I’ve got a new running coach these days. Now, instead of paying homage to a tattered and highlighted paper schedule hanging dutifully on my refrigerator, I’ve progressed into the twenty-first century with a cyber-coach. “Good morning Runcoach,” I say as I open the email with today’s training plan. “What have you got for me today?” Technically, this is my off season which sounds funny even to me since I’m not a professional runner. For this amateur, the off season consists of the days that fall between my last marathon and the 18-weeks prior to the next one. Essentially, it’s the time before the ‘serious’ marathon training begins.
Today’s schedule calls for a ‘Maintenance Run’ – three miles, very moderate pace. With my new coach, I am determined to stick to the plan. I say this every day. And every day, I fail. Why? Because I’m a mess. I’m a runner who runs to clean herself up. I run to organize all the things that are so pathetically unorganized in my life. I run to quiet the voices. I run to try to gain perspective by watching the sunrise again and again – and to see it with new eyes every time. And I run to pray for it all. So you see, running only three miles will never give me enough time to clean things up. Not this ragamuffin. Never.
After the first mile that feels like I’m sailing into the sunrise, the computerized voice of Runcoach interrupts the music flowing through my headphones to remind me that I’m not ‘sticking to the plan.’ I huff slightly. Of course I’m not sticking to the plan, I’m a ragamuffin runner. A ragamuffin like me cannot easily follow a plan or stay the course or be organized. I am patched together, mismatched, and beat up. But, as I turn the corner onto the first descent toward the mountains, the sweetest face appears in my mind’s eye and completely changes the entire tenor of my run. Holding me close, it’s my Nana who used to call me her ragamuffin girl – dirty and sweaty and disheveled after playing outside in the summer heat for hours.
I loved when my Nana called me a ragamuffin because I knew exactly what it meant. It meant that she saw me as a mess, but loved me just as much anyway. I didn’t have to be perfect and clean and tidy for her to hold my face in her hands and kiss my forehead. Oh, how wonderful it felt to be a ragamuffin back then. Understanding now that nothing is a coincidence, a few months ago I stumbled across the word ragamuffin again in the title of a book by Brennan Manning. “The Ragamuffin Gospel” was recommended to me as a must-read, and when I first heard the name I was immediately transported back into my grandmother’s arms as a tired and sweaty mess of a girl.
A tired and sweaty mess of a girl, eh? Things really haven’t changed much, I think as the Runcoach cyber-voice again lets me know that I need to ‘stick to the plan.’ I have such a clear head now as I stride up the last hill to my half-way-home mark. I think about the book and how Manning shares the true meaning of God’s grace – grace that’s been lost under a massive pile of Christian to-do lists and overshadowed by a common belief that we must continually please God with our clean, spotless, shiny good works. I remember this from Catholic High School and it all seemed so legit back then. But the years have tarnished me. Right now, I know that I am honestly and truly incapable of being perfect – doing all the right things, saying all the right things, being all the right things.
Exhausted and defeated, I finally had to admit that I am a mess. But thankfully, my new-found relationship with God at that same time opened my eyes to something I’d never known or felt before. It was the stunning discovery that God gives us his grace willingly, no questions asked, no score-keeping required. I can do nothing to earn it and have done nothing to deserve it. Like Manning, I’m “burnt-out, bedraggled, and beat-up” and now I’m finally feeling okay with that. In fact, I was drawn in to read the “Ragamuffin Gospel” because of Manning’s powerful opening introduction. “This book is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. It is for the inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker. It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other.” I breathed a sigh of relief after page 13 and whispered ‘thank you’ after every page that followed.
The last mile feels effortless as I think about my Nana again. She was truly the human embodiment of God’s grace – the horizontal, feet-on-the-ground representation of how God loves. When I was her ragamuffin girl, she held my filthy face in her hands and saw a perfect child. She kissed me and smiled. I was her beautiful mess. My relationship with this amazing woman is the closest I can come to describing our relationship with God. If we can truly believe in God’s amazing grace, we can live a lighter life knowing that we are not required to be neat and tidy and ‘stick to the plan.’ We can veer off course, we can stumble, we can run the wrong way, or too fast or too far. We can be patched-together ragamuffins and still sit at God’s feet knowing that we were chosen. We can run to Him now and we will always be His – simply perfect even in our biggest mess.