A Race Against the Clock

It was the most bizarre race I had ever witnessed. How peculiar those runners must have felt! Didn’t it throw them off their game?

I can’t imagine running a race without an opponent.

Here on the grandest sports stage of the planet was a woman taking her place in the starting blocks with no competitor to her left or to her right. All alone on this asphalt oval she positioned herself with head down, baton in hand, waiting to hear the blast from the starter’s gun. And she would have no one on either side with whom to track her progress.

Just one runner against the clock.

To be accurate it was more than this one runner. She had teammates ahead of her, each in her own position in the same lane. Each waiting for the baton that eventually would be placed in her hand. And just like the runner before her, she would have no competitor next to her.

Just the runner against the clock.

It was the women’s 400-meter relay in the 2016 Olympics. It’s my favorite event in all the Olympics. Ever. Always. And this race was unlike any I had ever seen.

The circumstances leading to this sports anomaly are both involved and controversial. The race has replayed itself in my mind’s eye time after time, and it has taught me a valuable lesson; a lesson about the races God has assigned each of us to run.

We’re all just racing against the clock. Nothing else.

We may think there are others in the lanes alongside us, and that’s a dangerous situation. That’s when we begin to compare ourselves with other runners. The spiritual life is not a life of comparison. It’s not about competition. It’s just about running the race. Period.

I recently read a compelling description of the race God has for us to run. In her book “Unstoppable“, Christine Caine compares our spiritual race to this very relay. She writes about exchange zones, batons, and handoffs, and her words pumped spiritual adrenaline through my veins. Maybe it spoke to me so vividly because in high school I ran that race. I know the feeling of the starting blocks. I experienced the sensation of expending every ounce of energy to place the baton in my teammate’s grasp. I had run that race… at least in the realm of sports. As I read “Unstoppable” I was preparing to run another kind of race: the kind of race Christine Caine wrote about.

I was in the starting blocks to begin a race God had assigned to me.

This race took me to the other side of the world. (See my previous post.) My exchange zone was South Africa. The baton God had given me was the message of Freedom. I finished the race. I made the handoff. Now I’m waiting for my next baton. In the meantime God has been gracious to show me a bigger picture of the race, of all our races. They are not competitions. They are not a stage where we try to outdo other runners.

Our races are only against the clock.

The clock is critical. The clock drives us to reach our exchange zone at the appropriate time. There was a runner in the lane God had assigned to me, a teammate. She was waiting in my exchange zone with her arm stretched back, focused forward, ready to run her leg. She was in the stance of a trained runner. She had not turned her back to her destination. She wasn’t gauging the progress as the baton drew nearer. This runner was facing forward in the direction she would run. Her focus was on her race and she was positioned for the handoff. That’s how the exchange is made if the race is to be won.

There’s something about standing in a position like that. It’s a difficult position to maintain. A runner waiting for the baton can’t hold that stance indefinitely. Had I not started my leg of the race when God signalled me, my teammate may have given up. She may have stopped waiting for the baton. She could have left her lane in search of another baton; a baton that was meant for someone else. My steps of obedience had to be at the pace God intended, and they had to begin at the time He intended.

Because the clock was ticking.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.   Hebrews 12:1-2

But, what if I had been looking around at other runners? What if my focus shifted from my handoff to the ones I believed to be my competitors? What if my concern had been their performance as compared to mine?

What if I allowed the cancer of comparison slow me down?

It’s not only the things we put in our spiritual backpacks that slow us down. (That post is still on the way.) When we begin to compare our performance with others running their own races, the cancer of comparison strikes us like a deadly disease. It drains us of our health, our strength, our energy, and our endurance. We can’t run. We can’t persevere. And we will wonder why the race is becoming so hard.

When I ran the 400-meter relay in high school, I ran the first leg of the race. My favorite lane was lane 2. Because of the stagger of the starting points in each lane I could see every competitor in front of me except one. All but one of the runners appeared to be leading me as we exploded out of our starting blocks. Only one runner seemed to be trailing me.

Of course, this was only the way the race appeared. As the race continued the stagger of the lanes made it a fair race because of the layout of the track. But, I liked the feeling it gave me of needing to catch up. I relished the way it pushed me harder, keeping the lane 1 runner behind me while trying to make up ground on the runners who seemed to be leading me. I wasn’t worried about the clock. I only cared about out-performing the other runners.

