Monday, January 19, 2009

Perseverance of the Couch Potatoes

All my life, I hated to run. I could never understand why people would want to do such a thing. I never would run unless it was absolutely necessary, and even then, I knew that if I ever found myself in a situation where my life depended on it, I wouldn't stand a chance. I could barely last thirty seconds without feeling like I was going into cardiac arrest.

For some bizarre reason, I joined the junior varsity field hockey team in ninth grade. (Even more surprising is that I tried out and made it!) After-school practices were grueling. I can still remember running up and down the field, drilling with my partner, shooting on goal, practicing my scoops, and being completely exhausted. Then I'd hear the coach say, "I want three laps! Now!" I thought I was going to die. The cramp in my side was unbearable. My heart felt as though it would pound right out of my chest. Any minute, I was sure my calf muscles would burst right through the back of my legs the same way a frankfurter skin splits under extreme heat. Oh, it was torture! Life as a couch potato never looked so good!

There are some people who actually enjoy this torture. No matter what the weather -- rain, snow, sleet, or apocalyptic global meltdown -- these people are out running. And they do it because they want to. Which, in my book, makes them absolutely, certifiably insane.

Yet when I consider how the Bible uses the activity of running as a metaphor for living the Christian life, I am intrigued:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Eric Liddell knew the power of this metaphor. Known as "The Flying Scotsman," Liddell was a committed Christian who viewed running as a way of communing with God. Liddell made it to the 1924 Olympics and was almost disqualified because he refused to run on Sundays. As the story goes, Liddell was given inspiration just before the 400 meters race in the form of a Scripture: "Those who honor Me, I will honor," (1 Samuel 2:30). Liddell ran with that scripture clenched in his fist, and won the race. He later went on to be a missionary to China, where he died in a Chinese prison camp. His last words were reportedly, "It's complete surrender." The 1981 Academy Award winning film, Chariots of Fire is about Liddell's life and legacy.

Metaphorically speaking, everyone runs. Everyone will make it through life in one way or another, but some are able to do it with more finesse than others. The secret is Christ. Christ enables us to persevere to the end. Paul urges us to run in such a way as to get the prize. How is this done? The answer: "I beat my body and make it my slave." In other words, he is no longer slave to the flesh. Instead, the flesh takes orders from the Spirit. The only way this is possible is through God's power. Suddenly, we understand what it is like to enjoy what the rest of the world views as torture. When others are living in comfort and choosing the easy way out, we choose instead to endure hardship for the sake of the Kingdom. Just as I used to shake my head at those "nutcases" running in the rain, this is how people look at me when I "waste" a perfectly good Sunday in a church service. I am running the ultimate marathon, I am competing for the grand prize, and I am in strict training. I don't care who sees me, and I don't care who thinks I'm nuts. I'm actually enjoying running the race!

The Couch to 5K Running Plan
About five months ago, for reasons still unbenownst to me, I woke up one day and decided I was going to run. It was late August, 2008. The temperature here in Florida was in the high nineties, but that didn't stop me. I was a complete couch potato, but I was determined to run. I only lasted about 30 seconds at a time. But I refused to quit. The following week, I was running for 60 seconds at a time. A few weeks later, I was running for 90 seconds. With each week, I was huffing and puffing less. And I discovered that I actually find joy in this activity.

I can now run for eight minutes. Eight minutes! Me, the one who thought I'd have to call the paramedics after 30 seconds! There is no more cramping. There is no more pain in my calves. And I am getting stronger. How did I do it? How is it that I am better at running now than I was 20 years ago? The secret is that my outlook has changed. I no longer view running as torture, but joy. And you can do it too. All you need are two ingredients: help from God, and the Couch to 5K running plan.

The Couch to 5K gives you small drilling exercises that alternate between walking and jogging. The plan is supposed to help you run 5K (3 miles) in only two months. But do yourself a favor and eliminate the time frame. Just as we are sanctified in God's timing, we cannot put deadlines on becoming master of the flesh. It is a continual process.

Instead of referring to each step as "Week 1, Week 2," and so on, do what I did -- call these steps "Level 1, Level 2," etc. Do what you can, and do not get frustrated. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Remember, the Bible uses running as a metaphor for the Christian life. What better way to commune with God and understand the work He began in you than to actually try running? You will be amazed at how strong you will become physically. When I am doing my drills, and I don't think I can take another step, I say to myself, "this is what God is doing in me spiritually". I think of times in my life where I wanted to give up on my Christian walk and just take the easy way out, but God wouldn't let me. And as I reflect on all God has done for me, I am able to persevere.

I used to think people who ran were crazy. Now, I am one of them. Only I am training for more than just a neighborhood 5K. I am training for the EK (Eternal Kilometer) race. Perhaps the most famous line from Chariots of Fire is when Eric tells his sister Jenny, "I believe God made me for a purpose. He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure." The Bible tells us that God is able to make us persevere, but I believe it goes deeper than that. I believe it actually gives God great pleasure when we persevere in His strength:

3 comments:

Arthur Sido said...

You know, there are lots of great places to run in Michigan.

Just saying.

Natasa said...

I believe it actually gives God great pleasure when we persevere in His strength... amen

Betsy Markman said...

This is timely. I've been realizing that I'm going to have to start doing the dreaded "E" thing (you know..."exercise"), and with my cardiac problems it isn't easy. Anything more aerobic than walking feels like death in only a few seconds. But I've been gaining weight, and it ain't pretty...

I need some of that new attitude that you got. Maybe then at least I'll start walking more.

Thanks for the nudge in the right direction.