Running long distances is difficult, all the more so when you’re the best American runner trying to capture Olympic marathon glory. That’s the case for Ryan Hall, profiled in last Sunday’s New York Times, a Pentecostal Christian who incorporates fundamentalist spirituality into his intense training regimen, fueled by his attendance at an Assemblies of God Church in California:
At Bethel Church, God’s presence is felt in a number of ways, including what is said to be the appearance of feathers from angels’ wings and the manifestation of what is called a “glory cloud.”
Hall said he and his wife had experienced a glory cloud on New Year’s night, likening the phenomenon to fireflies or the flashing of tiny fireworks. Others say it resembles gold dust. He had seen a YouTube version of the glory cloud and was somewhat skeptical, believing that it might be simply a cascade of dust from the ceiling of the church. His skepticism faded when he saw for himself.
“I feel like I’ve experienced God in a lot of ways, but I’ve never seen a sign like that in such a tangible way,” Hall said. “I was like so sure it was God, that it was him doing it, because there was no explanation. I almost feel like we’re kids and he’s our dad and he’s kind of like having fun with us.”
Hall’s training is partly based on the biblical texts:
Hall said that God spoke to him regularly, giving him training plans, even a race strategy for the London Olympics. He does not hear a voice; rather, he will pray or scroll through workouts in his head and a heightened thought will give him a sense of peace, grace, empowerment. Or a passage from the Bible will seem particularly relevant and urgent. Hall is still learning to distinguish his own thoughts from what he believes are God’s words to him. And sometimes, he has done workouts that in retrospect seem unwise — a thigh-shredding hill run in Flagstaff, a bicycle time trial a week after the Boston Marathon.
But Hall has also found biblical reinforcement for his training. He takes one day off a week, just as God rested on the seventh day. Every seven weeks, for restoration he runs only once a day instead of twice, an allusion to Exodus 23:11 and the admonition that farmers should leave their fields fallow every seventh year.
At night, he rubs his legs with anointing oil, another reference to Exodus and the belief that the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Hall bought — but did not immediately use — a weighted vest for uphill running, an idea gleaned from Judges 16:3 and Samson hoisting the doors of the city gate of Gaza on his shoulders and carrying them to the top of the hill facing Hebron.
In spacing three days between his most arduous workouts, Hall refers to the Holy Trinity and the time that Jesus spent in the tomb; for him, this period represents resurrection, completeness, new life.
Admittedly, I cringe a bit when others claim that God speaks directly to them, but perhaps when Evangelicals talk to other Christians or people of faith, something is lost in translation? I remember while in divinity school, I was surrounded by all kinds of Christians, marveling at the various ways different denominations utilize the Bible, sacraments, worship, liturgy, space, prayer, and music. Some aspects made me uncomfortable and others were welcomed and inspiring.
Have you experienced anything resembling this unique brand of faith and spirituality? Does the diversity within Christianity strike you as inspiring or challenging? Do you recognize some Catholic spirituality in Evangelical life, or does it appear to be a new, American creation?