Our races are not competitions.

races to run

However, I consider my life nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me — the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.   Acts 20:24

 

We can believe we’re being outrun by other runners when:

  • we see their ministry as more successful than ours
  • we view their service as more worthwhile than ours
  • we believe we can’t serve as well because we aren’t as educated
  • we think we can’t be as effective because we aren’t as talented
  • we feel it’s too late to run any longer because we’re far older than the rest of the field

These misconceptions, plus a multitude of others, will only hinder us. And these are not our only hinderances. We’re also severely hampered when we begin to believe we’re winning the race because of our abilities.

We can believe we’re outrunning other runners when:

  • we see our ministry growing and becoming successful – even more than the ministries of others
  • we view our service as meeting needs that others can’t seem to touch
  • we rely on our education or our wisdom to run our race, or even to choose our own race
  • we feel good about our God-given talents, especially in relation to the talents of others
  • we determine the race we should run based on our youth, our age, or our maturity

We don’t choose our race, and we don’t choose our pace.

We do, however, choose whether or not we will run. We choose if we will obediently take our place in the starting blocks. We choose if we will hold our stance waiting for the baton in the exchange zone. And when we drop the baton, we choose if we will continue the race. That’s the choice the US Women’s 400-meter relay team faced. The US team dropped their baton.

A US runner was tripped just before she was to make her handoff. She lost her balance. She nearly fell. With dreams of winning the race seemingly shattered, she hesitated for a moment as she found herself left in the wake of the rest of the field. In an instant her one chance of finishing seemed to vanish. Then, just as suddenly, she heard a voice.

Pick up the baton. Finish the race.

Whether it was the voice of a teammate, that of a spectator, or a still, small voice within her, she heard it. More importantly, she obeyed it. She picked up the baton and she handed it to her teammate who then ran her leg. She made her handoff. Then the next was made. And the next. The final member of the US team crossed the finish line far behind every other competitor in that race. But they crossed the line. They finished the race.

And the clock was still ticking.

Because they went on to finish, the team had the opportunity to challenge that race due to the foul. They won the challenge. They remained in the competition. They went on to win the gold medal. All because they finished the race. And in the midst of it all was that peculiar race with no other competitors. That race against the clock.

If you’re still breathing, your clock is still ticking. If God continues to speak to you about doing something, going somewhere, or serving in some way, your race clock is still ticking. If you’ve stumbled in your race, if you’ve fallen, and even if you’ve dropped the baton, your race isn’t over.

When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble.   Proverbs 4:12

That Hebrew word for stumble as it is used in Proverbs 4:12 is kashal. Yes, it can mean stumble as we use the word in English, but kashal also means “to fail” or “to be overthrown”. The Enemy does’t want you in the race. If you’ve started running he’ll try to stop you. He will try to make you look around and collapse from the cancer of comparison. If you refuse to do that, he may try to trip you. When he does, get back up. Keep running. Make the handoff. Because your race is not over.

Falling is not failing.

Your clock is still ticking. It’s not about the other runners. You have no competitors in this spiritual race. Only the race, the clock, and the finish. Because everyone who finishes her race wins.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now, there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing.   2 Timothy 4:7-8

 

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Our dear friends and teammates in our exchange zone in Belhar, South Africa.

 

In loving memory of my aunt, Wanda Todd, who finished her earthly race August 28, 2016. I know her crown is beautiful!

 

An Interruptable Life

She hadn’t been listening to a word I’d said.

While sharing one of my grandchildren’s most recent accomplishments, my friend interjected at my first pause to tell her own grandchild story. Exploding from her vocal chords with the force of an Olympic sprinter, her narrative morphed into a marathon. My story never got close to the finish line.

I know how it happened. I’ve been on the other side more often than I care to admit. I “listen” as a friend shares her story, and at the first opportunity I interject my own. It’s justifiable, I tell myself, since my story is more informative, more interesting, or more entertaining. She’ll learn something from what I have to say. It’s for her own good, I reason as I interrupt.

I’ve learned about being interrupted lately.

Several months ago I began writing the messages I would share at a Women’s Conference in South Africa. This was an answer to one of my biggest prayers ever, so I wanted to give as much time and attention to these messages as possible. I don’t have much spare time, so important things have to be included in my morning routine.

I get up early. I have my quiet time. I write. I address the important things of the day. I do some housework. I get myself ready and leave for my job.

The writing time of my morning routine was to have been devoted to preparing the messages for the “Freedom Conference” in South Africa. If I began writing six or seven months before the conference I should have time to finish the four messages with plenty of time left over to tweak and polish.

Not so. God had the audacity to keep interrupting me.

