A few years back I ran a 5K race with my dad. The race course literally goes right past my house, so I have absolutely no excuse to not participate. It's a mostly flat route and fairly manageable even without a lot of training beforehand.
It is just wrong that a man in his sixties is a better runner than I am.
But don't get me wrong. That doesn't mean it's easy. It requires determination and at least a little endurance to finish.
At least it does for me because it doesn't come naturally. I have to work at this running thing. I'd say I'm more in the camp of what my brother-in-law calls, "jogging with purpose".
We were about 1/2 mile or so away from the finish line. Dad and I were keeping a steady pace and were making decent time (I think he was being nice and waiting around for me) when suddenly a little girl was running alongside us. She couldn't have been more than 10 years old and she had big tears streaming down her face. The kid was actively crying as she charged her way ahead of us and began putting distance between us and herself. Her pace was faster. Her breathing was heavier.
Her determination was stronger.
I've often thought of that little girl in the years since the race. What was it in her that made her press on like that when clearly she was exhausted and not enjoying the race at all? How did she make herself keep putting one foot in front of the other when virtually every other kid her age would have been walking by that point or just quit altogether?
It was because this girl had determination, a strength, that came from someplace deep inside. Something inside her knew that it would be worth it in the end. She was positive that the finish line and crowd were waiting just a bit further and all the pain of pushing her body like that would be forgotten as she celebrated finishing the race. She believed the promise that the pain was temporary and the end of the race would be worth it when she was congratulated and felt a sense of accomplishment at her achievement.
It wasn't pretty. She was giving it all she had and it was a little painful to watch. But she was doing it.
Tonight I feel a bit like that little girl. My faith is not strong and pretty like I'd prefer for everyone (including myself) to believe. It's taking everything I've got to hang on and believe the promise that the finish line is worth the race. Tonight I feel like taking a look at a map of the race course of my life and drawing in shortcuts to bring that finish line closer to where I currently am. I just want the painful, difficult race to be finished. I want these tears to be a thing of the past.
Just like that little girl, my running tonight is not pretty. But I am convinced that tonight, while my faith is such a struggle and I want with all my might to just give up and take the shortcuts available to me, that Jesus is smiling upon me even bigger than when I was running with ease.
Though I've tried to bypass some of the hard He has chosen to walk me thru, He is there with open arms to carry me on down a road I never would have chosen. And messy as I am, slow as my pace is, He is cheering even louder for one of His own. I am one of His lambs and He's overjoyed that I am following Him. Oh, so painstakingly and ungracefully following His leading and giving up the shortcuts I've been trying to hold onto lately. Sometimes things can temporarily distract us from the pain of running. Before we know it, those distractions have weighed us down and created so much noise we can't hear His cheers. That brings isolation. Discouragement. Heaviness that you only notice if you've been close enough in your life to hear the beauty of His whispers to your heart. Only something beautiful, I mean REALLY beautiful, could get me back in a race that is this hard, especially since I can't see anything that's more than about two steps ahead. It's often dark and uncertain.
I am choosing to believe tonight, though the pain is real and I am so very tired, that my Shepherd not only waits at the finish line, but is running along with me. The more I focus on Him and stay close on the path, the louder I can hear Him joyfully cheering and calling my name, thrilled that I am putting one foot in front of the other to follow and believe His promises to me.
I see others around me quitting. I see folks taking shortcuts that seem to be working. All kinds of temporary fixes that seem to be better than what I'm doing. I love that Paul so clearly understood this and felt the same frustration. Look at his words (again in The Message version)
With tears streaming down my face, I continue to run straight ahead on this path that only He knows. He steadies my breathing and reminds me to set my pace for the long haul. He reminds me by His gentleness to stop focusing on the seemingly better paths others are taking and keep running straight ahead, neither to the right nor to the left.
And His perfect love gives me the determination to stop focusing on the pain and instead focus on His sweet, comforting presence and promises.
But the best part is that even when I do start heading down a path that seems more fun, more level, and easier, He doesn't angrily jerk me back onto the right path. He doesn't humiliate me and shame me for failing. He lovingly, oh so lovingly, calls me back and sets my feet back on the road where He is, because my race is only to be run WITH Him. Not around Him, not behind Him, but WITH Him.
As we welcome a new year, there are lots of unknowns. Will it be an easier year? Will there be more heartache ahead? Where will this race lead?
I have no idea. But I do know one thing. The Shepherd calls me to keep running towards Him. He calls me to run with abandon. He cheers me on louder the more painful the race becomes for me. And He loves me with perfect, unchanging love when I lay aside other affections vying for His rightful place in my heart.
So I'm running in 2016. It won't be pretty, I can tell you that right now. I'm laying aside (again) the things I seem to want to carry with me and breathing in the freedom that comes from obedience.
And that's all that matters.