We all need to be pushed
Each Tuesday at Ormskirk's Park pool Sarah tries to drown me. I now know her technique. To begin with she aims to tire me out through making me swim four lengths front-crawl. Already I am exhausted. Then a whole series of exercises, each with my facility to swim severely curtailed. The only thing which keeps me alive is the embarrassment of drowning before the other members of my class. Then I discovered that my fellow swimmer, Martin - who, incidentally, I lap during our weekly Saturday morning ParkRun - had volunteered to transfer to the top group. So he now begins each session not with four but with eight lengths of breath-gasping front crawl. His choice. Intrigued, I asked him why. Martin patiently explained that he knew he needed to be pushed hard, to be made to do things which he himself would actually avoid. He used a particular word. That's what swimming coaches do. At this point may I welcome to my Friday blog my old running coach, J W D Walker, who has played such an important part in my life. For about four years during my late teenage years Joe personally supervised my daily training sessions with Waterloo Harriers as I aspired to be a good 800m runner. He could have just sent me training routines for me to follow in my own time, meeting up at regular intervals to discuss my progress. However, when you are talking about eight repetitions of 400m with two minutes recovery, your coach needs to be there to keep you at it. Otherwise there is no way would you run the final three repetitions in under 65 seconds. You think you are going to die. Just like Sarah, Joe would make me do it. Tough love. Joe emigrated to Texas in 1966, just as my relentless training was beginning to deliver results. Apart from one visit and the occasional conversation I had lost touch with him. But this last week the Lent daily email from Stewardship encouraged me to email Joe and thank him for fostering my love of running. And more, his invaluable nurture of self-discipline and resilience. I was delighted to receive a prompt response. "Wonderful news! I am so glad to hear from you dear Ross! In two weeks I will be 81 and starting my 82nd year." He concluded: "As you know I never married, but devoted to God. I am now living in Las Vegas in Nevada, living a quiet life." For we all need a coach. As disciples of Jesus we are frequently faced with the temptation to slow down or even drop out. The apostle Paul as well as the writer to the Hebrews both used the metaphor of athletics to encourage the early Christians to keep at it despite everything. The passage from Hebrews is worth quoting at length. "Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. "Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. "And now he’s there, in the place of honour, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he ploughed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!" (Hebrews 11:1-3 Message translation.) We need to encourage each other - and more, to seek out those who would commit themselves to support us. I know Bishop Paul insists that his clergy each has a spiritual director, someone we can be accountable to. We each need a coach, just like Joe or Sarah, to make sure we stick at it despite everything and more, to attempt what we would consider beyond us. The pressure may be on but God promises that we will never be pushed beyond our limit, however strong the temptation to give in. "No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13) But again like a good coach we need the encouragement to know when to rest up. Joe made sure that I would never train the day before a race, to resist the temptation to do one final session before the big day. As there are times when we need to be challenged, there are times when we need to chill out without feeling guilty. This is what Jesus did with his disciples when he would take them away to a quiet place for their refreshment. "Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, 'Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.'” (Mark 6:31) "All coaching," according to American football coach Bill McCartney, "is taking a player where he can't take himself." And that is true for every disciple of Jesus. With his support, the indwelling Holy Spirit who guides and encourages us, we will surprise even ourselves. Looking back I can thank God for all those disciples who coached me in the greatest race of all, who took time out to counsel and to challenge me to do things in Christ's name I had thought beyond me. Not always easy at the time, as I experience every Tuesday evening with Sarah. If I'm honest, there is no alternative if I'm going to be a good swimmer.