by Joel Bates
My wife, Julie, thought it would be fun to run a half marathon, but as our trainings got longer and race day arrived, I began to have doubts as to whether my old legs would be able to carry me from start to finish anywhere close to the times I used to run in college. Thirteen point one miles is a long way to go. That’s why most sane people take a car, but runners are a weird bunch! As we warmed up and stretched near the starting line, I was feeling a lot of doubts.
The gun went off, and over 200 people began moving as one across the starting line and into the great beyond. Hours later would bring them back to finish. I took off with the crowd, but soon the mass of runners thinned into smaller packs with runners traveling at like-paced speeds. I suddenly found myself between the lead pack a few dozen yards ahead and the next group a few dozen yards behind. I was nearly alone, except for this old, gnarled guy with a bright yellow shirt and a graying beard. He looked determined and seemed to know what he was doing, so I sidled up to him and asked between breaths, “What pace you planning to run?”
“I’m just here to have fun,” he said casually, but his pace said otherwise.
“Do you mind if I run with you for a while?” I asked.
“I’d like that,” he said glancing at me.
After a short while he confided, “I’d really like to come in at about one hour and thirty minutes.”
“Me, too,” I agreed. “My legs may be too worn out for it though.”
The gray haired man looked skeptically at me, “How old are you?”
“Forty something,” I muffled.
The man chuckled and asked, “How old do you think I am?”
That is always a dangerous question, so I sidestepped it, “No idea,” I wisely replied.
The man in yellow glanced at me and, grinning, said with no small degree of pride, “I’m 65 years of age, and I can still run with the best of ‘em! Don’t tell me about your old, worn out legs!”
I was greatly surprised when this old man continued visiting with me as we clipped along. All I could do was gasp a strained “yes” or “no” to most of his questions. I found out that his name was Al, that he’d started running competitively when he was my age, and that he had completed many full and half marathons over the years. As I ran along beside this mythical man, something magical began to happen to me; I began to believe! For the first time since I had started training for this race, I believed I could not only finish, but finish strong. Al had inspired me by his testimony and his own personal pursuit of a great finish.
As we neared the halfway point, we began catching a man who had fallen off the pace of the lead runners. He was all alone and slowing down. Al was still telling old running stories when we passed by him, and I offhandedly asked the guy what pace he was aiming for.
“One-thirty,” came the labored reply.
“Us, too,” I chirped. “Run with us. We’re on target for that time.”
As the man increased his pace to match ours, Al said something that stuck with me, “We’ll all go farther if we run this thing together.”
We spun round the cones at the halfway turnaround with new determination, refreshed for the second half by the invisible cloak of togetherness. I asked the new guy his name and noted the scripture on the back of his shirt. “Are you a believer?” I asked.
“I’m Justin, and yes, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ.”
As we raced down the highway, I reached out my clenched hand for a fist bump. Justin and I had even more energy now for we were more than just new running friends; we were brothers in a heavenly family and fellow citizens of a coming kingdom.
“I’ve never gone this fast and far before,” Justin said.
“Me neither,” I smiled glancing back at Al. “But so far so good.”
We remained together for nearly the whole run, encouraging one another, reminding ourselves to keep to the pace, not charging on too fast so as to spend our reserves, and not falling back succumbing to weariness. As I logged the long miles listening to the footfalls and rhythmic panting of my companions, I realized why the apostle Paul references running a race when he teaches about life in Jesus.
One of my favorite books of the Bible is Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. This short letter is chock-full of encouragement, joy, and reminders to press on in the face of challenge and suffering. Paul says in chapter 3:
“I run straight for the divine invitation of reaching the heavenly goal and gaining the victory-prize through the anointing of Jesus. So let all who are fully mature have this same passion, and if anyone is not yet gripped by these desires, God will reveal it to them. And let us all advance together to reach this victory-prize, following one path with one passion” (The Passion Translation).
With less than a mile left to go, I turned to Justin with a charge, “Let’s give it all we’ve got down to the last measure. Leave it all on the trail!” He glanced at me and nodded. With our last reserves, we sped down the road with reckless abandon, having only one yearning on our minds—the finish. As we crossed the line with our legs beginning to give out, we slumped to our knees. Someone placed a medal around our necks and helped us to our feet and off to the side where those who had completed the race stood. Still panting, Justin threw his arms around me, “I couldn’t have done it without you,” he said. “You helped me get the goal.”
My eyes stung with tears as I watched Al walk stiffly over to a tent and grab a banana. I had helped Justin, but Al had inspired me--together, victorious. Al was still grinning widely when he winked at me.
by Leah Fuller
On a recent expedition, I found myself sitting atop a ridge in the black of night with a group of missionaries. The Leaders-of-the-Day were pouring over their map, having sent scouts into the darkness to see if they could find evidence that might help them identify where they were. The stress for the leaders was reaching a peak as I walked over and asked Ariel what was happening. Tears sprung to her eyes as she related how they had been counting paces and thought they knew where they were, but now they weren’t so sure. As her words spilled out, I could see the fear in her eyes. “What are you afraid of?” I asked, sensing this might be one of those moments in which God was working His mysterious transformation. She stared ahead blankly and confessed, “I don’t know how to move forward when I can’t see where I’m going.”
Her words hung in the air as I processed how very real the situation was. This was no game. It was real life, and for Ariel, the lack of control and the inability to see what lay ahead were leading her to lose trust in the map, the compass, her ability to lead the group, and God. I took a moment to pray with Ariel and Jonas that God would help them to know the next step. When we finished praying, they began to draw on the skills we had taught them, and with some “helpful” questions from my co-leader, they figured out where they were. In the dead of night, these two who had been frozen in fear by the darkness shrouding their sight just a few hours earlier were able to lead the group into a peaceful valley where a beautiful campsite next to a gentle stream awaited.
