Monday, March 14, 2016

The Race and the Prize

The Race and the Prize                   3/13/16
Hebrews 12:1-17, Matthew 13:52

You are startled awake, jumping up from your pillow, with sweat on your forehead and your heart racing.  That was a scary dream.  As you wipe your groggy eyes, a thick fog is causing clear thinking to elude you.  Your head hurts. You are confused and dazed, cloudy and discombobulated.  Something isn’t right, and you can’t quite seem to figure out what it is.  You feel lost, alone, and in a dark place.  The moment haunts you with how meaningless and scared you feel.  But it isn’t just a fleeting moment. Somewhere along the way, this is how you feel all the time.  This darkness and isolation has become your entire existence.

It is into that moment, from out of the darkness, comes a hand, reaching out to you.  “Follow me”, the voice says.  “Run the race that I have for you, and walk the path that is right, true, and good.  Don’t stray off the path, keep on following me, and I promise that something good will be at the end of the path.”

The choice is before you.  Continue in this awful state of stupor, or follow.   As you consider this choice, you decide to speak out to this voice that has come to you.

Is the path easy?  You ask.
Not always.  In fact, I know some of it is very difficult.

What if I fall down?  You inquire.
You probably will get bruised.

What if I take the wrong path? You wonder out loud.
If you follow me and listen to my voice, you won’t follow the wrong path.

What if I want to choose a path different than where you lead me?
If you do, at any point, ask for my help, I’ll lead you out of the wrong path back toward the path I chose for you.   Are you ready to make a decision?  Will you follow me?

One last thing…Do you have one piece of advice for me?
Yes, Pay attention.  Now, will you follow me?

After a simple ‘yes’, you start to walk.

The voice then spoke to me again:  The path you will now walk will be called the race.  At the end of the race is the prize.  There will be times you should run with reckless abandon.  There will be times to consider your steps carefully.  But most of the time, a steady step forward, one step at a time, will do.  Most of the time, we will walk together.

Your first sense as you look at this path is wonder.  You behold majestic trees in a forest, which seem to clap their hands in praise.  Their roots are built into the soil and history. The trees are a large and stable presence along the path.  There is a diversity of shrubbery and plant life along either side of the path.  There is mostly quiet, and as you get into a rhythm of walking, the noise producing contraptions you’ve brought with you seem less meaningful.  You feel good as you experience all that is around you.  And in this place, you feel well enough to walk at a good pace.

But not all is wonder-filled on the race.  At one point, you stoop down to see some mushrooms.  Feeling hungry, you extend your hand to reach for them, when that hand that lifted you out of the muck and mire stops you, and the voice warns you:  Those are poisonous.  Putting them in your body will cause your body harm. 

Further on down the path, there is a cavern.  Feeling curious, I call out to the voice:  What is that cavern?

To me came this word:  It is the cavern of anger.  If you go in there, the darkness makes it hard to find your way out.  And the more you give your anger a voice, the volume increases and it sends sound bouncing from one wall to the next.  Each time the sound hits a wall, it fractures into further sounds.  The angrier you get, the paralyzed you will be by the volume of the fractured sounds.   Avoid the cavern of anger.  If you end up there, call to me, and ask for my help. I will help you.  But my help will require that you leave your anger in the cavern.

After this, the path became quite narrow.  There was a sharp, steep decline within inches of the edge of the path.  The voice speaks out to you:  This is where trouble lives.  You can sense and experience trouble even if you are running the race.  You don’t have to fall off the path in order to know trouble.  It is there.  To get through, hold my hand as you keep on stepping forward.

After walking through trouble, we enjoyed a time where the path was level.  It was kind to our feet and knees and backs.  On this respite of level walking, we were able to regain strength for the next part of the race.

Next, we came to a fork in the road.  There was a warning sign.  To the left, the arrow pointed “The race”, and to the right, the arrow pointed “The Trail of Fears”.   Having succeeded in my race so far, I decided to leave the path, and I chose the trail of fears.  A few steps onto the trail, I heard voices of other travelers.  We aren’t sure where this leads, we were forced upon this path.  It isn’t our fault.  We don’t want to go here. We are scared.  We feel all alone here, so let’s go down the path together. 

I didn’t think these travelers were correct.  I chose this path.  They could have chosen to stay on the race.  We brought ourselves here.  But perhaps there is comfort in the company of these travelers.

It turned out that this was not so.  

