August 10, 2014

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


Hebrews 12:1-2


Part of my day every day is running.  Running has been part of my life for most of my life.  As early as fifth grade I remember running around the playground at recess.  I wasn’t running and playing as the other children were.  I was running laps.

I was introduced to competitive running in 7th grade.  I had a coach who made us work.  I had never worked so hard in my life.  It was such a relief when the season was finally over and I didn’t have to run any more!

In fact, I remember a dream I had that summer.  Actually a nightmare.  This is 46 summers ago.  A track meet had been scheduled as part of our county fair.  That meant the track team was getting back together for summer workouts.  That dream really scared me.  It was one of those dreams where, when I woke up, I was very thankful it had just been a dream!

Well, a lot has changed.  Today the dream that would upset me would be a dream that I had finally missed a day of running.  Because I haven’t missed one in almost 34 years.

Which, in a roundabout way is the reason for the video you just saw.  Ben Emmons who lost all that weight and gave that incredible testimony is now running every day.  He is approaching six years without missing a day.  Someone at his church asked him if there was another pastor in the country ahead of him on the list.  He did some research and got in touch with me.  That’s how I got in touch with that video.  Ben lives in Virginia so I’m not sure when we’re going to have our first run together, but I’m looking forward to it.

There’s a line in the movie “Chariots of Fire” where Eric Liddell, the 1924 Olympic gold medalist says, “God made me fast.”  Well, God didn’t make me all that fast.  But God did make me determined.  I remember Larry Hilt who was still running marathons in his 80’s.  He’d barely shuffle his feet but he would eventually get to the finish line.  There was a picture of him running with his dog.  He signed it, “Two old dogs.”  When I’m an old dog in my 80’s I may well still be running every day.

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”  Life is a race.  There is a starting line.  Birth.  There is a finish line.  Death.  There is a post-race party.  Heaven.  And the whole point is to keep moving.  Keep making progress.  Keep advancing toward your goal.  It takes perseverance.  It takes faith.  It takes hope.  It takes love.  It takes a clear vision of where we want to end up.  So we “run the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

I do a lot of thinking while I’m running.  Sometimes the quality of thinking seems better at the time than it really is.  I get done and I have this brilliant insight that came to me while running that I have to write down before I lose it.  But once it’s written down it no longer seems so brilliant.  Oxygen deprivation could have something to do with that.  It was while running that the idea came to me for this sermon.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  Things I’ve learned on the run that apply to the race of life.

Four things.  First, don’t run the hills until you get to them.  I’m running along, I round a corner, and there in the distance I see a hill.  It’s a big one.  Now I was feeling pretty good until that hill came into view.  But as soon as I see it, I start feeling the effort that awaits me.  Anticipatory fatigue.  I’m not even there yet.  I might be running downhill at the moment.  It should be effortless.  I should be coasting.  But I’m not.  Because the knowledge that I will soon be struggling up a hill can be enough to make me struggle before I get to the hill.

You know what I mean by running hills before you get to them.  There is something on the horizon.  Something you’re not very excited about.  In fact, something you are really dreading.  It’s not here yet.  It might never get here.  You might be worrying about something for nothing, which is the case with most of our worries.  But just thinking about that looming ordeal makes your life less enjoyable now.  And there’s no reason for it.  Life is good for you right now.  If you could just live in the moment, you’d be having the time of your life.  But you can’t do that.  Because you’re already running that hill in your mind.

What runners learn is that the mind can be their biggest ally or their biggest enemy.  When you round that corner and see that monster hill in the distance, you have to mentally detach yourself from what you just saw.  You think about how good you feel now, not how bad you are going to feel then.  You refuse to feel the exertion in your mind until you feel the exertion in your body.  And my little trick is that I will find a landmark on the hill, a telephone pole or something, and tell myself the hill doesn’t start until I get to it.  Then I get to it and I’m already half way up the hill.  This one wasn’t so bad.  I see another hill up ahead, but I’m not going to worry about it until I get to it.

Jesus said, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.  Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34).  In other words, don’t run the hills until you get to them.

The second thing I’ve learned on the run is related to the first.  Self-talk is powerful.  Running is like baseball.  Yogi Berra says baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.  It’s not so much how strong I am feeling when I get to the hard part of a run.  It’s more what I am saying to myself about how I am feeling that determines how well I am going to finish.  I can talk myself into or out of success.

One of my goals back when I was a competitive runner was to run a marathon in under two hours and thirty minutes.  It’s not that fast.  Women routinely run that fast today.  But it was a big deal to me.  I had run a marathon in 2:30:23 in college.  I was seven years out of college and coaching myself.  I trained as hard as I’ve ever trained in my life to prove to myself that I could get under 2:30.

The Avenue of the Giants Marathon in the California redwoods was where I was going to do it.  It was early May.  I was hoping for a nice cool day.  It was a miserably hot day.  Heat is a marathon runner’s worst enemy.  But I was determined this was still going to be the day.  I was on pace, just a little ahead but without much margin for error at 22 miles.  Four miles to go.  But I was dead.  I had nothing left.  I could feel it slipping away.  And the pressure of having to break the 2:30 barrier was weighing on me.  My self-talk wasn’t helping.  I felt awful and my negative thinking made me feel worse.

Then a random thought came to be.  Who cares if I run this marathon under 2:30?  I care.  But no one else does.  So why all the pressure?  John McKay was coaching Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl.  The reporters were asking him about the pressure his players were feeling.  He said, “There are a billion Chinese who don’t even know we are playing.”  Who cares whether I finish strong or just come jogging in?  No one really cares but me.  So why not finish strong?  I finished in 2:29:09.  It was 90% mental and the other half was physical.

