"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us . . ."
This weekend I did something I never really thought would be possible. I ran a half-marathon. To those who don't know me, you might think, "What's the big deal? It's not like you ran a full marathon." But for those who do know me, you will know that before February 2012, I couldn't even run a mile. Slowly and surely, I built up my endurance. I had a goal in mind and I was determined to reach it.
I now completely understand why Paul and other biblical writers use the race analogy to describe the Christian faith. It's not a sprint. It's more like a marathon.
The power of encouragement
I remember at one point in the race I passed under an overpass discovered a hill full of people. Some held signs with handwritten messages. Others cheered on runners with bells and whistles. They clapped and they cheered. They encouraged us to keep running, not to give up. Their encouragement lifted my spirit and I picked up my feet. I kept running.
Because the race was on a Sunday, I didn't have my own cheering squad to root me on in person. These people I had never met encouraged me to keep going.
The course I ran was an out and back style, meaning that I ran about 6.5 miles and then turned around and headed back toward the starting line. This meant that at certain points of the race, those who were ahead of me and had already reached the turn-around point were headed in my direction.
Every now and then, one of those runners on their way to the finish line would shout out words of encouragement. "Keep going! You're almost there! You can do it!"
The same is true of the Christian life. The writer of Hebrews says that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. When I passed under that overpass and saw the crowd of people sitting on the hillside, the last thing I wanted to do was to slow my pace and start walking. Why? There was a crowd of witnesses. I picked up my pace and I kept running.
Scripture says that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. Sometimes it consists of people running the race alongside us, other times it's people we've never met who encourage us from the sidelines - through their words and through the stories of their lives.
Running is just as much mental as it is physical
Want to know how to run a half-marathon? It's easy - don't stop running. Even if your legs are tired and you'd rather just call it a day, keep putting one foot in front of the other.
During the months I trained before the race I observed something about myself. If I had a negative attitude about my ability to do something, it made it that much harder to do it. If while on a long run I repeated "I can't do this. I can't do this. I want to stop right now." Then it felt like the miles went on forever and each step was a struggle. If I changed my thoughts to reflect positive things like "Each step is making me stronger. I can do this. Keep moving. Look how far you've come," I found that although the run was still challenging, it no longer felt overwhelming.
The same is true in my every day life. It's not that difficult to find something to complain about. If I wanted to, I could dwell on everything that's not going right. It would make my days long and suck the joy right out of life. Or, I could consciously choose to practice gratitude. Gratitude changes attitude. Trust me, it's something I have to intentionally do. I'm pretty good at throwing my own pity parties. Complaining (even if the words never come out of my mouth) is a surefire way to place a spotlight on the negative. This is true when it comes to my thoughts about my spouse, my children, or my current situation in life. It's easy to highlight the bad; it's more of a challenge to play Pollyanna and look for the silver lining, but it makes life so much more enjoyable (not just for you, but for those around you).
When I was training for my race, I was very intentional about making my goal known? Why? Because if other people knew of my plans, I was less likely to back out and give up. I knew that there were people from all different phases of my life who were following my progress and cheering me on. I posted my runs on Facebook and used neat apps like the Nike Running App to let people know when I was out running. The Nike App generates a "cheer" that you can hear whenever someone likes your run on Facebook. It's ridiculous how much those little cheers from a simulated crowd motivated me when I was on my long runs.
Even though I ran by myself on Sunday morning, I felt like I was carrying my friends along with me. I could hear their cheers. I know others were praying for me (and for the thunderstorm that threatened to strike in the middle of the race window).
Accountability is risky because it means exposing your potential failures to others, but in the end it also enables you to reach your full potential.
Never give up. Never Surrender.
Is it weird to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my half-marathon experience? The training was tedious and tiring, but the race itself was well worth it. It was good for body and soul. It taught me a lot about myself and about faith and perseverance. When I was running it felt like worship.
The movie Chariots of Fire tells the story of Scottish runner, Eric Liddell (I got to see his Olympic medals when I was studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh). At one point in the movie, Liddell says:
You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It's hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape - especially if you've got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe you're dinner's burnt. Maybe you haven't got a job. So who am I to say, "Believe, have faith," in the face of life's realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, "Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me." If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.I definitely didn't win the race (I was much closer to last place than to first place), but I finished. Thanks to all who encouraged me along the way. Your words of encouragement kept me running.
Thanks to my little sister who stood in the cold rain at the finish line.
It was fun. I'm definitely glad I did it. If I can do it (a self-avowed hater of running), trust me, anyone can.
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever."
1 Corinthians 9:24-25