The trail taught us something.  That if we speak out every fear to every traveler, we become weaker rather than finding strength.  Our feet come to a halt.  Our feet become so heavy they are difficult to lift up.  Every fear that was voiced awoke the fears that were within us.  They fed off of each other, until we were at a stand still, not knowing where to go, with our souls almost devoured.  Then I remembered:  If you get lost, call out to me.

So I did.

As I called, I saw a terrible sight.  The trail was only 3 or 4 steps long.  At the end of those few steps was a horrible cliff that would have led to our death.  It turns out that our paralyzing fear caused such a slow movement that it distorted our sense of space. But because the trail was indeed short the return back was attainable.  The voice called to us.  I turned around, and went back to Race.  A few others joined me.  Others didn’t.

As I started back on the race, my legs felt a little weak from my wrong choice, but I knew that I could return to health because I was on the right path.

Continuing the race, the path left the forest and turned into a deep valley, darkened because of the setting sun behind us.  The voice said that this was the valley of the shadow of death.  It was then I understood that the prize might not always be won in this life, but the promise remained real.  And it was in this valley that I saw more clearly the hand that had reached out to me, and the voice which had spoken to me.  For this voice was the voice of the Lord.  And he was in charge even in this place.

After traveling through the valley, we found that our legs had regained their strength.  To my surprise, there was a billboard along the path.  This was unusual, but the message provided hope:  Don’t grow weary and lose heart.  I chose to keep my diligence, and found my legs grow stronger with each step.  But at the same time, I noticed a sense of hunger. It was more than a sense;  I was really hungry. And it was getting dark.  What would we do?  Would we be okay?   I noticed another fork, with the same choices as before:   the race, or the trail of fears.  And this time I chose the race.

Immediately after my choice, I came to a lodge with tavern.  I met delightful travelers, some of whom looked familiar to me, and even an old friend or two.  But there was also many new travelers who I would now meet.  There was light so we could see one another and enjoy fellowship.  And there was food.  Plenty of food.  We celebrated together and then we rested for the night.   My choice reinforced a truth:  the path came equipped for everything I needed to run the race.

Looking back, there was that place of food and lodge every seven days throughout my entire journey on the race. 

Sometimes, I found the quiet of the race to be lonely.  I liked it being alone better than the loud noises. Most of the time, the quiet allowed me to think clearly.  While running the race, I would occasionally hear voices further up along the path, and they would be beckoning me to keep going.  And so when I received encouragement, I would beckon to those behind me in the race.  I would tell them to run and not grow weary.  I always tried to remember to call forward a thank you for the encouragement I had received.   I’m not sure if they heard me or not, but it seemed more important to say it than for the words to be heard.

All the while, through all the different opportunities and seasons, and all the different travelers I would get to know, and the voices from behind me or before me, there stayed with me that voice of the one who first helped me.  Sometimes the voice was a whisper, and sometimes a loud thunder, sometimes a voice and sometimes a sign.  But that voice always stayed with me, and it always called out to me, “Pay attention” and “Follow me”.

After a long time of travel, I came to a book that was placed upon a stump along the road.  The cover of that dusty, well used book said these words:   “My responsibilities”.  I opened the book and the first words I read were “Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.  Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.”   That indeed was something I was able to do.  Being responsible provided the discipline needed for the journey.

Sometimes when I would rest by the campfire, at the end of a days walk, I would think about some of the things that I had seen along the way.  Distance and further travel had allowed me to understand more clearly what I had seen earlier in the journey.  I thought back to the cavern of anger.  It turns out that while I was looking at the cavern, there was a sign above me that I had not given much notice. It read “Training ground”.  By staying in the race, I was receiving training in righteousness.   I would also recall those times of food and lodge.  They were such cherished times.  I look back at those gatherings, and they were called “peace”.

At one point, I had another dream.  This time it wasn’t a nightmare, but rather a healing rest.  When I awoke from it, rather than sweat and heart palpitations, I was complete.  I was whole.  What my eyes saw was new yet strangely familiar; I was home.   I cannot find the exact words to describe what I saw, but I do have one word:   Joy.   There before me was joy.  Not only for me; but for a countless number from every race and nation and village and tribe.  Abundant Joy!  In what seemed like seconds, I turned around to see my children enter this joy.  

After that, I heard that great voice which had once saved me from hell and was with me throughout the race; “Well done, good and faithful runner, enter into the joy of your master.”  It turns out, that the voice that I had heard was that of Jesus Christ  “For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross”.  Fix your eyes on Jesus.

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