Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
Over the past couple of years, a number of Beacon Heights families have joined together to form an unofficial running group. Within the past year, Maya and I have joined them to run several races. As a long distance runner in high school and college, it has been fun to refresh my race training, preparation, and planning. It’s also been fun, and sometimes a challenge, to share that wisdom and experience with Maya.
In my experience, the most important points of running a race are knowing your body’s and your mind’s limits and capabilities. Practice is a part of that, as is pre-race routines of rest, food, water, and stretching. As you start a race, it’s helpful to know your optimal pace. Finding a rhythm in stride, and the balance between running too fast or too slow can be a challenge. Run too fast, and it taxes the body before the race is finished. Run too slowly, and it’s difficult to measure improvement, let alone risking injury from a potential uneven pace.
It’s also important to listen to your body during the race, and to be attentive to other runners around you. Notice places where the footing is uneven or slick or there are leaves or other debris in the race route, so as to avoid injury. While it sounds like there is a lot to think about during a race, the interesting thing about running is that most runners, myself included, reach a point of being on ‘auto-pilot’ during a race. Most try to find a ‘zone,’ and simply respond to the course before them and everything on it instinctively. Running can be a time of meditation, contemplation, and processing life. It can be a practice that makes a mental and physical difference in people’s lives.
A documentary called 3,100: Run and Become examines the philosophical side of long-distance running. One athlete in the movie says that running is “a prayer and a teacher and a celebration of life.” I like that notion – a prayer and a teacher and a celebration of life. The apostle Paul would certainly agree. After all, he asks the Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). And to Timothy he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
Running language is found in the letter to the Hebrews as well. Chapter 12 begins with the words, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:1-2). Since the earliest days of the church, Christian faith has been linked to running. “Run in such a way that you may win it.” Finish the race and keep the faith. “Run with perseverance the race that is set before [you].”
The connection continues to be made today. On his 40th birthday, Presbyterian pastor Henry Brinton was challenged by a Catholic priest to run the Marine Corps Marathon. The goal seemed crazy, since Brinton had no experience as a runner, and the prospect of running 26.2 miles was daunting.
But Brinton needed a midlife challenge. His priest friend had run several marathons, so he gave him some tips and turned him loose.
The first time the pastor hit the road, he ran for three minutes and had to stop, gasping for breath. But after walking for seven minutes, he was able to run for another three, and then he walked another seven and ran three. Over several weeks, his running increased and his walking decreased until he could run for an hour. And then he ran two hours. “If you can run two hours, you can run four hours,” the priest said. “If you can run four hours, you can do a marathon.”
The priest was right. Six months after beginning his training, Brinton finished the Marine Corps Marathon in a respectable four hours and 12 minutes. He felt as if he’d been through boot camp, but his wobbly elation at the finish line made the pain worthwhile. “Marathon training has become a meditation for me,” says Brinton, “an opportunity to think, dream, pray and solve problems. Besides enjoying the fabled endorphin rush, I’ve been amazed by the clarity of mind I experience. I’ve come to appreciate how exercise cuts through the clutter of life and gives me the gift of simplicity for a few hours each week. In a career dominated by phone calls, emails, meetings, counseling sessions and sermon preparation, it’s calming to spend time focused only on the path ahead.” Running became a prayer and a teacher and a celebration of life. Run and become.
Not all of us are runners, of course. And those who do run might be more comfortable with a 100-yard dash than a 3,100-mile ultramarathon. But whether we run or walk, we can grow in faith by joining the race laid out in the letter to the Hebrews, and by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” In many ways, our lives are a race — long and rigorous. The Mount Everest of spirituality. So, what is the challenge? Why is it so difficult? And how can we run better?
From the part of chapter 11 in this text, we hear an answer that has resonance with our worship theme from last week. Faith. In the face of each of these enormous challenges, the people of God had faith. They did not overcome obstacles with their intelligence or technology or physical strength, but with their faith. That doesn’t mean faith is easy. Having faith is one thing. Sustaining and building upon a life long faith is much more different. According to Hebrews, faith is difficult because it does not lead immediately to an easy or comfortable life. Having faith doesn’t keep us from struggle, suffering, and heartache. Faith gives us strength and perspective to endure when those inevitable parts of life encounter us.
No question that Christian life would be much easier if our faith freed us from all pain and suffering. But as Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “We all experience sadness. We all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in our world will never end.” But sadness and suffering are never the end. Tutu had faith that suffering could be transformed, and he said that “God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now.”
Faith is difficult because it involves pain — even when we hope and expect it not to. But God brings order out of disorder, in our personal lives and in our communal lives as well. The communal is where the church comes in. The writer of Hebrews notes that, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
We can learn a lot from our mentors, role models, beloved church members, family, friends, and many others who are among our great “cloud of witnesses”. We can go a lot farther when we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” not giving up when we feel pain or suffering or sadness. And we run the very best when we look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus modeled the best ways of living and being in his teachings and his example, in both the ways he handled adversity and challenge, and the ways he handled growth and blessing. Even in his short life, and even shorter ministry, he embodied a sustainable, meaningful faith.
Run and become. When we run the race of life, we are strengthened by God’s presence and by those who are among our great cloud of witnesses. When we run the race of life, we have faith that God is always working for good in our lives, in every time and place and situation. Even in our moments of heartache, we trust that God’s heart is breaking with us. When we run the race of life, we are reminded that God is an expert at dealing with chaos and brokenness. When we run the race of life, we do not run it alone, but alongside, supported by and supporting others. So that when we run the race of faith, we become the people that God wants us to be. Amen.