Spartathlon 2016 (David Niblack)

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For the long distance runner, the Spartathlon is a kind of Matterhorn. It has the ingredients of an epic: a finish line that stretches a long, long way from the start; 153 miles, almost six consecutive marathons. There is a big mountain at the 100 mile mark, a big city at the start, a big cold night in the middle, and a big percentage of runners who don’t make it. The race has international prestige and gathers runners from all corners of the world. To top it off, the course claims a remarkable history. According to Herodotus, in 490 B.C the Athenian runner Philippides left Athens and arrived in Sparta the next day. His legendary run was for the purpose of asking the Spartans for help against the invading Persians before the conflict that would lead to the battle of Marathon. It was a run to save democracy, a run to save the foundations of Western culture.

My entry into running was unexpected. The Chicago Marathon course paralleled my college campus and gave me the idea to give it a try. Previously, I thought runners were weird, always talking about their “training” and seeming to enjoy going out and running 20 miles – not normal!

I reluctantly signed up for the marathon and finished seven minutes away from the Boston qualifying time. That tempted me to try to qualify– how cool to be able to run THE Boston Marathon. It took me two more marathons to qualify. By that time, I was starting to enjoy (most of the time) training and the excitement of marathon day. A few years later, an Economist article introduced me to the Spartathlon and left me laughing – “There is always another level of crazy!” Hearing of the impossible training regimens combined with the fact that many of these world-class ultra-distance runners gave up midway evoked a sense of awe at the race.

I live in view of the Mont Blanc in Geneva, Switzerland (where I teach the New Testament at a small Protestant school). Early this year, my friend – who would become my brother-in-law— and I had tried to sign up for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (the UTMB) for summer of 2016 – as a “huge challenging experience”. Unknowingly, my friend was not qualified, so we didn’t make the selection. That led me to look around for something else and I ended up putting my name in for the Spartathlon drawing, not really expecting to make the American team. I was selected and after some soul-searching and hesitation (Am I really going to pay that much money to run that far on the pavement in that heat?!) that awe I had for the race won me over. I signed up.

My schedule and injuries trimmed down my grandiose training plans. I taught for two weeks at our Dakar, Senegal extension campus, which gave me an opportunity to run in humid, hot West African weather. Running 250 kilometers through a bustling African city in two weeks is an experience: weaving between massive trucks stuck in traffic, getting lost through the maze of footpaths in a fishing village, and running alongside the windswept beach passing horses, sheep, and mopeds.

Unfortunately the experience came with an injury. While running on the angled camber of the beach I pulled a groin muscle. I nearly panicked reading the online forums about such an injury – “6 to 8 weeks recovery and if you push too fast, you can injure yourself for the long-term.” I held out a week without running. After feeling better enough to run, I discovered that while it felt uncomfortable, after a long warm up it didn’t really bother me. I tried to “catch up” and hit 130 miles over the next seven days– my highest mileage week ever. But overall things were uneven.  Many other weeks I was lucky if I hit 60.

The training goals of other American team members, as well as goals in a variety of race reports, scared me. Nine out of 20 original American runners had finished in 2015 and put the pressure on for 2016. Andrei, the USA Team leader, was frank; we can do better than last year and runners better take this race seriously. I had the least experience of any of the runners – and I had only experience on one 100 miler course. My last 100 miler finish was back in 2014, well over two years ago. I had never DNF’ed a race but knew that the Spartathlon was a strong candidate for a first-time experience in not finishing. The fact that my training has not gone as well as hoped and that I could still feel my adductor complain when I ran didn’t reassure me.

One blessing to the trip was that my brother-in-law Sam and my sister Amy agreed to come out from Chicago and crew for me.  It was a good excuse for a visit and they came first to Geneva. Unfortunately, Sam had broken his foot while summiting Mt. Lyell in Yosemite and he was just getting out of the soft cast. He had to limp around Switzerland, but had a great attitude.  

We arrived in Athens on Wednesday, glad for the two hours flight from Geneva. Getting the rental car took longer than expected and we went out for a Greek dinner overlooking the Parthenon. It was warm and felt like a California summer.

