Ready, Set, Go! Running the Marathon of Faith

I Corinthians 9:24-27
February 12, 2012
Mary Hammond

I have never won an athletic competition in my life. I was always the klutziest, weakest student in gym class. Liz and I were regularly picked dead last when our peers chose up teams. Liz was the “greaser” with the black leather jacket, black jeans, and red hair sprayed to the hilt. Chewing gum or smoking a cigarette right past school property, she exuded Attitude with a capital “A,” and her attitude was, “I do not care.”

I, on the other hand, was the earnest, high-achieving super-nerd. I could smash the competition in any sentence-diagramming contest, but I was absolutely abysmal on an athletic field. My attitude, however, was the opposite of Liz’s: “I care so much, I really do!–but I’m just no good at this!”

So what do I know about running, and winning, a race? I would do better shifting Paul’s metaphor to a piano competition where many compete but only one ultimately performs with the orchestra. The audition might last 20 minutes, but the preparation might have taken 20 years. In fact, winning the competition is impossible without all the intense effort preceding it.

Running a race to win is no more an accident than being awarded first place in a piano competition. The Apostle Paul likens the spiritual journey to an athletic match-up for which one trains to win, not just to participate. He reminds the Church in Corinth that the reward is no mere gold medal which tarnishes and fades. Instead, it is infused with the breath of eternity and bears everlasting significance.

The past two years have been very difficult for our family as our daughter, Sarah, faced profound struggles due to deep psychological vulnerabilities which she endured for a lifetime. The race we ran as parents, pastors, and people of faith took sharp detours, scaled rugged mountains, careened through dark valleys, and traversed a handful of barren deserts.

At times, people ask Steve and me some version of the question, “How are you getting along?” or, to paraphrase it, “How do you keep running this race?”

For me, the answer is found in three anchors: faith in God, support from community, and sustained spiritual practices. These three keep the finish line in clear spiritual sight, even when the winding road before me is cast in fog and shadows.

Faith reminds me that this world isn’t all there is, that life which ends here continues on, nonetheless, in the loving, enduring Presence and Light of God. Hallelujah! Faith reminds me that the Holy One is near in our tears as well as our laughter, in our sorrows as well as our joys.

Community encourages me when I have trouble seeing God or understanding what is. It carries me when the journey is too difficult to navigate alone. Community sits with me, walks with me, prays for me, loves me.

Sustained Spiritual Practices produce a deep reservoir of grace beneath my life. Years of nurturing Silence and receiving Spiritual Direction have allowed me to excavate my inner life more fully. This has led to an increasing integrated inward and outward journey, and, believe me, that feels really good!

I “take in” wisdom through meditative scripture reading and a variety of devotional literature. I “release” wisdom by writing. In journal after journal, I spill out my heart and put words to my struggles, questions, and insights. I muse about scripture, process anxieties, problem-solve, draw, and rant. Through the additional nourishment of music and nature, I experience comfort and beauty; wonder and gratitude.

The past two years have underscored in bold relief the importance of developing consistency within my Spiritual Practices. In more ordinary and less traumatic times, day by day, I dug that deep reservoir of contemplative practice under my life. When Sarah’s death hit like a ton of bricks, there was a body of living water gushing from beneath me to shore me up. There was a community of faith around me and a God of all comfort within and beyond me.

Each of these anchors is supported by three “postures of the heart”: listening, receiving, and sharing. Listening begins in silence, in stepping away from the cacophony of the world–its busyness, speed, and noise. We cannot listen when our hearts and minds are crowded with thoughts. Listening begins in finding time and sacred space that takes us to “another” place, inside our hearts.

But we have to be able to “take in” what we hear. And we have to be able to ask for what we need–both from God and others. Listening must be followed by receiving. Do we “take in” the love of God and others, or do we feel unworthy and unlovable, pushing that love away? Do we seek tangible, practical support when the going gets rough?

To complete the circle of “listening” and“receiving,” we need to practice sharing. If I’m going to go through challenging times anyway, I want some blessings to come out of the chaos!

Glenn Gall names this process so well, calling it “the roller coaster of loss and grace.” Our many “roller coasters of loss and grace” beg to be shared in community, where we can support one another and learn from each other. Our faith is collectively challenged and deepened as, together, we wrest redemption from catastrophe, light from darkness.

We’re not sprinting to the finish line. Running the marathon can be just plain hard, but the load lightens when we live in a posture of listening, receiving, and sharing. The load lightens when we grab hold of the three anchors of faith, community, and Spiritual Practice. The story expands beyond our own private pain; the journey deepens. The circle of transformation widens; seeds planted grow and bear fruit.

After church today, we have the opportunity to hear from John Bergen, our Peace & Justice Intern, who spent the month of January at the Monastery of Our Lady in Conyers, Georgia, with the Trappist monks. I invite you into this conversation, but I also invite you into your own internal conversation.

How you are running this spiritual marathon? Are you feeling kind of wobbly in the knees and searching for a rest stop? Are you needing additional traveling companions? Are you looking for more conditioning techniques which will increase your endurance? Or are you meandering along as a tourist rather than training as a runner?

Wherever you are, may God speak to your heart and beckon you onward, with the words of the Apostle Paul ringing in your ears:
“Run to win…I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.”

Amen.