John Stephen Arkwari, a marathon runner from Tanzania, headed to Mexico City in 1968, with hopes of doing well in the marathon. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a gold, silver, or bronze medal that year, but came in last.
When Arkwari finished the race, the winner had already been crowned, and the ceremony had ended about an hour earlier.Despite his speed, earlier in the race Arkwari had fallen badly, cutting his knee and dislocating the joint. But rather than stop running, he finished the race.
The remaining reporters watching him enter the stadium applauded, and later it was written, “today we have seen a young African runner who symbolizes the best in the human spirit. A performance that gives true dignity to sport . . . a performance that gives meaning to courage.”
When asked why he did not quit, Arkwari’s statement reflected the human spirit when he said softly, “My country did not send me 9,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 9,000 miles to finish the race.”
Saint Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:24, asks: “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win.” The prize is heaven; but the prize does not just go to the gold-medal winner. The prize goes to those who finish the race well, but refuse to quit.
The season of Lent for Christians gives us the chance to apply Arkwari’s sentiments to our lives, thinking about the fact that God did not send us to earth to start a race, but rather he sent us to earth to run the race to its completion.
Much like Arkwari, on the race that is life we will stumble and fall. This is called sin. We have days where we live life well and are running at a sprint; and other days where we make bad decisions or fall into old habits and just give up. Other times, we find that running is just too difficult.
The challenge for the Christian is to remember that the journey to heaven is not a sprint, but a marathon, and finishing it takes work. Faith requires a response, and Lent gives us a chance to remind ourselves that the race is worth running.
Traditionally, Catholics have looked at the season as a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This does not, however, mean we say an extra “Hail Mary,” refrain from food, and throw a few extra dollars into the plate on Sunday.
Prayer is a way we communicate with God. But as life goes on, sometimes we forget to pick up the phone. There is community prayer at church, but most of us don’t say “I love you” to a spouse or loved one even once a week.
Such is the case with prayer. I encourage people to make time each day for prayer, to find a time that works. But we also need to find the prayer that suits us best, and the technique. For some a traditional prayer might be what they like, such as the rosary for a Catholic; others prefer to pray with Scripture or make time for spiritual reading; others pray from the heart. In terms of technique, some like to pray with others, while others pray alone.
Christian spirituality is a like a vast iceberg the traditional prayers may be what people know best, but there are many ways to talk to God. What better time than Lent to ask ourselves the question, “Am I talking to God and, more importantly, letting Him talk to me?”
Fasting is something people may associate with food. In the Catholic church, we have two days of fasting for adults aged 18 to 59, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; but these do not mean no meals. Rather, they are days we have one full meal and two small meals with no snacking. We also abstain from meat on Lenten Fridays.
These practices date back centuries and are public acts of sacrifice we do as a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice. The fasting of Lent can entail fasting from things that we don’t need and using that time and energy for things that make us better. For instance, take someone who gives up candy. The point isn’t to stockpile a stash of Twix bars for Easter, but to cut down on sweets and be a better steward of the body God gave them.
Giving something up by fasting from it should have a benefit. If someone gives up video games, sweets, or a favorite TV show, they want to use the time for something productive, like spiritual reading, or giving of that time to help out in the household or at a charity.
Almsgiving has a long tradition in Christianity, where we help the less fortunate. Lent gives us a chance to look at our stewardship, but this isn’t just about money. Almsgiving with respect to Lent means we can look at how we spend not just our money, but our time and talent.
If we’ve been spending a lot of time outside of the family, maybe we could use Lent to re-connect to the people who live under our roof. Or maybe we are good at sending Christmas cards and texting, but never see family and friends enough because we are just “too busy.” Make time during Lent to take someone out to dinner or to call people you keep meaning to get together with. Or, consider giving time helping at your church or a charity.
We can unlock our talents by looking at what God gave us; maybe we never thought about teaching Sunday school, or coaching a Little League team, or being on a committee. There are many ways we can give back to God.
Though I haven’t run in a marathon, I have jogged on many trails and at gyms. I’m not too fast, and just jog at a steady pace. I know my limits, and I know that if I sprint early on while jogging, I’ll have no energy left to run the race. A steady pace gets me to where I want to go.
In faith, sometimes a person has a moment when they find God and the faith is on fire in their hearts. They accept God, start going to church, and resolve to turn over a new leaf but then fall into bad habits again or find that there are better things to do on Sunday mornings, or go through tough moments in life where they give up on God.
Running a marathon is a grueling thing, but most marathoners are spurred on with will, spirit, other runners, people cheering on the sidelines, and water to give them hydration to make it to the end. Christians believe God has given us grace, and to quote another runner, Eric Liddell, the British marathoner who later became a missionary to China where he lost his life, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
Indeed, God made us all for a purpose, and for Christians, Lent gives us the perfect time to ask the question: What it is we are running for the fleeting glory in this world, or the true glory awaiting us in the next?