This spring my consulting has involved research and analysis on college athletics. One aspect of the work has encompassed the faith-athletics connection. If sportsmanship and godly character are well established among athletes, is winning performance also critical? Questions like that. (Turns out this topic is a relevant and widely discussed one just now, as recent work on a 'declaration on sport and the Christian life' reveals.)
So it was that thoughts about sports, God, and their interplay bounced around in my head as I ran the Marine Corps Half Marathon last weekend. It was the third half marathon I'd run; my first was in 2004 (before I had my gaggle of kids) and my second was in 2014, shortly after I'd moved to Virginia.
I wanted to run the thing faster than I had in 2014. I wanted to for a couple of reasons.... First, I'm in better physical condition than I was two years ago since I've added strength training (which I generally loathe and had previously avoided at all costs) into my regimen. And second, my overall person - my emotional health, my sense of self, my "joie de vivre" - is in better shape now than it was two years ago. The metaphor-lover in me wanted this to be reflected in my race time. My "Virginia chapter" has been one of much personal growth, and I wanted to be able to feel the reality of that when I ran. I wanted to close the chapter on a high note that encompassed the intangible and tangible, both.
Isn't it funny that we have a drive for the inside and the outside to be analogous this way? But we do, we all do. It comes with our being whole, multi-orbed people - mind, body, soul, and spirit all working together. It's why athletics have the power to so deeply spur people to inspiration, to teeth-gritting determination, to feats they didn't think they could accomplish... even to transcendence among those simply supporting the athletes (let alone the athletes themselves).
It's also why athletic imagery is so present throughout the Bible. Because I'm not the only with an inner drive for body-mind metaphors that relate to faith and wholeness. Look at the writer of Hebrews, "Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus." Or how about Paul in his letter to Timothy: "I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith"? (And there are plenty more.)
And the metaphors kept rolling for me as I ran on Sunday, a morning that dawned cloudless after days of continuous rain. The pounding feet of my compatriots, united in purpose, felt like the thundering parade of saints, pressing forward together. The upfront investments - the hours spent training and the bucks shelled out to cover those raced miles - were the sacrifice that comes with the life of faith, the cost-counting God asks of his followers. The fans cheering on the sidelines were the great cloud of witnesses, encouraging us forward. (No matter that that faces were those of strangers, since heaven holds no strangers- all are smilers, wavers, supporters in the personal journey and cause of each.) Even the volunteers were other-worldly: when else in life are you surrounded by hordes of people who go out of their way to slake your thirst when you need it, then happily pick up your trash?
We have a God who cares not just about our souls but about our bodies, who made us with bodies on purpose. For this I'm thankful. We get opportunities for whole-person learning and whole-person growth through the movement of our bodies, and this, I think, is a gift among gifts. Some things can be gained through blood, sweat, and tears that can't be gained through other avenues.
And the race? I shaved four minutes off my 2014 time and made my goal of 2:00. And I rejoiced.