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The view from the restaurant Wednesday evening

It was fun meeting the other runners. I’ve never been in a group of such high-caliber running talent. Chatting with them increased my sense of privilege just to participate in the race, but also increased my apprehension at how I would do. Talking to them, I felt like the 100 miler was the new 5k — small potatoes. It wasn’t interesting to share which races you had run, but which 100 milers you had won and which races you directed.  Runners had stories of 24 hour races (how many miles you could go in 24 hours). But that was pretty small scale. More interesting were the stories from 48 hour races and 72 hour races. I casually asked Pam, one of the woman on the US team, “And have you run Western States?” (The Boston Marathon of trail races).  “Oh, she won Western States,” Bob Hern clarified for me. What an achievement!

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The American Team, with crews

The day of the race, I woke up early to see my roommate Paul – also on the American team- lubing his feet next to me (a special, handmade sauce that he kindly shared). Between ultra marathons and marathons, he had finished 180 races and gave the concept of “race experience” a new meaning. We got our gear on and went down at 5 am for a quick breakfast. I kept it pretty simple, a piece of bread, some Greek yogurt and a coffee (with Starbucks Via poured to make it taste decent). While driving on the bus, I made a last minute decision to change to my USA shirt. It was a little baggy, but I figured it would be neat for others to see what country I was from.

I was worried about finding Sam and Amy at the start, which is at the base of the Acropolis. As the bus pulled in and we unloaded, I waded into the general pre-race fray of runners. I followed the crowd up to the start, on a stone esplanade beneath the Acropolis and easily found Sam and Amy. We took some photos with the US team, wished our best to the other runners, and gathered in a clump waiting for the gunshot. The moment was surreal – I was here. I felt a tightness inside, wondering how long I would last. I stopped, prayed, and remembered how grateful I was to be here. Looking around, everyone looked so fresh, so eager.

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Right before the race, with my amazing crew team!

The shot went off. As a pack we jostled forward, stepping gingerly over the (very minimal) cobblestones. I was surprised to see so many with packs, some guys had big Camelbaks shaking, swinging, and rattling with every step. We quickly descended in the fray of Athens starting to wake up and get to work. At moments it was peaceful, at other moments, we had a surround-sound chorus of honking, scooter whines, and cheering.

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The race starts!

Bob Hearn’s race report was the best thing I’d read on pacing strategy. This year, he had sent around a spreadsheet that laid out time estimates for each aid station based on an overall time goal. I figured I would keep with the overall general advice I had heard: start slow and aim to hit Corinth around 8:30 hours or so. For me, that meant starting around a nine minute mile pace with time for walking hills.

The human body – at least mine – is general pretty fussy while running. The smallest rock can make the feet hurt, pre-warm up stiffness quickly turns to post-warm up soreness. With lots of runners whizzing by me and the excitement of the race pulling me forward, I kept telling myself to slow down. “This is a 100 mile race with a really long warm up to the start line” I said. “Don’t get serious until well into the real race.”

As we moved through the city, I felt relatively good. The beginning of races are always hard for me. It takes me about eight miles to warm up, especially at marathon pace, and the massive amount of distance ahead of me intimidates. This was nicer since I was able to start slower – in fact, constantly telling myself to slow down! However, the distance was very intimidating.

Spectators, while relatively few, were exuberant and friendly. Plump, older women walking down the sidewalk hauling their shopping strollers would stop, wave, and shout “Bravo!” with a smile.

At a number of intersections you could see a growing line of cars we were blocking. Some honked and I wondered if they were “cheer honks” or “mad honks”. As we hit one of the big intersections, it was clear it was not a cheer honk. As the horn wailed on, the policeman holding back the cars gave quite an eye roll and an exasperated Don Knotts expression.

It felt like it took a long time to get to the first aid station, but after that they started ticking by. I was running among a spread out group and didn’t feel like I was at the very back of the pack, which meant it didn’t occur to me to look at the cut-off times indicated at each checkpoint.

