Guest Blogger: Pastor Dan Weber – A Sweaty, Muddy, & Pastel Picture of the Church
Pictures of the Church
The Church has been on my mind recently. One of the key images of the Church in Revelation is that of the Bride (Revelation 19:7). The beautiful Bride adorned for her Husband gives us a picture of who the Church is. I recently saw another picture of the Church that’s just as accurate, yet not quite as picturesque.
I saw a sweaty, muddy, and pastel picture of the Church. And it was beautiful. Along with several other King of Kings folks, and 200 or so new friends, I participated in a 50 kilometer (about 31 miles) run around Lake Cunningham. And through those 6+ hours, I saw a wonderful picture of what the Church is (or at least what she could and should be).
As runners, we were all competing on the same course. We went through the same obstacles, in the same conditions, in the same weather. And it was tough. But it was tough for all of us. And yet, we were each uniquely prepared to face the challenges. Some people trained well and had an easier time. Some hardly trained at all and struggled. But we all went through the same challenges.
As the Church, it’s the same thing. This life is tough. Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” So we all fight through this cross-bearing journey, and it’s tough on all of us. And yet, we all come with our unique backgrounds and baggage as we fight our way through.
Our race was three loops, a little more than 10 miles each. On my second loop, I got passed by 8 people finishing their third loop. I wasn’t alone. Those speedy fellows looped a great number of us. But here’s what was so wild about that: both the passer and the passee said to one another: “Great job! Good work! Looking strong! Keep it up!” Yes we were working hard and competing (and struggling…have I mentioned yet that it was a struggle?). But that didn’t keep us from encouraging each other.
As the Church, God has called us to be and has in fact declared us to be the very Body of Christ. We’re one body with many parts. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians, “Encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). When we see someone “running well” in this journey of faith, we can take a moment to lift them up. When we see someone stumbling along and really hurting, we can take a moment to lift them up.
Near mile 23, I found myself running with a group of two other people. None of us knew each other before this moment. Teri was in her mid-forties and the other guy (he ran off before we exchanged names) was in his late-fifties. All three of us were hurting. We were tired. We felt weak. We were thirsty. We didn’t know how we could go on. But the truly remarkable thign was this: we weren’t afraid to share any of those ideas with each other. Absolutely no hesitation. “Teri, how are you feeling back there?” “Dan, I hurt.” “[Guy whose name I never learned], you doing okay up there?” “Slow and steady, man, we’ll get through this.”
This is where I saw the clearest picture of what the Church should be. Too often, we churchy people put on a happy face. By the time we get out of our cars on Sunday morning, we feel this pressure to have it all together. When we’re sitting in the pews, we want our lives to look great. And this creates a monster that feeds itself, and we’re left with an Emperor’s New Cloths situation. What happens is this: I want to look good (even though I’m broken), but I see my neighbor who looks good (even though he’s really broken too), and his appearance of having it all together only feeds my compulsion to look like I have it all together and my façade reinforces his need to keep up appearances, when really we’re all broken!
Out on the trails, with caked mud on our shoes weighing us down, and sweat stinging our eyes, there’s simply no place for pretending.
I like to eat. I love to eat. I run in order to eat. And endurance running and trail races are famous for their banquet-like “aid stations.” They’ve got water, sports drink, nutella, M&Ms, PB&J, cola, mixed nuts, assorted candy, chili, you name it! And those snacks aren’t luxeries, they’re lifelines. You can’t run for six hours on that bowl of Cheerios you had for breakfast. You need nourishment on the the go.
As the Church, we need to be fed. Jesus says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). God’s Word feeds us and gives us the nourishment we need to keep going. And in an amazingly mysterious way, Jesus promises to feed us Himself. He says, “Take and eat, this is my body…Take and drink, this is my blood.” Lutheran Christians believe that in, with, and under the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is actually present giving us life and salvation. It’s no exaggeration to say that every trail runner has looked to that aidstation expecting, needing, and receiving the life and salvation they need to keep going strong.
Finishing is surreal. You train for so many weeks and months. The race itself goes for hours and hours. And at times (honestly, most of the time), it feels like it’ll never end. My GPS watch died after six hours during this last race. I believe it had me at 31 miles at that point. And from then on, I was running blind. I didn’t know how much further I had to go (not precisley, but I had been there before). I didn’t know my pace. I didn’t know my position. But Teri was still running with me, and inbetween pants and gasps she said, “Dan…we’ve…got…this…” And I said back, “We’ve…got…this…just…a…little…further…almost…there…”
And as we neared the finish line, the finishers’ shoot was lined with people. Crowds of people. I didn’t recognize any faces. I doubt I had seen any of them before (nor they me). But they were cheering their heads’ off! Some of them ran that day and finished just before me. Some finished hours before me. Some ran in previous races. But they were all cheering! Noboday said, “I beat you.” Nobody said, “He looks like he’s struggling.” Nobody said, “Doubt he’ll make it” or “It’s about time.” No. They were saying, “You go this! You’re almost there! You can do this!”
As the Church, we have been blessed by God with a host of saints who line the way to the finish line. Hebrews 12:1-2 says, “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 author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
As we run the course of faith, it’s easy to lose sight of the finish line and have no idea how much further it is or how we’ll ever get there. But we have each other to lean on and cheer us on. More than that, we have a great cloud of witnesses of saints who have gone before us. They’ve left us examples of faith and virtues. They’ve left us writings, hymns, prayers. They’ve passed the baton of faith to us and have given us the charge of passing it on to others.
And above all, we have Jesus. That word for “author” in Hebrews 12 means “trailblazer.” It means the one who goes first and makes away. In running terms, that’s the guy who goes into the woods first and takes all the spiderwebs in the face. Jesus did that. He took all the hurt and hardships upon himself so that we could run freely.
Just Keep Running…Together
If you’re running well, pause and cheer on a fellow runner. If you’re struggling to take the next step, take it anyway and keep moving forward. The race is won, the victory is ours through Christ. And you’re not alone. You’ve got the people of God behind you, in front of you, and right next to you. We’ll get there. Together. Through Christ.
A special thanks to the G.O.A.T.z (Greater Omaha Trail Runners http://www.irunwithgoats.org/) for such a beautiful image of what the people of God can aspire to. An image, in fact, of who God has called us to be.