The First Step Is Always the Hardest

runner at night

Dear Will:

I used to be a runner. Seriously.

OK, so not all that seriously. I was more of a shuffler, to be honest. But I did go out a few nights a week and plod three or four miles around the neighborhood. Hardcore runners would never have admitted me into their club, but I did get to the point where I kind of enjoyed it. I felt better about myself for doing it, that’s for sure.

But you know how it goes. You change jobs or your kids’ lives turn complicated or whatever and next thing you know you’re back on the couch every night with a remote control in your hand. Honestly, I don’t remember why I stopped my evening jogs, but here we are, several years and 10 or 12 pounds later and I have lost the gumption.

The gumption, but not the desire. I remember both the physical and psychic benefits of the discipline, and I do miss it. I often feel like I ought to start up again. But how?

I read somewhere recently that “the first step is always the hardest.” I think that’s because of everything that leads up to that first step: overcoming the dread, clearing the time on my schedule, strapping on my shoes, making the visible declaration that “I’m going for a run” while realizing that for that to be meaningful there had better be other runs to follow. That’s what the first step looks like. After that, it’s just huffing and puffing, one foot after another. Those second, third, fourth steps—they’re way easier than the first one.

I’ve found that it’s not uncommon for people to feel this same sort of inner conflict when it comes to spiritual exercise. Maybe there was a time when you were regularly engaged in some sort of religious practice. Maybe it came easy to you, or not, but you regularly cultivated your personal spiritual development. And it felt good.

But you know how it goes. You move or someone mistreats you or your real-world obligations and interests demand more and more of your time. Or maybe your intellect simply overpowers belief and you tire of the inner turmoil. Whatever the reason, next thing you know you’ve put away your Bible, stopped attending services, and hardly think to pray anymore. Maybe you don’t even fully remember why, but now here you are, however-many years later, and “church” is simply no longer your thing.

Do you remember how it felt though? How it felt to surround yourself with like-minded people who were also striving to follow the teachings of Jesus, to do better, to be better? Do you remember those moments when you felt the reality of God’s love for you or the warmth of the Holy Spirit? How you sang “I Am a Child of God,” and the words rose up from your innermost being? Perhaps you would like to feel that way again.

Perhaps—if not for that ominous, overwhelming, almost-unthinkable first step—emotionally daunting just to think about. If only there were some way to find the gumption, the courage, the inner strength to begin. . . .

Of course, there is. Isaiah reminds us that we do not embark on such journeys alone: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). It all begins with a single step—a step I would be delighted to take with you. God knows I could use the exercise.



Photo: Night Runner by Jeremy Brooks

Food for Thought

Cowley Settlers

Dear Will:

You don’t have to wander very far back through my family history before you trip over a pioneer. As children, my grandparents were sent with their families and several others to make something out of the nothing that was then (and now) the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming. Their parents and grandparents before them came at various times and by various means from Europe across the American plains to scratch out an existence in the Rocky Mountain West. Their journeys were long, their provisions few, and little more than a desolate landscape awaited them once they arrived. Needless to say, it was a hard existence.

It takes little imagination to trace a connection from the relative ease and comfort of my modern life in Southern California to an undeveloped patch of dirt that would one day become Cowley, Wyoming, where my mother was born. Lest we forget our heritage, my mom passed on a handful of pioneer recipes that she shared with me and my siblings when we were younger. Hard Pudding was nothing more than flour, milk, and salt, kneaded into a heavy dough and boiled with a ham bone. (As good as it sounds.) And then of course there was Lumpy Dick, which my mother suggested was a make-do way of feeding an entire family with just one egg and a little bit of flour. In case you weren’t served this breakfast delicacy as a kid, I should tell you that Lumpy Dick has the monochromatic splendor of cooked oatmeal (perhaps a bit more ashen), with the palate-pleasing consistency of paste. Think about a time in elementary school when you were making “art” with papier-mâché. Now imagine mashing your still-wet creation into a bowl, sprinkling it with cream and sugar, and gobbling it down. More or less, that’s Lumpy Dick. Since we’re friends I’ll share with you the formula for this wondrous family concoction, transcribed and annotated here by my sister Wynne:


Meanwhile, back in the present: Yesterday I enjoyed a typical, modern-day Thanksgiving feast at my son’s house. After grazing mindlessly on an array of cheeses, nuts, grapes and such—laid out to keep us from expiring while we waited to be fed—we then scooped our way through a buffet of eight side-dishes before arriving at the turkey and cranberry sauce. Dessert featured two pies and a cheesecake.

