I’m exhausted. The New York Marathon demanded presence at 5:30am. Running didn’t start until 10:30am. The course snaked through all five boroughs of the city. The finish line was crossed mid-afternoon. Watching my daughter run the race required effort. Trying to figure out where I could best view her from the sidelines called for a lot, but I prepped well for it. (Point of personal privilege: I’m so proud of her.)
Perhaps it’s a preacher’s occupational hazard. I’m led to consider the ways that scripture compares the spiritual journey to a marathon. Old Testament prophets and New Testament pastors spoke of how the way of faith was like a race. A long one. They spoke of how spiritual disciplines compared to physical training, how spiritual practice prepared for the challenge. Does the analogy apply? Some Monday morning observations from one whose long distance running days are over, in other words, from one who is not particularly well-informed on the subject. But I won’t let that stop me.
First, the spiritual life seems more like a marathon than a sprint. Some of the great cloud of witnesses I know are people who have been at this journey for decades. I often cite one of my mentors, a woman in her nineties who suddenly found herself a widow and wondered aloud what God was calling her to do with the next, new chapter of her life. She never stopped running the race. Who are those wise folks, those saints in your life?
The race requires discipline and takes practice. Very few walk-ons in the marathon. There’s preparation involved. So in the spiritual realm, we practice in the sense that we put faith to practical use. And we practice in the sense that as we do, we grow stronger and get better at it. Prayer and scripture and service equip us for ministry, providing strength, the resources to live the life to which God calls us.
The race calls for endurance and intention. The passage below comes from the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, a letter written to early Christians facing persecution. They may have wondered why they got in the race at all. You may have days like that. Maybe this is one of them. We may hit a wall. We are called to keep going, a day at a time, one foot in front of the other.
It helps to run with other people. That same letter to the Hebrews reminds those folks of a great cloud of witnesses cheering them on (like sidewalk spectators on Manhattan streets). In the marathon, it helps to have people cheering you on, which is why showing up for community life, for worship and study is so important. It’s why the observance of All Saints Day matters, as we considers saints across the generations and around the world who run the race with us, setting the pace, showing us how it’s done.
Whether you’re running a road race or competing in the rat race, let us run with endurance the race God has set before us, knowing that we don’t go it alone, knowing that we don’t run in our own strength, but as Hebrews says, we run looking to Jesus, the author and finisher, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
The God who has girded me with strength has opened wide my path.
The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to people of understanding, nor yet favor to people of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Even youths will become exhausted, and young men will fall. But those who wait on the Lord will find new strength. They will fly high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.
I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
When you walk, your step will not be hampered; and if you run, you will not stumble.
I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize.
Every athlete exercises discipline in every way.
I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.
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