“We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. ” – 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
Work. Labor. Endurance. That pretty much sums up a runner, skier, and cyclist. Elite training tip-toes the dangerous precipice of safety – emotionally, mentally, physically, and psychologically. One of my all-time favorite ‘proverbs’ given to me, which I recycle to any driven individual I come into contact with is this:
“Excellence can be obtained if you
care more than others think is wise,
risk more than others think is safe,
dream more than others think is practical,
expect more than others think is possible.”
My affinity for this saying lies in its revelation of the underlying truth forged in every aggressive pursuit of excellence – academic, athletic, or artistic: the requirement of a certain level of ‘insanity.’ An attitude which, quite frankly, is not going to be shared or understood by many.
Scales, slurs, and buzzing on my trumpet for hours on end, even as a 6th and 7th grader, much to the annoyance of my brothers in the rooms next door (but not, for whatever reason, for Jake, our golden retriever mut whom I guess showed the ‘ultimate loyalty’ by sitting at my feet as Max Schlossberg’s doctrine was firmly ingrained into the foundation of our souls together), was one of the first places I really felt the consequences of this statement.
You see, I think it is somewhat admirable and even easy for people to embrace the sentiment of this calling for excellence, but to actually go out, commit to it, and then feel the punishing blows of both success and failure, frustration and jubilee, is a bit of a different story. Trumpet will do that to you. For every brief moment of ecstasy felt as notes effortlessly float into the audience from your commanding perch in the orchestra, there are months of dull, often frustrating, repetition in an 8×8 foot room….piecing together the necessary skills, step by step, in order to make the slur from an open G to open E without stopping at C along the way (something the audience will not notice if all goes well but will most certainly stop and throw up in their programs if it does not) possible. In addition, for every moment your seat feels like said perch, there are bound to be moments where it feels like an island where the rest of the orchestra has voted to leave you on after your missed slur ruined the entire second movement which undoubtedly every single one of the 2.5 million second violins played flawlessly….Ok…enough bitter orchestra rant….you get the point..(I’m not actually bitter – just trying to humor my brass friends in the crowd).
Today, the pursuit of athletic dreams borders a dangerous cliff. On one side is most of the world, who views athletics as recreation – a hobby for the health. Something which is done in moderation. There are lots of nice grips and toe holds, and even a little wooden walking bridge with signs pointing out different fauna and squirrels which inhabit the mountain. The other side is a free fall awaiting those who still think, train, and pursue athletic endeavors with world-class intentions, despite an unfortunate lack of world-class skill, genes, monetary support, or all three. The signs on this side of the trail read:
Tomorrow I will be 28 years old. Despite the words of a former 3rd grade music student, who thought a poster of Ryan Hall winning the Olympic Trials Marathon was actually a photo of me, “Mr. S, you have to win,” I’m afraid I don’t have any lucrative contracts, podium finishes, or sweet medals. Though I did win a totally rad, carved, wooden black bear at my last XC race…
The amount I train and the gravity that I put into my workouts is not warranted by a paycheck. So…..why?
Why risk, why strive, why push?
Here is why:
Because pursuing the highest degree of excellence personally possible in a sport teaches and trains you to pursue the highest degree of excellence in more important arenas: being an employee, being a parent, being a husband or wife, and most importantly, a follower of Christ, one who will confidently stand before God one day and hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It is not about the sport. It is not about the horn. It never should be – those were just vehicles. Vehicles to hone my skills for higher callings.
The tools you gain from a driven, focused, and dedicated training program – psychological and physical skills and confidence, teamwork, goal setting, etc. – are universal, and they are what make a proper pursuit of any athletic goal for any person of any ability level noble and valuable.
However, for those who are extremely intense, balancing the fine line between using sport to teach you how to be a better “succeeder” in general and simply pursuing selfish gain and glory, is harrowing. I know I’ve caught myself before, late at night, visualizing a race or workout, and early in the morning, preparing for training session, and after truly self-analyzing my soul, realizing how sport had lost its proper place in the hierarchy of my heart. Perspective and priority are paramount for purposeful pursuit. I apologize for the people I’ve hurt in those moments….namely my wife, my parents, and also probably the rebound apparatus I wrecked after angrily chucking a worn out basketball at it from point blank range during a free throw session under 40mph winds, 145% humidity, mid-July Fargo weather.
