Monday, January 25, 2016

The Faith Race That Goes To The Committed, The Courageous

Back in my college running days. That's me on the right there, the one you wouldn't recognize these days.

My last college cross country race was held on a warm, sunny November day in a big, hilly park in Fresno, Calif. It was 1990. I was 21, married with a little boy and in my senior year at the University of Portland. The race was an NCAA regional meet, my last chance to qualify for the national cross country championships and I was running with the big boys from the West region. All the Pac-10 (back when it was the Pac-10) schools were there along with big schools from other major conferences.

I was ready, if not a bit intimidated to race with the elites. To qualify for the NCAA championships your team has to be in the top three. Or for individuals, you have to be in the top three from non-scoring teams. I had a legitimate shot. A very good shot. The race was 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles. I always felt like we were at a slight disadvantage racing in California at that time of year because in Portland it was 50s and raining sideways, so a warm day in the 70s was a bit taxing for us and not something for which we could prepare. But that's not an excuse. The conditions were the same for everyone.

As the race went on I knew our team was in the running for a shot at the NCAAs and I was as well. I remember distinctly with a half-mile left thinking that this was the last cross country race I would ever run. In high school I had been fortunate enough to be a part of an amazing turnaround. My freshman year of high school, when I started running at Bend High School in Oregon, we were horrible in cross country, finishing somewhere close to last in our district. By the time I was a junior we dominated our district and finished second in state. My senior year we destroyed the competition, winning the state title by 69 points. That state title was by far the highlight of my high school athletics experience.

College was similar. My freshman year we weren't that good, but by the time I was a senior we had a shot -- albeit something of a slim one -- to get to the NCAAs. So with a half-mile left in the race I did something that I never did. I sprinted. I never had much of a kick and usually conserved energy for the very end of the race, maybe the last 100 meters. Not this time.

I don't recall how many runners I passed but it was a lot. Maybe six, possibly eight. Could be more. I absolutely crushed that last half-mile. And paid the price for it. As I stumbled across the finish line in 11th place, two runners who kicked much later burst past me. But I had beaten them to the line and the officials pushed me in front of them in the finish line chute.

Gasping for air I literally stumbled through the line on legs of rubber and I remember the strangest thing happened to me. I couldn't keep my eyes open. I was so exhausted I literally was falling asleep as I walked through the chute. I found a picnic table and promptly crashed onto the bench to go to sleep, or possibly die. My teammates probably thought I was dead, maybe just nearly dead at best, and kept trying to help me up to walk me around and keep me alive. I would have none of it. I told them to leave me alone. I just wanted to sleep. Or maybe die.

My effort was seemingly noble, yet all for naught. Our team finished 4th and I was the 4th individual. My cross country season, really my cross country career, was over. Since then I've looked back on that race and comforted myself knowing how hard I fought that last mile. I've even used it in messages I've preached at Calvary Chapel Gloucester about finishing the race well. To push yourself to the limit.

Yet that's not the truth. I've thought about that race a lot over the past 25 years. (Wow. Has it been that long? Mercy sakes.) And while it's a nice narrative I've told over the years it's not quite right. I've been wrong to talk about that race in the manner I have. It's long past time to come clean. I'll explain.

Here's why I've been thinking about this. I see too many Christians practice their faith exactly the way I ran that race. We all gather at the starting line -- that moment when you come to faith in Jesus Christ and make Him your Lord and Savior -- and from that point there are some who really go for it and are all out for the Lord. They are passionate, unwavering and zealous and the love of Jesus shines in them and through them. They are lights in a dark world, continually pointing people to Jesus, being compassionate, loving and radiating His grace. I admire them greatly.

Others run comfortably, more or less lukewarm. This is your typical Christian and a group I would characterize as the vast majority. Some flat out dawdle and others, sadly, drop out. But for pretty much everyone who sticks in the race there's a sprint at the end as the realization hits them that the end of their life is near and they want to "do something for the Lord."

So what really happened in that race of mine 25 years ago? In every cross country race there comes a point fairly early when you have to decide your level of commitment. The great runners push themselves to the limit from the start. For me, the moment of truth in that 10k in Fresno came around two miles into the race. At that point I backed off a bit and didn't fully go for it, opting to conserve my energy until the end. I played it safe. I ran comfortably, easily within my limits. It proved to be a decision I would regret. And still regret. Why not just go for it? It was my last cross country race! Ever!

Here's why I made the decision I did. I simply lacked the courage. And commitment. The race doesn't always go to the fastest or strongest. It's often to the most committed. The most courageous. That wasn't me on that day.

Which brings me to my Christian life. And yours, if you're a believer. What's your level of commitment? What's the courage meter of your faith? Are you coasting? Have you settled?

I've settled in my faith far too often. I've coasted in my faith far too often. It's too easy to just back off -- daily Bible reading, prayer, sharing my faith, pressing into the Lord, missions and other elements of the Christian faith can all take a back seat to "life" and its distractions and enticements. It really comes down to who Jesus is in my life. And yours. Is Jesus worth living for? Worth dying for? Didn't Jesus lay down His life for you and me?

I say all of this because I'm wrestling hard with some major decisions. It has everything to do with my level of commitment and the essence of my faith. I'm guessing you have these decisions to wrestle with as well.

It's the two-mile mark and time to make a decision. What's my level of commitment? What's yours?

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