First, He led me into a time of self-examination and consecration to prepare for this mission trip and the conferences. Later, He had our mission team work through a 40-day prayer time together. In between He continued to allow all sort of interruptions to my morning writing time. No matter how much I prayed for Him to remove the interruptions, they still came wave after wave.

In the blink of an eye it was the week of the conferences. Then, it was the day before we were to catch our flight for South Africa. My messages remained unfinished. I could salvage this, I told myself. The travel time to our destination was 26 hours. Surely I could finish my messages on the plane or during a layover.

Not so. God had the audacity to keep interrupting me.

Standing in line for customs after arriving at Cape Town International Airport I could only muster the mental energy for one thought. One question.

“Now what?”

Now what, God? Now that You’ve allowed dozens of things to interrupt what I’ve needed to do in my attempt to be obedient… now what am I supposed to do?

The line moved forward and I hoisted my backpack while dragging my luggage towards the customs booths. That backpack. It quite literally had been a pain in my neck for the whole trip. But, according to everything I had read in preparing for the long trip, I needed it and all its contents. Every time I had to move it, however, all I could think of was one Bible verse.

… let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles . And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.   Hebrews 12:1

I wanted to throw off that backpack. Ever since leaving Memphis International Airport two days earlier I had wanted to toss it as far as I could. It had hindered my progress. It had entangled my arms and legs. My perseverance was gone and my running had turned to dragging about 16 hours earlier.

“Now what, God?” I silently asked again, just in case He hadn’t been paying attention the last time I shook my fist toward Him in my minds eye. Pouting in the back seat of the van as we were driven to our destination, my thoughts settled enough that I could hear God say, “Now you’ve got it. Now you can finish.”

The backpack. That was it. The central, visual focal point of the first message I would bring. But, what do backpacks and freedom have in common? Plenty, as God would go on to show me. (Watch for a future post on that)

My first message was to be delivered less than 48 hours after we touched down in Cape Town and I would have no time to work on it this first night. As it turned out, I would have no time to finish it until about 3 hours before I took my place to present it. Looking back I can see why God didn’t allow me to finish my messages this side of the Atlantic Ocean. He hadn’t finished giving me the material for them. I’d thought I had everything I needed for my neatly crafted four-part series of this conference.

Not so. God had to be audacious and keep interrupting me.

Part Two of my four-part series wasn’t finished until hours before it was presented. Part Three was only completed minutes before I took the podium. Part Four was no exception. All because God kept interrupting me. Or, shall I say, He kept interrupting my plans, my thoughts, and my ways.

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’   Isaiah 55:8

My ways. God’s ways.

My thoughts. God’s thoughts.

My plans. God’s plans.

‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’   Jeremiah 29:11

If God doesn’t interrupt mine, often mine will override His.

God interrupt plans

One year ago my plans did not include traveling to the other side of the world to share His message of freedom. One year ago my plans included pursuing a writing career. One year ago I wrote my last post to this blog, then I took a break from blog writing because I knew God was calling me to do that. I didn’t know what He was calling me to do, but I knew He was calling me to stop and to spend time listening. What I had thought would be a 30-day, or perhaps even a 60-day hiatus in writing posts for this site eventually turned into one year. Ironically, my last post to this site on August 19, 2015, was titled “What if God asked you for a favor?

Did He ever ask me for a favor!

He asked me to put aside my plans and to wait for Him.

He asked me to go to a place I had never been and do something I had never done.

He asked me to go on a mission trip to South Africa, knowing full well that I had never even wanted to go on a mission trip.

God interrupted my plans for my life. When I tried to make my own plans of His plans, He interrupted again. And He interrupted every time I tried to tailor His plans to my own. He took me out of my comfort zone into a time zone 7 hours ahead of mine. He took me away from the people I knew. He took me away from the schedule I held fast to. He removed me from anything and anyone I could possibly rely on, except for Himself.

He taught me to be interruptable.

He taught me to rely on Him, not just for the big picture, but daily. Hourly. Minute by minute. It was terrifying. It was explosive. The results were jaw-dropping. But, I’m a slow learner, and I know He’s still teaching me. He’s not just teaching me to be interruptable. He’s teaching me to live a life that’s interruptable. He challenges me to make this my prayer mantra:

Interrupt my life, God.

Because you see, it wasn’t about my story that I wanted to present in those conference sessions… it was about God’s story.

My story of my grandchild never crossed the finish line after my friend’s interruption, and I resented the interruption. I didn’t accomplish what I had intended. God’s story did cross the finish line in a race He asked me to run in South Africa. Because I allowed Him to interrupt my life, and because of His promises to me, I know He will accomplish what He intended.

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’   Isaiah 55:8-11