“Thou shalt not use running illustrations in thy sermons.” This commandment is non-negotiable in my sermon preparation.
I know that Isaiah 40 offers wonderful words of encouragement that “those who wait for the Lord … shall run and not be weary.” The saints in Corinth are encouraged to run the race so that they may win it. And the writer of Hebrews 12 tells the Christians who are being persecuted to “run with perseverance the race that is set before you.”
Yet even with all of the biblical illustrations about running, the admonition against using running illustrations in preaching still holds true for me.
This truth came to a stark reality while I was running the Grandfather Mountain Marathon one year in Boone, N.C. Early in the race a young man ran up beside me and began a conversation. As it turns out, he was a student at a Bible college in Florida, and was planning to preach only his second sermon the following morning in South Carolina. He told me about his plans to use an extended illustration about marathon running in the sermon. Although he did not ask my advice I offered it anyway.
“Most people cannot relate to running a marathon. Relatively speaking, few people run 26.2 miles. But everyone’s eaten out at a restaurant or stood in line at the grocery store. Make the gospel relevant to most of the people in the pews, and they will find it fits their life better.”
Had my mind not been occupied with running up a mountain road, I would have added other words of advice. Marathon running illustrations almost always turn out to be about the speaker, not the audience. Don’t take me wrong, I am in favor of personal vulnerability and autobiographical material in sermons. But a preacher cannot say the words, “When I ran the marathon in Arkansas,” without it sounding like bragging. And people do not listen well to self-congratulatory preachers.
Since this isn’t a sermon, however, I will admit that running marathons has taught me some lessons that make a connection with my walk with Christ. (Don’t take it as bragging.)
1. Running a marathon is not about the race itself, but about the daily preparation that makes you able to run the race.
Before running 26 miles, a person must be able to run five, and 10, and 20 miles. Preparation for a marathon typically takes months of running five or six days a week. It means shuffling schedules and making priorities.
In the same way, our daily attention to God’s presence in our lives sustains us for the perseverance we need as Christians. Daily prayer and devotion, biblical study and constant kindness to our neighbors transform us over time. Spiritual fitness comes not in an instant, but with commitment.
2. Some things worth doing well require great effort.
A running partner from my seminary days would finish a run by saying, “It feels good to have run.” This confession reveals something about how difficult it is to get out the door each morning wearing a pair of running shoes. It is difficult at times to look forward to a hard interval training run around the track or a slow 20-miler through town.
Just like it is hard for the teenager or the family with small children to get up on Sunday morning for Bible study and worship. But determination can overcome our lack of motivation when the goal in mind is worth the work.
We all sincerely desire to find a deeper relationship with God, to teach our children faith, to witness and work for good in our world. These goals do not come without some stress and strain. But they are worth achieving even if the way is difficult at times.
3. Failing at a task does not mean you are a failure.
Almost every marathon runner has a story about the race that bombed. Even professional runners post a DNF (did not finish) at times. Those of us who run without corporate sponsorship have finished slower than we expected; or failed to qualify for that elusive Boston Marathon; or came down with the flu after 18 weeks of hard training and did not run the race at all. But failing at a race does not mean you are a failure.
Of the 35,000 runners at the Chicago Marathon this fall, only about 50 will actually be running to win, and only about 10 have a real chance of winning it. The rest are not losers. Somehow, that is easier to see in a marathon than in life.
Many church members who have lost jobs, marriages or reputation in the community are tempted to see themselves as failures. Good Christian theology helps undergird our sense that success and popularity are not the place where we find our value as human beings. It begins with being created in the image of God, and continues by acknowledging that “Christ chose us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Ephesians 1).
Other marathon runners can tell other stories; more lessons to be learned about our journey of faith, and the journey on the road to a marathon finish.
In the end, running marathons can reinforce some substantive Christian truths about a life-long journey with God. So tell them over a cup of coffee at dinner time. Just don’t use them in your sermons.
Jeffrey D. Vickery is co-pastor of Cullowhee Baptist Church in Cullowhee, N.C.