My youngest son has reached a new challenge in his sports career. This year he began serious athletic conditioning in his Physical Education class (times being what they are, I’m glad P.E. is still required). Gone are the romping-around-days of freeze-tag and unruly dodge ball games. Now he has to meet physical strength standards and run the mile every week.
And not only does he have to run it, his coach requires that each student improve their running time every week. Now, I’m no help to them in this department at all. Call on me for help with a history project or a book report. But running? Forget it. In fact, if you ever see me running – running anywhere – please stop and help me. Something big and bad is chasing me.
No, it is his mother who must coach him when it comes to improving his weekly time. What with her little collection of 5K trophies and ribbons (continually they mock me), she’s best qualified for showing him the way. And the thing she teaches him most often is how to set pace, how to finish the race they begin. To complete any long distance race the runner must set a speed that he or she can maintain. Flying out of the starting block as if your britches are on fire will do you no good if you are sucking wind by the second turn; this is true on the track, and true in life.
The writer of the book of Hebrews, aptly enough, once compared life to a sporting event. We are athletes on the track in this arena of life and there is a race to run. His coaching advice to us is essential. He says, “Strip down, travel light, and don’t quit.” You can’t run in stiletto heels or heavy steel-toed boots. You can’t maintain your pace while running in a three-piece suit or denim skirt. Get rid of those things that will only entangle and slow you. And forget about carrying anything with you: No backpacks, no pull-behind wagons, no coolers or picnic baskets. Free yourself from as much baggage as possible, just as a runner in a race.
And then, keep your eyes on the finish line not being distracted by those things that can divert you off the track; finish the course. Don’t go wandering into the stands for a hot dog or a beer. Get out of the souvenir shop and the weight room. Quit giving interviews to ESPN while the game is still on. Those who finish the race are the ones who stay at it, so stay at it.
Now, I’m not a complete couch potato. I routinely train for a century bicycle ride; that’s a hundred miles in a single day. I too must follow the writer of Hebrews’ advice. I get in shape and as light as possible. And on the day of the ride, I don’t concern myself with what is going on anywhere else in the world. I don’t stop to visit with people or take leisurely breaks at Starbucks. I stay with it, grinding away hour after hour and mile after mile.
My friends asked me millions of questions afterward: “How many people rode in the ride?” I can’t remember now. “What place did you finish?” I don’t know. “How long did it take you from beginning to end?” Forever, it seems. “How many hours did you put in training?” Not enough. “Would you do it again?” Yes, I will. But for me, there was only one question I wanted to be able to answer when it was over: “Did you finish?” Yes, I did, and for me that was enough.
The Scriptures do not provide us with any mystical, steroid-ized shortcuts to “run (or ride) with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Instead, they coach us to set a pace for the marathon of life we must run. It will take everything we have to finish, but finishing is enough.