The aid stations were fun. Usually they consisted of a small table with a spread of local items surrounded by cheerful, energetic volunteers. My nutrition strategy was pretty simple: “Eat what you find at the aid stations that looks good.” It was fun how much of the food seemed Greek and I enjoyed munching on raisins, sesame bars (which I had not had before) and yoghurt with honey.  Someone once described an ultra-race as an “eating contest with a little running thrown in.” Maybe a better description for the Spartathlon would be an “eating contest with a lot of running thrown in.” In any case, a variety of food makes the eating contest more interesting.

I was looking at my pace and noticed (if my newly purchased refurbished Garmin Fenix 2 was working right) I was around an 8:45 minute mile. I was aiming for 9:00, so not too bad.

Around this time I caught up to Bob Hern. He was wisely walking some of the rolling hills. I joined him for a tiny bit as people ran past us. He looked like he was having a good strong start.

The aid stations are one of the remarkable things about the Spartathlon. There are 74 of them, run by volunteers. One effect of having so many is that I usually didn’t stay with the same people too long.  If we were together while running, we usually got separated at the stations.

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Running along the coast before Corinth

As I started approaching the marathon mark, I could feel my hamstrings start to quiver. The feeling is hard to describe – a weird, tremor-like feeling deep down below my quad that says “Whoa!- Fragile!” when I land. It didn’t really hurt, but didn’t reassure me.

The sun had been out for several hours and while I was not sweating heavily, I could tell I was getting warm. Most of the aid stations had ice, so at the next station, I tried putting some in my hat. The first time, the ice felt so cold it gave me an sharp headache – brain freeze from the outside? – so I tossed it out. I figured it would be good to get more salt and checked my pocket. The salt pill I had stashed there had long ago disintegrated since I couldn’t find a plastic sandwich bag in which to store it.   

As I came up on the marathon mark, I saw my crew for the first time; Sam and Amy cheering and waving. Sam’s tall blond head was easy to spot from a distance. I hoped they had had time to go back to the hotel and grab breakfast.

“What do you want?” they hollered. “Salt pills!” I yelled.  They laughed – “Ah! That’s the one thing we left in the car!”  No problem – they handed me one of the Swiss “salty bars” and a cold Gatorade with ice. Ahhh, the cold Gatorade was wonderful. I stayed a minute or two before hitting the road again.

The miles ticked by. It was fun to see kids out cheering. “Kalimera!” I shouted and waved. “Kalimera!  Kalimera!” smiling faces cheered back. Hearing them made me think, “I studied Koine Greek for two years in seminary. But the vocabulary of ancient epistles and contemporary greetings has little overlap. It’s hardly doing any good here!”

I was using Sam’s ultra-hat, which already had some war stories to tell striding atop his head. The bill was permanently warped and the edges a bit frayed, but it fit well and the white color worked in the heat. It was getting hotter so I tried the ice again. This time I happened to grab a really big chunk and kept bumping it around inside the hat to change positions – with the bent bill and ice lump, what style!

We continued running along the coast. The deep, aqua water of the Mediterranean rippled with gentle waves to our left. I noticed that everything seemed to have a yellowish tint, just like in the photos I had seen before of the Spartathlon. It gave everything a retro, 1970s feel.

Then it happened – the classic cramp. It was like I had a rope inside my leg and someone gave the order to cinch it tight with a truck winch. It stalled me into a crouch; I simply couldn’t move. I had seen it many times happen to others, often in the last two miles of a marathon. A runner woefully bent over, clutching at a leg, probably watching his PR bleed away. I always felt sorry for them. Now, as runners trickled past me, I was that guy!  What to do? I tried to extend my leg but the pain grew, threatening worse.  After a moment, I grabbed the ice from my hat and as hard as I could rubbed it along the muscle. It worked magic. The winch man released. I gingerly stretched it out; no re-cramping. I started running again and things felt relatively normal.

The next aid station had salt – a big pile in a Styrofoam bowl. I took a pinch straight – yuck! As I continued to run, things held up. But my leg felt weak and shaky, like it was going to go at any moment. It added a stress.

I made my way past the famous oil refinery – a maze of pipes, smoke billows, and tanks. The shadow from the smoke coming out of the towers had an unearthly look to it as it danced on the pavement.

