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why we run

Mo Farah falls during the 10000 m race in Rio
Image from sports.vice.com
I have been watching the Olympics for the past week and a half and there have been some truly inspirational moments, moments which made me stand up and cheer, moments which caused a swell of emotions in my chest, moments which left me speechless, on my feet in front of the television. For me, it is not the best performances which are memorable, but the inspiring stories of the athletes. I mention only a few here.

Simone Biles, a dynamic gymnast from the USA, has won four gold medals in Rio. She is gymnastics phenom: powerful, composed, and consistent. What some might not know is that her childhood was anything but promising: her mother had substance abuse issues and her father abandoned the young family. After bouncing around in foster care, Simone was adopted by her grandparents when she was six.

Yursa Mardini, a promising swimmer, grew up in Damascus. After their house was destroyed in the civil war, she and her sister decided to flee Syria. A year ago, they were smuggled onto a boat with eighteen others and headed for Greece. The engine stopped working early into the voyage, and the dinghy (meant to carry seven) began to take on water. Yursa and her sister got into the sea and pushed the boat for over three hours until they reached the shore. In the 2016 Olympics, Yursa was part of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. She did not qualify for any medals, but given that she saved the lives of eighteen people, that hardly seems to matter.

In 2009, Chris Mears, a diver from Great Britain, suffered from a ruptured spleen which caused him to lose two litres of blood. He was given very slim chances for survival and was told he would probably never dive again. While recovering, he suffered a seven-hour seizure and lapsed into a coma for several days. This type of traumatic episode usually results in brain damage and physical disabilities, but Chris made a slow recovery and was competing within eighteen months. Chris Mears won a gold medal in Rio in synchronised diving.

I could go on and tell you about Mo Farah of Great Britain who suffered a fall early in the 10k race and went on to win the gold. Or Etenesh Diro of Ethopia who stumbled and lost a shoe in the 300 metre steeplechase semi-final, then went on to finish the race with one shoe off. Though her time was technically not fast enough to qualify for the final, the judges put her (and two others who were entangled in her fall) through to the finals.

Some of the most compelling moments have been when competing athletes cheer each other on and celebrate each other's success. When Penny Oleksiak (Canada) and Simone Manuel (USA) tied for gold in the 100 metre freestyle swim event, Penny immediately swam over to Simone to congratulate her. The first comments Usain Bolt offered when interviewed by CBC after his gold medal 100 metre run were to congratulate Canadian Andre De Grasse (bronze medal) on his performance. When the rugby sevens team from Fiji won the gold (the first ever Olympic medal for their county), the team formed a circle and sang, "We have overcome, we have overcome, by the blood of the lamb and the word of the Lord, we have overcome." In the medal ceremony, they graciously knelt to accept their medals from Princess Anne. Fiji beat Great Britain with a decisive score of 43 to 7 to capture the gold. British journalist, Sir Clive Woodward, had nothing but praise for the Fijian team. He wrote, "All power to Fiji, they have finally won the Olympic gold medal their extraordinarily talented rugby players deserve. Who couldn’t be moved by their singing and communal prayer at the end? That is the moment of the Olympic Games so far for me. In fact it’s exactly what the Olympics is about and you won’t find a single person in rugby who begrudges them their moment." [1] The spirit of the Olympics is exemplified in people whose actions and attitudes bring competitors and countries together as one.

We have been studying the book of Hebrews in our small group, and we recently read through the list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. Like the Olympians mentioned above, these are people with inspiring stories. Here we find Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab. These were people out of sync with society, they suffered through many hardships, they did not see their dreams realised, but they are commended because they did not give up. Through faith, they kept on trusting God, even when things were not going well. Hebrews 12 continues: "What about us, then? We have such a great cloud of witnesses all around us! What we must do is this: we must put aside each heavy weight, and the sin which gets in the way so easily. We must run the race that lies in front of us, and we must run it patiently. We must look ahead, to Jesus. He is the one who carved out the path for faith, and he's the one who brought it to completion." [2]

N. T. Wright notes that the type of race the writer of Hebrews is referring to is not one where people compete against each other, but a journey together of God's people. What matters most is not who wins, but that all make it home safely. This is a team sport, not an individual event. So how do we run this race, this journey with God? There are three directives found in the passage.

1. Get rid of the baggage that slows us down. Training with weights is one thing, but carrying unnecessary baggage in a race is another thing altogether. We all know the value in learning to suffer well and in bearing another's burdens, but obstacles which trip us up have no redeeming value whatsoever. We must learn to put aside things like sinful habits, petty grievances, bitterness, prejudice, anger, and self-indulgence. They are like chains around our ankles which keep us from making any progress in our spiritual journey, and we must be rid of them.

2. Run with patience. The life of the spirit is not a sprint, but a long haul race. Let us pace ourselves, let us not run out of energy or faith, let us not lose heart when things take longer than we hoped, let us continue to grow in faith and faithfulness every step of the way, and let us cheer each other on as we go.

3. Keep our eyes on Jesus. The long list of heroes we find in Hebrews 11 culminates in Jesus. He is the pioneer who first ran the course to completion, and we are following in his steps. He opened up the way to God so that we can come into the holy presence of the Almighty. Jesus is more than our example, he is the way; it is by and through him that we are made children of God. And Jesus cheers us on; he is praying and interceding for us, and he is with us through his Spirit. We do not run this race alone. Jesus never loses sight of us, so we do not have to lose sight of Jesus. He is our goal, he is the one to whom we run.

Mo Farah, the 10k runner who fell mid-race, commented, "At one moment I thought my dream was over, my race was over." The 33-year-old said it is “difficult to get back up and win” after falling but he was determined to do it for his stepdaughter Rhianna. He said: “I was thinking 'no, no. I can't let Rhianna down'." [3]

Many run to win, but those who run because of love are in a class all by themselves. Run, beloved, run!
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[1] Sir Clive Woodward, "Rugby sevens is here to stay as gold medal winning Fijians embody true Olympic spirit during celebrations," The Daily Mail, August 12, 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/olympics_2016/article-3735537/Rugby-Sevens-stay-gold-medal-winning-Fijians-embody-true-Olympic-spirit.html
[2] Translation by N.T. Wright.
[3] Caoline Mortimer, "Rio 2016: The moment when Mo Farah thought his Olympic dream was over," The Independent, August 15, 2016.  http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/news/mo-farah-fall-rio-2016-olympic-gold-medal-10000m-team-gb-win-a7189866.html

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