Like a few other family and friends (not to mention fellow contributors to the ANC blog), I’m currently in training for a race that takes place in Cardiff in a few weeks’ time. Running has become one of my favourite pastimes over the last few years – a great opportunity for exercise, a space to clear my head (or more often one to think through my next sermon), and occasionally a means by which I can spend time with a friend or potentially make a disciple. My motivations for starting were a combination of a few things: a nagging sense that if I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my physically active children; the good example my father had set me of keeping fit and eating healthily throughout his life; and an invitation to join a school Dad’s five-a-side football team. My kids have continued to be as physically active as ever and my Dad is just as fit and healthy; sadly, I don’t get to play football as much as I might have liked to (although I was always a player who offered more energy than skill to any team I played on). The running, nevertheless, continues.
Actually, come to think of it, there was one more thing that finally motivated me to start running – an incident that took place at a family reunion I attended with my wife. My in-laws had organised this party for one of the May Bank Holiday weekends we enjoy here in the UK. Hundreds of people were invited and hundreds of people came. When I tell you that one guest flew in from the Vatican, you might get an idea of the kind of company we were in. (Alright – I confess, he was a journalist rather than a cardinal. Anyway.) My wife’s family are spread all over the world: one of her cousins had recently returned to the UK from Australia with his family and I found myself in a conversation with his wife about running. This lady was a fitness fanatic and had recently completed a marathon somewhere in the world. Now based on the limited knowledge I had – the running kit neatly folded in my chest of drawers at home, the once used running shoes by the back door, the growing collection of books about running that were starting to take up space on our shelves at home – I was holding my own in the conversation. That is until my wife joined us. After listening in for a few moments, I felt a small matrimonial tug on my arm and was pulled away gently to look my wife straight in the eye.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“We’re talking about running,” I replied.
“She actually runs,” my wife quickly answered, “you just read about it.”
And with that, the love of my life laughed heartily to herself and walked away to join another group at the party.
There comes a time for us all when hopes, desires, dreams, ambitions – whatever you choose to call them – have to be turned into action. There is a moment when creed must become deed and fact become act. And it often takes someone close to us, someone who loves us enough to tell us the truth (even while wearing a party dress and holding a lime and soda), to help us make the change. Running and talking about running are two completely different things. Praying and talking about praying are also two completely different things. Same goes for sharing our faith, caring for the flock, looking after our money, losing some weight, rebuilding that relationship. Good intentions are good – they’re certainly better than bad intentions – but good intentions alone are not good enough. There comes a time when, so to speak, you have to get out of bed, lace up your shoes and hit the road. Sometimes it’s best to do this with the help of others – with trusted family members, friends in the church or the people in your particular small group. One close friend training for the same race as me runs three times a week with a few others – they provoke and encourage and stimulate one another to keep going should they be tempted to quit. Other times you know that you have to win this battle on your own – or, at least, with you and the Lord. The other morning I set out for a run while everyone else at home was in bed and I didn’t see another soul – not a car, dog walker or fellow runner – for an hour. No one else knew what I was doing; I could have stayed at home, poured some water on my head to make my family think I’d worked up a sweat and saved myself a whole load of hassle. But then, come race day, I would have been found out.
The Bible uses running as a metaphor for life on a couple of occasions. Paul, a man very much at home using the idioms of Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures, picks up the image of an athlete from ancient games in his first letter to the Corinthians. To them he says:
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. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Paul encourages us to run in such a way as to win the prize. It’s a reminder that there is a reward coming to the faithful when they meet the Lord Jesus face to face. Live in such a way as to receive a reward from him! What’s more, Paul reminds us that all runners train ahead of their competitions. I can assure you from first hand experience that that’s true! Over the next few weeks in particular, the awareness of the impending race will affect what time I go to bed, what time I get up, what I do and do not eat and drink. But that’s only for one race that will be over and gone in the time it takes to watch a film at the cinema. For the Christian, however, this training is lifelong: it affects what we do in secret, how we use our time, our money, our possessions. It affects the words we do and do not use. It gives perspective to disappointment and provides perseverance to persecution. We’re running a race, we tell ourselves, and I’m not going to quit until I will win.
This wasn’t an article trying to convince every reader to take up running (although I do think physical exercise and good stewardship of the body God has given us is part of our duty as Christians). Rather, it is an attempt to remind us and encourage to keep going, keep running, keep training, keep putting our faith to work and our doctrine into practice. Although if I do see you doing laps around the local park sometime in the future, I’ll be sure to give you the most subtle of nods and waves.