We could finally see Corinth in front of us. It was a city I was familiar with, at least from reading various books about the background of the New Testament. But this was my first visit; arriving on foot, like the majority of people in the ancient world (though, doubtful they were running with big squishy running shoes!) We came to the isthmus, a seven kilometer land bridge which connects the Peloponnese peninsula with the mainland of Greece. A canal cuts through it, providing passage for ships. The runners cross a bridge that allows a view into the canal. Looking down made me think, “No wonder it took into the 1800s to finish this project!” It was deep. The project had been started by the Roman Emperor Tiberius, continued by Nero, and even though Nero has 7,000 slaves on the project, they made little more than a dent. It was finally finished with modern excavating technology in 1893. The narrow gorge plunged nearly straight down, with a ribbon of blue water, straight as an arrow, at the bottom.

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Aid station stop – Gatorade, salty bars, whatever else looks good

After Corinth, while running slightly uphill along a highway, the cramp returned. Same feeling; same frozen position. This time the ice didn’t work. I tried stretching and ended up able to hobble a bit. One woman – I think on the British team- stopped to see if I was ok. I wasn’t sure what to say, but said, “Yes, I’m fine, just a cramp!”  Fortunately, it let up and I was able to return to a slow run.

The route wound around and eventually left the busy roads – a relief from noisy traffic. I found myself on country roads, winding through olive groves. I felt tired, hot, and my legs kept getting heavier. I continued to downshift further into “plod mode”.  A few runners passed me and I tried to stay steady. This was one of my low-points. Thinking about the mileage, I realized I was not even at halfway. I was tired and could feel I was slowing down. How would this continue?

This is one of the remarkable things about endurance running. Not only do “second winds” exist, so do third, fourth, and fifth winds.  Bleak stretches often don’t stay bleak (There is a life principal here!). The sun started to sink into the horizon and I hit another big aid station. Sam and Amy cheered me on. I ate some soup and fruit, stocked up on salt pills and washed it all down with cold Gatorade. Thirty minutes later I was feeling much better. The air was cooler and I felt recharged.

The sun was setting as I was running along a quiet road that wound up through hills nestled with olive groves. The light dancing in the trees was beautiful. I felt alive.

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Leaving Ancient Corinth as the late afternoon sun starts to sink into the sky

It got dark as the road starting going uphill. At the next crewed aid station, Sam and Amy told me that Phil, on the American team, was not far ahead of me. Although I had not trained intentionally a lot on hills the six weeks before the race, I did have an advantage of living in Geneva: the Alps. I had done several trail races this summer and between training and races had put in a handful of days of over 9,000 positive feet of climbing. I felt good going uphill, slow, but steady and comfortable. I passed Phil at one of the aid stations and wondered when I would see him again.

Finally, at kilometer 160, I came to the mountain base. In reality, it felt less imposing that it had seemed in the race reports and the photos. We left the road and scrambling up the goat path, I felt like I was back in the mountains, something I was more familiar with. I passed a few people going up. My Adidas Boost shoes were not trail shoes, but have pretty good soles and slippage was minimal. It was still very steep and with a hundred miles already in my legs, I enjoyed the chance to switch to hiking. At the top, the wind was blowing and I grabbed a handful of food at the aid station before heading down. Downhill, the route followed a fire road, with patches of loose gravel. I slipped around a little, but didn’t fall. One thing I discovered this summer in a trail race was that I’m better at downhill than uphill. Sure enough, I was able to jog down at a reasonable pace, passing a few other runners. Kilian Jornet says to run downhill fast is to learn to dance with the trail. No one would have interpreted my shuffle down the mountain as a dance, but then, I wasn’t doing much worse than I do on a real dance floor!

After the mountain, the road to Sparta is flat, long, and empty. I was running mostly by myself and starting to struggle with sleep. I don’t recall much except for a lot of flat, lonely road. As one point, two dogs started running behind me. I turned and shined my light in their eyes – they stopped, with that “dog in the headlights” look. As soon as I turned around, they ran back, following me. Finally they held back, fading away in the darkness.

At moments, I switched off my light. The night was clear, dark, and the stars shone hard and cold against the darkness. The Milky Way sparkled across the sky. The silhouette of the mountains created a rugged frame. I remember thinking, “this is really beautiful but I’m almost too tired to enjoy it.”