My number one priority is to glorify God. As an athlete who has experienced some success, but more importantly, rubbed shoulders with people with FAR, FAR more accolades, I’ve realized one truth which is both incredibly liberating and terrifying: nothing lasts. No one remembers who won and what you did. It is crazy, but it is so true – the moment on the top of the podium is the highest summation of that accomplishment. Sure, you have memories. Sure you have relationships you made along the journey. Here is the thing, though – even those things…..they are not eternal. They do not have eternal meaning. And that is the only thing we should be after.
Matthew 16:26 says: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matthew 16:26). An athlete could almost say, “What good would it be for an athlete to win every race, every medal, and have every shoe contract, and yet lose their soul or miss out on the chance to use their pursuit to save other souls?”
We are called to something higher. Colossians says: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2).
Furthermore, 1 and 2 Peter talk about how the wealth of this world will burn, but as Christians we should desire gold that will be “refined” in the fire.
“That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” – 1 Peter 1:7
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” – 1 Peter 3:10
Revelation 3:18 says: “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, white garments so that you may be clothed and your shameful nakedness not exposed, and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.”
In other words, the medals, victories, records, shoe deals, and wealth will all be burned and lost. We won’t take any of that with us and it won’t help us when we have to stand before a Holy God and give an account.
He will look at us and see the work of Jesus’s death on the cross and allow us into His presence, or He will see the sin which we’ve all committed, and nothing to cover it, and that will be the end of that.
For those who are saved, I assume God will ask us to account for our actions – what did we do for His Kingdom and Glory in the millisecond portion of eternity we were given with our life on earth? Just as there are things we can do which ‘burn’ in the fire, the Bible talks of things which are ‘refined’ in the fire. Those things which bring glory to the only thing that deserves our full hearts, our full praise, and our full adoration – our Heavenly Father.
Going back to the verse mentioned at the beginning of this all: Paul talks about a “work” produced by faith. Faith in the truth of the gospel message – that as a Christian I’m not living for gain in this world. That I don’t serve the ideologies of this world, but the Creator and Ruler of all. That is enough to inspire me to work. To grind. Apply it to athletics, to work, to any of these things.
A “labor” prompted from love. What could that mean? What is inspiring me to labor – love. This is probably a sermon in and of itself, but we can at least start by saying a love for the people of this world and a desire to see them come to know Jesus. Again – applied to athletic pursuits, it is justification that it could be all worth it as long as that is the number one priority in the heart …not just to run a certain time.
Finally, “endurance,” inspired by hope. Anyone who has done some sort of an aerobic workout or race knows that there are times in the middle of a long effort where it is difficult to remain focused and positive. Everything screams to just stop To battle this urge, some turn to their favorite Cardi B song, but if you have any taste at all, you at least turn to Bach. Actually, even Bach can’t sustain endurance at the deepest and most important levels. An endurance that transcends the kind required in a century ride or the Tour de France (or just your 30 minute elliptical workout at AnyTime Fitness). Hope for a beer at the end of the race is not as powerful as the hope we have in Christ for eternity’s sake.
For some, beer, Cardi B, and Bach can get them through the tough moments, the trials, and the pain which are inevitable in an endurance challenge. But for the tough moments, the scrapes, the falls, the trials, the loss – which life will throw at you, you need something a little more powerful, I suppose. Thanks be to God for the hope He alone can give.
So, if the pursuit of an athletic goal brings me directly into contact with a person in need of the gospel message – even one person – then every weekly, monthly and yearly training cycle, every injury-rehab program, every goal-setting session, and every “-10 degree Fargo, ND” 12 mile run was worth it.
If, however, the skills I hone in the pursuit only serve to make me a better disciple because I always attack my study of the scriptures with more discipline than my training run, the defense of the gospel with more effort than a marathon race, and am willing to sacrifice and risk more for the spreading of the Truth of the Bible than I am to travel and pay for an entry fee for a competition, than it was all worth it, too. If it is done for the gold in Revelation 3:18 and not the gold routinely draped around Usain Bolt’s neck – than it is worth it.
So, for all of you ‘hobby joggers’ out there. For all of you Master Blasters who push yourself every bit as hard as the people on the podium. For everyone who still is a pro-athlete at heart and intends on giving that up when they fly off a cliff on rollerskis at age 95 training for their 50th Birken (I guess I’ve thought too specifically about certain goals in my life, including the longevity of my career and how I see it playing out..sorry for the gruesomeness)…..
Keep grinding. But make sure you know why.