secular music, in art that speaks to and affirms our very existence, and in creation like in the night sky.
Rather, my soul needed to find conduits, things that opened me up to experience the depths of my soul. My upbringing religiously had taught me about my soul as an intellectual exercise: what I did with my mind affected my soul. I discovered that disconnecting my mind to experience my soul as its own entity opened me up to a whole new, inexplicable, and yet very real, world.
Even now, it defies a certain explanation. I can more easily explain how to access the soul than I can explain what the soul is.
And yet, my runs led me to early experiences of this very real part of existence. In the first chapter, I referred to this as faith, as the irrational side of existence. While irrational, it remains real and powerful. So much so, that life, lived engaging this irrationality, becomes gradually more peaceful, more grace-filled, and more loving.
And so, I continue to run.