I struggled with another wave of sleepiness, this time I felt dizzy and wobbled a bit. I shook my head and squirted some water on my face. The cold helped perk me up.

The temperature kept dropping and about 3 am I started getting cold. I was glad to have a long-sleeved insulated shirt but was still uncomfortable. I could tell the difference when I ate and tried to keep eating even though I was starting to feel mildly nauseated, with less and less at the aid stations looking the least bit appealing.

It’s largely uphill to Sparta. I had looked at the elevation profile, but had not studied it carefully and the uphill rolling hills seems to last forever. I passed one runner slowly walking – he was wearing just a t-shirt and looked really cold. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Yeah, a bit cold.” “Do you know when the next aid station is?”  He answered: “I think it’s in 15 kilometers.” That worried me a little since it’s impossible there is a 15 kilometer gap between aid stations. “No, I think we are much closer,” I said. I walked with him until I could see the lights of the aid station up the hill and took off at a slow jog.

At last, the sky began to change color. I was looking at my watch and trying to count the hours – only 6 or 7 more. It felt like days. When the uphill was sustained and steep, I walked, trying to keep the pace brisk. When it was flat or downhill, I ran… slower and slower.

The sun came up, bringing a warm, bright morning. Finally, I had 42 kilometers left, just a marathon. But I was exhausted. The next aid station I saw Amy and Sam, looking pretty perky considering they hadn’t slept much either. “How do you feel?” Amy asked.  “I don’t have anything left!” I groaned.

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Exhausted, nearing the end

It’s funny the energy it takes to think even basic thoughts. There comes a moment when autopilot takes over; all your effort goes into just taking the next step. It’s tiring to reflect on anything else; the world seems wearisome.

With 35 kilometers to go, we slowly wound down the road.  I saw Amy and Sam at the last aid station before the finish.  Amy mentioned that Bob Hearn was right behind me. He soon passed me — I should say, flew past me.  Rumor had it that last year he had the fastest final half marathon of any of the Spartathalon runners. I think later he said his pace was well under an eight minute mile; that’s amazing reserves for this far in the race. At the time, I didn’t realize I was the first American male and seeing him cruise by me gave me a boost – we were nearing the end!

Finally, we came across the pass and we could see Sparta off in the distance. It looked like it was 50 miles away, when in reality it was just 13. Teh struggle continued. Slowly the road wound down as the sun continued to grow hotter.

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The magical finish, king Leonidas in view!

At last, down into the main street heading into Sparta. Sure enough, the kids came out on their bikes, I wanted to shout “Kalimera” or ask what their names were, but was too tired. Up the main drag, turn right, then right again.  People cheered; cars honked. At 400 meters away, I could see the flags. Sure enough, there was a surge of new energy and I picked up the pace. I ran down the street, the crowd grew, I heard the music, then my name announced, people clapping and I was there – up the steps and touching the feet of King Leonidas.

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My finish time was 27:40:36. I was the fourth American to finish, the second American male, and the first Swiss resident. I had hoped, very best case, to finish in under 30 hours and was delighted with the surprise of a finish over two hours faster.

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Closing Thoughts

I heard a few runners say that it’s hard to put into words the experience of the Spartathlon. I agree. It’s so long, and you live through so many different experiences, touching so many different emotions, all compressed into 30 hours, it’s nearly impossible to capture the whole.

After the race, some said that running these long distances is a spiritual experience for them. It certainly was for me. For me, as I was leaving Corinth watching the sun set, I had a fresh vision of the way an ultra-race illustrates the marathon life holds out to us all. As I ran, I was reminded how in the Bible, the concepts of “glory” and “suffering” are very different, nearly opposites. But they have an interesting similarity. They both are heavy. “Kavod”, the Hebrew word for glory has the basic meaning “heavy,” and in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul refers to the “eternal weight of glory.”

Life has a lot of superficiality to it. Our media-saturated, hyper-connected culture offers us little resistance. But suffering and glory have a strange immunity. They both have the capacity, like a wave washing away a sandcastle, to reveal the weight of life as it really is. They can shake us from our superficial drowsiness.

