Last night I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where we honored people celebrating years of sober living. Some of the people have been on a sober and spiritual journey for over 45 years. These are people that may have started out stumbling but will likely finish their race well. I love recovered drunks, like myself. They are some of the funniest and wisest people I know. Here’s an old joke shared at the meeting:
An old drunk boards a city bus and plops down in a seat beside a prim, elderly woman. She looks at him and says, “You’re going to hell!” The drunk looks up at her with bleary eyes and replied, “Oh man! Did I get on the wrong bus again?”
My friend, Mike, and I tried out for the track and field team in high school. Mike was a small-stature guy and easily got chosen for pole vaulting. It was quite a sight watching my friend being launched high into the air, gracefully clearing the bar, reentering the atmosphere and crashing back to earth on the big blue pad. He made it look easy. And cool. Looking cool was a big goal for me. Because I didn’t look cool. And I was a little jealous because Mike didn’t have to run around the track for hours on end.
Since I wasn’t coordinated enough for pole vaulting, I tried out for sprints. Sprints are short races; some as short as 100 yards. Fast and furious, the races are over in seconds. I watched the coach, watching me, hands on his hips, frown on his face. Finally he shouted, “You run like Frankenstein!”. It was an encouraging moment in my athletic career. Also, running like Frankenstein did not look cool.
Out of pity, I think, the coach said I would run long-distances. Half-mile races, minimum. More often it was one- or two-miles. I still didn’t look cool but I could run for a long time. I ended up on the cross-country team, running three-and-a-half miles with a bunch of other people that couldn’t run sprints.
Eventually I came to enjoy the cross country runs. We practiced on trails through woods, up hills, sometimes leaping across ditches and logs and fallen runners. I particularly enjoyed running in the twilight or early morning hours. I felt alone in the woods, far from the critical eyes of my high school peers. Unobserved, unjudged, unguarded.
Unlike the races at the track, cross country runners do not hear cheering crowds most of the time. It is only in the very last stage of the race that one can hear the shouts and encouragement of the crowd. No one sees you when you run in the woods. They don’t cheer when you’re jumping the ditches, falling down, or lumbering up hills like Frankenstein. They only begin to cheer when you break out of the woods and head for the finish line.
It took a very long time before I found a pace for my life that felt comfortable, sustainable. Now, most of my days are run in the presence of others, under the mid-day sun, on a path as flat as a treadmill. No hills, no woods, no ditches. But lots of fallen runners.
After I got plugged into my church small group, I was sharing about my regret that I came to Jesus so late in life. I felt a weight of having spent so much of my life in the darkness. My pastor’s mom smiled and gently said, “It isn’t about how you start, Casey. It’s about how you finish.” The memory of the cross country races came flooding back.
This week I turn 56 years old, which is not really “old”, but it feels a lot older than 55. Because 56 is the first year of a new demographic: people ages 56-to-70. There’s a new long-distance measurement now… 71 is the next demographic milestone for this group. If I make it to 71 years, the group will be smaller (but all survivors will be people I admire for being tenacious or ornery enough to get past 70).
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2 (ESV)
No matter how long my race lasts, I know where the finish line is now. And though I can’t hear the cheering crowds yet, someday I will. I want to finish well and see my Father smile. I sure don’t want to hear Moses telling Noah that I ran like Frankenstein.
In memory of an acquaintance named Thomas, whose short race ended at 28 years old.