Marathons & Religion

An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.
—2 Timothy 2:5

Last Saturday I drew a line through a big item on my bucket list. I completed a full marathon.

I have been running for the last 5 years or so. Like a lot of people in their late 30s nearing middle age, I knew it was time to start exercising. I started a couch-to-5K program (a program I later adapted and shared with others), a training plan that would get me off the couch and start moving. I ran my first 5K race in the fall of 2010 and I caught the running bug. I continued running every week, competing in 5K races now and again, before training for my first half marathon (13.1 miles) in November 2013. After that race, which included a grueling uphill finish, I told myself, “I am never doing that again!” I lied. I would go on to run two more half marathons, before making the decision to begin training in June this year for a full marathon (26.2 miles).

I have always been a goal-oriented person. I have come to be aware of how God has made me and I cannot hide from the truth: achievement is a central motivator, generating energy and pushing me forward in life. Setting the goal of running 26.2 miles was a daunting task, a “big hairy audacious goal.” I was intimidated. I asked a few friends who had ran marathons about training plans and I heard the same name come up: Hal Higgdon. It seemed like everyone was talking about his training plans. I had seen his half marathon plans and adapted one to help me train for my first half marathon. As I looked at his marathon training plans, I was not convinced. The furthest I would ever run in training would be 20 miles, well short of my 26.2 goal. I assumed that if I wanted to run 26. 2 miles on race day, I would need to get to that kind of mileage in my training. I was not confidant Hal Higgdon’s training would get me to where I wanted to go. Skeptical and a bit unsure, I selected the Novice 2 Marathon Plan, and in mid-June I started the training. I trained for 18 weeks, still unsure if this training plan was going to help me reach my goal.

unnamedThe day of the marathon, I was still a bit unsure. I had put all of my trust in a training plan that never had me run 26.2 miles. Would I be able to do? What would mile 21 feel like? What would mile 25 feel like? I had no idea what to expect. Marathoners often talk about “the wall,” that moment in the marathon when your body and mind hit a fatigue point and you feel like you cannot run another step. Would the wall stop me in from finishing? As I was running the marathon, I began to think back on the previous months of training. I had run four days a week for eighteen weeks in the rain, in the heat, in the humidity, and on vacation in Florida. I had run early in the morning before the sun had come up; I had run under the stars at night. As I was nearing the 20-mile mark during my marathon, I had settled into a good running pace and I realized that the training had prepared me for that exact moment. The training I had doubted in the beginning was going to get me to the finish line and it did!

The last three miles of the marathon were tough, including a pretty tough incline from mile 21 until about mile 24. But about a half of a mile from the finish line, I began to smile uncontrollably. My legs were hurting, my feet were aching, my stomach was growling, but I was overcome with an undeniable giddiness in light of my pending accomplishment. Through my cheesy, out-of-place grin, I thought, “I am going to make it. My training is going to get me there!”

In order to get where I wanted to go, I need to trust the wisdom of those who had come before me and follow their lead. I had to trust the training I was given, set aside my critical concerns, and submit myself, commit myself to train in the way laid out for me. And doesn’t this scenario sound like Christian discipleship? In following Jesus, we are not in a position to pick and choose how we will follow him, we have been given the training. It is a tradition called “the Christian religion.” Following Jesus is submitting to the training. It's called 'the Christian religion.' Click To Tweet

When I was a teenager I had a bumper sticker on my car that said, “I am not religious. I just love the Lord!” I grew up in a sectarian evangelical environment where “religion” is what you do to earn your way to God, but “a relationship with God” is what you received by grace through faith. Religion was a bad thing. Even in the early 1990s, during my teenage years, the slogan “I am not religious. I am spiritual,” was already growing in popularity. It remains a dominant theme in our culture and unwittingly too many Christians have adopted it. It is trendy; but it is also a travesty. 'Spiritual but not religious' is trendy; but it is also a travesty. Click To Tweet

Religion is not bad. At least, religion is not inherently bad. The English word “religion” is rooted in the Latin word that means “to bind.” Religion is that which binds together a group of people, whether or not the subject of God is a part of the conversation or not, which is why Star Wars is as much a religion as Buddhism. The rejection of the word “religion” among modern evangelicals is rooted in the Enlightenment’s quest to pursue knowledge and live free from traditions that constrict. Christian religion binds us together with one another in the very life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is an answer to the prayer:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee:
—”Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

We are living in the late stages of modernity and we want the freedom to decide for ourselves what we believe and what we think and what we practice and how we live. With this driving impulse, spirituality is much more appealing than religion, because nebulous “spirituality” can be anything we want it to be. When we are in control of picking and choosing our “spirituality” and our definition of truth, we can become a lot of things, but we do not become Christian, that is, we do not become like the Christ we follow. We become Christian by being bound together with a Christian tradition in the form of Christian religion. And I have willingly let myself be bound.

I have repented of the anti-religious tendency of adolescence. I know that left under my own control and direction, I will never become like the Jesus I love. I need religion. I need Christian religion—historical, rooted, ancient, and time-tested. I need Christian prayers and a Christian liturgy. I need a Christian calendar and Christian worship. I need Christian Scriptures and Christian creeds. My adherence to these things is the training to get me where I want to go, which is to be ultimately in full union with God where I reflect the heart of Jesus. And my oh my, am I a long way from reaching my goal.

The ancient forms of the Christian religion—things like prayer, scripture, and communion, can often feel like worthless activities accomplishing nothing, much like many of my short 4-mile runs during marathon training. I can recall many times when I was scheduled to run four miles, but I really wanted to go back to bed. I thought to myself, “How is 4 miles going to help me get to 26.2 miles?” Then I remembered that training is how I move forward. I never missed a run. Too often I skip times of prayer. Why is that? Perhaps I am not yet convinced the training in Christian religion will get me there. We need to rethink our aversion to the word and the practice of religion. Instead of what Eugene Peterson calls “boutique spirituality,” a pragmatic attempt of picking and choosing from the Christian tradition what we what to use, we need a renewed saturation in God-ordained, Christ-centered, Spirit-inspired religion.

When we call ourselves religious, and not merely spiritual, we are binding ourselves to a certain kind of training that will take us towards “the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

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