Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Evangelical Runner

I go to church. Do you go to church?

I’m a Christian. I’ve pretty much always been a Christian. I grew up in Italy, where I landed in the second half of the 1970s. Everybody in Italy was a Christian in the 1970s…
…and I was no exception. Born in Sheffield in December 1975, I moved to Italy around six weeks later and I was baptised on February 8, 1976, a shocking 59 days later. Catholic rules in Italy stipulated a maximum gap of eight days – my excuse is that I spent my first six weeks in Sheffield, so tough!
Anyway – that’s how it works. Not that there were any regular churchgoers in my house: the nearest thing was my dad’s dad, my Nonno, and even he didn’t go every Sunday. His wife, my Nonna, has probably averaged three masses/week since he passed away, but that’s a different story…

…anyway, I grew up a Catholic. My nursery school was run entirely by nuns, although I don’t think that’s why my time there was short: I just missed my Mum too much. Aaahhh… Well, spending more time at home with Mum helped me with my English: who knows, that may come in handy at some point. Cosa ne pensate?

From the age of around six I was an altar boy at the imposing church of Nostra Signora della Rosa (correct, Our Lady of the Rose) (I never did ask if it was the white rose… probably not… darn!)

…anyway, my best friends from school were altar boys; I wanted to be an altar boy. My Dad had to forego one of the few local races to take me to church for my debut… I have no recollection of the service, I just remember Dad bemoaning my sense of timing as it clashed with the ‘Michelina’. And still he took me. God bless..!

I was an altar boy for a good eight years or so, I guess. Midnight masses, holding the bishop’s incense, mitre or… you know, that long stick-like thing, over the years I undertook every job in town. For the special late-night services we’d get a ‘pinguino’ ice cream afterwards, where a standard ice cream is dipped into white or brown chocolate – delightful. But that was a twice-yearly treat: most Sundays we made do with a free kids’ weekly magazine, “Il Giornalino”. You could make good money trekking around town with the local vicar during the month when he’d visit each and every household in his parish to bless it by madly shaking some holy water around, mind: you’d only get two of those days as there were plenty of altar boys amongst whom share the duties, and certain routes were hardly fought over due to the above-average generosity of its inhabitants. As you grew in seniority, you grew increasingly richer, your pockets by the end of the afternoon overflowing with thousands of… well, lire. I used to be a millionaire, you know… blinkin’ Euro! Anyroad…
…happy days! Oh, and I won two “Torneo dei Campanili”, the local altar boys’ football tournament whose final was held at the local seminary. I played right-back in a side so full of attacking talent that I hardly ever had anything to do, although I do remember flooring an opposing winger with a malicious kick in the side of the leg as he went past me in one final. All the religious teachings I’d learned at church were gazumped by my Dad’s wise words: “The man can get past you, the ball can get past you, but not both”. ’Av’it.

In all my thirteen years of school in Italy, a crucifix hovered over the teachers’ desk, Jesus’ resting head looking down upon them all. Somehow it never fell crashing down on any teacher’s head. He must have approved of their teachings.

So… that’s the first eighteen of my relationship with Christianity covered. Then I moved to the UK…

…where I remained a Catholic during my student days in Sheffield. Then I moved to Earl’s Court, London for the summer of ’98 and found it convenient to attend services at St. Jude’s in Courtfield Gardens, on my doorstep (if you can have something on your doorstep when you’re living in a basement apartment). The vicar was one David Stone, who (presumably on the back of his success with yours truly) has since moved on to the impressive role of Canon Precentor at Coventry Cathedral – whatever it is a precentor does. Is it not a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment for a disease or other medical condition intended to deceive the recipient? Maybe not.
Anyway yes, summer of ’98. I liked what David had to say and I liked the nature of his services. I appreciated the more discursive nature of his preaching compared to the more imposing style I had heard for many a year in Catholic churches. I felt I was in an environment where ‘faith’ was more important than ‘religion’, where substance mattered more than customs, and I embraced that. He was kind enough to spend some time with me to discuss the differences between Catholicism and Anglicanism and all the kinder, twelve months later, to accept me into the Church of England. You can’t be baptised twice, see… water shortages and all that.

So there you go: as of 1999, I am officially a Protestant. My Dad wasn’t overly enamoured with the change but then he’s not exactly an ‘active’ Catholic. At the time it might have seemed like one of my petty acts against all things Italian, but even I would not allow what to me was always banter (if not always expressed with humour or grace) to impact my religion.

