We moved to Oxford eight years ago so that I could be the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University. We left behind family and friends that made the move difficult. Of course, now, eight years later, we’ve made some long-lasting friendships.
One of the hardest parts of leaving my work at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina was my three-times-a-week tennis outing with a dear friend and colleague. It was more than just exercise or even competition. A friendship was strengthened and a devotion to taking care of our bodies was practiced. It became one of the most treasured parts of each week.
We moved to Oxford in the summer and knew no one. Most faculty were away from campus, a few staff were around, and there were no students since we don’t have summer school. And I was without my weekly practice of tennis and friendship. It was challenging.
Because I knew I needed to find some kind of routine that included regular exercise, I took up running. Running, I knew, didn’t require a whole lot. Besides a decent pair of shoes, I didn’t need special equipment, and running didn’t require me to have a partner. So, I laced up my tennis shoes and walked out the door.
I’ve never hated something so much in my life. That was my exact thought that first summer morning I got up before the sun became unbearable and started running. Actually, walking would be more accurate. I ran for maybe three minutes before I had to stop. Then I would walk for five. Run two more. Walk seven more. Well, you get the point.
Somehow I kept running…and walking. It took a whole year almost before I could really run for three miles without walk breaks. The day I was able to run the entire distance of a 5K is one I’ll probably always remember. What an accomplishment.
But I wasn’t convinced of running just yet. I still loathed getting up early in the morning. I hadn’t yet entered my first race or found others with whom I could share this new sport. I just kept at it because I knew it was good for my body.
And then it happened. I remember the morning clearly. I was running down Wesley Street in the city of Oxford past Old Church and then rounded Richardson Street and on to the Oxford Historic Cemetery. As I ran through that cemetery and the sun started to rise and break free from the clouds, I had a moment. It almost stopped me in my tracks, but I was dedicated to my running at that point and didn’t stop.
It was a spiritual moment. The discipline of running, the sun breaking free, the spirits of all the lives in that cemetery, my dedication to this new practice that had become routine — all of this made it a spiritual moment. I felt the presence of the holy and suddenly realized that running had become devotional. It had become spiritual. It still is seven years later.
I had read about things like this in my Runners World magazine, but I hadn’t felt it or experienced it. I kept at it for so long, because I needed to exercise. It had begun to feel good physically. And now, all of a sudden, it was spiritual.
After that experience I began running in races, especially ones where I knew the other people running too. I helped start a running group at the college that still exists today so that we could create community around a shared practice.
Last month I wrote that we are what we love. Sometimes we have to start things that we don’t actually love but that we know are good for us. And, when we keep doing them, when they become a habit that we regularly practice, there is the potential for them to shape our lives and eventually we are what we love.
We are called to pay attention, to live with intention so that what we love will lead us to live whole lives where we are able to flourish. When we do this we’re more likely to create communities where we look out for each other and the earth. Where human flourishing is our daily goal.
Rev. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University. You can find him running in the city of Oxford about three times a week.