God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.
–Eric Liddell, Chariots of Fire
Now I am no Olympian and I did not train for the Olympics as Eric Liddell did. Liddell was by all accounts an exemplary Christian. He stood for God’s Sabbath discipline of rest when the forces against him wanted him to be a runner and a Scot, and a Christian somewhere down the road. He was always a Christian first and last.
I am a runner and I am also a Christian. I lead a Fresh Expression of church for runners; some of whom are also Christians. The relationship between running and faith is as important in my run of faith as it was for Liddell.
Before completing an eight-mile race through the Uwharrie National Forest in central North Carolina, I wrote these words:
It is easier said than done
the minutes pass so quickly
Over the first hill
not as much trouble
as all the fuss
critical not to be overdressed
when you summit
and the sun is at your left
that’s when you know who is fit.
or you are not.
Then start dodging trees
and planting feet on tops of leaves
hopping and hoping
for good and powerful ground
Uwharrie was kind of expected and kind of shocking. I’ve run it twice before and never felt anything in this special eight mile race except blow-up-red-line-city from mid-way up the first mountain goat hill. This year was different.
I pulled up on Brendan Howell’s shoulder about three minutes into the race. Brendan is a friend and teammate and we carpooled to the race. After this reunion at three minutes into the eight miles, Brendan and I played out a fairly simple team strategy. I’d lead for about 10 minutes, then Brendan, back and forth, back and forth. I made sure not to red-line, and when I did, I eased back and recovered. I can’t speak for Brendan, but I sensed the same sort of measured effort. My breathing wasn’t out of control until about a mile to go. My footing was sure rather than the sort of delirious “hope I get lucky and hit the ground rather than all the rocks because I’m in total oxygen debt.”
As we got past the aid station and well into the second half of the race, I felt more confident about my sub-60 performance rather than less. It was in the air, in our legs. I could feel it. We both wanted to win and we both wanted to break an hour.
Brendan was a little stronger on the ascents and when he gapped me, or moved ahead by about 10 meters with another hundred meters of climbing, I thought: That’s it. I don’t think I’m going to be able to cover that last move I think I’m done. Good race, I hope we both break an hour.
Then we got to the top of the hill, and I could feel my feet get underneath me just a bit more and I was able to lean forward powerfully. I was just a bit more on the ball of my foot. I sprinted as hard as I could and hoped I didn’t die before we thundered into the parking lot.
It was hard to slow down.
I like winning. Still, it was weird. After all that work together, one of us won and one of us didn’t. I knew Brendan would try to beat me. He’s done it before and he will likely do it again. But I don’t have what it takes to finish right together or to let someone finish in front of me that I might just beat. To be honest, I don’t really admire such traits in others. Races demand our best effort and nothing less.
Christ calls us to our best work. In Mark 7:31ff, Jesus encounters a deaf man with an impediment of speech. Jesus put his fingers into his ears, and he spat into his hand and then touched the man’s tongue. With a word, Ephphatha—be opened—and the spitting and the finger in the ear and the fingers on the tongue, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released and he spoke plainly.
Christ does his best healing and it is odd—borderline crazy—to the world and the religious. Of course it is odd, spitting, touching a man’s tongue; running and thinking God might just care—the oddity is of no particular concern to our Lord.
What are you doing that gets ridiculed or misunderstood, and yet you do it anyway because you feel your purpose when you are at it?
I set the goal of running the eight miles through Uwharrie in under an hour in 2006. I achieved the goal seven years later. It’s a long race and God calls us to endurance. Stay the course and keep at the habits that lead to success along the journey. In the Christian story, that will mean some failing, some suffering, some being misunderstood, some ridicule.
You may risk sin when working out these habits; in fact, you are guaranteed sin, because it’s around every corner, everywhere in the church, on the trail, at the race, in your home, at your work.
And yet, God will be proved true in spite of our sin. And God will sanctify, make us blessed, pure, incarnate of God’s own self if we will stay the course, and run the race.
George Linney is pastor of Tobacco Trail Church in Durham, North Carolina.