17 December 2017

Faith … for the long run

Have you ever run a marathon? There is one Belfast marathon I shall never forget. I was at the twenty-two mile stage. My back was killing me. My feet were sore. The sun blazed and I was parched. The front-runner had been setting a merciless pace and was well ahead of the field. Folk were cheering and clapping all the runners. Never before had I stood watching a sporting event for so long but the twenty-two mile stage was at our gate and it would have been surly not to watch the big event.

First came the police motorcyclist. Tailing him was the marshal’s car. It looked impressively official surmounted by a massive digital timer. Then came the lead runner. Had he kept up this speed for the first twenty-two miles? He was so far ahead that he might as well have been on a solo run. He had twenty-two miles under his feet. There were only about four miles to go. The race was surely his. The lead was so striking that the finishing tape was no more than a formality at this stage. All he had to do was follow the car. And that was precisely what he did. He followed the official car but it did not follow the course!

The six o’clock news took us by surprise that evening. Over dinner we had expected to watch our hero burst through the tape but he did not even appear on screen. What had happened? Certainly no one had caught up on him. He had not broken a leg. He had not failed a drugs test. All he had done was follow the lead car but just around the corner from our house it had taken a wrong turn and led the runner off course. By the time they noticed their mistake and got back on the course it was too late and the race was lost to the fellow who had taken the lead for virtually the whole way. Despite leading for so long, our hopeful had eventually been led astray. He had followed that official car from the start. It had shown the way from the beginning but misled him in the end. It had counted out the seconds but in the end it was all a waste of time. It was loaded down with the latest technology but it was subject to human error. Can you imagine the pain of disappointment?

Taking the wrong direction in a race is bad enough but it is unimaginably worse to take the wrong course in life. What a tragedy for someone to find out that he or she had placed absolute confidence in something that finally proved a let down. All the time spent trusting, hoping, and following proves totally worthless. An acute sense of embarrassment is the only reward. To sense something of this is to feel our way into the Biblical concept of ‘shame’. At the core of this idea lies the utter humiliation and frustration of having found out that the very thing trusted all along has proved a total disappointment. Proverbially, it may have been better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all, but actually it would have been better never to run at all, perhaps, rather than run all the way only to be lost.

Centuries before, Job had reflected on a merchant caravan that had taken a similar course to our runner. Like him they had followed what they had believed a wholly trustworthy lead. In spring, swollen rivers had provided the guidance they needed but on returning to the area in the dry season they had taken their course from the dried up river beds only to find themselves irretrievably lost in the desert. In ancient terms they had been  put to shame because they had trusted in something unreliable. (Job 6:15-20)

By way of contrast, Paul, the spiritual athlete, runs with the conviction that the object of his confidence is absolutely certain. He is as open, as he is certain, about the power of God revealed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In declaring that he is “not ashamed” (Romans 1:16) he is surely doing more than merely denying any embarrassment. The Hebraic context of his thought world would suggest that this man is confident about who and what he believes. Neither will betray him at the finishing line. It could be said that a major part of the ancient concept of  ‘shame’ was the  ‘sham’ that people were tempted to trust. However, Paul demonstrated the conviction that the Christian gospel was no sham but would provide the way through this life and beyond. Paul’s faith was good for the long run.

Desi Maxwell