I heard it 177 times over the course of 26.2 miles, but who’s counting? It was “Good job!” with occasional variations of “Nice job!” or “Great job!” Last Saturday I ran in the Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City, Michigan, exactly thirty years after my first marathon in the very same race.
None of the people who said “Good job!” had a clue who I was, and it was obvious that I wasn’t an Olympic athlete. In fact, the spectators and runners said the same thing to everyone else, for they know the effort, discipline and perseverance it takes to get out there and hit the road. They also understood that their verbal support and encouragement helps the runners to keep going and finish the race strong.
From many years of marathoning, I’ve learned a thing or two about running as well as the Christian life. What all goes into a “Good job!” in running the race that is set before us?
The positive effect of encouragement
The encouragement of spectators plays a critical role in any race. Three different times on Saturday a child thrust a poster in my path that said, “Touch me for extra power.” Each time I gave the poster a big whack. The creative and amusing signs that spectators hold always make runners chuckle and forget their agony for a few seconds.
- “Who needs toenails anyway?”
- “You are NOT almost there.” (at mile one)
- “Your feet hurt because you are kicking so much butt.”
- “Smile if you’re not wearing underwear.”
When was the last time you encouraged someone to deepen their faith journey or take a leadership role in the church?
The importance of having a specific goal
Simply finishing the race is not enough of a goal for most runners. I usually have several goals for a marathon: a stretch goal, a realistic goal, and a “If something goes really wrong, oh well” goal. Once I have a goal, I know how to focus my energy and training. Otherwise, I’ll waste training time and stop making progress.
What goals do you have for your personal spiritual life? What goals does your church have to achieve its vision and mission?
The value of a plan
When visionary dreams and challenging goals fail, it’s often because of a non-existent or sketchy plan of execution. Training for a 26.2 mile race is a process that involves a careful mileage build-up, including sprint workouts, long runs, and tempo or goal pace runs. Adequate rest is also built into the plan because muscles need time to repair themselves when our bodies are stressed from intense training. Training reaches its peak three weeks or so before the marathon, after which reduced mileage (but not intensity) prepares the body for the rigor of race day. Following a plan that is based on proven results eliminates doubt about the quality and quantity of our training and engenders confidence.
Have you ever been in a church meeting where the leader does not have a prepared agenda and says, “So what do you want to talk about tonight?” Committees and congregations that don’t know where they are going usually don’t end up anywhere. Does your church have a stated ministry plan? How are you holding yourselves accountable for working the plan?
The wisdom of experience
Over the years I’ve learned from my running mistakes. I try not to go out too fast and trash my legs early on. I make sure to ingest some GU every five to six miles and drink diluted Gatorade at every aid station, but not too much or too little. Running downhill, I resist the impulse to fly, thus endangering my knees. I prepare mentally for “hitting the wall” at miles 18-20 by refusing to listen to the negative voices in my head telling me to go slower or lie down in the road and take a nap.
Since the very first church I served thirty years ago was close to the race route, I relived many formative early ministry experiences as I ran last Saturday.
- I ran by the former home of a church member who died three hours after Gary and I and our one-year-old daughter left on a driving vacation during our second summer in Traverse City. We decided to turn back and delay our trip for a few days so I could officiate at the funeral. We lost three days of vacation. Would I do it again? Not sure.
- Enjoying the cherry blossoms along the route, I recalled a sermon about peace and justice that I preached just six weeks after beginning my ministry. A parishioner who was a cherry farmer was not pleased and called the district superintendent. I learned the importance of building trusting relationships before doing or saying anything that could possibly be perceived as controversial.
- I ran by the site of a car accident that took the life of a sixteen-year-old teenager in our congregation only months after I arrived. I was awakened in the middle of the night by the police to accompany them to the home of this young man’s parents to inform them that their son had died. The deep bond I formed with the parents that night continues to this day.
As we make decisions in the church, how do we avail ourselves of the collective wisdom of experienced Christians at the same time as we seek the fresh ideas of the young and those new to Christianity?
The grace of flexibility
Because the marathon is a microcosm of life and runners never know what is going to happen in the course of 26.2 miles, we need to be prepared to make instant adjustments to our plan. If the weather turns unexpectedly hot over the course of the race, we may have to adopt a slower pace and drink more. If we develop intestinal distress, the port-a-potty will become a good friend. If we experience muscle spasms, we’ll have to stop and stretch. An inability or refusal to adapt the plan may result in a DNF (did not finish).
The most difficult challenge that we encounter in our personal spiritual lives and in our churches is the inability or even refusal to adapt to changing conditions. In order to flourish, all living organisms and organizations must continually reinvent themselves to remain vital and relevant.
Enjoy the journey
I was on a runner’s high last Saturday for the first half of the race, soaking in the sun and reveling in the early morning mist over the water, fishing boats, and gorgeous homes that had been built along the bay since I lived there. I acknowledged all the “Good jobs!” and thanked God for the ability to still run after all these years.
After turning around at the halfway mark, I was a minute ahead of my goal. At mile sixteen, however, my body began to whine and protest. I knew I was slowing down. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. Then, at mile twenty, a man shouted to me, “Good job! You go, girl, you’re doing great!” I sped up. A few miles from the finish, a woman said, “Good job! This is a powerful day for you.” I smiled. Near the end I heard, “Good job, Laurie!” and saw several running buddies from Grand Rapids. I waved. Then Gary appeared and said the 177th “Good job! You’re almost there!” And I was.
God never meant the journey to be easy, but at the finish line, Jesus is always there to meet us, saying, “Well done, faithful servant. Good job!”