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Training to Race, Not Racing to Train

“Everyone who competes in the games goes into training…I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” I Cor. 9:25 & 27

Theres’ a story of a young cross country runner who was training with his team and feeling rather “feisty” during a particular training session.  On this day, he decided to show the rest of the team that he was the fastest.  Instead of running with the pack and maintaining a sustainable pace, he broke free from the group and sprinted ahead for the last kilometer or so.

Finishing a considerable time ahead of the rest of the team he prepared himself for the accolades of his coach and teammates.  When the final runner crossed the finish line the coach called the team to circle up.  He commended the team on an excellent effort for the day and then singled out the young man who had finished well ahead of the rest, “Son, don’t ever do that again,” the coach chided. “This is a team of winners.  We have several regional and state championships in both individual and team categories.  And we win because we train to race, not race to train.  We are a team of winners, none of us are a winner above the team.”

The three of you who regularly read my blog know that I run three to four times per week.  Actually, it’s slightly above average jogging, but the allegory holds true.  I run in the morning between 6:00 and 7:00 AM.  I enjoy the solitude, just me and my iPod enjoying each other’s company plodding along for a few miles.  An interesting aside is that the more relaxed my listening music is then the better my running times for distances longer than five to seven miles.  I think it’s because I’m relaxed in not competing against anyone else, just out training for the intrinsic value of doing what is good for my body.

Needless to say that the more intelligent humans in my neighborhood are still in bed at that time of the morning.  But every once in a while another misguided soul will be out running.  This is when I get into trouble.  I start comparing myself to them.  “Is my stride as good as theirs?”  “How’s my pace compared to there’s?”  “Am I wasting as much energy in upper body movement as they are?”

Inevitably, in an attempt to increase my self-esteem I compare their weakness to my strengths.  I’m blessed with a naturally neutral stride.  That’s usually where I start.  “Their stride isn’t nearly as effortless as mine,” I assure myself.  It doesn’t matter that they just blew by me with a smile on their face while I huff and puff.

Of course, if their times appear to be better than mine it can only be because they’re just out for a quick one mile jaunt while I’m in the middle of a grueling five mile slugfest with exhaustion.  “Their form is so poor that I bet I could still catch them even with my increased distance,”  I rationalize.

My pace quickens and before I know it, I’m not training to race any longer, I’m racing to train.  I’ve lost sight of my goal.  My goal, in becoming a runner in my late forties, isn’t to win a race….I might not ever even run a competitive race.  My goal in running is to be healthy, to control my diabetes without drugs, to maintain a reasonable weight, to be the best me that I can be.  But, now I’ve made it about someone else and comparing myself to them.

In short order my session comes unraveled.  My form disintegrates, my upper body tightens, my breathing becomes erratic.  The neutral step that, just moments before, I was so proud of fails me as I fatigue and my feet begin scuffing the ground under me.  I am undone by my own pride.

I notice a similar tendency in my growth as a Christian, as well.  It’s a trap that many of us fall into; the tendency to compare our strength to others’ weakness.  The name for it is judgmentalism.  And it’s fruitless.  All it does is distract me from the race that God has called us to run.  He’s set a course, a pace, a discipline for all of us to run.  The life of a Christian isn’t a contest against others.  It doesn’t matter if I’m faster or better than someone else.  My life isn’t identified in relation to theirs.  My life is identified with the pace setter, Jesus.

Continuing with the analogy of my running, this year’s Boston Marathon winner, Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya, set a new record for that twenty six mile race: 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 2 seconds.  I run about ten miles in the same amount of time.  That means that Geoffrey could lap me and finish six miles ahead of me.  I wouldn’t stand a chance.  He could run with less than half the effort and still finish more than an hour ahead of me.

But what if it wasn’t a race to cover a certain distance the fastest?  What if the contest was to be the first to circumnavigate the globe at the equator in less than 2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds?  At that point it really doesn’t matter that he’s faster than I am.  In fact, he could be one hundred times faster than I am.  He could lease a private jet and still not win.  It would be a hopeless, winless situation for both of us.

That’s the accurate race analogy for us as Christians.  We could never reach the goal except for the pace setter, Jesus.  And here’s where the analogy breaks down, He’s already won the race in our place.  But I’m thankful that analogies break down with Him.  He breaks the mould.  He doesn’t just set the standard; He also carries it for me…for you.  And He wins the race while carrying the standard in one hand and carrying us in the other.  He’s that big, He’s that strong, He’s that fast…He loves us that much.  He wants us to experience winning the race with Him.

So, let’s stop racing against each other and start training with each other.  Let’s stop competing in our habits, our lifestyles, our churches, our dogma with each other.  If we’re running in the presence of the One carrying the standard, then it really doesn’t matter that I read the Bible more, that my knees have bent in prayer more, that my church has more attenders on Easter Sunday, that my ministry has more major donors, that…anything.  It only matters that more people join the race and train to race, not race to train.

