Never, ever turn round!
Updated: Feb 15, 2020
“Come on, Victor! You can do it!” With just 10 metres to the finish line, my heart sank as one of the marshals shouted encouragement. That could only mean one thing: that Victor, my nemesis, was tracking me to take me on the line. To say I was terror-stricken is no exaggeration. You may know that Victor and I have been battling it out since the Ormskirk ParkRun started nearly six years ago. To begin with I was victorious but then as Victor improved and I was slowed down by injuries, he has regularly been finishing in front of me, sometimes by a fair distance. (Incidentally, the ParkRun is not a race but a timed run over 5k, just over three miles, but Victor and I totally ignore this civilised convention.) However, in recent weeks it has been Victor’s turn to be slowed down by injuries and I have been finishing in front of him, i.e. beating him. And this Saturday I was hoping for a repeat performance as I overtook him at about 600m. However, the big problem when you are running is that you cannot see behind you. You have no idea where your competitors are – they could be falling back or just as likely in my case, tracking you. So when I heard the steward shout out his encouragement, I was tempted to turn round. However, it slows you down and may cause you to veer to one side. More importantly, it shows a psychological weakness. The classic example is from the Mile of the Century at the 1954 Empire Games, which Victor and I remember well and has now been made into a statue in Vancouver. This is when the Australian John Landy famously turned round and so failed to see Roger Bannister taking him on the other side. It’s worth watching.
Anyway, you will be pleased to hear that I didn’t turn around but instead put my everything into the final metres to cross the line without being overtaken. Only then did I turn round – to see no one. Victor was nowhere around. Only then did I realise that the steward thought that I was Victor. However (if I can use a canny word play) I was the Victor! At least this week. Never, ever turn round. That’s what Jesus taught as well. En route to Jerusalem he challenges those who would follow him: “Anyone who puts his hand to the plough and then looks behind him is useless for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) Of course, the context here is different. Here Jesus is talking about ploughing in the days before GPS. To plough a straight line means you have to be focused to a point ahead. To turn round will mean that you risk veering to one side. In other words we need to be future-focussed, where we are going rather than where we have been. The good news is that God’s plan for a glorious future fills us with hope; we can live in anticipation of the time when he will heal his creation, now – in the words of the apostle Paul – “in bondage to decay.” Both as individual Christians as well as the Church we need, of course, to be aware of our past and to treasure those traditions which encapsulate the Gospel. The challenge is that as Jesus calls us to follow, we refuse to look back and allow our past rather than God to determine our future. It may be that our past would haunt us, particularly during times of stress. We are tempted to relive past defeats and lose heart. I’ve always found Johnny Cash refreshingly honest. “The things that have always been important” he recalls, “to be a good man, to try to live my life the way God would have me, to turn it over to him that his will might be worked in my life, to do my work without looking back, to give it all I've got, and to take pride in my work as an honest performer.” In Christ, we are a new creation, no longer to be defined by our past, no need to look back. However, just as dangerous is to linger in a glorious past to avoid the present. I thank God that I never made it to become a “has-been.” In truth, I’m a “never quite made it,” which is so much safer. One of the saddest sermons I’ve heard was in a holiday church on the Norfolk coast from a Big Name preacher. On paper his sermon was fine. It was just that very clearly he had pulled it out of a drawer, from his spiritual heyday long-gone. Sadly you could see it was no longer his daily experience. The spiritual equivalent of an after-dinner speech from a bygone Wembley finalist, dining out on a past glory. No, we are to be single-minded: no looking back, no Lot’s wife here. “Past put behind us, for the future take us!” It can be quite scary, in fact – especially if you think Victor is on your heels. But as the apostle Paul puts it in this Sunday’s lectionary reading, so memorably translated by J B Phillips: “In my opinion whatever we may have to go through now is less than nothing compared with the magnificent future God has planned for us.” (Romans 8:18). No need then to turn around. We may face the future undaunted.