Running the race already won
Sporting insights into faith and purpose in the church
By Robin Barden
“Is this your first race?” I asked the stranger standing next to me as we waited to pick up our registration pack for the Cambridge Half Marathon.
“No, I’ve done a few. I brought this one as a Christmas present for my brother and said I’d do it with him as an encouragement. Only thing is he’s been training every day and now I’m going to have a job keeping up with him!”
And there you have it – running in microcosm. I also started because my brother invited me to run my first race 12 years ago. Since then, I have also ‘done a few’ but some things have remained the same. The easy conversation with other runners about past races. Family, and friends brought in kicking and screaming who now ‘train every day’. Family, friends, and volunteers without whom no one gets to the finish line. If you have ever stood on the side of a marathon and encouraged the runners by clapping or calling out their name, you have been part of this. Each race finished is testimony to a community of people far beyond the individual.
"If you have ever stood on the side of a marathon and encouraged the runners
by clapping or calling out their name, you have been part of this."
Of course, there are endorphins for the runners, but I have also felt these as a supporter. For some there are times to beat, but there is also huge respect (perhaps even a little more so) for completing your first race, racing for others, or pushing through whatever life has thrown at you. And no one does this on their own. Running is a solitary activity undertaken by the community. In this sense running is like a church. It is always at every moment the focal point of many individual stories incorporated within the whole. For runners it is the individual stories, which speak of hope, doubt, pain and elation, that are caught up in the larger story of the race. Similarly, it is the individual stories of believers that are, together, caught up in the Grand Narrative of the Christian community, where they find fulfilment.
Running isn’t unique in its ability to provide analogies for Christians to draw on. But if we are to imagine our faith in a way that shines through the common experiences of daily life, then perhaps it is wise to draw our analogies from those lived experiences which already have some power to poke through the dark clouds that gather in our time, however fleetingly.
"If running can provide insight into the mysteries of the church
as a community, it can also shine light on its purposes."
If running can provide insight into the mysteries of the church as a community, it can also shine light on its purposes. The purpose of running can seem obvious, even more so when it is ‘to run a race’. But once we get past the initial responses variously articulating a desire ‘to do one’s best’, we find motivations that struggle in their depth to be expressed, even and perhaps even the more so, by experienced racers.
Yet it is these motivations that keep people coming back, that keep people moving forward even when things don’t go to plan. These are the motivations that speak of a deeper purpose that may be unarticulated or unknown, yet is so full of hope that it cannot be denied. In this respect, the running community reminds us of biblical communities that were enthusiastically assured yet inherently naïve; a community constantly striving towards a goal while agonisingly facing its limitations. A community of ‘believers’ struggling to live a purpose that, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, is always experienced in the final chapters as surprisingly joyful.
However, if we are to push into this analogy further, we are forced to accept that, as with running, so in the church one person’s success can be another person’s disappointment. One person’s joy can be another person’s nightmare. Unlike running, however, faith within the church is not based on the strength of the human spirit or the endurance of the human body and, therefore, does not fail when the human spirit and the human body shows itself to be less than we hoped for.
Faith within the church is rooted in a truth that is beyond us yet has been undoubtably revealed as inexplicably Good. To keep faith within a race is to aim to finish. But it is also to come to terms with not being the winner and recognising other motivations and other ways to participate. To keep faith within the church is to aim for the Good that we seek while coming to terms with the truth that this is not a goal which you or I can ever ‘win’ for ourselves. Curiously, it is to understand that this is a goal that has already been accomplished. A race that has already been won.
"To keep faith within the church is to understand that this is a goal that has
already been accomplished. A race that has already been won."
This realisation does not shortcut our need to enter the race, nor does it rescue us from the highs and lows of racing itself. Instead, it reveals that just as the joy of running is found in the shared experience of overcoming – whatever this means for the individual – so it is for the church. But while the joy experienced in ‘finishing’ a race is fleeting, the joy of participating in the race already won is everlasting.
Robin Barden is Director of Innovation at Ridley Hall, responsible for leading on areas of innovation that utilise technology to enhance Ridley's offer in line with its strategic priorities. Initial projects include the development of Ridley Online to improve access onto existing courses and an innovative, autonomous, fully online offer for sports ministers as part of a national initiative to promote evangelism and discipleship through sport and well-being, the Ridley Award in Sports Ministry and Mission.
Outside of his work at Ridley, Robin has supported the setting up of a number of small charities within the ministry and social care sector and is currently chair of trustees for TheMovement, an innovative project that provides women facing multiple disadvantage access to trauma informed exercise.
In his spare time, he enjoys most things fitness (particularly callisthenics). Robin completed his first 5km (obstacle) race in 2013. Since then he has completed a number of half, full and ultra marathons including to the summit of Mount Snowden, along the route of Hadrian's Wall, the 56km version of the UTMB race (Mount Blanc) and is currently preparing for a 1000-mile run along the length of Britain in 2023.