Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Finish Strong"

The Dallas sky loomed grey with thick, low-hanging clouds, not ominous, but dull like unpolished steel. A heavy mist shrouded Tom Landry Stadium, no rain, but the atmosphere was heavy and wet and the sharp wind unkind. The runners took their places on the red cinder track and bolted at the starter-pistol’s crack. The grey smoke from the barrel swirled skyward like a silver snake and slithered into the ashen firmament. As the competitors made the first turn through the wintry veil, I noticed a lone runner different from all the rest: tall, athletic, tanned, muscular, and doggedly determined. But he was already several yards behind the pack. When he hit the straightaway on the track, now lagging even further behind, I noticed something else. Every two or three strides he would, almost violently, jerk his head sideways and downward to his right shoulder, and then jerk his head erect again. Stride, stride, jerk, erect. The motion of his head was magnified by his long hair that flopped back and forth with every jerking movement. Then someone said, 

“He has hydrocephalus, water on the brain.” 

Besides the jerking movement of his head, he occasionally veered to the left or to the right as if he were drunk and about to fall down. Hydrocephalus also causes disequilibrium.

But he didn’t fall down. He just kept running.

It was the grueling, sixteen-hundred meter run, and before the runners had reached even a half lap, everyone in the stands knew who would finish last. But I wondered,

“Will he even finish at all?”

I focused my binoculars on him. His crimson track-jersey declared one word across his chest, woven in gold,

“Saints.”

He was a junior at a Christian Academy.

“Saints,” I repeated to myself.

By the fourth lap of the race, he was only on his third. The winner flew by him and crossed the finish line. The other runners, one by one, swiftly lapped him as well: Lions, Tigers, Trojans, Eagles, and even other Saints, all sped ahead to the finish line.

But he would run his last lap alone. Would he finish? He kept running, veering, jerking, nearly falling, but running, running to the finish line.

When he made the final turn, I experienced the most wonderful scene I ever witnessed at an athletic event. As he crossed in front of the grandstands, the spectators rose like an undulating wave. Their voices rose as well with encouraging, appreciative, and tearful cheers, and their hands began to applaud loudly, reaching a crescendo as he approached the finish line. Someone shouted,

“Finish strong.”

Except for that day, I have never before or since seen a standing ovation for last place at a track meet. But, apparently indifferent to the thunderous crowd, the runner persevered until he crossed the finished line. All the other Saints – his teammates – were there cheering for him, high fives and pats on the back, and someone else was there for him as well - the head coach – who fully embraced him. Then someone else said,

“That’s his Dad.”

Although the debilitated runner finished last, he finished strong, and he certainly did not lose the race. In fact, he was the real winner that day; his was the greatest victory, for he had won every heart in the stadium. And so were his teammates victors - the Saints - for every one of them had finished the race with him. He had honored their golden name inscribed across his crimson heart - “Saints.”

Now, it should be obvious why I share that story. The Christian life is also a grueling race, not just because of the distance we must run and the obstacles we face, but also because every one of us is in some way a handicapped runner. Sometimes we wonder, “Will I even finish?” But we have “a great cloud of witnesses” watching us from the celestial grandstands, and though we might find the race difficult, Paul admonishes us that we should “run in such a way as to get the prize.” After all, we’re Saints, aren’t we?

If we do not finish strong, then the world can rightly ridicule and say, “They lost the race. What’s wrong with them? Why were they even running?” But we do not run this race to win the world’s accolades and trophies. We pursue one mark, and desire one prize – a Father’s embrace at the finish line. He knows our disabilities, our infirmities, our weaknesses, our veerings left and right, and our often stumbling strides; and He also knows our hearts, especially whether or not we have the courage, commitment, and perseverance to do what the young runner did that day to bring such joy to his father’s heart.

Our Father commands us to “run with patience the race that is set before us,” to run in such a way that would please Him and encourage one another. After all, we’re Saints, aren’t we? Each of our hearts is woven with crimson and embroidered with gold. 

Do you hear that voice?

“Finish strong.”

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