Life is….. how would you finish the sentence. Our answer can be revealing. I thumbed the standard dictionaries of quotations. Life is a veil of tears. Life is a fairy-tale written by God’s fingers. Life is a party. Life is a foreign language. Life is a maze. Life is color and warmth and light. Life is just one darn thing after another. Life is a process of growing tired. Life is something to do when you can’t get to sleep. Life is a scrambled egg. Life is a mission. Life is a bore. Life is action and passion. Life is sobs, sniffles and smiles. And on the subway wall a sign, “Life is one contradiction after another.” Underneath someone had scribbled, “No, it’s not.”
Come up with an answer yet? Life is a battle. That’s a good Biblical answer- “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Fight The Good Fight.” Some contemporary church leaders want them out of the hymnbook, for fear such pictures will turn us all into militarists. But I suspect we are sophisticated enough to recognize a metaphor when we see one and we will keep on singing them,.. except for weddings, of course.
Or contrast with that the picture of life as a banquet, as a party, a beach. “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Life as the occasion for fun and frivolity. Go to it. Enjoy yourself while you can. Grab for the gusto. You only go ‘round once. Breweries are heavy on this picture.
But my favorite picture of life is the picture of a “race,” a long distance race. Which is nice, because it also happens to be the favorite picture of the Apostle Paul and his friends. It crops up again and again in the New Testament. “..forgetting what is behind and straining towards what lies ahead, I press towards the finish line.” “We too must throw off every encumbrance and the sin that all too readily restricts us, and run with resolution the race which lies ahead of us.” So on the eve of dying he can say, “I have run the race, I have finished the course.”
He has in mind the marathon of the Greek games. I like the picture because it points up three ingredients of the good life, the successful life. A race involves a goal, a discipline and a company. A life without direction and purpose, without a goal out there in front of you that has captured your imagination and grabbed your emotion, is no life at all. So let me ask you as I try to ask myself from time to time. What very concrete goals have you chosen out there in your future, goals for next month, next year, the next decade? Goals so clear you can see them, so exciting you can feel them, so tangible you can taste them. Goals you so desperately want to achieve that they alone would get you out of bed in the morning.
Goals are the energy of life itself. But for many of us it is lack of clarity about where we are going which makes for lack of vitality and enthusiasm and sense of direction. People who work with the college age tell me that half the young people in college today don’t know why they are there, see no connection between what they are doing and where they are going. I become concerned when I talk to young people, ask about their plans, and they respond with a vague look. “I’m not sure. I don’t really know what I want to do.” One of the problems with many who retire is the loss of any sense of forward momentum, significant future, sense of real and important goals.
You don’t find this with younger children. They invariably are full of plans, dreams, exciting futures. Just ask them.
But somewhere along the line our young people lose that childlike imagination and enthusiasm, that capacity for projecting exciting futures and great goals.
Everybody needs a goal. If life is meant to be a race, then there must be a goal somewhere worth racing toward. You don’t run your heart out just running. You run your heart out running for the finish line.
But not only do we need to learn life as a race, we need above all to enter the race that these old writers call us to. There is one race, one overarching goal that has to come first, take pre-eminence. And here too is where we get in trouble. We pick races that end too soon with victory symbols that do not truly satisfy. There are those who give themselves to the race for success, whose arena is the career, a worthwhile race to be sure. But then one day they cross a finish line, or stumble and fall before the tape, and then don’t know what to do with themselves any longer. Their life turns vague and empty. As one man cynically observed, “I finished the rat race and discovered that the rats had won.”
Or they give themselves solely to building a family. Marvelous ambition. They invest themselves in breeding and raising a set of world-beaters who will be bright and polite, attractive and accomplished, only to find one day that they are gone, off doing arbitrage or on adventures of their own, and the race is over. And the days fill up with empty amusements, vague diversions.
The problem comes when we run the race only in order to have, to have a great career, to have a wife and family, to have a lot of foreign adventures, to have a home and a boat and an honorary degree. Nothing wrong with these races, except they will not sustain a life, will not grant sense of fulfillment. It is not the right race for first place in our lives.
In this old story the right race is not the race to have, but the race to be. But this view of the race of life is so foreign to our climate and culture now, that it evokes more puzzlement than excitement. The race to become, to be?
The Marines know about this kind of race. “Be all that you can be!” A member of this congregation is responsible for that one. But what is it all about in this old picture? It is the race to grow, to learn, to mature, to become all that God wants us to be, as persons, as human beings. That’s what Paul is so excited
about. “I press toward the price of the high call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us run the race, looking to Jesus, author and perfector of our faith.”
