Of the many memorable moments of this Olympic games, the story of a sprinter from South Africa by the name of Oscar Pistorius caught my attention. He made it to the semifinals of his individual event – the 400 Meter run. He came in dead last in his heat. It wasn’t even close, the distance between him and the 7th runner in the event, not to mention the first place finisher. Yet, you saw him running as hard and as fast as he could throughout the entire race. It would have been so easy for him, seeing all the runners way, way ahead, to throw in the towel. His Olympic dream, to make it to the finals, obviously dashed.
What makes his story amazing is the fact that Oscar has no legs below the knee. Born without the fibula in both his legs, he is the first double amputee to run in the Olympics. Though you can draw a thousand examples from his life’s story, what was inspiring to me was the fact that he never stopped running in his individual event, even though it was clear he would finish dead last. So too, with the 4 by 400 race. The team also came it dead last. With two huge excuses to throw in the towel, he did the exact opposite. He strove with every ounce of his energy.
Today’s first reading tells of a testing moment in the life of Elijah. Unlike Oscar Pistorius, Elijah has just completed two HUGELY successful victories – the ending of a 7 year drought in Israel, and the defeat of the prophets of Baal in a high noon kind of show down. God had showed he was God in obvious and incontrovertible ways. Yet, hunted down by the authorities, driven into the desert, his faith falters. “Let me die. It’s too much, this struggle always to be your voice. It’s too much to be your prophet.” I’m throwing in the towel.
I think we have all known that moment of struggle. “God, I’m doing everything right. Everything by the book. I’m speaking out in the market place. I’m on-board with the fortnight for freedom. I’m standing up against the death penalty. And yet my life at home is a shambles. My daughter doesn’t go to church any more. My son has some friends who are leading him down the wrong path. Where has all this ‘goodness gotten me? Why do I bother trying? Can’t I just throw in the towel?”
Or maybe it is that pesky habit of gossip that gets us at the workplace. Everybody is talking about the new boss, the new employee, the rookie intern. And there, around the water cooler, I can either have nothing to say or throw in the towel to taking the higher road by joining in…
Perhaps it is the lonely nights when you are missing your spouse who passed away, or the job that was outsourced with no prospect on the horizon. And like Elijah, you wonder – wouldn’t it be better if I just threw in the towel?
How do to keep on keeping on? Sometimes it is something huge that keeps us going, like the thought of competing in the Olympics that kept Oscar Pistorius’ prosthetic blades pounding the pavement,. But most of the time, isn’t it just the simple choice to do the NEXT thing before us. We don’t have to live our faith all in one moment or one decision – we just do the next thing before us. When a college student I know was struggling, the best advice someone gave her was to “just breathe.” “I can do that. I may not be able to do much else. But I can do that.” That was enough to get her ‘unstuck.’ It was Elijah’s choice to eat the food provided by the angel that gave him the strength to complete his journey. And I believe it is OUR choices to walk with God even when God seems distant, that will sustain us.
Ready to throw in the towel? Elijah was. Jesus could have been in today’s gospel – as people start murmuring. Instead, he does the next thing – “Let me tell you about the bread which sustains. Let me tell you about my Father and his care. We’ll figure out next steps after that. In the mean time, we’ll just do what is before us.” The good news – we don’t have to do it all at every moment in our walk of faith. Just the next thing. Just the next step. Just one thing that keeps our life hoping and trusting and believing, even when it is difficult. And then, like Oscar Pistorius, we know that the race is always worth the running, all the way to the very end.