What’s your self-talk like?  Are the messages you give yourself during the day more helpful or more hurtful?  The power of prayer fits here.  Prayer is a lot more than self-talk, but prayer does help you to see your circumstances in a fresh light and to keep reminding you to look at the hopeful side.

Third, not only is self-talk powerful.  So is the encouragement of others.  That track season from hell back in seventh grade might easily have been my first and my last.  I wasn’t having much fun.  It was just a lot of hard work.  But there was one moment that helped me get through.  My friend Glenn Rodriguez was also out for track.  He’s the one who ran the season opening kick-off back for a touchdown when we were playing football together.  He was everything athletically that I was not.  And one day in practice Glenn Rodriguez said to me, “You have a nice stride.”  If Glenn Rodriguez thought I had a nice stride, maybe all that pain and suffering was worth it!  Just a tiny bit of encouragement.  But it meant so much.

“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (I Thessalonians 5:11).  That’s what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.  He was encouraging them to encourage others.  “Just as you are doing”, he said.  But I’ll bet they weren’t always doing it.  Maybe they weren’t ever doing it.  Maybe they were more apt to tear people down than to build people up, as we so often do.  Paul could have scolded them for that.  He wasn’t above scolding.  We know that.  But here Paul found a way to encourage them.  To encourage them to be more encouraging!  “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”

Don’t wait too long to encourage people.  My coach’s encouragement screamed at me when I was dying on the last lap never seemed to do much good.  It was too late by then.  Kind of like the kid who was acting up in church.  His parents gave him several chances to shape up but he was getting worse, not better.  Finally, his dad had to just pick him up and haul him out of the sanctuary.  The little boy’s last words before the exit door closed behind him were, “Pray for me!”  It’s kind of late by then.

Always look for things people are doing that are worthy of encouragement.  And then don’t wait.  Don’t save it up.  Freely give encouragement to others.  Just as you are doing!

Fourth, saving it for the kick is overrated.  Dave Wottle used to do that in the 800 meters.  And Nick Symmonds to a lesser degree.  In dead last with less than a lap to go.  And then they would turn it on and pass everyone else.  It makes for an exciting race.  But it doesn’t work very well unless you have a lot of raw speed.  And it doesn’t work at all if you hold back too much in the early stages.

There’s a fine balance between saving enough and saving too much for your kick.  You don’t want to expend all your energy in the early stages of the race.  Nobody cares who was in first place at the one mile mark of a marathon.  But you also don’t want to hold too much back.  Nobody is impressed if you sprint to the finish line with an incredible burst of energy three hours behind the first finishers.

In my experience, beginners tend to start out too fast.  It’s an easy mistake to make.  The adrenaline when the gun goes off makes you feel invincible.  You feel no pain.  Until you feel real pain and you can hardly keep moving.  That’s a rookie mistake.

The mistake veterans make is that they play it too safe.  The old runners joke is that you should start slow and then taper.  Veteran runners can have so much respect for what can happen if you start too fast that they start slower than they need to.  They hold back too much.  They are too conservative.  They’re so worried about looking foolish and feeling awful as they run out of gas that they finish with gas in their tank that could and should have been burned.

What I’ve learned over the years is to not worry about how I’m going to maintain my pace all the way to the finish line.  I just worry about maintaining my pace to the next telephone pole.  Usually, not always but usually, the energy I need to finish strong takes care of itself.

I think people tend to live too conservatively.  They hold back.  They play it safe.  They’re so afraid they might fail that they never take a risk.  And therefore, they never come close to their full potential.

Annie Dillard wrote about this.  Not as a runner, but as a writer.  And also as a Christian.

If you’re going to write, spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, right away, every time.  Do not hoard for a later time, another book.  Give it.  Give it all.  Give it now.

Her conclusion is that this is the only way we’ll ever experience continuous power and creativity in life.

Something more will arise for later, something better.  These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.  Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost for you.  You open your safe and find ashes.

So don’t hold back.  Don’t be so careful.  Don’t be so cautious.  Don’t be so conservative.  Don’t wait till tomorrow to live your life.  Live it now.

There was a woman who thought about going to college and getting her degree.  She had put it off for many years for many reasons but now the more she thought about it the more she couldn’t stop thinking about it.  She couldn’t get the idea out of her head.  But she knew it was foolish.  It didn’t make sense.  She was too old.  She mentioned this to a friend.  She said, “By the time I get the degree I will be 55.”  Her friend said, “How old will you be if you don’t get the degree?”

Jack London wrote:

I would rather be ashes than dust!  I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot.  I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.  The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.  I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.  I shall use my time.

So don’t save it for the closing sprint.

It’s a blessing to be able to run.  As near as I can figure, I have around 76,000 miles on my human odometer.   I hope I’m a long way from my closing sprint.  You never know.  It’s day to day for all of us.

But running is just a hobby of mine.  It’s what I do instead of golf.  If running has any eternal value, it’s it the lessons it’s taught me.  Lessons that can help us all do better in the only race that really counts.  To “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Lord Jesus, we do look to you to keep us from going astray, to keep us from giving up, to help us make the most of this one and only life we have been given to live.  And Lord, as we journey through life, make us mindful not only of you who goes before us but also the others who travel with us.  For we really do need each other.  We finish well when we encourage and are encouraged.  All to your glory.  Amen.