Underrated Cities

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In July I spent some time in (and took runs in) a couple of cities that I hadn’t much more than passed through before – Kansas City and Sacramento. As I was looping around the California state capital building above it dawned on me how some cities are just ‘underrated.’

My own hometown of Charlotte, NC probably falls into the underrated category – a ‘not quite big city’ in the Southeast that doesn’t really have that ONE THING that it is known for around the world. Yeah, we’ve got the Panthers and Bank of America, but no one really knows the truly great things about Charlotte until they come for a visit and ask a resident where they should go? Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a variety, but there’s a good chance they’ll tell you to eat in Dilworth, NoDa or Plaza Midwood; spend a day at Lake Norman, catch a baseball game at BB&T Park, or hit the Mint Museum if that’s your style. Or they might send you to my personal favorite – a day at the US National Whitewater Center for rafting, mountain biking, rock climbing, zip lining, good food, great beer, and live music. We always exceed expectations!

Kansas City and Sacramento are much the same in that regards. I found great food in both towns – Hock Farm Craft and Provisions in SacTown, and Anton’s Taproom in KC. Both had interesting historical features – The National World War 1 Museum is in Kansas City (picture above is taken from the museum looking back at the city), and Sacramento is the oldest incorporated city in California and has been the state capital since just after it was granted statehood. The people in both of these cities were fantastic to me and I think they are truly underrated.

So, is there a lesson in all of this? Maybe not, but then again, maybe their is…if you keep an open mind and dig around a little bit, there is something special and unique about just about everywhere. People in mid-sized cities like Charlotte, Kansas City, and Sacramento always seem to be trying to keep a secret (their city is really pretty great) because they don’t want too many more people to know about it, lest it change them. I’m all for exploring every city to find the very best it has to offer right under its underrated surface.

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Identity

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I am a Christian. I am a husband. I am a father. I am a son and brother. I am a salesman. I am a coach. I am a runner. I am a reader and a writer. I am a traveler and an explorer. I am a friend.

So if I am all of those things above, what is my identity?

The past two weekends, I coached a high school AAU basketball team at a couple of tournaments where college basketball coaches come and watch young men play to determine whether or not they want to offer them a scholarship or spot on their basketball team. As I looked around at all of the coaches, players, parents, college coaches, and fans with their various team logos on their chests, it got me thinking about identity and how we define our identity.

It is the dream of nearly every boy on our team to play college basketball, and it is also the dream of everyone we play against. They identify themselves as basketball players and are identified by the name of the team they play with in the summer and the number on their jersey. Their emotions rise and fall on how well they play each game and whether or not they play in front of enough college coaches, not necessarily whether we win or lose. Last weekend, we played well, won and took the picture above. This weekend, we played average and went home on Saturday. Their parents, too, allow their identity to be controlled by the success of their sons, thinking that if their son can just get a college basketball scholarship it will validate them as a parent.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was sitting on the other side of the court with those college coaches, wearing my school logo on my chest and watching game after game of AAU basketball in the summer. Being a college basketball coach became my identity, it consumed me and was the only way I could define myself. I have a lot of friends still in the business who have let it become their identity and I saw several of them the past two weekends. It has destroyed marriages, distanced them from their children, and forced some great guys to become very one dimensional. I talk to them now and there doesn’t seem to be much to talk about beyond the surface basketball chatter. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to get out of college coaching and define my own identity.

So what is identity? For me, now, it is realized only by a blending of the things that are important to me and the way I spend my time. I enjoy my work, but it doesn’t define who I am, it feeds the identity that I now create. I love my kids, but their successes and failures do not define me as a person, they only express some of my own strengths and weaknesses. The things I enjoy doing in my free time: running, hiking, biking, reading, and writing are great outlets for me but I try not to let my pursuit of those passions become all consuming. And my marriage is the most important thing to me on this earth, but it is there as a support and reinforcement to the identities of my wife and I, not the definition of our identities.

My identity lies only in who I am right now, not by what I’ve done in the past or what I’ll do in the future. It is a reflection of who I am this moment – am I loving and caring for others; am I modeling Christ in my life today; am I working hard at the work put before me and doing it to the best of my ability; am I enjoying the moments that I have with friends and family; am I creating things that add value to people’s lives? My identity can no longer be boiled down to a logo on my chest, it is only now the outward actions of the desires of my heart. That is who I am.

Trail Run at USNWC

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If you live in or travel to Charlotte, NC I would strongly encourage you to enjoy a trail run at the US National Whitewater Center (www.usnwc.org). On a Saturday afternoon, the Whitewater Center is a party – rafting, ziplining, rock climbing, mountain biking, beer, live music, food carts, and tons of people watching…it is a lot of fun. But if it is peace, quiet, and solitude you are looking for there aren’t much better places than 6am on a Wednesday at the Whitewater Center!

