I am not a runner.
Oh, there have been times in my life when I’ve run, like when I was in high school and I was in track. I was a thrower — shot put and discus — but the coach wanted to fill out the full roster for team points, so I was forced to run the two-mile. And forced is the right word. I used to pray for rain, and even do rain dances, so that meets would be canceled and I wouldn’t have to run.
The thing is, when you are bad at something like the 100-meter dash, you can only lose by so much. Your humiliation is over quickly. But when you are bad at the two-mile, it can go on for what seems like an eternity. And I was bad — to the tune of being lapped a time or two in an eight-lap event.
So bad, in fact, that everyone on the field would be pulling for me. I often thought it was because they were all afraid I would die and it would gum up the rest of the meet. But those cheers mattered. They got me through the race.
I tried to take up running a few years ago, completed an abysmally slow 5K, and in the process tore my medial meniscus and needed surgery. I think God was telling me something. So now I don’t run.
Even though I don’t run, I nonetheless often use running metaphors when I talk about a life of faith. The Bible frequently uses the image of running the race as a comparison to a life of faith, including a call for people of faith to “run the race that is set before you.”
As a pastor, I tell people that they need to practice their faith for the same reason that people need to train for a marathon. You train for a marathon so that you are ready to go when the big day comes — you are prepared to face the challenge.
And by practicing your faith, you are ready when there are challenges in life. You are prepared.
But unlike training for a marathon, you don’t know when your challenges will come. You don’t know when you are going to have to rely on your faith to help you forge ahead in the face of struggle, heartache and pain.
Just as marathon runners train their muscles to deal with the pain, when you practice your faith through prayer, worship, service and devotion, you are ready to deal with whatever life throws you. Faith isn’t to get into heaven — that was accomplished by Jesus and his defeat of death and offer of forgiveness. Faith is to get you through life. To help you run the race that is set before you.
It isn’t easy to get through a marathon — or to get through life. But if you are prepared, you are better able to handle it.
That is why I watched with shock the YouTube video of Scott Cramer, the Minnesota State University-Moorhead student who ran a marathon without training for it. I know Scott tangentially. He is dating a young woman who is the daughter of one of my closest friends. I baptized Jaden, taught her in confirmation, and she was president of the Philanthropy group I advised when she was in high school. So I know that he has good taste and must be a quality guy.
But I also think he has a few rocks loose in his head. After watching the video he made while running the Fargo Marathon, I think he may agree. His plan was to train for the marathon when he registered for it last October, but he never got around to training for it. So he decided instead to run it without training and make a video of his effort.
Scott survived his ordeal. At first, he was confidant — running the first nine miles, but as time wore on, the reality set in, and he discovered what real pain was. However, he soldiered on, finishing the 26.2 miles in 6 hours and 16 minutes. Not exactly a top finisher, but a finisher nonetheless.
He credits his ability to complete the race to the encouragement he received, both from the people along the way, who cheered him on, as well as his core supporters, Jaden, as well as his sister, who walked about six miles with him, to keep him going when he was down on himself.
As I reflected on his journey and what I have often said about faith, I have decided that Scott is the exception who proves the rule. Scott did get through the race. But it was much harder than it would have been without training, he didn’t do as well as he could have, and he hurt far more than he needed to. The pain that was apparent in his video the next day revealed a man who could barely move. He was literally felled by the race he endured.
In life, that is also true. Can we get through the challenges of life without faith Well, sometimes you just have to. You just forge ahead. But if you aren’t practicing your faith, those challenges can take everything out of you and literally drive you to your knees, unable to move forward.
There is still pain when you are in shape — spiritually or physically. But the immediate and lasting effects of being ready allow you to cope better. You are better prepared for what comes your way, far better prepared than Scott was. And because of that, you are better able to face the journey and stronger in its aftermath, rather than being laid out flat on your back, unable to move.
But there was one other part of this story that struck me. It was the role that both Jaden and Scott’s sister played. Scott said he could not have made it had they not walked with him and encouraged him. They kept him going when he was down on himself and motivated him to finish the race.
In Hebrews 12:1, it says 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.”
When you practice your faith, and stay in shape spiritually, it becomes your job to be a part of that “cloud of witnesses,” to be encouragers who support and urge on others in their race, whether they are in shape or not.
Because just as faith is not to get into heaven, but to get through life, it is also not just for ourselves. Living a life of faith means living a life that focuses on others.
Selfishness is the antithesis of a spiritual life. Jaden and Scott’s sister could have derided Scott and told him that he needed to do this himself. That kind of “rise from your own bootstraps” mentality, where they could have told him “You are responsible for this, so we aren’t going to help you.”
But that’s not what they did. Instead, they cheered him on, walked with him, and helped him finish the race. They literally went the extra mile — actually six miles — to accompany him as part of his cloud of witnesses.
Because that is what friends do, and that is what Christians are called to do. To help others when they are down on themselves, to see their needs and to accompany them on their journey.
Those who say people are not responsible for the needs of others, who don’t want to support them, or worse yet, tear them down, miss the point of faith entirely. It isn’t meant to just run your own race. It is a team event. Where we call out to each other and support each other on our journey.
The life of faith is about being a part of a community and being a community means supporting each other.
Back in the day, when I was a reluctant runner, earning “team points” as I circled the track, being lapped not because I was out of shape, but because I was just bad, it was those who cheered me on who got me through the race.
And Scott said the same thing — he wasn’t ready, but those around him were ready to cheer him on. And that made all the difference.
So I urge you today to keep in shape spiritually so you are ready for the race. Learn from Scott that not being in shape can make life hurt more than it needs to. And learn from Jaden that cheering others on can help them finish the race, even if they aren’t prepared.
In doing that, you live out what it means to run the race of life. Not just for yourself, but for others.