07 Jun June 7, 2020: Ultramarathon Faith
Genesis 12:1-9 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-10
June 7, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Click here for the pre-recorded worship service for Sunday.
One of the most challenges aspects of the Coronavirus has been that from the very beginning, we haven’t really known what we are dealing with. I think back to March—remember March?—when churches announced that they were closing “for two weeks.” Doesn’t that seem quaint, now? In the early days, pastors and congregations couldn’t conceive of having their Holy Week services disrupted and the thought of not being together for Easter? Inconceivable.
Now, three months later, we continue to wait and watch and wonder, “How long, O Lord, how long?” How long until we worship together again? How long until I can go back to work? How long until I can see my mom and my daughter or hold my new grandchild or pay my respects in person to honor the life of one who has died? How long until I can leave the house or go to the grocery store without fear? How long until I can hug someone? To these questions and many others, the truthful answer is, still, we don’t know.
One thing has become clearer over the past few months, though. Initially I think a lot of people, myself included, had the mindset that the coronavirus was an event, something we had to “get through” in order to get back to “normal.” Instead, we’ve learned that a global pandemic isn’t an event, it is a phenomenon more on the order of a world war. It will last years, not weeks or months, and what lies on the other side of it will be a “new normal” but not the way of life we were leading before March. To borrow a metaphor from sports, we thought we were training for the 40-yard dash when it turns out we’re running an ultramarathon, and those are two completely different races that require a different mindset, a different training regimen, and a different strategy.
When God speaks to Abram and tells him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” (12:1) God was inviting Abram to an ultramarathon, one that would take him from Haran in North Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, about 500 miles away. And, like running any long race, there is only one way to do it: one step at a time.
A couple of years ago, Judy’s oldest and youngest sons, both marathoners in their own rights, challenged one another to run a 100-mile ultramarathon because apparently, running 26.2 miles just wasn’t challenging enough. At the time, I thought that proved just one thing: that obviously her middle son inherited the brains in the family. The two brothers ran the course together and both finished which I thought was incredibly impressive. Since then I’ve learned about other extreme racers. A runner named Pam Reed once completed a 300-mile run without sleeping—it took her about 80 hours. Forty years ago, 53-year-old Mavis Hutchinson became the first woman to run across the United Sates—2871 miles from Los Angeles to New York—and it lasted 70 days.
You need some real faith to embark on journeys such as these—ultra-marathon faith. There are three important aspects to this kind of faith. First, ultramarathon faith cannot see the finish line but trusts that a blessing is waiting at the end. Second, this is faith that cannot anticipate every obstacle but believes that God is offering guidance along the way. Third, this is faith that cannot always see the big picture but focuses instead on the path that lies ahead. Abram needed this kind of ultramarathon faith and in these Covid-19 days, we do, too.
Abram couldn’t see the land of Canaan from Haran, of course, but he believed that something good was waiting for him there. “I will make of you a great nation,” promised the Lord, “and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (12:2) A great nation, a blessing, a great name: these are enticing prizes for the one who completes an ultramarathon. But as I mentioned last week, notice that God doesn’t offer these awards so that Abram will feel a burst of pride and self-satisfaction at the finish line. God intends to bless Abram so that he will be a blessing to others.
This has been God’s standard operating procedure all through human history. Blessings are never meant to be grasped tightly and selfishly guarded but are to be shared with others in a spirit of joy and gratitude and generosity. Israel was chosen by God to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). Jesus “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Followers of Christ are “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16).
“Disciples bless others,” writes author Sue Gamelin. “They leak onto others the blessings that they have received from God, pouring them all over the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the sick, the poverty-stricken and the prisoner, the weary and the war-torn. And then the blessing comes full circle. The blessed and the blessing-leakers are blessed again when they inherit the new [life] God promises.”
So, yes, God will bless those who run their race with ultramarathon faith. No doubt about it. But the gifts we receive are not meant to fill up our personal trophy case. We are to leak them to others as we run the race that is set before us—leak them as often as we can, since runners need to travel light. We are to continue to share what we’ve been given until we finish our earthly race and enter the kingdom of God.
Abram also discovered that he could not anticipate every obstacle on his journey. Instead, he had to trust that God would offer him guidance as he made his way forward, one step at a time. When he reached the land of Canaan, Abram went as far as Shechem and discovered—surprise, surprise!—that “the Canaanites were in the land” (12:6). So often we picture the land of Canaan as a vast, empty Promised Land, when in fact it was already full of people.
So this was a bit of a setback for Abram. But the Lord appeared to him and said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (12:7). God didn’t say “no” to Abram. Instead, God said, “not yet.” God had promised to show Abram a new land, but God never gave a timetable for the transfer of the deed. This delay was an obstacle for Abram, and it would be understandable if it left him feeling disappointed and disheartened. But since God stepped in and gave him guidance about the future, Abram built an altar and moved on.
It is a challenge for us to make good responses to the “not yets” we encounter in life. When we are teenagers and want adult opportunities, when we are bored at work and want a new job, when we are lonely and desperate for a relationship, when we want out of the house in the midst of a pandemic, it is really hard to accept a “not yet.” Like Abram, our challenge is to look for guidance from God in the midst of our disappointment and listen for what God is saying to us in our particular situation. “Not yet” does not mean “never”—sometimes we have to turn to God, build an altar for worship and then move on.
Throughout his journey, Abram was unable to see the big picture of what God had in store for his family, but he found a way to be at peace with his limited vision. As he went from Haran to Shechem to Bethel to the Negeb, he focused on the path in front of him. Genesis tells us that “Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb” (12:9) which is another way of saying, “one step at a time.”
God speaks most clearly when we are focused on the path in front of us. For marathoners, training becomes a kind of running meditation—an opportunity to think, dream, pray and problem-solve. Exercise cuts through the clutter of life and gives the gift of simplicity for a few hours each week. In lives that are dominated by coronavirus uncertainty, by the anxiety of what is safe and what is not, by the juggling act of managing children and work or the stress of losing a job, the loss of our routines and coping mechanisms, the burring of lines that used to divide work and family time, the stress of technology overload, it can be calming to spend time focused only on the path ahead, open to what God wants to say. I will say, though, I find that it takes self-discipline not to look too far ahead.
When we focus on the path in front of us, God can give us a glimpse of the big picture. It’s surprising but true that often our greatest insights come from the challenge that lies right in front of us as we move through them step after step after step. And we often come away with greater clarity about God’s love and care.
To run an ultramarathon, you have to accept that the finish line is miles ahead, that obstacles are going to surprise you, and that the big picture is often cloudy. Ultramarathon faith is, in some ways, the purest kind of faith, because it is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). When ultra-runner Pam Reed covers extreme distances, she cannot see what lies ahead. She has to simply focus on the path in front of her, whether she is running 139 miles in 24 hours or 210 miles in 48 hours, or scaling mountains, or crossing Death Valley. She has to trust her training and believe that she’ll receive both guidance along the way and a blessing at the end.
Our challenge is the same—to run into an unknown future, believing that God is with us, just as God was with Abram. It was “by faith” that Abram “set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance,” says the letter to the Hebrews (11:8), “and he set out, not knowing where he was going.”
The promise of ultramarathon faith is that God will guide us, if we are faithful in the long run. We’ll make it to the goal God has for us, one step at a time.
Thanks be to God. Amen.