I think that’s part of the lure of the ultra marathon. It’s a call to suffer for sure. Few legs feel happy after 100 miles, let alone 153. There is the risk of a DNF. But with an objective finish line and with the knowledge that every step is a step closer, the pain has purpose. And at the Spartathlon, the memory of Philippides’ feat makes that purpose timeless, special.

Then, the finish line produces an extraordinary alchemy. The struggle of 153 miles is transformed into an achievement – a small, but real, glory. The one weight is exchanged for another, vastly different.

That magical exchange, especially when it is personal and unexpected, offers a weird, beautiful experience.  Maybe it’s a little taste of what J.R.R. Tolkien mentions when he refers to a gladness “beyond the walls of this world,” weighty and wonderful. I think this is the thing the ancient prophets referred to when they spoke of joy. Something far more alive, far heavier, than the modern fare of self-absorbed positivity.

At least, that is how it was for me. When the moment is as real as feeling the bronze feet of Leonidas beneath your hands and as personal as hearing your own name blaring through the speakers, fleeting but real, there is a taste of joy.

For that, the chance to finish a crazy race like the Spartathlon is a gift. I’m struck by how – almost instinctively- so many of the runners know this. After the race I was chatting with one Australian runner. “Yeah, life is given to us, not for us” he said.  “Gratitude, not entitlement, is key.” “I’m just grateful to be here” others said. Reading race report afterwards, a lot of people, religious and not, talk about being “blessed.”

Two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul said, while traveling in Greece speaking with the Greeks:  “God did not leave you without a witness, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” Life is full of gifts and maybe they aren’t random. They might be given by a Giver.

Like Paul, I’m convinced this Giver can be known. It is the astonishing message of the New Testament. This Giver came to us in the person of his Son to give us so much more than food and gladness and long races; he promises real eternal joy. For that, he took on the race bib in the hardest race of all: the human experience, perfectly lived. He accomplished the mission, he lived the perfect life, he died the death we deserve, and won. The resurrection – the very center of the Christian faith – is God’s award ceremony for Jesus. There, we see the ultimate exchange of “weights”, the worst of suffering traded for the best of victory. Our rebellion canceled by forgiveness, death trampled down by life. The empty tomb Easter morning announces a joy “beyond the walls of the world.”

Of course, being inspired doesn’t mean I feel the need to run that race again!  I confess one of the first thoughts as I lay in the medical tent after the race getting checked was, “Never again am I going to run this far!”  

Yet, it’s amazing how quickly the low points of the race grow fuzzy in my memory and the lure of another challenge begins to pull. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to return to the Spartathlon. But here, writing two weeks after the race, I realize again the remarkable privilege it would be to again face such an epic challenge.

 

Paris and 1 Peter

Another terrorist attack fills our TV screens, this time from Paris, with 17 dead. Journalists from France report the largest outpouring of solidarity demonstrations since the Second World War.

As I prepare to transition to Switzerland and serve at a school that trains predominantly French people for ministry in France, I was touched more by the attack, as well as some of the underlying tensions that it exposes in France. It’s challenging to offer a simple response as a Christian.

We should “weep with those who weep.” Tears are the better first response than cultural commentary. One article cited the words of a theologian who teaches at the Bible School of Geneva: “The most human of humans should be Christians.” This is a time to be human, with lives marked by real compassion and real grief.

The attack and the aftermath highlight that it is easy to despise those who dishonor what we hold most sacred. The magazine that was attacked, Charlie Hebdo (“Charlie Weekly”) made its niche in publishing biting satire, often with caustic illustrations and  inflammatory cartoons mocking religious or political figures, especially Christianity and Islam. One of the editors was clear about his goal, “We have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism.”

The radical Muslims who were behind the shooting, “justified” the terrorism to protect the honor of their god. This is a terrible wrong. But its hard to ignore the quasi-religious zeal behind some of the Charlie Hebdo publications. Personal freedom of expression is made sacred over everything else– no limits and no caution. Degrading articles and inflammatory cartoons serve as a zealous expression of that freedom. Some of the aggressive French satire has roots that go deep into history and originated in reaction to authoritarian abuses from the church and State.

