Why coming last doesn't matter
Tomorrow I achieve a major milestone, or more precisely a major kilometre-stone: it’s my 150thParkRun. Sadly I am not awarded with a special vest, like the red one for 50 and the black one for 100. Even so I am expected to bring cake so that my fellow runners may celebrate my feat, or is it feet? For the record, Victor my nemesis has clocked up 221 – which takes the shine off my achievement. But that’s life. When you manage to achieve a long-sought goal, often there is a sense of “Is that it?” There was an excellent article some weeks back in the New York Times by regular columnist, David Brooks: Five Lies Our Culture Tells. He argues that these five lies have undermined our culture leaving us solitary and vulnerable.
A fascinating read. Lie #1 is Career success is fulfilling. Brooks argues: “If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.” In fact, this applies to all so-called success. In the unlikely event that I should ever beat Victor, I know from past experience, there is another Victor waiting in the wings. When we finally make it, we find we haven’t. A good friend became a Christian when he had experienced his life-goals: he had made it in his profession, he had a stunning girlfriend whom he married and best of all, some top-of-the range sports car (it was red, I recall). But all he experienced was a strange anti-climax. “Is that it?” he reflected. And his reflections led him to place his trust in Christ, our true fulfilment. Lie #2 is I can make myself happy. "This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.” Our search for happiness is strangely elusive. For as C. S. Lewis observed: “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” This is where this worldview clashes most directly with the Christian mindset. For Jesus teaches the very opposite. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25). As ever, it’s our choice, my decision. Lie #3: Life is an individual journey. “Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.” This is the watchword of the millennials – avoid commitment at any cost. One friend, whose ministry is focussed on this age group of young adults, told me that for them even signing up for that Sunday’s car park duty was often a commitment too far. This is so much part of our Western culture, our mental operating system, that we don’t even see this. Blame René Descartes who gave us “I think, therefore I am.” Instead the Kenyan John Mbiti is nearer to the New Testament understanding of our corporate identity: “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.” Here the church, the fellowship of Jesus’ disciples, is to be a living testimony to the reality of the triune God, a God of relationship. Together we are the body of Christ and together we are more, much more, the sum of our individual parts. This means commitment if we are to travel together, even if it does mean tying ourselves down for one hour next Sunday. Lie #4 is more theological: You have to find your own truth. “This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions!” Here it all depends on whether Jesus was raised from death to life or not. If he has been raised, then everything else about him and his teaching follows. The Christian faith rests or falls on this objective event. You simply cannot say that in my world the body of Jesus should have decomposed in the tomb. For the apostle Paul the cross and resurrection of Jesus is of “first importance.” (1 Corinthians 15:3), an event which communicates the truth about God. “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) And the final lie: Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.“The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you.” Since the Ormskirk ParkRun started five years ago, the standard has plummeted – which is great news. It’s great news because like the church, everyone is welcomed irrespective of their running ability. There is no prize for coming first: the prize is given for participation. When I speak to those turning up for their first run, their main fear is coming last. I explain that they could crawl around and still not come last and if they did, so what? For as Christians – as well as ParkRunners – we need to demonstrate to an uber-competitive and hyper-individualistic world the counter-cultural teaching of Jesus. “But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Mark 10:31).