Looking to Jesus? What could that possibly mean in our worldly focused, practical time. The name Jesus, often for some people badge of their piety or a guarantee of their electability. But here in this old word it is author and perfector, inspiration and guidance, affirmation and command. I think it means something like this. It means a life increasingly dominated by two things: care about what God wills for us and care about the hopes and needs of those running with us. Which are really the same thing. Life as love of God, and, the second is like it, said Jesus. Life as love of neighbor. How about that as the over arching goal for our lives whether on LaSalle street or Elm street, whether in school or neighborhood, in family or friendship, whether at the height of years or the autumn days. A deep and abiding care and concern that God’s will and love be done, and, if possible, in and through us toward the crowd we are running with in life. If you want to know about the particulars, read about them in Matthew 5 through 7.
But if you do read that, you will recognize that this is no easy way. He even says, “The way is hard which leads to life.” The compassion and concentration required to live by and for the love of God, needs of the neighbor before all the other interests and concerns. Paul insists that this requires discipline and struggle. Meaning you cannot run the race to become the person God’s wants you to be from a couch. We all tend to recognize this when it comes to our physical well being. That is why so many spend time and sweat at the health clubs. If you want to be at optimum strength and health, you have to pay the price. Have you heard how the term “aerobics” originated? Some trainers got together and came to the conclusion that they could never charge twenty dollars an hour for something called “jumping up and down.” But equally we cannot grow into the fulfilled human beings God wants us to become without rigorous effort, exercise of mind and spirit, attention to habit, good and bad, and, above all, personal relationships. The strenuous life and the self-indulgent life are mutually exclusive.
This is something earlier generations recognized. But the drift of our culture is not toward life as race but toward life as rest, recreation, diversion. One observer comments, “Life for too many has become the good, godless, gregarious pursuit of pleasure. I have seen the future and it plays. Fun morality replaces morality which stresses interference with impulses. Not having fun is now an occasion for self-examination: What is wrong with me? Whereas gratification of forbidden impulses traditionally aroused guilt, failure to have fun now lowers self-esteem.”
Which brings me to my third point, and that is the question of which crowd we are running with, the question of community.
Because there is no way we can be sure of running toward the life and way we see in Jesus without running with others who have the same goal, the same way
of seeing life. Studies are quite clear that grandmother was right when she admonished, “Birds of a feather flock together.” It does matter who we hang out with. Not whether we reach out to help all in need. Jesus is the example of that, par excellence. “The man for others,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer called him.
But notice that there were at least 12 men and a bunch of women devoted to his cause. They were the crowd he ran with.
And we live in a world where there are many other cliques and crowds more than happy to let us in as long as we pay the price of conformity to their prejudices and the lifestyles they push. A woman celebrating her 102nd birthday was asked what she enjoyed most about her advanced age. She replied, “The lack of peer pressure.” But there is good peer pressure, the kind we run into in the Jesus’ crowd, the pressure of their effort and encouragement.
And there is another peer pressure I have come to appreciate, not only that of the race track, but that of the grandstands. The church is the one crowd that lives from the inspiration of those who have gone before and who have finished their race, and who look down on us, calling us to account and cheering us on.
Jesus’ crowd loves and lives by hanging in there together, both here and hereafter. The Church militant and triumphant, our forebearers called it.
Does that mean we have to be here together every Sunday?
No, I confess that I found with retirement that one can get along without it. I always wondered, as one whose profession dictated that I be here every Sabbath for three services, what it would be like to be turned loose. And I found out. I can get along without it.
It appears that many Americans have found that out. Recent studies indicate that Americans still think of themselves as religious, but increasingly see church community as less and less important to their faith. Ask the Hollywood crowd how many Americans attend church and they guess around 1%.
So yes, I guess we can get along without it. But we will find that it is very difficult to run the race we are called to. It’s tough to run a marathon all by yourself, this marathon. So we are trying more and more to be there, with the crowds we have come to know and with whom we can share faith and song.
Fred Craddock, a great southern preacher, from whom I have learned much, tells a story about his father. “My mother took us to church and Sunday School; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home. Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, “I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge. Right? Isn’t that the name of it? Another name, another pledge.” That’s what he always said.
Sometimes we’d have a revival. Pastor would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, “There’s one now, sic him, get him, get him,” and my father would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always my father said, “The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.” I guess I heard it a thousand times.
One time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, “It’s too late.” They put in a metal tube, and X rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all the window sills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat, on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church.
He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.” I said, “What is your story, Daddy?” And he wrote, “I was wrong.”
It occurs to me to add one more line, to Dr. Craddocks account. His father, even in the face of death also learned that the love of God and his people had always been there for him, and always would be. So it is oft times a hard run, but the company is good, and the future bright with faces long known who’ve gone before us.