In 2005 I started dating Karen. You probably already know that we met online, so long before we’d set loving eyes upon each other we knew that we were both Christians. Just to add another shade to the rainbow, Karen comes from a Baptist background and indeed it was in her local Baptist church in Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol that we exchanged vows and rings. Soon after that we joined Gordano Valley Church, which is a…
…oh I’m not sure. Most people would say ‘evangelical’; we are told to say ‘non-denominational’ or ‘independent’. Whatever the label, it’s a kind of church I’d heard about but never come across. The congregation meets in a school, for starters. I say ‘congregation’… the correct term may be ‘members’, I’m not entirely sure. People are allowed to talk publicly during the service, share thoughts, prayers and stuff – which you may occasionally see in a CoE church, but certainly not in a Catholic one! Anyway… I’m done with labels now, I just embrace the term ‘Christian’ and don’t dig too deep into the detail. It’s too much hassle.

Why am I telling you all this? Why, it’s simple!

See, every Sunday (OK – “most Sundays”) I am part of a congregation which features many believers happy to raise their hands, share their thoughts, wave flags, proclaim the glory of The Lord. I struggle with that. I only raise my hands at Springsteen concerts and keep most thoughts to myself or share them solely in quiet discussions. As for the proclaiming bit… again, I believe in the glory of Lord The Almighty, but I’m not one for shouting it to the seven seas. It’s not… what I do. Even now, behind the safety of a keyboard, I’m self-restricted by nature to fairly placid language… it’s who am I, what I am. And unashamedly so. I’m not a shouter, though I’ll sit down over a drink to discuss anything and everything. Does that make sense?

Now… about this running stuff…

…you should of course be aware that I can’t stand running. Indeed, I only (reluctantly) embraced it at the ripe old age of 36, having turned up my nose at it when my Dad first wanted me to embrace it…

…and isn’t that true for so many about religion?! Many members of my church embraced faith in their adult years. As a result, they seemingly have a burning desire to vigorously share their story and their faith that I lack. Take away the ‘vigorously’ and I’m fine: the paragraphs above prove that! But it’s still something I do softly-softly, not through any weakness in my beliefs but purely as a reflection of my personality and, most likely, the fact that I cannot recall a time when I wasn’t a Christian. I was never struck by lightning on the road to Damascus, although that could be because I’ve never been to Damascus. For me, being a Christian (both technically and in reality) was part of life, part of me: and I say that with gratitude rather than the resentment others may feel about the ‘technical’ side of things.

I have noticed, however, that where running is concerned I shed those inhibitions. So when someone I’ve never met tweeted, some months back, that she wished she had “a personal trainer”, I suggested she get two – one for each foot! We exchanged a few tweets and she now runs three times a week… I keep checking on her, see…
…similarly, other people have credited my story with them trying out running. Because, no matter what the press would like you to think, it’s not the likes of Mo Farah that inspire adults to run. Kids, maybe: seeing Seb Coe (as he was back then) win gold in L.A. in 1984 gave me an adrenaline rush, it just didn’t last long. But sane, responsible, time-constrained, weight-unconstrained adults are not going to watch a skinny bloke run 5k in 13’41”66 and think: “Oh yes, I can do that!”. Because they can’t. If anything, such feats can be disheartening. Knowing that an overweight middle-aged bloke who spends most of his time sat on his arse in front of a keyboard lost 4st and has run a half-marathon in under two hours… now that’s more likely to strike a chord. Or so I’m told…

…by people who credit me with them giving running a go. People who ask me for advice on Facebook or Twitter the way I have done with many a folk on there. And guess what, I’m delighted to oblige. I may even reach out to people in the first instance when I read they are looking to “get fitter” or “lose weight”, because I know now that running can do that. Not for everybody, of course: circumstances vary, bodies vary. But I know that I could never have lost 4st without running (and hey, I’d have settled for half that!), no matter what diet I followed, and that I can run a half-marathon on any given day and will run a marathon… well, one day (April 28, 2013).

Not only do I know that, but I willingly share it with that same vigour with which believers who have embraced their faith of their own volition later in life share their religious beliefs. Don’t get me wrong: I am pleased to have grown up in a Christian environment, to have had my Christian faith as an ever-present companion along this rocky road for as long as I can remember. We’ve always enjoyed a comfortable relationship, like a smelly foot and an old slipper (or would sandal be more appropriate?). The flip side is that I don’t have that burning need to talk about it: it’s just the way it is, there is nothing exceptional about me believing in God – it’s part of my fabric, always has been. But me running – now that is extraordinary and, therefore, worthy of sharing. Hence this blog, hence by Facebook statuses, hence my tweets… and indeed hence many a face-to-face conversation I’ve had with people enquiring after my health, my weight-loss or just why it was they saw me running in the wind and rain before sunrise. And believe me, it’s not because I enjoy it! I can’t stand it!!!

