Things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. Life hurts. Our best laid plans rarely come to fruition.
These are realities that I was thinking about last night as Lisa and I shared a wonderfully encouraging evening with a long-time friend who’s been in our lives since our college days. In fact, this friend and I would often sit in the college dining hall, with each other and sometimes our extended group, sharing conversation that reflected the fact that at the time it seemed as though we didn’t have a care in the world. Life was rather easy and we would dream out loud together, creating scripts for where we thought God would take us and what we thought the future held.
A few years ago, I remember telling my friend that with a bit of life under our belts already, very little of what we had imagined back in our college days had come to pass. We both agreed. . . God had a different script. It was a script we would have chosen to avoid, but God had bigger plans. His script included all kinds of physical, relational, and emotional difficulties/pains that actually served to force growth that would have never occurred if we had been allowed to work out our own scripts. God’s grand and good script includes difficulty. In other words, the health and wealth gospel isn’t even close to what the true Gospel really is. Two of the books that we read back in those days that have come to mind were John White’s The Fight and The Race. These helpful books on discipleship capture the reality of life in Christ in their titles. Life is a difficult and grueling fight/race.
One of the richest metaphors for this reality is playing itself out this month over in France. The Tour de France is by far the most grueling event in sport. Riders ride 21 stages over the course of 23 days, covering roughly 2,200 miles. The course includes exhausting climbs, harrowing descents, rides over cobblestones, and some crazy weather (wind and rain). I’ve been watching this race for several years and every new day brings increased amazement and respect for what these guys do and the complex strategies they employ. As the wheels begin to turn on the Tour’s first day, no rider knows how the scripts they’ve written for themselves and their teams will play out over the course of the Tour’s life.
Just yesterday, the USA’s Andrew Talansky of the Garmin-Sharp team became the story of Stage 11. Several gruesome crashes in prior stages had taken a toll on Talansky and he hit a wall, dropping almost a half hour behind all the other racers as his body and mind began to fail. At one point, he pulled over and sat on the side of the road. His coaches were shown encouraging him to continue. Talansky got back up and rode on to the finish by himself. French TV kept the cameras on Talansky so that the world could watch this courageous showing play out as he finished the stage in pain. This morning, Talansky bowed out of the race.
That’s just one of the many, many stories that make up each year’s Tour de France. And once again, as I’ve watched I’ve been reminded of what life in this broken and world is like, what those of us who have been blessed to be adopted into God’s family will face, and how we are to live each minute of our lives. Those metaphorical lessons apply not only to our lives, but to our ministries as well. Here are just a few of my thoughts as they’ve come to me in individual words. . .
Preparation. Riders train for years for this race. Each minute of preparation is an investment in the future in order to be sustained as the race unfolds. As followers of Jesus, we engage in the spiritual disciplines to fill our wells with that which will carry us through the ups and downs of life. During The Tour, riders carefully scout the route ahead so that they might know what’s coming. Wise Christians do the same, surveying the cultural landscape so that they are not surprised or caught off guard by what the day ahead may hold.
Teamwork. Contrary to what many people think, The Tour de France is not a race between 198 individual riders. Rather, it is a team race, with each member of the team exercising their unique cycling gifts and abilities to benefit the team. . . sprinters, climbers, etc. It’s a beautiful lesson in teamwork that unfolds during the race. . . and the church could learn much from how everyone works together for the greater good. Even the hundreds of thousands of fans who line the roads during each stage serve as a great “cloud of witnesses,” spurring the riders on with cheers, pats on the back, and a push from time to time.
Sacrifice. God calls us to live humble lives of sacrifice. In the Tour, there are scores of world-class cyclists whose names will rarely or never be heard by viewers as the race unfolds. But they are the guys who pull, lead, push, and encourage other teammates. . . only to drop back after doing their jobs. . . sacrificing themselves (losing their cycling lives, perhaps) for the sake of the greater mission.
Perseverance. In Philippians 3 the Apostle Paul speaks of “pressing on” to the goal. . . straining toward what is ahead. . . the prize of eternal glory. Yesterday, we saw that on Andrew Talansky’s face. In fact, every day you see that determination on the face of every rider. Keep pushing.
Difficulties. Anyone who rides a road bike knows how alert you must remain. Riding in the Peloton in close/tight formation is harrowing with elbows and shoulders flying as riders jockey for position. There are lengthy mountain climbs at grades up to almost 11%. There is weather. Roads get slick and slippery. The descents are steep and dangerous. The cobblestones require concentration and expertise. Winds can sometimes push riders from behind, but more often than not they hit riders head on or push them from side to side. With fans literally on the course, riders are oftentimes hindered by spectators getting too close while taking selfies or trying to offer encouragement.
Casualties. This year’s race began with 198 riders. Since that first day, 21 riders have dropped out. Several who have withdrawn are some of cycling’s biggest names and Tour de France favorites. There have been many crashes over the course of the first 11 stages. Life and ministry is filled with casualties. Weariness and the need for rest increase with each day of our lives. The Scriptures say that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. Sometimes we forget that “the race” and “the fight” are actually going on. We shouldn’t be surprised by the casualties. But we must care for ourselves and be cared for so that we might avoid becoming casualties ourselves.
Teamwork, sacrifice, perseverance, difficulties, and casualties. The script I had written for my life and ministry was far too simple and naive. Yes, there was teamwork in my script. But all those other things? Not a part of anything I dreamed or imagined. But what I’ve realized over time is that while life is difficult and complex, God is in control. That’s not a cliché. That’s a blessed reality. And so,we race and fight with joy and hope!