Rockbridge Academy Blog
When I was in 9th grade, I puzzled over the final lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF”: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With 60 seconds worth of distance run / Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, / And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Running for a minute can’t literally make you mature. But as I am in my fifth year of coaching middle school cross country, I’m realizing that those lines hold a lot of truth. Coaching cross country has been a metaphor for many spiritual lessons God has been shaping in my life.
As you might expect, cross-country shows me the power of courage and perseverance. Students don’t have to be star athletes to join our middle school team. They only have to be willing to work. Drastic improvement is a frequent occurrence on the middle school team. Runners who nearly melted after warm-up in August are running two miles with no trouble by November. A friend reminded me that our college had a T-shirt that said, “Come as you are, leave different.” I would say this is true of cross country. It’s not just showing up that causes you to change, though; it’s the hard work you put in day after day. All are welcome, but be warned—you WILL see improvements if you work.
This is just the obvious lesson, though. It’s the other lessons that I least expected and that I love most. For example, cross-country has taught me to not fear discomfort. It’s pouring rain? So what. We’re running. It’s hot outside? So what. We’re running. You can’t feel your fingers? Don’t worry. They’ll warm up while running. It sounds miserable, right? But somehow, choosing to take on the challenge lets us see we don’t have to be afraid of what life may throw at us. So much of our culture’s mindset is focused on making life comfortable. But choosing to be uncomfortable—choosing to put myself in pain in order to train for the worthy goal of winning a race—shows me how much I miss when I avoid discomfort at all costs.
By not being scared of a few aches and annoyances, I’ve experienced so much more of God’s good earth than I would have otherwise. The fun of leaping over (and in) puddles in the pouring rain. The fall sunset that cuts through the trees with its warmth. The force of the wind that almost blows me over as I stand on the sidelines, cheering on runners as they tear against the wind towards the finish. I would have missed all these memories had I been huddled by my heater instead. And I would have missed these chances to glorify and enjoy God, who made this earth and gave me the life and health to delight in it.
I don’t enjoy the cross country season alone, though, and cross country has taught me the power of a team. Cross country is not a contact sport. But cross country is, nonetheless, a team sport. It would be nearly impossible to train as hard, run as far, and have as much fun as we do during the cross country season if we didn’t have each other: coaches, runners, and parents. We set goals for each other and hold each other accountable for meeting our times. We sing songs for each other and run alongside each other when we are tired. We bring Gatorade and cookies to celebrate races, and we make posters to cheer on our big brothers and sisters on the varsity team. At the end of practice, we huddle together, sweaty and smelly, literally laying our hands on each other, and pray for each other.
We walk through much of life alone, and in cross country no one can run your race for you. But it’s the teammates—who run with you when you’re tired, give an encouraging word when you’re down, and get you a Gatorade when you’re sick after a race—who make it possible to press on. Thankfully, this kind of love doesn’t stay contained to the cross country field. I have made friendships with students, parents, colleagues, and church families, and I know I can lean on them even after the championship race has been run and awards have been given. I hope they know they can lean on me too.
The author of Hebrews, like Kipling, saw running as a metaphor for life: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” He saw that this race was not a solitary event; the runner is surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” My cross country runners have witnessed to me about the power of perseverance, the joy that can come amidst suffering, and the tremendous effect the love of a team can have on a person’s attitude about life.
At Rockbridge we confess together that the primary purpose of life is to glorify God. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul instructs the believers: “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” As a Rockbridge athlete, the goal remains the same, we strive to glorify the Lord through our sport! As we aim for this high objective we will look, act, talk, and think differently than the world. People will notice. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes about Christians being the aroma of Christ:
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.
Rockbridge athletes have a different aroma because of their commitment to the team, because of the unity among teammates and coaches and because their identity is found in Christ. Imagine another team driving onto the Rockbridge campus and crinkling their noses as they sniff a few times asking one another, “Do you smell that?’ ‘What is that?’ ‘It’s different!’ ‘It smells like...Jesus!” As a result, fellow Christians will be encouraged by our conduct while non-believers will be repulsed, frightened, or confused. This opens the opportunity to share “the hope that is in you . . . with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
The Rockbridge athlete will start to smell different because he is fully invested in his team. Commitment is a virtue that is severely lacking in society. People are afraid to commit; many can only half-heartedly commit, or commit only to back out later. The Rockbridge athlete is expected to fully commit to her team for the entire season. That means buying into the coach’s program. Athletes should not question the coaches every time something goes wrong. Athletes should complete the season whether it is fun or not, victorious or not, going as planned or not.