When God works in His mysterious ways, we can at times feel disoriented and confused. He often doesn’t lay out the entire plan for us to see, rather He chooses to reveal to us only the next step. The unknown lying beyond that step could lead us to shrink back in fear, or it could create curiosity and intrigue, a sense of expectation. Too often we find ourselves feeling just like Ariel and Jonas did on that night. Not knowing what is just beyond what we can see directly in front of us, we shrink back in fear. What lies beyond can feel fearsome and may require the release of some special treasure, comfort, or Illusion of control that we have assumed we had.
I was reading somewhere recently that craftsmen—those who take up a trade or occupation requiring specialized skill—must by nature embrace mystery. The reason for this is that while a potter, for example, will start out intending to create something beautiful, there is still an element of the clay or glaze that they cannot control. I have experienced this as I have applied my hand to the potter’s wheel. Each time I fire a piece, I quiver with excitement over the end result and stand in awe and delight when the colors run together, responding to the extreme heat of the furnace in ways I could never have predicted. The inability to predict the outcome or to know for certain what I can expect is what leads to the curiosity that courses through my body as I wait for the furnace to cool.
As an instructor, I find myself regularly praying for and urging participants to take the “next step,” even as they feel uncertain. It is in moments like these, the ones I could have never predicted when building the itinerary, that I find myself leaning forward with expectation and curiosity and wondering how God will work out His divine plan. It is not a question of if God will work out His plan as much as when or how He will shed light on a place of invitation that reaches deeply into my being. These are the moments I must hold with open hand before the Lord, trusting that He will make Himself known and show us the way forward. This mystery is what causes me as an instructor to lean forward with anticipation, watching and waiting with faith that the struggle to produce perseverance, character, and a hope that does not disappoint (Romans 5:3-5 paraphrased). The apostle Paul spoke often of the mystery made known to us through Christ’s suffering and glory. He assures us that lessons learned through “…slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” (2 Corinthians 4:17 ESV).
If I’m being totally honest, I am finding that I can mostly trust this process. And yet, there are moments all along the trail of life where I also wrestle with doubt, fear, and uncertainty about what may lie ahead. I am convicted by how often I find myself to be the one frozen and fearing what the future may hold. I also find myself at times resisting the invitation to move away from comfort and control and step into the adventurous way of Jesus. And yet, as Paul reminds us so often, the “mystery,” which can feel so fearsome, has been “revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26-27 ESV).
We have already been given the sight we so crave! Christ revealed to us the end of the story when He died and rose again. We may not know exactly how He will invite us to places of vulnerability and trust along the way, but we can hold fast to “the hope of glory!”
by Joel Bates
My son, Caleb, is well-acquainted with collecting and stacking firewood. Until recently, he had not graduated to splitting the logs, but he’s 13! I decided I should teach him the finer points of using a traditional splitting maul. Some folks—smart folks—use a hydraulic wood splitter to section their sawn logs into nice, usable shapes, but not me. I prefer my 8-lb., steel wedge that resembles a sledge hammer with an axe-like blade. I swing it over my head and bring it down forcefully against the cut face of the log causing the wood to explode. I like to think it takes a special person to split firewood this way, a rugged woodsman with brawny resolve, but mostly I’m just a cheapskate.
Caleb protested, “Dad, why don’t we have a wood splitter? My buddy Tommy’s dad has one.”
“Son,” I said, “there’s an art to splitting wood with a maul. It connects you to the ways of our ancestors, builds character in you, and makes you glad to be a man. Besides, why do I need a fancy, expensive wood splitter when I have you?”
Caleb frowned at my reasoning, but he picked up the maul, heaved it over his head, and brought it down on the upended log. The weighty axe bounced mutely off the middle of the wood and fell at his feet. “This will take forever!” he groaned.
“You’ve got the strength, but your technique is all wrong,” I coached. “Here, let me show you how.” He stood back, and I hefted the maul over my head, swung it up in a wide arch, and brought its full force powerfully down, making sure the head made direct contact with the center of the log and keeping the handle perpendicular to the point of contact. A crack formed. Sighting the handle along the newly formed fault-line, I repeated the actions to land the maul directly on the fissure point. Akin to the sound a strike makes in bowling, the log blew apart.
“Wow!” Caleb exclaimed. “Let me try.”
I gave the maul back to him and observed. After a while, his aim was dead on. As I watched him split log after log, I saw him become proficient in wielding the maul. I noticed how he began to hold the weapon correctly, swing it the right way, and bring it down on the same mark, blow after blow. Watching him, I suddenly felt a spiritual maul hit me upside the head. Our enemy, the devil, is a master of the “splitting maul!”
Satan loves to kill, steal, and destroy. He prowls around like a lion seeking to devour people, and he takes great delight in burrowing the heavy wedge of dissention among God’s children, severing relationships, alienating friends, and pounding fault lines throughout the bride of Christ. He loves splitting us apart like a talented woodsman drubbing hardwood. It makes him happy to see our nation torn in two like an oak log that gives way before the maul. He giggles when a church splits up. He bends over doubled in wicked glee when another couple files for divorce. And he swings that thing at me with great mastery!
I pondered this and wondered, “How can we escape the separation that comes from the blows of the enemy?” Here’s some ideas coming from a guy who’s flung the maul a few times:
We are cut from a great and glorious tree of life. More accurately, we are grafted into the tree called Christ. If you’re being struck by the enemy, hurting from the wrongs done to you, and feeling the cracks of disunity forming, implement the tactics listed above to see if they can help you be “unsplittable.”
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.