Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Run Your Race Well: Part 1

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”
Steve Prefontaine

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. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV)

            There’s something affirming about the atmosphere of a long distance race. There is a certain camaraderie among the participants that is rare in other sports. Although each participant wants to do his or her best, there isn’t any antagonism between runners. Because of the distance covered much of the race is usually run out of sight of most spectators. The real action comes at the finish line. Cheering spectators line the course as the runners head for the chute. Even the last runners to cross the finish line receive cheers and applause from the crowd. As each runner finishes the race and emerges from the chute, one of the very first questions that a teammate will ask is “What was your time?” or “Did you get a P.R. (personal record)?” or “How well did you run the race?”  It isn’t “Did you win?” 

            Only one person can ever win the race, but everyone can do his or her best.  I helped out at a cross-country meet at our High School. I was stationed at the end of the chute where the runners finish the race.  Before each race began, we were given a total number of runners in the race.  We needed to know exactly how many runners were out on the course so we knew when the race was over, because the race is not complete until the final runner crosses the finish line.  With each race the officials and parents who were standing along the chute gazed out over the field waiting for the final runner to come.  I love that about cross-country. When that final runner comes into view everyone cheers.  It doesn’t matter what their time was or what team they represent.  What matters is that they ran and finished the race.  They did their best and everyone cheers as they cross the line.

            In the Christian life, it’s not so important where we place – that’s not what really matters.  What really matters is how we run the race.  We tend to judge ourselves against other people.  We tend to judge church against church and individual against individual.  God doesn’t do that.  He judges us based on how well we run the race.  What have we done with the assets, resources and talents that He’s given us?  How well did we run the race He set before us?

            We are running a race for Christ and His kingdom.  It matters to Christ what we do with our time, our talents and money.  We aren’t here by mistake.  We’re not here to mark time until some future opportunity materializes.  God has placed us here to make a difference for His kingdom now, in the present.  The gun has sounded, the race has begun, and it’s time to run.

            What can we do to run the race well? To start with we can run like it matters.  Hebrews 12:1 says, “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.”

            When my son Adam was considering where he wanted to attend college we took a trip down to Chicago to visit Wheaton College.  It just happens to be my alma mater. At the center of Wheaton College sits Blanchard Hall.  Blanchard Hall is a magnificent limestone building patterned after the buildings at Oxford, England. It looks like a small castle nestled on the top of a knoll.  This magnificent hall was built back in the 1850s.  It is the symbol for Wheaton.  Standing on front campus looking up at Blanchard Hall is awe-inspiring. What is more awe-inspiring is to go into the building and ascend to the second floor.  On the second floor of Blanchard Hall is a long hallway that is lined with several large plaques engraved with the names of individuals who have given their lives to world missions from Wheaton College.  Among those names are Jim Elliot, Nate Saint and Ed McCully. You may recognize those names from the movie “The End of the Spear”.  All three of these men were martyred for their faith. Their deaths sparked an unprecedented mission’s movement in America in the late 1950’s. There are many other names on those plaques; less well-known but not less significant. Some of those names are people I went to school with.  I’m always inspired to stand before that list and see the heritage of all those who have gone before and have run the race well.

            Hebrews 12:1 reminds us that we have a great spiritual heritage.  There are many who have gone before us, who have run the race well.  They form a great cloud of witnesses who inspire us and cheer us on in our race. The image is of a great stadium just before a race. The stands are filled, not with spectators but with champions; with those who have already run the race and know what it means to strain toward the goal.  They are cheering for the runners. They are shouting words of encouragement.  These are the faithful servants who have run the race before us, who stand as a testimony to encourage us in our race.

            Hebrews 11 gives us a glimpse into this great cloud of witnesses.  This chapter has been called God’s hall of faith.  It lists the champions of the faith. These are the pioneers who cut the trail in the spiritual wilderness; who ran the race before us and laid out the course that we might follow.  That little phrase, a great cloud of witnesses, reminds us that we have the privilege and obligation to carry on their work in our world. 

            Every year near the end of track season Mankato East High School holds something called the Cougar Relays.  It is a unique event because everything is run as a relay.  Even events that aren’t intended to be relays are run as relays! In a relay race it’s very important that each runner run his or her leg of the race well. The performance of each runner affects the others. As each runner finishes their leg they pass off the baton to the next runner. A bad handoff or a poorly run leg can spell defeat for the whole team. In a relay race each runner must do his best. 

            We are engaged in a great spiritual relay race.  It doesn’t last for 3 or 4 or 8 times around the track.  It lasts for a lifetime.  As we run this race, we receive the baton from those who have gone before us. We have been given the responsibility to continue the race; to run the best leg we can. Some day we will pass the baton on to those who come after us. Hebrews 11:39 summarizes this spiritual race. “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”  Did you get that?  They can’t finish the race without us.  They have passed on the baton, but the race isn’t over.  It isn’t complete until we take our turn, grab the baton and run our leg of the race.  We have an obligation to run for them and for Christ.  God has called us to something of great significance.  If we choose to focus only on our needs, wants and desires we will hurt the whole team. Many gifted athletes have ultimately failed because they forgot that they were part of a team.

            We can never forget all of those who have run the race before us; those who sacrificed so much so that we could join the team. They endured many hardships so that we could be a part of God’s team today.  They have handed the baton to us to continue the race for the next generation. How we run our leg of the race matters!  It matters for now and it matters for the future. We don’t know how much longer the race will last. What we do know is that how we run the race is going to make a difference to those people who come after us.

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