A few days ago, my nephew challenged me to a race. I’m no runner, but I decided to take him up on his challenge anyway just for the fun of it. My brother, his dad, joined in too. We settled on a finish line, counted down, and off we went! And surprisingly enough, I won! Not because I was the fastest of the three of us, mind you. I was lagging behind both of them the entire time, and by quite a bit. But as I ate their dust, my mind quickly found a way to win on a technicality. I was the only one who actually made it to the finish line we’d chosen: my car. In the midst of their excitement to beat each other, both my brother and my nephew ran right past my car to their own, missing the finish line altogether. So sure, they were ahead, but had they really won the race? I don’t think so!! As I settled into my car for the outing ahead of us, I found myself reflecting on what I’d just observed. Running the race but not reaching the end. And doing so not because you’re not fast and strong enough to get there, but because you’re confused or unfocused enough that before you know what’s happened you find yourself running in the wrong direction completely. I’ve seen it happen so many times before, both in my own life and in the lives of people around me.
Maybe you start off with a clear picture of where you want to go, but along the way you get distracted, pulled away from your actual objective by something else that arises to steal your attention. Or maybe you start off with an unclear (or even flat out wrong) understanding of what the end goal actually is, and you just find yourself running along with everyone else, trusting that you’re going the right way. But when it’s all said and done, you somehow realize that you’ve missed the mark you were supposed to be aiming for and have run a different race altogether.
We do this as individuals. Start out with plans for our days, with hopes and dreams for our lives, but get distracted along the way with the challenges and cares that arise. Find ourselves veering off course without realizing how it’s happened. Wonder how we’ve ended up so far from where we intended to be, whether that’s in our finances, a career, our relationships, or even our self-identity. Wonder who we’ve become and where along the way we left aside our truest sense of self and calling.
We also do this in our communities, on both small and large scales. An organization veers away from its original purpose, trading faithfulness to its central vision for seemingly promising paths that are easier to delineate and follow. A whole society gets swept away into insanity because it forgets to critically evaluate its aims and its progress toward them, relying instead on the “wisdom” of groupthink to guide it.
And, at the risk of stepping on some toes here, I think we American Christians often do this theologically. Despite our intention for God to be at the center of our lives and to shape who we are and all that we do, we often lose sight of what truly matters and find ourselves running toward things that are at best tangential to the true goal, or even worse, completely opposite from it. And as we do, the people of God become distorted from God’s intentions for them, and our witness to the world around us is marred. Church becomes an event to attend, complete with stadium seating and a theme speaker, rather than an intimate gathering of the family of God who are all sharing from their hearts what Jesus has done for them. Being good becomes the goal toward which we aim, forgetting that while Jesus certainly cares about our actions, he cares far more about the state of our hearts and our relationships.
In so many ways we lose sight of the finish line, distracted or confused by what we see around us. And while life and community certainly aren’t easy, and sometimes making adjustments to our direction can be a good thing, I quite simply want to draw our attention back to our goal, the finish line for which we should all be striving: Jesus.
Hebrews 12:1-3 sums it up: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”
In this race of life, we have to keep our eyes on Jesus. He’s the one who laid out the course in the first place, he’s the one we’re following and imitating as we run, and he’s the one who will greet us with great joy at the finish line. If we make it. If we don’t grow weary under the burden of the distractions that grab our attention. If we don’t go in the wrong direction completely, running a race other than the one that God has set out for us. And while I think it’s pretty likely that our gracious and loving God will make a way even for those of us who do get off course or lose heart, how much better would it be to join in on the race as God intends it to be?
So today I want to leave us with this exhortation: let’s run with joy the invigorating race set before us, following the one who knows the course by heart, and doing so in such a way as to bring glory and honor to the God who is waiting for us at the finish line! Ready … set … GO!