The past few weeks in my house have been spent goggle-eyed over the Olympics. I rarely watch TV and certainly it’s even rarer that I watch sport; but there was something that was must-see about the whole Olympics thing. And I wasn’t just cheering on Team GB – although I did that in abundance; I was watching people from all over the globe participate to the best of their ability at what they love doing.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person jumping out of my chair and cheering Mo Farah around the track, as he went on to win both the 10,000m and the 5,000m races. By contrast, the Women’s 100m final, which was scheduled directly after the Men’s 10,000m race, felt like a bit of an anti-climax. After watching 27.30 minutes worth of a race, for the next one to be over in 10.75 seconds, felt a bit like being short-changed. “Is that it?” My brain asked as Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce crossed the line. After what the 10,000m runners had done, it almost felt like the 100m runners weren’t even trying.
That’s an illogical viewpoint to hold of course, because Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce will train every bit as hard as Mo Farah does. But because she’s a sprinter and he’s an endurance runner, their training regimes will be very different. They have different talents. It still achieved what they had set their minds on – an Olympic gold medal. At a convention I attended last October I got to see Sir Matthew Pinsent’s gold medal from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Having seen him win it (on TV), it was a very special thing to be able to see this most coveted of sporting awards in the flesh so-to-speak. What surprised me was that it was quite a small thing (compared to the mahoosive gongs London 2012 have been handing out) and it was surprisingly heavy. Drop it on your foot and you’d have a broken toe.
Sport and faith have many qualities that overlap and I’m sure you can pull a dozen to mind, but there are a couple that I want to focus on here. The first was graphically illustrated by Victoria Pendleton in the women’s cycling sprint. She’d already won gold in the Keirin (pictured), but in the later Sprint race, (for whatever reason) she got out of her lane momentarily. The rules are specific, you have to keep in your lane. She got across the line first, but was relegated because of the lane infringement. It was perhaps seen as harsh by some, but rules are rules. It would be wholly unfair to the other competitor not abide by them just because Victoria’s a nice person, it’s her home crowd and she’s in her last race. It’s the same with heaven. Sadly, you don’t get across the finish line just for being a nice person. The ‘rules’ are clearly stated in the user manual (see any handy copy of the Bible) and the lane markings are immediately to the left and right of Jesus. Think of them as the ‘narrow gate’ of Matthew 7:13. If you try and run around Jesus, run out of your lane and try to bypass him, you’ll find yourself being disqualified. But keep your eyes on Jesus, keep him in front of you, run in your lane and you’ll be running over that line with your hands raised in victory when it’s your time to… run across it (OK, insert die, I was trying to soft-soap it :)).
Of course, the Christian life is not about winning medals – although some may do just that during the course of their earthly lives. Ultimately that’s not the prize we’re after, we want something more. We’re after what Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 – the gold that’s gold eternally. We know that accumulating treasure on earth is fruitless, (Matthew 6:19-20), we can’t sell it and eBay our way into heaven with it. It’s one of the glorious levellers of faith, that it doesn’t matter whether you are materially rich or poor, God sees us all as his children and loves us all equally. Yes, even you! We know we are to ‘build up our treasure in heaven,’ but this isn’t some celestial standing order of good deeds that we charge to our heavenly account; because just like being a nice person, good deeds will not get you into heaven either. What will, is centring your life on Jesus and from that the good deeds will naturally flow (James 2:14-26). If your heart’s in the right place then your hands will be also.
And time served isn’t going to get you across that finish line. You don’t get into heaven just because you’ve hung around a church for so long that they’ve had to carry you out in a box. It’s back to the 10,000m runner versus the 100m runner again. It’s Mo Farah versus Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. You can serve God for your entire lifetime, but you won’t get preferential treatment in front of someone who gave their life to Christ five minutes ago; the Parable of the Vineyard Workers in Matthew 20:1-16 illustrates that. To the world that might not seem fair, we’ve all done the ‘I was here first’ thing, but that doesn’t wash with God. He’s not interested in looking at your sticker book of Cathedrals you’ve visited over 30 years; he’s more interested about what you did about the growing numbers of homeless people in the neighbouring town. You know, that thing that was pricking your conscience, but somehow, you never quite got around to committing to helping out at the Nightshelter? Pay attention to those feelings, that’s most likely where God wants you.
I’ve been focusing on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 recently, because I think they’re a fabulous couple of verses to meditate on as we gear up to watch the Paralympics.
24 Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! 25 All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. 26 So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. 27 I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.
A life of faith has so much in common with the life of an athlete, although I am happy to say there’s no rule about avoiding wine and chocolate (although God takes a dim view of excessive wine and chocolate). There is that dedication to the task ahead, the faith that you will get there even though you can’t see it right now (Hebrews 11:1). You believe in your coach, you take comfort and inspiration from your training partners who are in this with you (think Galen Rupp’s support of Mo Farah in the 10,000m and liken that to your church family). But this is your race, this is your life and this is your time. As some nifty little things around the internet are fond of reminding us, life is not a dress rehearsal. This isn’t the semi-final either, this is the FINAL, This is it guys. Woah! Hang on, we’re off! Your destination is down that track. Who’s at the finish line waiting for you? Will you be running to somebody? Will there be a cloud of witnesses who’ve gone before you to welcome you over the line, or will there be someone coming over to you, rule book in hand, sadly pointing out that yes, you did your best, yes you’re a nice person, but rules are rules; you were out of your lane, you ran around Jesus and have been disqualified. All that work, for nothing. There are no silver medals in heaven.
But the good news is, is if you’re out of your lane now, it’s very easy to get back into it. Jesus is your get-back-in-your-lane-for-free card. He’s the key to this. He’s the guy to run to, not run around. He doesn’t operate a pay-your-way-back-in scheme either. It’s just a realisation of what he’s done for you, your humble thanks and acceptance of that, letting him into your life as your compass, committing to keeping him there and oh yes, you’ll need a copy of the training manual – the Bible.
So, run to win, but whatever you do and however you’re doing it, make sure you’re in your lane!