If it is your first time, I’d recommend the Lake Loop, a relatively easy 3 mile jog in the woods around a couple of small ponds. Make sure you finish the loop and run all the way to the whitewater channel to see the sun coming up near the water (see above). It is unlikely you’ll encounter many folks at USNWC at that time of morning and this morning I was all by myself with the exception of a few frogs, a turtle, and some birds. It was one of the most enjoyable runs I’ve had in awhile and it reminded me that I need to make time for those types of runs more often.

If you’ve never done a trail run, but you are a runner, I would strongly encourage you to try the trail. When you run on the trail you need to slow down (your pace will likely be one and a half to two minutes slower per mile), shorten your stride (so that you can ensure you don’t slip, fall, or trip on the things in your way), and pay attention (unlike the sometime mindless run on pavement, you need to watch where you put your feet down and focus on the twists and turns of the trail). Trail running is a great way to cross train both your legs and your mind because it works different muscles as you aren’t going to land the same on any two steps (be sure to stretch hips and ankles especially before and after); it also requires a concentration that forces you to focus on what you are doing in a way that will really help you relax when you get back to the road.

I don’t trail run as much as I’d like now, but every time I do I wish I did it more. There’s nothing like a run in the woods to clear your mind and start your day right. Today was a great start at the USNWC.

Zen and Christianity

Contributed by Dr. Jason Pittser, good friend and fellow Christian man working on his Zen.

I’ve had many people ask me about the conflict they see with Zen and Christianity, or how Zen ties into Christianity. For many Christians, it can be a frustrating task trying to reconcile Zen insights with Christian doctrine. Maybe the best way to present Zen is to do so without comment; which is really the only way to talk about it.

From Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton:

The truth of the matter is, you can hardly set Christianity and Zen side by side and compare them. This would almost be like trying to compare mathematics and tennis. And if you are writing a book on tennis which might conceivably be read by many mathematicians, there is little point in bringing mathematics into the discussion – best to stick with tennis.

Now the reader with a Judeo-Christian background of some sort (and who in the West does not still have some such background?) will naturally be predisposed to misinterpret Zen because he will take up the position of one who is confronting a “rival system of thought” or a “competing ideology” or more simply a “false religion.” Anyone who adopts such a position makes it impossible for himself to see what Zen is, because he assumes in advance that Zen is something that it expressly refuses to be. Zen is not a systematic explanation of life, it is not an ideology, it is not a world view, not a theology of revelation and salvation…in fact, it fits no convenient category of ours. The chief characteristic of Zen is that it rejects all these systematic elaborations in order to get back, as far as possible, to the pure unarticulated and unexplained ground of direct experience. The direct experience of what? Life itself. What it means that I live: who is this “I” that exists and lives? What is the difference between an authentic and an illusory awareness of the self that exists and lives? What are and are not the basic facts of existence?

When we in the West speak of “basic facts of existence” we tend immediately to conceive these facts as reducible to certain austere and foolproof propositions – logical statements that are guaranteed to have meaning because they are empirically verifiable. These are what Bertrand Russell called “atomic facts.” Now for Zen it is inconceivable that the basic facts of existence should be able to be stated in any proposition however atomic. For Zen, from the moment fact is transferred to a statement it is falsified. One ceases to grasp the naked reality of experience and one grasps a form of words instead. The whole aim of Zen is not to make foolproof statements about experience, but to come to direct grips with reality without the mediation of logical verbalizing.

Mindfulness meditation seeks not to explain, but to pay attention, to become aware, to be mindful, in other words to develop a certain kind of consciousness that is above and beyond deception by verbal formulas – or by emotional excitement. Deception in what? Deception in its grasp of itself as it really is. Deception due to diversion and distraction from what is right there – consciousness itself.

In understanding Zen, it would be a great mistake to concentrate on “doctrine,” the formulated philosophy of life, and to neglect the experience, which is absolutely essential, the very heart of Zen. This is in a sense the exact opposite of the situation in Christianity. For Christianity begins with revelation. Though it would be misleading to classify this revelation simply as a “doctrine” and an “explanation” (it is far more than that – the revelation of God himself in the mystery of Christ) it is nevertheless communicated to us in words, in statements, and everything depends on the believer’s accepting the truth of these statements.

Therefore, Christianity has always been profoundly concerned with these statements: with the accuracy of their transmission from the original sources, with the precise understanding of their exact meaning, with the elimination and indeed condemnation of false interpretations.

This obsession with doctrinal formulas, juridical order and ritual exactitude has often made people forget that the heart of Christianity too, is a living experience of unity in Christ which far transcends all conceptual formulations. What too often has been overlooked, in consequence, is that Christianity is the taste and experience of eternal life. Too often the Christian has imagined himself obliged to stop short at a mere correct and external belief expressed in good moral behavior, instead of entering fully into the life, hope and love consummated by union with the invisible God “in Christ and in the Spirit,” thus fully sharing the Divine Nature.