On your marks … set … on your marks …

Athletics - Men's 100m Semifinals

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t believe what I was watching. It was during the Olympics … I’ll explain more in a moment. But I love watching the Olympics. It’s pretty funny, in fact, because I’ll literally watch any sport with the possible exception of rhythmic gymnastics. No offense but seriously? That’s a sport?

Anyhow, when I get particularly geeked is when I watch the hardcore competitive sports like gymnastics and track and field. Which brings me back to my point. My mind was literally blown this past summer watching the Olympics and particularly several of the track and field events … in fact, the races that Usain Bolt ran. One particular race was staggering, like nothing I’d ever seen and probably won’t ever see again. But it serves an important basis for my reflection this week.

It was one of the 100-meter heats where the runners were running to qualify for the finals. Bolt was, as you’d expect, competing against many of the fastest men on planet earth. The buildup by the announcers was pretty intense and you just knew that something special was going to happen during the race. But I’m not quite sure I expected a bit of a life lesson from it.

So the runners take their marks and get set. The gun goes off, and the field starts off understandably fast. But … Bolt is in the middle of the pack at first. He remained at the middle of the pack even at about the 50 meter mark, too. Then, what seems to be literally out of nowhere, without any visible exertion and while all the runners are running, it looks like Bolt begins his race. Now granted, he was running the entire time, but then it looked like a whole new race began. And Bolt? Well he looked like he came out of nowhere midway through a 100-meter race, like his race started in the middle of someone else’s race, and he won … easily. The craziest thing is every other race he ran seemed exactly the same. It was like when Bolt was competing it was difficult to see when one race began and another ended.

That’s sort of the filter applied to my reading this week.   I read John 16 – 21, and then started the Gospels once again in Matthew this time in the Message paraphrase (in keeping with my plan of reading over and over through the Gospels through the rest of the calendar year). This notion of not knowing when one race begins and another ends … in life … is a metaphor borne out of the cycles in life that we go through. In John 20:11-18 gives us a picture of such a situation:

But Mary [who had returned] was standing outside the tomb sobbing; and so, as she wept, she stooped down and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you crying?” She told them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” After saying this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? For whom are you looking?” Supposing that He was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you are the one who has carried Him away from here, tell me where you have put Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene came, reporting to the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that He had said these things to her.

In the proper context, Mary, Jesus’ disciples, and the rest of the community had just watched Jesus die on the cross, laying His life down for the sins of the world. Although He had told them multiple times to expect that, they still struggled to understand (see last week’s post) what had happened just a couple days earlier. To them, the horrific end of a glorious race had just concluded, but He had just started another, glorious race forward. That was the essence of Jesus’ earthly ministry in a sense. The glory of His birth was somewhat muted by the threat of King Herod’s order to kill all male babies under two years old (an attempt to destroy Jesus), and then the jubilant commencement of Jesus’ actual ministry only to be followed by His arrest, torture, and crucifixion, completed by His victorious resurrection and defeat of death. Hard to see when one “race” begins and one ends.

Life is like that. From one moment to the next it’s hard to know where we are in a particular race. Sometimes it feels like we are on sprint after sprint after sprint. At other times, it’s like we are running a marathon for the purpose of arriving at the start of a marathon. Perhaps for you it feels like you’re running a marathon, but at the pace of a 100-meter dash. How incredibly taxing that would be. At other times, it’s like we know we only need to cover 100 meters, but we’re running at a distance pace and although the finish line is closely and clearly within view, it’s taking forever to get there.

I totally get it. I’ve been there. In some ways, right now, I feel like I am there.

Sorry to break the news … though it probably isn’t news … but it feels like it’s difficult in life to figure out when one race begins and another ends precisely because it IS difficult. Our lives are a series of races, a conjoining of each other’s races, and races that are orchestrated, developed, and overseen by God. Just like Jesus, we will all have seasons of starts and stops, times when we’re running a sprint, hurdles, middle distance, long jumps, and marathons. It can be tough.

Ever realize that in an Olympic race there’s one and only one winner? Sure you have. So the question is, what makes the other runners run? Let’s face it, in the 100-meter final, there were probably three of the eight runners that had a legitimate chance. In the marathon in Rio, 155 men started the race and it’s probably not a stretch to assume that probably 120 were long-shots to win. So what’s the point?

Competing. Giving it your all. Representing your country. Doing better than last time. Setting a “personal record.” Getting experience in the top competition level, on the biggest stage. Taking the chance of actually winning. Improving your technique. Honoring your coach and teammates. Not looking back and wondering, “what if I did?” There are some pretty interesting parallels in there for life, isn’t there?

In life, we can get stuck on the fact that there’s little chance of winning when it’s all said and done, or we can focus on the experience of running the race. We can focus on the finish. We can focus on honoring our Coach and teammates. Yeah, it can be hard to tell when one race begins and when one race ends, but our job is to finish. To continue. To run to win, and even if we don’t, at least try to set a “personal record.” Good thing is we have Jesus, who ran the race ahead of us and showed that it can be done … and stands at the ready to encourage, teach, train, and – when things get real tough – to run the race for us.

Soli Deo gloria!