Finishing the Portland Marathon is exhilarating. That, and excruciating.
The marathon’s first miles wind through downtown. Its route also carries runners out into industrial districts, along a stretch of Highway 30, and through some of the beautiful tree-lined streets of Northeast Portland. The last mile, on Naito Parkway, affords great views of the Willamette River and its riverside park—views that most exhausted runners probably don’t even see in their tunnel-visioned slog to the finish.
For the past fifteen years, I have traversed this course every October, intent on taking in all the scenery, including the thousands of runners whose different body shapes and life stories reflect—in my mind—the wondrous diversity this world offers us. Each year, right after I hit the proverbial wall, I remind myself that my ability to run is a privilege, and that I have paid a good bit of money for the opportunity to see this great city on foot.
In the final miles of each year’s marathon, this self-exhortation becomes especially intense. I’m tired, foot-sore, and ready to be done, yet I tell myself to be present, the refrain of “this is a privilege” fighting for head space with “I want to be done already!” Yet as we pass under the Burnside Bridge, my pique of self-pity is quickly shut down by the sight of people who are homeless, sitting or sleeping alongside their belongings as we, brightly clad in all manner of wicking material, trudge by.
I always wonder what these people think about me, about all of us, doing something so odd, so self-focused.
I always wonder what these people think about me, about all of us, doing something so odd, so self-focused. Surely some must wonder why we would spend so much money to participate in an activity that makes us feel so badly. Often times I wonder as much myself.
Probably because running is my primary hobby, few things remind me of my own privileged status with more potency than participating in a marathon, especially one that carries me past Portland’s homeless population. I also feel that privilege when I get up to train early each day, and when I choose a Sunday morning to run on nearby trails. I’m able to do something I like best—running outside in the Pacific Northwest—because I’m privileged enough to have a healthy body, the time to train, and a income substantial enough to buy race entries, running attire, and a new $125 pair of shoes every few months.
This privilege, it seems, is sometimes lost in our conversations about what it means to discover our Creator in Cascadia. While we may readily extol the virtues of the outdoors, while we might argue the necessity of being in nature to understand God’s grandeur, while we may believe the best way to meet God is in the silence of meditation and centering prayer on a Cascade mountaintop, we may fail to recognize that these activities are available, to many of us, because we have the time, the resources, and the ability to make such encounters happen.
Although I am well aware of my own privilege, especially when it comes to my marathon running habits, I sometimes wonder if some nature-loving Christians are aware of their privileged assumptions, and how these assumptions influence their proscriptions about nature, God, the gospel, and more. I also wonder if, in interrogating our privileges—yours, and mine—we might come to a more faithful, and inclusive, understanding of what it means to experience our Creator. With that in mind, I offer the following thoughts.
- When we celebrate middle class white men for sacrificial choices that poorer or less advantaged members of society are forced to experience every day.
When Henry Thoreau is lauded for his own desire to let go of life’s material entrapments and spend time at Walden Pond, I chafe—just a little. Thoreau’s venture into the woods might have provided him ample space for contemplation about nature, relationships, work, and more; but he could only afford to sit by shore of Walden Pond by virtue of his privilege as a white man of some means. During his time, a much poorer white woman, or a person of color, or someone with disabilities would not have survived living as Thoreau did, and certainly would not have been lauded. Yet somehow, Thoreau has been established as an exemplar, someone to whom we should all aspire. The people living under the Burnside Bridge in Portland are certainly not lauded in the same way for their simple lifestyle or the time they get to spend outdoors, communing with God in nature.
- The presumption that because I feel connected to God through a particular outdoor activity, it is the best and most important way to experience God.
I finally confessed to my husband, two or three years into our marriage, that I disdain camping. This admission feels slightly heretical, as someone who loves the Northwest and the outdoors. Among acquaintances and friends, I say nothing about the misery of camping at all, as it seems morally offensive to some that I would eschew sleeping outdoors for the comforts of a soft bed and an indoor toilet. Pitching a tent in the woods because one wants to is a privilege, best available to those who can afford the right gear for cold, wet nights in the Cascades, and to those who can expend resources to reach the great outdoors via car.
