When I was a freshman in high school I joined the track team and signed up to run the two-mile. I chose that event for one reason: I figured the distance would scare away most of the competition. And I was right. While the lanes teemed with racers jostling for position in the 220, 440 and even the one-mile, the two-mile event usually attracted only five or six runners per meet at most. No one in their right mind wanted to race eight grueling laps.
When the crack of the start gun echoed across the empty stands that first race, I immediately fell into position two steps behind the lead runner. Our Nikes tossed up specks of gravel and white lane dust as I matched her stride step-for-step for the first lap. The second lap. The third and fourth laps. We lengthened the gap between us and the other three gasping runners. I could hear my competitor’s breath grow more and more labored as we rounded the final bend of the fifth lap. She hunched forward, her gait choppy and stumbling as she tired.
I felt fine. I wasn’t winded a bit. My legs moved fluidly as I focused my gaze on the runner’s shoes in front of me. But I stayed put in second place, always two steps behind the struggling leader.
I could see Coach Julie flailing wildly on the far side of the track. She moved her arms in wide circles, gesticulating toward the finish line. I knew she wanted me to pass the leader.
My dad bellowed from the stands, “Go, Shelly! Pick up the pace! Move! Move!”
Still, I stayed in my spot.
Finally, on the eighth lap, with barely 150 yards to go, I passed the leader on the final turn. I blew by her in a sprint and crossed the finish line the winner, barely out of breath.
Later, my coach congratulated me on my first win. “Great job, Michelle, you looked really strong out there…but you could have passed her a lot earlier. You hung back. Next time I want you to take a risk.”
Twenty-seven years have passed since that race. And I still often make the very same mistake: I hang back in the place I know, in my comfort zone, unwilling to take a big step forward and afraid to take a risk.
Yet when I look back at my faith walk so far, I realize that the times I’ve stepped forward out of my comfort zone, despite my fears and anxieties, have paid off big. Many of the challenges I’ve resisted the most vehemently have turned out to be major turning points in my faith:
Meeting with my pastor one-on-one to admit my deep-seated doubts and skepticism; purchasing my first Bible; enrolling in an adult education class to study the New Testament; joining a small group; volunteering to serve dinner at the local soup kitchen; presenting my testimony to an audience of more than 500 at my church; launching a faith blog; doing a live interview on a Christian radio station; broaching the subject of faith with work colleagues; attending my first Christian conference – these have been among the most fruitful and rewarding experiences in my faith journey…and they’ve also been among the most challenging and terrifying.
I know it’s important to sit back in a comfortable place from time to time. These resting periods allow us to dig deeper into our relationship with God and to grow quietly and contemplatively in our faith. But I also suspect that God doesn’t like us to get too comfortable. One doesn’t have to study the Gospels for very long to realize that they aren’t about living a comfortable, risk-free faith. The lives of the disciples and the early Christians attest to the just the opposite, in fact .
The truth is, living out the Gospels isn’t supposed to be easy. And God doesn’t expect me to breeze through the whole race in a comfortable place.
“You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally. I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26, The Message)