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Listening to the Hills in Life

Starting on Martin Luther King Day in January, I began an odyssey with some old friends to improve my spiritual and physical life.  Over a very satisfying lunch of burgers and pub chips, my buddy, Mitch, described a program in which he had enrolled several days earlier.  “In the Exodus 90Ó  program”, he said, “groups of guys agree to fast from alcohol, sweets, and between-meal snacking for ninety days ending on Easter Sunday.”  He went on to explain, “two days of the week a fast is required where all of your food intake equals one simple meal.”    “You and your team also agree to support one another in contemplative prayer for at least a half an hour a day, as well as reflection on daily readings of scripture. Another part of it has to do with daily physical exercise.  Your group of brothers agrees to pray for you every day, and you pray for them, and call each other to give support as needed.”

It may have been the fact that a big fat birthday awaits me in January.  Or it could have simply been that I had been growing flabby in my spiritual and personal life, and hadn’t felt 100% for quite a long while. Something about the asceticism in it, spoke to a part of me that had been napping for a long time.  Mitch’s description woke me up.  That night, I called some buddies, and the next thing you know, one-day-at-a-time, I was moving toward health in mind, body, and spirit. 

When she caught wind of what I was up to, my wife pointed out that our twenty-fifth anniversary takes place July 23rdof this year.  Maybe if I got myself in shape, we could commemorate our silver anniversary by completing an Olympic triathlon (One-mile swim, a twenty-five-mile bike ride, a ten kilometer run).  We selected a date exactly 150 days from MLK Day (which is why I actually extended Exodus 90 to Exodus 150).  My oldest daughter, a recently retired National Collegiate All American track athlete decided to join us in the race.  Two sister’s in law, and my other kids came to provide cheerleaders with signs.  The paragraph that follows was excerpted from a note I sent my Exodus 90 buddies the day after the Lake Geneva, Wisconsin Triathlon in June of 2019.  

Gentleman,

Thought I’d give you a report on my triathlon since y’all were praying for me.  BTW, thanks for those prayers.  To make a long story short, the 160-degree water kicked my butt.  More specifically, it kicked my respiratory system.  For several years I’ve had exercised induced asthma.  The combination of the cold water and the tight wet suit would not allow me to get breath when I dove into that spring-fed lake in Wisconsin.  I tried several ways to get myself right.  After somewhere between 1/8 and 1/4 mile, I started to feel dizzy.  By this time, a race official had taken notice, and insisted that I exit the water… “ 

What I didn’t include in that letter was that, in the instant of that surrender, an episode from my adolescent life emerged from a formerly buried neurologic file.  Like a scene from Mulan, the rest of my scout troop had already tested their manhood while I procrastinated at the back of the line. They had completed their climb up a towering telephone pole with the aid of logging spikes and a belt that encircled the pole and their wastes.  I had already proclaimed my fear of heights, now it was my turn to either overcome that obstacle, or demonstrate its debilitating effects.  Three-quarters of the way up, the inevitable outcome manifested.  At first, the scout leaders, and peers were shouting encouragement.  “You can do this!”  “You are so close…”  Then they tried another tact, “You’ll be the only one who didn’t make it!  Come on Wagner, you don’t want that….”  After minutes of paralysis, the voices fell away. In the silence I hung on a pole like a piñata absorbing self-inflicted blows.  Finally, Mr. Thielken’s voice gently offered a soothing permission to come down. With three parts self-excoration, to one-part relief, I obeyed this directive.   

On my swim of shame to the shoreline I remembered that old story, and felt sad.  150 days of training did not adequately prepare my respiratory system for the shock of frigid water.  But, just after this depressing flashback, on the way to the shore, something else emerged from an even deeper place than a chemical transfer in my memory processing system.  It was something that resulted from 150 days of training that began on MLK Day.  I return now to the rest of the letter I sent my group of men.  

“….I was hoping that your prayers would result in me finishing stronger than I thought I would, and maybe putting together a new triathlon hobby.  The effect of your prayers showed up in a completely different way for me. Yesterday morning [the morning before the race], I prayed Psalm 110.  Eugene Peterson, a recently deceased biblical scholar and mystic, translated this psalm from the original Hebrew.  One of the last lines said, “A true king holds his head high.”  That was the message that got me through.  ‘Don’t give into shame.’  When I caught myself getting droopy, I recalled that line, and physically held my head up.  In fact, the thought occurred as I emerged from the water, that maybe I can model for my kids how to handle disappointment.  So when Lisa finished so strong (under four hours), and so did Annalise (three hours, six minutes) I was determined that a “true king” would cheer and celebrate them, and not require them to lick my wounds for me.

That’s not all.  A “true king” doesn’t throw in the towel.  I didn’t quit.  I was strong on the 25-mile bike ride portion.  Breathing still not great, but enough to do well.  Running was another matter.  Lisa [my physician-wife] tells me that once your airways get reactive, they stay that way for a while.  So during the run, I’d walk when I had to, and ran when I could.  I did finish, but just not the swim.

My Exodus 90 journey [Exodus 150 journey] has taken me to this goal.  I had planned on going alcohol free another month so I could poetically say I had completed a “180.”  But after 150 days of no alcohol, I decided to break that fast to open a complimentary finish-line beer and toast Annalise and Lisa.  The grace from you guys’ prayer [recall that this section of the article is excerpted from a letter to my Exodus 90 buddies]:  I was able to celebrate their accomplishments.

For many years as a biker, when I would come to a hill that’s tough, I would ask it, “What do you have to teach me?  What lessons do you have for me?”  About fifteen years ago, John Harry [my second born] and I were on a bike-ride together.  He could see that we were coming to a stout hill.  He felt intimidated.  I shared with him my old habit of asking the hill what it had to tell me.  As if I were the child, and he were the knowing adult, he instructed me, “Daddy, hills can’t talk.”  “Okay son.”  I responded, “but just try to listen anyway.  Maybe the hill will tell you something.”  Despite his precocious little eye-roll, when we both got to the top, I asked him if he heard anything.  He said, “I did.  I heard the hill tell me that I’m stronger than I thought!”  

Sometimes, over the years of riding my road bike up large hills, I’ve heard them tell me, “You’re stronger than you think.” Sometimes I have heard, “You have to train more.”  Sometimes the message has been more nuanced.   I am confident that there are many lessons that this race has in store for me.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be listening.

Thanks Boys!’


(From a personal communication June 24, 2019)

I am still listening as I prepare to celebrate my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary this week.  As I unpack these messages, I will be sure to pass along what I’ve learned to you, my kind readers.  Thank you for dialing in week after week to my humble reflections.  

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