But what really gets me about this one is that when someone mentions that she hates camping, more often than not the admission is confounded by a good bit of moral judgment: “Who doesn’t love camping?” and, “Those who hate camping are too materialistic,” and, “Don’t you like communing with God in the outdoors?” As someone who loves finding God in the created world, but also wants to sleep between clean sheets, such proscriptions, such judgment, seems problematic indeed.
- The exclusivity of many of our outdoor experiences.
I am rather evangelical about running. After over thirty years as a consistent runner, I continue to believe that running is the best, most accessible, most efficient way to get exercise. Even more than that, running has introduced me to some of my closest friends: my high school and college cross-country teammates gave me an instant community in lonely places, and my coaches transformed my life. Now, my fellow mother runners are some of my closest friends. And yet, I know despite the ways running has changed me, I cannot change others to love the sport as I do.
Yet we often assume that others should like our favorite means for experiencing nature, and that those who choose differently—who might, for example, encounter the Creator God sitting on the couch, watching television—are somehow not as important or as invested in their own faith journeys. We rarely take the time to interrogate why other activities might be just as valuable, or even why a hike in the woods or a bike ride along the river might not be accessible to all.
Consider, though, the ways most of our outdoor activities are not accessible: as already discussed they are not accessible to those who lack the time or resources to venture outdoors, and such experiences are certainly not readily accessible to those whose disabilities make mobility a challenge.
Consider, though, the ways most of our outdoor activities are not accessible: as already discussed they are not accessible to those who lack the time or resources to venture outdoors, and such experiences are certainly not readily accessible to those whose disabilities make mobility a challenge. Most camping sites, hiking trails, and other outdoor activity venues are not accessible to those who use wheelchairs or walk with assistance, not even when they are advertised otherwise. Recently, I noticed this lack of access acutely, walking with my aging father along a nature center pathway marked as “handicapped accessible.” The lack of railings and uneven walkways due to sticks and protruding tree roots made for a precarious journey. Telling my father that he needed to encounter the Creator in this space seemed problematic indeed, and he is by most measures able-bodied. Asserting that he—or anyone else, for that matter—should take up running is laughable, even though I know it is an activity that has enriched my spiritual life in significant ways.
Believing as I do about such privileged assumptions, I wonder: is it possible to yet hold my belief that God longs for us to enjoy the created world? Ryan Rodin, writing for Christ and Cascadia this spring, suggests a solution. In response to those who might not share a spirit of adventure in the outdoors, Rodin writes,
First, we serve a deeply personal yet infinite God who is unencumbered by our temporal preferences or physical limitations. Second, though humanity tends to exalt mountain tops, raging rivers, and vast expanses in the hierarchy of creation, the Lord views them all equally.
God meets people where they are, he concludes: on Mt. Hood, after a grueling climb to the top, and equally so in our own backyard, just as the summer sunshine sinks into twilight.
I want to believe this is so. I want to believe that others who cannot afford a trip to Bend—which I consider heaven on earth—will still encounter God in this creation. But when those who share my level of privilege imply that I will more likely encounter God on a mountain path than in my friend’s living room, or that a night’s meditation around a campfire is more sanctified than an evening stretched out on the couch, I wonder if we miss moments of God’s presence. I wonder if we limit others’ understanding of God such that it is difficult to feel like a valued part of a Cascadian community of faith.
Thoreau moved to Walden Pond because he wanted to live deliberately, and did so because he could. I run the Portland Marathon each year because I want to face a challenge, and do so because I can. We need to acknowledge that our ability to walk (or run) freely in nature is a significant gift, one not afforded all. If we really believe that our God exists everywhere and in everyone, encountering the Creator requires that we truly see God’s creation, not just on the mountaintop, but also under the Burnside Bridge.