My oldest son, Benjamin Smith, has always been a fiery competitor. I have no idea where he gets it. The summer before he went into sixth grade, we moved to a new house which meant a new school district. So, entering sixth grade, Ben went to a new school. Anxious for him to acclimate, I suggested he go out for one of the fall sports. After giving it a few days, he came home and announced that he was trying out for the cross country team. I was flabbergasted. I had assumed it would be soccer. Cross country? My first thought was perhaps they had a motor-cross sport at the school. Surely, MY son couldn’t mean long distance running! I had never seen him run farther than around a baseball diamond. After trying to clarify the term, Ben assured me that he understood what was involved. So, I told him that he would have to run two miles to prove his intentions. One of the things I always held sacred in my house was that a commitment matters and what you start, you finish. The implication was to ‘count the cost’ before putting your ‘hand to the plow’ lest, as Luke 9:62 tells us, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
After proving himself in a timed trial and, at my insistence, taking a few more days to consider the commitment, Ben made up his mind that he was going to run cross country. Being a long distance runner myself, I was thrilled to hear it and anxious to share my experiences with him. I was home when the car pool pulled up in the driveway and dropped Ben off after his first practice. Apparently, the distance between the car door and the front door of the house, was more than Ben could handle after his first day of practice. Now, I’m a dramatist and so I understand the nature of being theatrical. This performance was Oscar-worthy. As he dragged himself towards the steps, I looked down upon his slight, sixth-grade frame and said, “So….how did it go?” Apparently, that it was the cue to unleash his inner Brad Pitt. The short monologue went something like, “I can’t do it”; Please don’t make me go back.”; “I threw up four times.”; “I’ll wash the dishes after every meal, I promise.” Now, like every parent, I hate to say “I told you so”. But, like every parent, I did. None of that mattered however as I reminded him about our agreement and then told him he would definitely be going back to practice…the next day and the next day and the day after that. The following days saw less and less drama at the front door until it appeared that we had weathered the first storm in his junior high sports career. But there would be more storms to follow!
Actually, that very weekend, Hurricane Isabella ripped through the AtlanticCoast region. It was one of the costliest and deadliest storms of the 2003 hurricane season. Schools were cancelled for the week as most areas were without electrical service. Many locations were hit with heavy property damage. During that week, I encouraged Ben to run every day. Having survived the first week of practice however, he apparently thought he was in in great running shape. The next week he was out of school with a viral infection, a rarity for him as he didn’t get sick often. The following Tuesday, after fighting through congestion, coughing, and runny nose for one week and then sitting around eating Ho-Hos and Doritos for another week, he found himself in his first cross country competition.
If I learned anything about running during my forty-plus years of running, it’s this: “You pay now or you pay later, but every pays!” I told Ben that he needed to run every day if he wanted to run competitively. It was the only way to improve. But, it was during that year that I had apparently become a member of S.P.O.T. S.P.O.T stands for “Stupid Parent of Teenager”. (There’s no joining fee. Your kids just sign you up and you’re in!) So, as I watched Ben line up as close to the starting line as he could get that day of his first cross country race, I knew that I was about to experience my son’s first great failure; a total and cataclysmic descent into fiasco; a shooting star that momentarily shines brightly and then flames out and dissolves within mere seconds of coming into our worldly view. Oh this was going to be an epic and colossal collapse! There was a part of me that wanted to pull him out of the race before the meet so he could save face (or maybe that I could save face), but the truth is that every great education is through the School of Hard Knocks. And so I winced just a little as the starter’s gun went off.
Now at this point in the story, there are a few things that must be mentioned: Ben was only in sixth grade and this was a junior high meet; the event was being held at his old school and many of the kids on the other team were friends or acquaintances; Several of my friends from church to include neighbors and my pastor and his wife showed up to cheer Ben on in his first race. In other words, the stakes were high.
Ben shot out with the lead pack and ran near the front as he raced past the 200-yard marker. Everything went into slow motion and the feeling was almost surreal for me. It almost felt like I was at a movie theatre watching a film version of what was happening but laden with special effects treatments ala “The Matrix”. I remember yelling something like, “Slow Down.” “You’re going to die!” “Pace yourself.” (I have the gift of encouragement.) Then, in the blink of an eye, the lead pack was gone into the woods as they would run most of the race out of site, running through a wooded lot before returning to finish the last lap around the soccer field and back to the finish line at the school.
I had the inspiration, or perhaps premonition, to count the number of runners in the race when they stood on the start line. Oddly enough, they raced boys and girls together that day. There were 42 participants. As they came out of the woods I thought it wise to start counting: 1…5….oh, there’s the first girl to emerge in the race…10…cheers from another corner of the field told me that the lead runners were beginning to cross the finish line…15…20…the kids that were coming out of the woods now were walking until they hit site of a coach…or parent…then they picked up the pace….25…it’s getting late…30…Most of the girls were out of the woods now…35…I think they started the awards presentation…39…maybe I should go in there…Finally, from across the field comes the shape of…a cat? Was that a small animal? Oh, it’s a child on all fours…I ran across the field until I verified that Ben was crawling out of the woods on his hands and knees. Had it not been so pathetic, it would have been funny. But, he was obviously hurting and I didn’t want to add insult to injury. At the same time, it was time to learn a life lesson. I stood over Ben and said the words that any other father would have said to his first born son in that situation: “GET UP”
One of my favorite children’s songs is “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. You know the song about the spider that crawls up the drain pipe only to get washed back down by the rain. But that doesn’t stop the spider, does it? No m’am. He starts back up the spout all over again. One of my favorite Christian songs was written by Kyle Matthews. It’s called “We Fall Down.” The chorus is quite simple but profound: “We fall down; we get up. We fall down; we get up. We fall down; we get up. And the saints are just the sinners who fall down and get up.” Even if it is just a metaphor; it’s a good one…life is a race. You can even think of it as that ‘human race’. At some point you will fall down. Everyone does. The secret to finishing the race is learning how to get back up and start running again. Here’s what the Bible has to say about the “prize”:
1 1 Corinthians 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
2 1 Corinthians 9:27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
3 Philippians 3:14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
None of those verses make the claim that the prize goes to the person who finishes the race first. I believe it goes to the person who finishes the race set before them. So, when my son told me that he couldn’t make it to the finish line, I simply replied that he could and he would…one step at a time. And so I helped him up and despite the protests and tears, we took a few steps together. When he felt like he had enough strength to carry on, I let him go and he went on to finish the race…later that night, alone and without an audience to cheer his great victory. Make no mistake. It was a victory. I’ve been happier for him, but I don’t remember a time when I was prouder.
There is a story of a loving father in the Bible who waits and watches for his prodigal son to come through the tree line after his wreckless choices in life have taken him far from home. When the boy appears, he’s hardly recognizable; a mere shadow of his former self. He’s beaten down and defeated; weakened and ashamed of his position, but unable to change it; dazed and unsure how the father will receive him. But as soon as the father recognizes the son, he does the most amazing thing: THE FATHER RUNS….
 “We Fall Down”, written by Kyle Matthews, 1996 BMG Songs, Inc.