The Olympic games have featured prominently in our daily conversations over the last couple of weeks, and predated Jesus by about a 1000 years, so I couldn't resist drawing some parallels with our Christian walk. My address today will definitely be a lighter one; straight from the heart, as opposed to a history textbook -- though by no means original, as both the author of Hebrews and St Paul have compared our journey of faith to a race (Heb 12, 2 Tim 4, Gal 5, 1 Cor. 9).
Over the past ten years or so, I have enjoyed training for and participating in triathlons (swim-bike-run). These can be done over various distances, but even the ones we call “sprints” are very different from, say, a 100-meter dash. The pros complete the Olympic distance in 1 hour 45 min., and the famous Ironman can take a whole day. Well, in the words of a Russian proverb, “to live a life is not to cross a field”, and I suspect that the Biblical authors had this kind of racing in mind when they encouraged us “to run with endurance” (Heb. 12).
My experience with endurance training has definitely brought to life in a new way the themes of our today’s NT readings, namely, “the bread of life” in the Gospel, and the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 4. Let’s keep in mind that the reason that these metaphors for our faith even work is that Christianity is based on the Incarnation. It is lived out of our embodied existence, whereby the Spirit finds her home within the imperfect, human body. And the reality of the Incarnation is that our souls and our bodies need to be nourished, trained, and motivated before we place any demands on them.
With regards to the first, endurance training always includes an extra “sport” -- that is, nutrition. Our bodies simply do not carry enough glycogen to last us over prolonged workouts. So, we actually have to eat and drink on the go. We teach our bodies to digest carbohydrates while exercising, plan the amounts carefully, eat at regular intervals, and often, take food in before feeling hungry. So the idea of Jesus being the “bread of life” is easy to grasp for an endurance athlete. Jesus does offer us the ultimate nourishment, without which we can’t finish the race; but, taking it in, and digesting it well, is all up to us. Sometimes, when it comes to prayer, studying the Word, and worship, we also feel like we don’t need it, can’t force it down, forget to bring it along, or pay no attention to how long it’s been since we last ate. In addition, we can’t choose to eat only in competitions and skip it in training. That’s a recipe for a very upset stomach, which reminds me that sporadic highly religious behaviour can sometimes be worse for our spirituality than none at all. Another cause for a stomach upset is eating on the run without taking enough water. But here’s the contrast: when it comes to Jesus’ food, we don’t need to look elsewhere for water; for in his own words, he quenches both our thirst and hunger. Our faith has the potential to be completely sufficient, and we don’t need to supplement it with foreign practices and philosophies. Finally, the food taken in during the race has to be the right kind (i.e., easily digestible, simple carbs), but what we eat outside the training session needs to be balanced. In our own race of faith, at times, all we can take in is simple teachings and practices, and that is ok; but we do have to find opportunities to take in the more complex fare for overall health and growth. And lastly, drinking too much water is dangerous to our bodies, which is why sports drinks include salt. Might we be called “the salt of the earth”, perhaps, because we ensure the truth, peace, and love in the world never become too diluted? On a related note, I imagine it’s very hard for the Olympians this year to compete without the in-person fans, for it is the encouragement of others that has the power to keep us going, even when all the carbs, water, and electrolytes are no longer helping, both in racing and in faith.
Another thing about endurance racing is consistent pacing. We cannot start a marathon slowly and hope to make up for it later, nor can we make a huge dash at the beginning without experiencing a precipitous drop in pace later on. When it comes to competitions, of course, in the words of St Paul, “all the runners run, but only one gets the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24). Yet, the outcome of a given race is determined by many factors: training, yes, but also, the weather, terrain, loss of a shoe, place on a track, etc. My coach reminds me that not one race or workout is truly representative of my fitness. Which is why Paul went on to write that the worldly competitors “get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” So in everyday training, we don’t focus so much on pacing, but rather on effort. While there are hard workouts here and there, as well as recovery runs, weeks or even seasons, the bulk of endurance training is done in a state of moderate exertion. This is defined by simply choosing the fastest pace at which we can go on “forever”. Your pace for the same effort will differ depending on how you feel, and maintaining it will require a greater effort the further you go in a given run, but you do hope that eventually, the same effort will produce consistently faster pacing as a result of your training -- as a by-product, rather than the main goal. The same holds for our faith journey. It literally does take forever, so God probably doesn’t want us to worry about a particular pace, only that we make a moderate effort that enables us to make progress, yet doesn’t sap us of joy. Everybody is capable of a huge workout - once; or of a great moral or religious feat every now and again. Every villain in a good novel will occasionally act with compassion. Every Christian has tried giving up chocolate for Lent. The question is, can we replicate our successes, avoid being disheartened by the failures, and have the right expectations re. the amount of training required?
But how do we know whether we’re working hard enough? Well, we monitor our vital signs, rather than the clock. Which one - the heart rate? Not really. The heart rate lags behind the changes in effort, and is thus an unreliable indicator of exertion. So in our faith life, our hearts -- our feelings and impressions -- are less reliable in telling us the truth about ourselves. Our breath is more revealing, which is why the Holy Spirit is likened to a breath. It is by listening to the Spirit that I can tell how closely I'm walking with God. The Spirit will “grieve” when I am not making the right kind of an effort in life (Eph. 4), just as my breathing rate shows whether I’m at the end of my rope, or have a little more in me to give during the exercise. Most importantly, it's my breath (and not the clock!) that both motivates me to hold a certain pace, and enables me to do so. I can only accomplish a goal that my breath can truly sustain, physically and spiritually.
All of the above can be summarized in two words: consistency and intentionality; which is probably what St Paul meant when he wrote, “everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training” (1 Cor. 9:25a). There’s just one more thing to add. Training over long distances in running and cycling can afford a wonderful opportunity to explore the neighbourhood and places of travel. But sometimes, we do get lost on the trail. Sometimes, it’s hard to read a trail map, so I stop a passer-by to ask, “Where am I?” So, let’s continue to help each other to figure out where we are, rely on the bread of life for ultimate nourishment, consistently put in the right effort, and cheer each other on, in our shared race of life and faith. Amen.