I am not a runner. In order to get me to run, you have to put a basketball in my hands or a soccer ball at my feet. Then I’ll clock miles up and down court (or the field) without realizing that I’m actually running.
But I know plenty of runners – have cheered on students as they pace through cross-country and track meets; have cheered friends while they push to the finish line in the Chicago marathon; have graciously/carefully avoided hitting runners with my car when die-hards are jogging along our local highways. In my vast experience of watching other people run, here’s what I’ve observed about true runners:
- they’re in the race to pursue their own best time
- it’s often more about finishing the race than winning it
- something in them loves to run and finds the discipline invigorating
- they strip down to the essentials, neither carrying nor wearing anything that drags them down
- true runners don’t cut corners or cheat the race marked out for them
- their focus is forward – not looking back, or stopping to gaze around them, nor looking down
- when a race gets tough, crowds cheering from the sidelines can give the boost needed to persevere to the end
- worn out running shoes can be a trophy in themselves, proof of miles well-run
I’ve no idea whether the writer of Hebrews was a runner. But he must have understood something about the discipline, because his analogy 2,000 years ago is still spot-on today. As Christians, we are called to be true runners, to never give up on the race marked out for us. Whether the path God takes us through is desert, rocky terrain, green pastures, or narrow valleys, He’s placed markers along the way to keep us on track. Often times, these are the guidelines laid out in His Word. They may also be the convicting prodding of the Holy Spirit or words of affirmation and/or correction and accountability from family and friends. In the verses following (Hebrews 12:6), the writer quotes Proverbs 3:11,12 saying: “do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those He loves.” In other words, the race markers and corrections we encounter aren’t meant to frustrate or depress us, nor are they meant to be ignored. They are there because we are loved by the God who sees a bigger landscape than we can comprehend…a God who desires to guide us around pitfalls more dangerous than we’d realize.
When I first read Hebrews 12, I pictured familiar faces of friends as the “cloud of witnesses” cheering me on. Those faces certainly are part of the crowd. However, the first verse actually starts with “Therefore” – pointing back to chapter 11, which recounts the lives of several Old Testament men and women. It’s generation upon generation of people who lived by faith and persevered to the end of their race. We aren’t simply cheered on by people like me (people who don’t mind watching a good race but prefer to avoid running whenever possible). We’re cheered on by thousands who endured muscle cramps and shin splints, yet refused to give up. Why did they refuse to give up?…was it sheer stubborn determination, or foolish pride that kept them going? The first verse of chapter 11 tells us why: they refused to give up because they were “sure of what they hoped for and certain of what they could not see.” Having reached their finish-line and found more joy than they could have imagined, they now cheer us on. With those voices shouting encouragement, we can be inspired to strip off everything that slows us down, and keep our eyes on Christ. We can let go of baggage from our past, not looking back. We can ignore temptations around us, not stopping to gaze at the world’s distractions or leave the path to roam “greener pastures”. We can look up at the Son who ran his own race and came out victorious, instead of gazing down at gravel beneath our feet.
Today’s painting was inspired by a young man (Joel) who loves to run. I had the privilege of being one of his middle-school youth leaders many years ago. Then, as he grew up and headed off to college, he came back as a volunteer leader for the same youth group he’d grown up in. Now the race marked out is taking him in an unexpected direction. Feeling a prodding to leave the corporate world, he has started to apply for youth ministry positions. While this is a career shift, it’s not one that surprises those who know him. His knack for teaching, heart for ministry, and rapport with students have been evident for many years. One of the most memorable lessons Joel taught on a Sunday evening included his running shoes. Holding up a pair of worn out sneakers, he told us about all the miles he’d spent talking to God, worshipping, asking questions, listening…just being in relationship with his Heavenly Father. I’ve seen so many of our kids look up to Joel. They see his steady obedience, sense of humor, love and honor. They hear his honesty about ups and downs, struggles and faith and the overwhelming faithfulness of God. Joel doesn’t simply “talk the talk;” he runs the race. And, he’s one of the cloud of witnesses cheering on other runners, saying: “Don’t give up! Keep your eyes on Christ!” I pray he continues to run his race with perseverance, all the way to the finish line. And, I hope he always hears others’ voices around him, encouraging him to look up and finish strong.