The litmus test of being great in the Kingdom of God isn’t that I’m better than those around me; that my theology is more sound than someone else’s; that my church is more Biblically accurate than the those surrounding mine; that my ministry ministers to more widows and orphans than mine.  The way to tell that I’m running the good race is that everyone around me runs a little faster, a little truer, a little straighter because of my example that reflects the One who has already won the race.  Spiritual leadership isn’t being better than everyone else; it’s encouraging, inspiring, equipping everyone else to be better.

That’s the Way a Savior Rolls

“When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.” John 21:9

If you go back and read this story from the beginning you see that they (the Disciples) had been fishing all night. The picture in my mind is of a few of them hanging out the day before. The sting of Jesus’ crucifixion had been washed away by the surprise and joy of seeing Him while they were hiding from the Jewish leaders (see 20:19); now they’re basking in the glow of knowing the risen Savior. It must have felt something like the soldiers who had just survived Bastogne or the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team-mates who had just won the impossible victory. Just a short time earlier they were cowering behind locked doors trembling with the fear of uncertainty. They had invested everything to be a part of a new kingdom; watched it all vanish on a cross; then watched with incredulity as the object of their affection revealed Himself.

So, at the end of what must have been a very good day I picture them sitting around a fire spinning yarns and memories of the previous three years. I imagine there was a lot of laughter; the kind of laughter that brings a tear to your eyes; laughter that is relaxed and content with life.

Eventually the laughter gives way to quiet reflection; a silence that comes with serenity and peace as each mind relaxes in its own pleasant recollection of moments passed. Each of the disciples gazes with gratification at the flickering coals of the fire. Each face is framed in the warm glow of the fading embers.

One of them, Peter, says, “Ya, know…the last three years has been a blast, and I wouldn’t trade a moment of it, but I really miss what I used to do…fishing. I think I’m gonna go drown some worms.” (Yes, I know that there are a ton of problems with the hermeneutics and exegesis of my paraphrase, but just work with me.)

Anyway, some of the others say, “Hey, that sounds nice. We’ll come with ya’.”

And, being fisherman they fish, all night. They catch…nothing. “Well, I guess the good times are over,” they must have thought to themselves.

Then some “yahoo” walking along the shore suggests throwing the nets out of the other side of the boat. It must have seemed like a joke, and I sense that it was with a certain amount of sarcasm that they gave it a try.

It’s at this moment, as the nets start to rip, that Peter’s head must have snapped around to look again at the shore. I suspect that what He saw was a familiar silhouette crouched over a fire coaxing the embers from the previous night’s fire back to flame. I suspect that in the profile of that silhouette Peter saw a wry smile. I imagine a playful twinkle in Jesus’ eye as He thought, “That’s my boy, The Rock. A little slow on the uptake, but quick to action once he catches on.”

And, as if on cue, Peter jumps out of the boat and rushes to shore. The others’ follow in short order and this is where I think the fun really starts.

Jesus had just delivered fish into their nets beyond any of the Disciples own efforts. He blessed them beyond measure. That would have been enough, don’t you think? But, that’s not how the Savior rolls. The Disciples are dead tired from riding an emotional rollercoaster, being awake all night and then dragging nets bulging with fish to shore. They probably figured that it was good enough that they had been blessed with a good catch. Cooking their own breakfast would just be part of the routine.

But, really, Jesus doesn’t do just enough. He doesn’t just meet our need, He supersedes it. He provides for it before we have a clue that we have a need. It’s like He was saying, “you thought you needed raw fish, but what you really need is some cooked fish… and some bread, too.” Also, I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that Jesus has some skills with the spatula and frying pan. It’s unlikely that He had simply slapped some mayonnaise and Chicken of the Sea onto some Wonderbread. No, it’s easy to imagine some macadamia crusted orange roughy with a citrus infused horseradish sauce served with lightly toasted artisan bread rubbed with roasted garlic.

Then He really gets to the point, “Hey, bring some of your fish, too.” Did He really need them to bring some of the fish that they had just caught? No, I’m quite certain that He was more than capable of feeding all of them. Jesus’ point is that it’s more fun when we all get to share what we have. Yeh, He provided the fish that He asked them to bring, but that’s His point. It would be enough that He gives us stuff. It would be enough for Him to provide even after His provision.

What Jesus does that “floors” me is that He wants me to know what it’s like to bless others. He blesses me so that I can bless others. And, not just so that the “other” can be blessed, but so that I can get to experience just a small bit of what it’s like to be a “blesser”.

…blessing me to be a blessing. That’s just the way Jesus rolls.