Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Knowing When to Quit

Some people are good at quitting, sometimes even too good.  Others, well, we just don't know when to quit.  We can be very determined.  Sometimes that is a good thing, such as when pure determination and hard work got me through college, in four years, 6 credits short of a double major, despite everything that life had thrown my way in those four years.  Other times it's not such a good thing, such as the time when my determination not to get a DNF or DQ on my final swim race (100m breast stroke) even though I'd had a massive asthma attack half way through, meant that I passed out, in the pool, as soon as I had finished the race. It also meant today that I spent about 45 minutes sitting on the locker room floor at the pool, fighting against passing out (for the record, I won).
As I pondered my tendencies to extreme determination (some of my friends have another word for it), it got me thinking about life and faith. The Bible has a fair bit to say about extreme determination or perseverance. Let's take a look.
In 2 Timothy 4:6-8 we read about having fought the good fight and finished the race. From my experience with swim racing, the only way to finish a race is to have extreme determination.  Sometimes the finish line seems miles away, especially if you are about 4 years old and only just able to make it from one end of the pool to the other, swimming freestyle.  When you are that four year old (I wasn't, just assisted in the coaching of some of them. The youngest swimmer I ever coached is now 13 and entering 7th grade.  Most days I choose not to think about that), the only thing that is between you and that DNF or DQ is your extreme determination to finish (and maybe your coaches yelling at you to not dare to touch the wall or they'd step on your fingers, but coaches would never do such a thing).  When you're swimming a distance race and the water as well as the air around it is freezing cold (snow on a meet day is rare, but not unheard of), it takes extreme determination and dedication (and a fair bit of craziness) to even get into the pool, much less finish the race.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 we read that all run the race, but only one gets the prize. I was never one of the "good" swimmers.  The only way I could garner any points for my team was if there were less than 7 swimmers in the event, which is why I ended up swimming distance races (no one likes the distance races, but I never minded them).  The week after the meet everyone would collect their "ribbons", which were really paper cards, a different color for each of the top 7 places.  Some got a lot of cards, others, didn't get any (or if they were really little they got a purple card, just for participating), but we all trained.  3 days a week we were at the pool, rain or shine, cold or hot for practice. Some even more often than that (some summers I pretty much lived at the pool).  But every summer, at the end of the year, at that one meet that really mattered, the one where medals and trophies were handed out, there were only so many to hand out. A very few swimmers took the majority of them home (These were the "good" swimmers), but come next season, all of us were back in the pool, working again, training hard.  We didn't train aimlessly, but trained with a purpose in mind: more speed.  After weeks of not ever taking a ribbon home, after summers of never getting a medal, it takes extreme determination to come back, summer after summer after summer to try again, to train with that same goal in mind: more speed.
In Hebrews 12:1-3 we read about the cloud of witnesses surrounding us, encouraging us to finish the race.  If you've ever been to a Saturday morning rec league outdoor meet, you've got an idea of what it looks like to have a cloud of witnesses encouraging you.  There are people everywhere.  Some of them are parents who really don't understand the fascination we have with plunging ourselves into freezing cold water at 7:30 in the morning and then waiting a couple hours and doing it again.  Others are parents who do get it and wish they could still do it.  Either way, they are there with one purpose: support.  Support for their swimmer(s) and support for their team.  The sit around the pool, often in miserable conditions (it's usually either dangerously hot, ridiculously cold, or raining), for hours (starting at 7:30am, often running into mid afternoon), to offer support.  Some of the support comes in the form of helping with marshaling (getting the right swimmers in the right lanes, swimming the right strokes, at the right time), sometimes it's timing (running those exceedingly complicated stopwatches, watching extremely close for the swimmer in their lane to touch in and writing down times with utmost care, knowing that a disputed time will give everyone grief over a tenth of a second), sometimes it's running (getting cards from swimmers to timers in 25m events, getting cards from timers to scoring, making sure everyone has water, finding relief timers), sometimes it's scoring (interpreting those hand written scores and entering them into the computer (we're all technological now), printing and posting results pages and dealing with parents and coaches who are upset about a DQ given), but mostly, it's just cheering and being there for their swimmer(s). When you're the swimmer, you know what that "cloud of witnesses" feels like.  As you take your position, things are as silent as an outdoor meet ever gets.  The marshals are still calling names, the anxious swimmers in the next heat are still chattering, but you don't hear any of that.  Your auditory nerves are tuned to the voice of the starter "Swimmers! take your marks!  Get set!  GO!"  You never hear that go.  It's drown out by the starters pistol (or now, a lame whistle blast).  You leave the comfort of the pool deck (or starting block if you're at a fancy-schmancy pool), all forgotten except your goal: finish the race in as short as time as possible without DQing. As your head breaks the surface of the pool half way down (if you're a big kid, closer to the starting line if you're little) you hear the roar.  If you're luck you pick out one voice and listen for it every time your head breaks the surface (if you're not having an asthma attack, you do have to breath.  Funny how that works).  Voices roar at you "PULL!  PULL!  KICK!  Stop looking at the others and swim! PULL!  Finish strong!  PULL! GO! GO!  GO!" And then, almost as soon as it started, it's over and the spectators fall silent again as the next heat takes their place.
And as far as throwing off everything that hinders and following the course set out for us, yeah, swimmers know about that too.  We wiggle into the tiniest swimsuits possible (which are much easier to put on than take off), we put our hair under caps to reduce any drag, goggles are the minimal possible to keep chlorine out of our eyes and allow us to see the black line (course marked out for us!), and if you're a good swimmer who stands a chance at breaking a record, all body hair that isn't covered by suit or cap is removed.  We might train in different attire (think opposite), but when push comes to shove, when a few tenths of a second can make a difference, nothing is allowed to hinder.
Now none of these New Testament writers was talking about a swim race or even a foot race, they were talking about faith.  About pushing on for what what is right even when it's hard, even when it seems impossible or foolish.  They were talking about the extreme determination that it takes to be a Christian in this often hostile, and always sinful world, about how to keep following hard after Christ even though we are still sinners.  We have to train hard.  We have to accept encouragement from the cloud of witnesses surrounding us and we have to have extreme determination.  Sometimes it's easy, other times, it's brutal. And, getting a DNF would be much more tragic than getting a DNF at finals in the race where you actually stand a chance to earn your team those points that just might put them in the running for best team overall.
As far as the rest of life goes, I'm not sure the same extreme determination applies as it does to faith.  I think sometimes you do have to quit.  Our bodies are not our own if we belong to Christ.  1 Corinthians 6: 19-20 lays it out for us, as does the first question and answer of the Heidelberg when they say that we are not our own but belong body and soul, in life and in death, unto our faithful savior Jesus Christ, who bought us with a price.  When we abuse our bodies, we are abusing someone else's property, and well, really unpleasant stuff happens.    But quitting also isn't doing service to our Creator and Savior.  Imagine if someone gave you a really fast, really good car and told you to care for it and use it well and you responded by leaving it in the garage?  The giver would be pretty ticked that they gave you the car and then you never used it.  They'd be just as ticked if you abused the car and wrecked it through careless driving and lack of maintenance. I think we have to find that healthy medium between quitting and extreme determination.
And sometimes, that means listening to our bodies when our extreme determination takes over our sensibilities and getting out of the pool before you start to get light-headed, dizzy and have tunnel vision. :)


Angela said...

I think you have your sermon written already... :)
Wonderful thoughts, thanks for sharing! xo

Joy said...

now that I look back over this, I think I might be able to make three or four sermons out of this...one for each passage :)