It is an odd, random memory which surfaces at least every four years about now and it came to mind again this week as I watched the opening ceremonies of these 31st Olympic Games. Indeed, I find myself remembering the Summer Olympics when I was 15 years old. No, not anything specific about the games that year, only that they were and that they took place in a time when with so few other options, it seemed the whole world tuned in. This is what comes to mind today:
I was not yet driving and so my only mode of transportation was the 10 speed bicycle my folks had given me a few years before. I was riding it on a summer’s afternoon on South Main Street and pumping as hard as I could. Perhaps it was my energy which impressed the old man who called out from his vantage point on his front porch, for I cannot imagine I was going all that fast. I can still hear his voice shouting at me, wondering if I would try out the next time the Summer Olympics rolled around.
I can remember rolling my eyes for I was not then nor have I ever been particularly athletic. No, my sister, Martha, inherited those particular genes from our dad. Indeed, I am quite certain the only reason I made the high school volleyball team was because I was willing to work harder than anyone else. In those days, running the stairs in the old gym did not cause the kind of trepidation or downright pain in my left knee that doing so would do now. I shake my head today to marvel at how I took such physical exertion for granted those few short decades ago. In fact, a couple of weeks ago when compelled to run even a short distance at my early morning workout, I found it helped, somehow, to imagine someone chasing me so as not to give up before I reached the “finish line!”
As these memories come flooding back, I realize that this is so: such recollections of who I used to be or expectations about who I should be now sometimes keep me from entering the ‘race’ altogether. This is so both as I try to better tend my physical body as I am by now deep into middle age and in other areas of my life and faith as well. I don’t know about you but at first as I consider this ‘race of faith’ we are called to in Hebrews today and when I think about the examples of heroes the writer offers now, I am tempted to give up before I even begin. Indeed, how could my gifts, my participation in this race, compare to that of Gideon or Barak or Samson or the rest?
And yet, perhaps it is so that while the image before us now is a vivid one — both of runner and those cheering her on — we have to remember that the only “winning” that it seems to be pointing to is the act of actually ‘finishing” this race, whatever that may mean. At least this is so if we actually pay attention to the remarkable role models offered by the writer of Hebrews today. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to say that any of those named were exactly “winners” in the classic sense all the time:
Gideon, for instance, was an altogether reluctant warrior. He was not confident in his own ability and he asked for proof that it was even the Lord talking to him at all. (Judges 6-8)
Barak refused to go to battle without Deborah at his side, and while to my mind there is nothing wrong with that, still that must have been unusual in that time. More than that, for all of his willingness to put his life on the line, he was told up front that in the end the honor would go to another — and in this case another woman. (Judges 4)
Samson, for all of his superhuman strength, does not come off as all that bright and as his story comes to a close, he dies making his point. (Judges 16)
Jephthah, though described as a mighty warrior, essentially traded the life of his only child, his daughter, for a military victory. (Judges 11)
David was, of course, the ‘ideal king’ for the nation of Israel, but for all of his remarkable gifts, he committed adultery and arranged for the death of Bathsheba’s husband. (2 Samuel 11:1-12:25)
Samuel, for all of his faithfulness, failed to convince the people that being ruled by a king would surely be their downfall. (1 Samuel 8:10-22)
And as for Rahab who is mentioned even before this litany of other “heroes of the faith?” For all the good she did, she was still remembered as a prostitute.
All of these whose stories of ‘running this race of faith’ are passed along to us are far less than perfect. In fact, some of them stumble and fall in rather remarkable ways. Perhaps it is so that these are named so that all of us — regardless of our strengths, our weaknesses, our successes, our failures, our moral stature or our moral weakness — all of us are called by God to simply get in ‘the race’ and trust that God will take care of what it means to ‘win.’ And maybe by simply being ‘in the race’ we are among those who are ‘persevering.’.
Indeed, in a world as full of challenges as the one you and I inhabit, it might be tempting to simply turn in our ‘running shoes’ and head for home. This would seem to be especially so if we thought it was up to us to vanquish all that which causes the suffering and pain in this world which God’s people are called to address. But no. Along with Rahab and Gideon, Barak and Samson, Jephthah, and David and Samuel and all the rest? You and I are simply called to ‘run.’ And to keep our eyes on Jesus as we do so, trusting that Jesus will take care of the rest.
- What gets in the way of your ‘entering the race’ in all of its fullness? What doubts or fears plague you? Does it make a difference to you to remember that the ‘litany of heroes’ offered here also had doubts and fears and failings in addition to their remarkable gifts?
- When were you last tempted to ‘turn in your running shoes’ and go home? What kept you ‘running?’ What keeps you ‘running?’
- In this late summer days when at least some of our attention is focused on the Summer Olympics, are there stories which capture your imagination which might help illustrate what it is to ‘run the race?’ As for me, I am especially taken by the story of the Olympic Refugee Team. If you haven’t heard their story yet, you can find it here. Any one of their individual stories could offer a shining example of perseverance in life and in the sport which has called their name.