Lessons I learned during a marathon

The author makes a spiritual connection with a marathon and how it applies to our journey with Christ.

Brandon Westgate is a pastor serving in the Arkansas-Louisiana Conference, Bonnerdale, Arkansas, United States.

“And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disquali­fied” (1 Cor. 9:25–27, NKJV).

I signed up to run in a marathon six weeks prior to the race. I had not been doing any serious running to prepare because I considered myself in good shape. I reasoned that if I was dedicated and consistent in increasing the distance in my training, I should have a successful run. This was the start of lessons I learned from a marathon that have helped me in ministry.

Preparation

On the day I signed up for the race, I started with a 4-mile run, easy at my current fitness level. I followed a schedule that included increasing the distance on successive runs and then taking a rest day or two during the week. Recognizing that in just a few short weeks I would be running 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers), I increased my distances quickly. By the next week I had a 10-mile (16 kilometers) and a 13-mile (21 kilometers) run planned. The 10-mile was a little taxing but manageable. I took a rest day and then did the 13. During the last few miles of the 13, I began to feel knee pain. The next day my knee was still hurting. The day after that I tried to run and realized that I was injured. I decided that to be healthy for the race, schedule or no schedule, I would need to rest my knee. I did not run for two weeks.

In our spiritual lives, as shepherds, we are called to be innovative and visionary, while also maintaining the standards and culture of our respec­tive churches. Trying something new, venturing out into the unknown, has inherent risks, but if we never seek for something more and better, we have settled for the status quo. And, from where I stand, the status quo is not somewhere I am comfortable setting up camp. We read books on ministry and fill our time and heads with great concepts and ideals, which are fine. But at some point we need to realize that ministry is rarely conducted in an ideal environment.

Perseverance

The weather was cold, and when I started to run again, I ran an easy and slower paced 4 miles. The knee felt good, but I had only two weeks before the marathon. I rested and ran and rested and ran over the next ten days. A few days before the marathon, my last run was just 10 miles. According to the prevailing wisdom, that run should have been 20-plus miles to ensure my body was ready for the physical demands of the marathon. I knew that not running those longer runs would make things more difficult.

The day of the race came; the weather was miserable: it was raining (intermittently and light for the most part) and 45 degrees at the start of the race, with the temperature dropping as the day progressed.

The first half of the race, I felt good. The knee was doing well. I thought that I was going to make my goal of running the race in four hours. Still feeling pretty good, I finished the first half in two hours, three minutes. However, at mile 17, I felt myself slow down. This is where the pain began. It was not the pain of injury but of fatigue. It migrated to various parts of my legs and hips, but until the end of the race, it was persistent and nagging.

In our spiritual lives, perseverance is a key component as well. The enemy always tries to tell us how easy life would be if we would just give up this thing called “ministry.” The temptation is always there to just be done with the board meetings, business meetings, counseling sessions, hospital visits, and whining parishioners who want everything their way. No question, for a minister, perseverance is required.

Pain

As runners get farther into the run, lactic acid builds up and causes soreness and pain. I was in pain but not injured. I ran carefully, watching each step, doing my best to make sure every footfall was well placed. But the pain persisted, even though I soon realized that everyone around me was also in pain.

At some point, the run became about community and a shared experi­ence. We were all hurting, and yet we kept running, the same direction, toward the same goal. We tried to encourage one another. Some run­ners slowed and eventually stopped running, shivering and hypothermic on the side of the road while making panicked calls on their cell phones so that they could get picked up. We wished them well but kept running. You know instinctively at the start of the race that some will not finish. But we who run find it hard to watch people, who seem physically fit and mentally prepared and who trained for this run for several months, succumb to the cold or an injury.

The same principle holds for people we minister to and with. We are all in this ministerial journey together, this great race to the ultimate goal. We would like to think that everyone in our flock, and even some of those we have been working with to bring into the flock, will make it into the sheepfold. In the back of our minds, though, we know that not all will make it. The pain of continuing, or perhaps the allure of simply stopping, will claim some of those we have invested in and cared about. Unfortunately, this adds to the pain. We grieve for them, we hurt for them, but we press on in spite of it.

Progress

At the beginning of the race, each runner is given a microchip to fasten to his or her shoe. This chip has a triggering device that activates a timer. progress as well. The Lord watches over His people. This should compel us to greater and greater things. After all, He is with us, running with us and encouraging us to keep going.

How it works is simple. As you cross the start line, the chip sends a signal to the computer, which effectively starts your personal timer. At several points along the race there are mats you run across that record your total time up to that point. The last mat is, of course, at the finish line.

Somehow, just knowing that your progress is being recorded is compel­ling. In our spiritual lives we should be aware that our God records our progress as well. The Lord watches over His people. This should compel us to greater and greater things. After all, He is with us, running with us and encouraging us to keep going.

Prize

At the aid station on mile 21, they were announcing over the loudspeaker that the race had been canceled. A severe thunderstorm had moved into the area, and, for our protection, they were canceling the race. They followed that announcement with these words: “If you want to continue running, you may do so at your own risk.” I kept running. And so did most of the others.

Having gone this far, we were not going to stop now.

The last few miles were the most difficult. My pace had slowed; the tem­perature continued to drop. But we kept running—I and those around me whom I had seen throughout the race. Sometimes passing them, sometimes being passed by them, we had been enduring this experience individually, and yet somehow it felt like a team effort. You realize that you are not alone, and yet no one can run this race for you. I remember seeing the sign for mile 25. I thought, One mile to go! I had no idea how long I had been running. I was not wearing a watch and did not have a cell phone with me either. I just knew that I needed to continue.

Up another hill and down around another wet corner, I saw the finish line, and then I crossed it—26.2 miles com­pleted. We were greeted with cheers and a warm blanket. Someone put a huge finisher’s medal on our necks; others took our pictures. We were done.

Conclusion

This race, like so many things in life, taught me some lessons. First, some­times you may not be fully prepared for what you are about to go through, but you can persevere with God’s grace, and you will make it through. Success is determined by your willingness to keep going. Also, pain will be a part of the process. Sometimes you will experience hurt, whether physical or emotional. The temptations to quit will come, but stay focused and on the right course, even when others seem to be taking the easy way, and you will receive the prize.

Hebrews 12:1, 2 says, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (NKJV). We prepare by laying down every weight and sin at Jesus’ feet. This lightens the load. Forget about whatever mistakes of the past you blame yourself for—drop those burdens of guilt at the cross and be free of them.

We run with endurance the race set before us, not some other course that others may run that looks easier, but rather the race set before each of us, individually. We were not called to run another’s race. Jesus calls us to run the race that He has called us to run. When we keep our eyes on our calling and run with endurance, we realize that we are not running alone. Jesus Himself said that He would be with us. He will not leave us to run by ourselves. When we continue to press on, even when we think everyone else has stopped, we will receive the promised reward.


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Brandon Westgate is a pastor serving in the Arkansas-Louisiana Conference, Bonnerdale, Arkansas, United States.

September 2014

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