My college wrestling coach said he measured his success as a coach by how many of his former wrestlers were committed to their wives and avoided divorce. At the beginning of each wrestler’s college career, my coach lays out the expectations and asks the wrestler to verbally agree to devote himself to the team for the next 4 years. This method has taught his teams many valuable lessons. Commitment does not change based on feelings; life will be difficult and it requires sacrifice but it is worth it! “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up,” as Paul said to the Galatians (6:9). Commitment should not be taken up lightly, but once a person commits, he should stick to it. In one of his parables, Jesus said:
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’ (Luke 14:28-30).
The Rockbridge athlete will wear the fragrance of Christ by uniting with their teammates and coaches. This is where personal glory quickly fades in importance because the overall success of the team is more satisfying.
The Rockbridge athlete will wear the fragrance of Christ by uniting with their teammates and coaches. This is where personal glory quickly fades in importance because the overall success of the team is more satisfying. Every member of a team has a role to play and every role is vital. In this way, our teams should also help athletes prepare to be good and faithful church members. Paul compares the church to a human body, and we can use that same metaphor for a sports team. Paul writes, “there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Corinthians 12:20-22). The lead scorer, the backup player, and the manager are all working to make the team successful and through their efforts bring glory to God.
Paul continues this metaphor in verse 26, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” I was blessed to witness that verse lived out as a member of my college wrestling team. First is an example of suffering together. In my sophomore year, two of my teammates, Matt and Mike, were both among the top wrestlers in the nation, but they were in the same weight class. That meant that only one could be the starter and wrestle for our team in the conference championships. In wrestling, the starters are decided by a wrestle-off, a match between the teammates where the winner gets the starting position. Matt and Mike had wrestled each other before and they had each beaten each other at different times. I was in the room for the wrestle-off, and it was a tight, well-fought match. Mike was able to pull out a narrow victory. He had just earned his starting spot, but there was no celebration. The room was silent and downcast as everyone on the team--maybe most of all Mike--was hurting along with Matt, his teammate, whose season and hopes of becoming an All-American were now over. A united team suffers together.
We also rejoiced together. During my senior year, I was one of two wrestlers on the team that qualified for the national tournament. In college wrestling, there are ten starting spots and we had about thirty guys total on the team. There were a lot of good wrestlers on the team. A handful of my teammates had even beaten me in matches before, but now their season was over, and I was where they wanted to be. I never felt any tinge of jealousy or resentment from my teammates but instead overwhelming support and pride. There was a large caravan that all traveled from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to attend the national tournament and cheer us on like crazy, so much so that wrestlers from other teams commented on how loud and enthusiastic our cheering section was. A united team rejoices together.
A Rockbridge athlete will surely have the aroma of Christ when she knows, believes, and trusts that her identity is in the person and work of Christ. This allows the athlete to stop worrying about winning and losing. Rockbridge athletes are able to stay calm when the referee makes a bad call or the other team is not playing fair, and to not fall into despair from a season-ending injury. None of those situations change our value because who we are in Christ is secure no matter what. Galatians 2:20 tells us our identity: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
A Rockbridge athlete will surely have the aroma of Christ when she knows, believes, and trusts that her identity is in the person and work of Christ. This allows the athlete to stop worrying about winning and losing.
Embracing this truth as an athlete was such a relief to me. No matter what happened during a competition, the Lord still looked upon me as his adopted and loved son. God doesn’t think of you less when you lose and does not think of you more when you win. My response was to give my best effort and to praise God for the opportunity. I am not saying that Rockbridge athletes should not care about the results of a competition. The Bible encourages the pursuit of excellence. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). I am saying that as Christians, we are not defined by the results of a competition. Feel free to work as hard as you can, take risks, and go for gold. You will fail at times but it won’t break you. It just provides an opening to give God more glory.
This distinction of being in union with Christ takes precedence over any other identifying factor. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) This line of thought can be extended to our Rockbridge teams. There is neither varsity nor middle school, neither soccer nor cross country, neither athletes nor spectators, for Rockbridge is one in Christ Jesus.
When Rockbridge athletes are committed, unified, and secure in their identity they will bring glory to the God who gave them the ability to play their sport. We will know we are achieving that goal when the aroma of Christ starts to permeate the campus. Students, parents, and coaches should all be able to smell that a Rockbridge athlete is around, and not only because they have not showered yet.
Tim Stewart is our new Athletics Coordinator and Discover Summer Director. Tim works with athletic teams and coaches, scheduling and coordinating all practices and games as well as overseeing our athletic program. He graduated from Messiah College with a BA Health and Exercise Science.