Which, incidentally, ties back into my faith. I do enjoy it, but enjoyment is not my driver. I’ve often told folk “happiness is over-rated” and will continue to do so. Indeed, the last person to whom I made that not-as-flippant-as-many-of-mine comment was someone from church whom we saw briefly after Christmas. She had attended a midnight carol service at one of the local Anglican churches and had been disappointed with its old-fashioned nature. I guess I was astounded by her astonishment as she was by the service. What she described sounded awesome to me: an old building, a structured service, no impromptu contributions, no kids screaming… I like our church and I love many of the people we’ve met there, I am truly grateful for the love, kindness and help they have brought into our lives, but ultimately I’m far more comfortable in a more traditional setting. This is no shocking revelation, as I’ve told many folk at GVC. It is also why I occasionally skive off to St. Nicholas’, one of the local Anglican churches and indeed a landmark on any run involving Nore Road in Portishead. It used to be the chapel to the local Nautical School, set up by one Harry Fedden “‘to train boys who would otherwise through poverty or parental neglect, or being orphans, be left destitute and homeless, and in danger of being contaminated with vice and crime”, whereas the flats into which the school have been transformed has more of a need for a private tennis court and a private pool than a private place of worship. Stained glass, stone walls… lovely place, it is. And no rowdy kids running around the place, unlike GVC. Trust me, I know: none are rowdier than ours. For all the reassurances from fellow congregation members that it’s anywhere between ‘OK’ and ‘lovely’, it makes me deeply uncomfortable: I was brought up to think that, in church, children should be seen and not heard, that peace and quiet are fundamental for prayer and should not be compromised by the likes of The Squintanis. Altar boy material they are most definitely not.

On February 3, days after I started writing this, Jon Bonner spoke at GVC. Remember Jon? He got me round the Bristol Half. A trained actor, he spent many years doing “Jesus stuff”, going out to evangelical events, doing school assemblies and leveraging his artistic talent in the name of God. A couple of years back he released his album “Big It Up For Jesus”, which has undoubtedly further facilitated Roberto’s current understanding of God: no doubt an imperfect one, but at least we’re veering in the right direction.
Anyway… February 3…
…Jon spoke candidly about his own struggles with seizing the right moment in conversations to introduce faith. Yes, he’d stood in front of thousands of people and performed: but they were people who had congregated to hear such messages, not strangers or colleagues with whom he was making small-talk. I found his admission heart-warming, in so much that it ticked the “not just me then” box.

Does any of that make sense? You may well argue that, by acknowledging my reluctance to shout about my faith, I am accepting the need to overcome it and do something about it. There will no doubt people at GVC who would take me aside and make that point. Personally, I’ll stick to what I do and what I am: I’ll too continue to take people aside and have a quiet word when the moment is right, but I won’t take to the rooftops. There are people who do that and it’s great that they do. But me, I’ll just stick to the ground and maybe follow people who seemed interested in what the shouter said and follow up on it. Quietly.

As for any intersections between my faith and my running… I am happy to say that, when I look upon nice scenery, I do allow myself to thank God and drift to thoughts relevant for that particularly day. Somehow I seem able to do so even when running into a headwind in a hail… sometimes, anyway. I can’t claim to be in God-mode throughout all my runs, obviously: attention to God has to be balanced with attention to my Garmin, not to mention traffic, legs, etc.. But I am well aware that, if I find an hour and maybe then some to exercise my body, I need to ensure at least some of it is co-dedicated to God. Easier said than done, but then that’s life for you. Besides, I have an uneasy relationship with prayer. Again, it harks back to my Catholic/Protestant background: my default setting for prayer is ‘thanksgiving’, whereas in my current church the focus is generally on ‘requests’. Since I believe in prescience (but not pre-determination), and since Jesus himself on Calvary called up to His Father saying “if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done”, I have never felt entitled to use prayer to change the Lord’s plans. Whatever they are, let them come to pass. Not that such thoughts stood in the way of me praying when I saw an ambulance rush past with lights flashing but sirens silent at 5:40 this morning, mind.

I can but hope that God
s will includes you generously sponsoring me for the Manchester Marathon at www.justgiving.com/gos75. Not many people have done… seriously, do you guys think this is no major effort for me, that April 28 will be a doddle and thus not an effort worthy of financial recognition? That I will enjoy it, just like I’ve enjoyed all the training? Tha need thi marbles checking! In’t meantime, dig deep!!!

That’s me done for this time. I’ll be back next week with tales of running in Sweden, where I spent last week for a conference. Since starting this running malarkey I’ve now trodden the streets of Amsterdam (it’s flat, tha knooes!), Paris (not sure they were ready for my glo-yello attire!), Berlin (shortly after beginning my runstreak), Boston (44k in one day!!!), Atlanta, Lund, Stockholm, as well as Portishead, Sheffield and Santa Margherita Ligure. It doesn’t read too badly, does it?

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