Anyone who spends much time with me will quickly figure out that running is close to an addiction for me. A day without a cross-country run simply feels incomplete. That is my space to pray, to process, and to savor the sweetness of God’s presence. So when I began planning a trip to go teach in Nigeria, of course the first thing I worried about was whether I would be able to run there. Never mind about Boko Haram or Ebola. Would there be a culturally appropriate, safe space for me to get my daily fix?
I packed my most modest running clothes and my trainers, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t have to go two weeks with inactive limbs and a restless spirit. In between armed police checkpoints and makeshift military bunkers along the road from the airport, I managed to ask my Nigerian host if and where I could run during my stay. He agreed that it should be all right, provided I stayed within the walls of the heavily guarded compound in which our classes would be held.
This was an awkward situation at best, an international incident-in-the-making at worst.
I waited for the next evening, when the sun was low and the day’s work done. I was desperate to process the intensity of the day in the Lord’s presence. With much trepidation I set out, circling the inside of the compound walls and hoping that no one would notice me. But a white woman in Africa does have a way of standing out, especially when she is crunching gravel in fast-forward. The first evening I only encountered the armed guards and a few residents along my path. They seemed sympathetic enough to my cause. But the second evening was a different story entirely.
Hordes of people showed up for a conference in the compound, streaming through the gates and gathering in large knots right in the middle of my running path. Among them were many Muslims, the very sort of people that I had been afraid to run in front of. What would they think of a western woman behaving so brazenly? Given Boko Haram’s sentiments about women, education, and the West, would my actions incite anger or violence? I avoided eye contact as I worked my way around the crowds, doing my best to be invisible but failing miserably. This was an awkward situation at best, an international incident-in-the-making at worst.
And then a little whoop went up from a member of the crowd. A tiny girl was playing among the legs of all the sedate adults, swooping in and out of their dignified robes as they stood around in their pre-conference conversations. She eagerly ran to join me, delighted to find a playmate who would “run races” with her. She chattered excitedly with me as together we circled the compound, avoiding the most congested spots. Lap after lap, she stuck by my side. And as we passed through the crowds, scowls turned to smiles, disapproving glances turned to encouraging cheers.
If you make the Most High your dwelling– even the LORD, who is my refuge– then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. Psalm 91:9-12
I never would have imagined a solution as sweet as this. On my own, I had felt insecure; but with this little girl by my side, the whole story was reinterpreted. Sure, her short strides slowed me down and her playful chatter broke my focus. But because she was with me, I could run through what had formerly seemed like hostile crowds with confidence. Their response to her contagious smile allowed me to respond with one of my own.
You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
In a strange way, I feel like so much of life works in a similar way. The world is full of scary situations and overwhelming forces: terrorists and evil demons, unemployment and poverty, broken families and corrupt governments, disease and even death. But rather than remove the danger, God has also built into the system good, nurturing forces to carry us through suffering and protect us through peril. Sometimes they are seen, taking the form of friends and family; sometimes they are unseen, guiding our steps and preventing our harm as we trundle on unaware.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
And yet we have no cause for fear. It’s not that the threats aren’t real, but rather that our Helper is more so. The dangers all around make us all the more glad to stick by His side. Sure, His pace is not always our own, His voice often redirects our thoughts, and His plans rarely match up with ours; but in light of the imminent danger all around, there is no place I would rather be than by His side.
So each evening I looked out for my little companion, hoping that she would show up for my run. I saw her as a messenger from God, a physical reminder of His Spirit watching over me and providing for me even in my silly running obsession.
I rested under His wings as I ran by her side.
Oh, and her name was Angel.