Running, priorities, idolatry, and glorification

Several months ago I shuffled into my church sanctuary and dropped into the back row as my eyes overflowed with tears.  I dabbed at them throughout the music and as the pastor stepped on stage to deliver a message that felt uncomfortably appropriate.

He flipped to a story in Luke that told of one sister sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening, while the other sister rushed around trying to be a good hostess to their divine guest.  When becoming aggravated that her sister didn’t help, Jesus said, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details!  There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

The takeaway: there are things that are good, but still unimportant when compared to Jesus.  And when good things become ultimate things ultimately good things can become destructive things.  Martha wasn’t doing anything bad.  In fact, she was doing things that culturally were expected of her (showing hospitality).  They just weren’t as important as focusing on Jesus.

Hebrews 12 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…”  I want to point out a tiny, three-letter word in the first sentence.  Throw off everything that hinders AND the sin.  The implication being that good things, non-sinful things can impede our following Christ.

The tears that had trickled down my face when I walked in the door now flowed freely as I listened to this message.  Because I had limped into church that day on legs that ached painfully with shin splints.  I was on the cusp of running a half marathon.  Not just any half marathon, but one for which I had ultimately been training for over seven months.  One that would hopefully yield a fast enough time for me to qualify to register for the Pikes Peak Ascent.

But my body was broken.  I entered that room sad, asking God to please help.  I had worked so long and so hard and didn’t want to be held back and disappointed now.

Actually, I was more than sad.  I was mad.  I asked God if by letting my body break he was going to take running away from me.  Despite all my cautions and recovery and training, I seemed incapable of running without hurting myself.  I had found this activity that I enjoyed and was passionate about and yet was having so much trouble doing it.  Why?  Why would he let my dreams be shattered like this?  Did it mean running was actually bad or sinful?  Is that why it seemed like he was taking it away from me?  For the first time in my whole life that I was actively taking care of my health and didn’t that mean I’m taking care of the temple of the Holy Spirit and isn’t that a good thing, God?  When I considered the prospect of having to give up running, I panicked and prayed, “No, God! May it not be so!”

And those words came from the pulpit, that there are good things that can still distract us from following God.

So much of my life revolved around running.  Determining a training schedule, considering my diet and what foods I needed to be eating, trying to get my computer and iPod to cooperate so I’d have a playlist to listen to, washing loads of running clothes, not to mention the time spent on running itself.

What role did running play in my life?  I shudder to admit that it was tantamount to idolatry.  It was most of what I thought about.  Most of what my life revolved around.  It was what I most feared losing.  And it had crept into that role in my life without my even consciously acknowledging it.

But it didn’t have to stay that way.

Where was God in my life as a runner?  After all, running’s not a bad thing in and of itself.  But was I letting him in?  Was I letting him be a part of my running?  What would that even look like?

A few days later as I stepped out for a training run, worried about my legs holding up, I was struck by those famous words of Philippians 4:13, “I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.”  With the dull ache in my legs, I was aware that the only way I would get through this run today was with Christ.  But isn’t that the case with every run?  With every thing?  I had heard that verse so many times, but I felt like I saw it in a new light.  God gives me strength.  God gives me health.  God gives me time.  God gives me existence.  I am who I am and the only reason I can do anything is because of Christ.

Holding that verse in the forefront of my mind – aware that every step I took was only because God had given me life, the ability to breathe, the ability to run – I made it through that run.  And the next one.  And the next one.  And somehow my legs carried me pain-free through 13.1 miles a few weeks later, though three minutes shy of the qualifying time I needed.

I’m not saying that God healed me – in fact, I had to take a full month off from running just to leg my legs recover and shin splints still challenge me.  This isn’t a “if you have faith, God will take all your troubles away” thing, because Jesus actually says the opposite, that we WILL have trouble.  I am saying that I learned to not let my abilities define my joy.  Because this body WILL eventually fall apart.  There WILL come a day when I cannot run any more.  But I’m learning that I’ll be okay when that day comes.

I thought about something else I had heard around the same time, though I don’t recall from where.  We always talk about glorifying God in our victories.  Athletes point toward the heavens or make the sign of a cross after scoring, or you hear people thank God in speeches or after beating cancer or something.  What about glorifying God in our defeats?  I wasn’t even sure what that would look like.  But I was pretty sure it wasn’t wallowing in self-pity, or beating myself up, or acting like or feeling like my world was ending for performing poorly in a race.  It was probably more like acknowledging his sovereignty and thanking him for his continued provision.

Less than four days until my next half marathon.  My last chance to knock off those three minutes in hope of qualifying – an idea, a dream that was planted in my head ten months ago and I have been working toward ever since.  Like so many races before, I’m going in at less than 100%.  (Grr, silly knees and ankle…)  I would love to make my goal time.  But regardless, my greatest desire is that this Sunday God would be glorified in all that I do – race included.

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