There were seven of us.

Food for thought, right? Yesterday’s feast was (appropriately) a celebration of our good fortune and God’s generosity toward us. For sure. But it was also—rightly—a celebration of the fruits we have harvested from seeds planted by our forbearers through extraordinary sacrifice. We should indeed be grateful for all we have, and grateful also for those whose consecrated labors have made our present-day burdens so much lighter.

Thank God for them. Now and forever.


I’m Pretty Sure I’m Psychic. Or At Least I Hope So.


Dear Will:

Years ago, in the midst of a long, mind-numbing road trip with the family, I introduced my kids to a game that had not existed five minutes prior. Making it up as I went, I outlined the rules: I announce a category of my own choosing—let’s say “Animals.” Then I silently select a specific item from that category and try to tell you what I’m thinking without saying a thing—no gestures, no other clues of any kind. “I must communicate to you solely through the sheer force of my prodigious, telepathic powers,” I told them. “Even now I am sending forth psychic emanations! I am devoting all available synapses to this one thing! Divine it, and we shall have achieved . . . PSYCHIC WONDER!”

In case you didn’t recognize it, this is fun. Or as my wife, Dana, might put it: insufferable. (Which, just between you and me, is what actually makes it fun. Don’t tell her I said so.) Nevertheless, in spite of its manifest stupidity, it was the ridiculousness of Psychic Wonder that made it for me somewhat irresistible in moments when I was feeling silly or when I saw an opportunity to embarrass my children (also fun). Thus I frequently subjected a backseat full of carpoolers to Psychic Wonder on the way to school. Alas, the game never really lasted very long—for some reason I never found anyone as good at it as I was.

Over the years, I introduced my children to a number of these not-quite-games, invented on the fly and precisely honed in the carpool laboratory. Sometimes we “played” Factoids or Poetry Hour or a thing I called Life Is Like, in which one person would begin a simile and everyone else would have to try to Forrest-Gump a suitable ending. (Go ahead. Give it a try: “Life is like a box of Hamburger Helper. . . .” FUN!) Or here’s another one that Dana “loves”: Shamu or Celery. I choose a random something-or-other (nose hairs!) and then we debate whether that something-or-other is more like Shamu or more like celery. (The correct answer, in this case, is celery. Obviously.) That game just might be Dana’s all-time favorite, as you can imagine.

I ask you: What’s a better way to fill the 15 minutes between home and La Veta Elementary? Throw into the background some not-so-classic rock from decades prior and you’ll be pulling up into the drop-off zone in no time. Not only will you have amused and delighted approximately one person in the car, but the kids will be pushing and shoving, climbing over each other to get out the door and onto the curb, looking at your son as if to say, “Luke: What’s with your dad?”

I miss those mornings, winding through the streets of Orange with a Mazda full of braces and nervous energy. Sadly, my carpool days long ago receded into my rearview mirror. Luke, now all grown up, married and established, drives himself to work each day; Bryn, committed to doing what she can to save the planet, prefers a bike or public transit as she completes her degree; and Seth, working as a missionary in Salto de Guairá, Paraguay, has little choice but to walk everyplace he goes. I now find myself commuting in an empty car, inching along the 405 freeway, alone with my thoughts, hoping that somehow, way back when, somewhere between the garage and the crossing-guard, my kids got the message embedded within that early-morning nonsense, conveyed to them by something more heartfelt than psychic emanations. Conveyed to them even now, as I write this and hope that in this moment they can divine what I’m thinking, no matter how far away they may be.

So that maybe the next time someone asks “What’s with your dad?,” they’ll immediately know the answer, and they’ll feel it—deep down. PSYCHIC WONDER!