The salvation offered in Jesus chastens this kind of reactive zeal. Jesus saved us, not by fighting shame with violence, but by going through shame with patience. One of the main features that each Gospel writer highlights in the crucifixion of Jesus is the mockery, even blasphemy, he endured. In the midst of dishonor, he demonstrated the depths of love and trust. He took on shame he didn’t deserve, to lift shame from sinners that they did deserve. In this Jesus reveals that we don’t fight to rescue God’s glory from shame, it is God’s glory that rescues us from shame.

This perspective gets practical in the book of 1 Peter. Peter calls us to follow the example of Jesus, enduring suffering by entrusting our lives to God. It’s difficult to love those who blaspheme what we passionately revere. But being united to Jesus gives us profound inner strength to be gracious, humble, and honest in the face of offense.

We live in a world with increasingly stronger religious differences. More conflict is likely to come. Jesus calls to be peacemakers, or, as one French translation beautifully puts it, “artisans de paix.”

Consider an extreme case: what if we had an editor of Charlie Hebdo as a neighbor on one side of the street and someone we viewed as a potential Muslim extremist on the other?  Over time, would they know where we stand and yet confess we were kind?  That seems to be Peter’s vision. He tells his readers to live lives of honor and good works amid those who may speak evil against us.

1 Peter 2:12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

This is possible because of Jesus. He stamped our passports with a true citizenship to a coming world where “everything will be made new” with resurrection power. That can strengthen us to be honorable and good neighbors without bitter retaliation when our God is mocked or even blasphemed. He has proved He can handle that himself.

Thoughts on « Raising Support »

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“I’d rather preach for an hour in front of a hundred people than sit down with my friend and tell him something he doesn’t want to hear.”  

My friend listened and smiled.

“Of course! Staying in your strength is always easier. But trusting God often means taking steps in areas where you feel uncomfortable.”

He was right. It’s easy to huddle near the places where we feel adequate and weasel out of facing things that expose weakness. As I transition to the mission field, I get to face a new challenge: asking people for money. It’s what Christians call “raising support.”  

I wholeheartedly believe we should invest in helping the gospel go to all nations. But often I believe that in theory or in the privacy of my own bank account. Now I have to invite others to consider investing in me.

This has got me thinking about “support raising.” Here are a few thoughts, not in any particular order, of things I am learning.

  1. Talking about money quickly exposes our worship struggle

Money can be an awkward conversation topic because money, in a mysterious way, often represents our life. Jesus tells us life involves much more than our possessions (Luke 12:22). But his words challenge a powerful and invisible assumption: that our wealth gives us our meaning, our life.

After all, money “evangelizes” better than most other alternatives to God. Wealth makes better promises than almost anything else. Think how much security, pleasure, self-worth, and meaning several million dollars that you earned could offer?  Slowly the line between our life and our wealth gets blurry. We start living for money, instead of using money to live.

We should avoid overreacting to this problem. When we do this, we can lose sight of the goodness of money. The Bible openly celebrates wealth and possessions. In the first pages of the Bible, the Garden of Eden sparkles with opulent riches and productivity. In the last pages, the New Jerusalem shines even brighter– gold is the new asphalt (Revelation 21:21).

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It is precisely because wealth is so good it is so dangerous. We are not innocent Adams and Eves, nor are we fully redeemed in the New Jerusalem. Our hearts are so prone to idolatry that wealth quickly makes us slaves without letting us know. If God took a spiritual X-ray of our hearts as modern Americans, I think we would all see more dysfunction that we would like to admit, even though we might be outspoken and passionate about the Bible’s teaching on money.

That’s one reason asking for money can be awkward. I have to confront my own messed-up heart. Have I been as generous as I am asking others to be?  Am I anxious about this process because I am trusting money to make my ministry go forward? At the same time, my request might touch my friends struggles too. I might be tempted to say, “Give because it’s easy” or “Give only if you have extra you don’t need” or to “Give out of a sense of obligation to a friend.” But that’s asking for counterfeit generosity, generosity so small and light it does not take the power of worship to lift. We win or lose this battle in our worship. True worship dethrones wealth as king, and puts God in its place. Wealth becomes our sturdy servant: good, powerful, and useful.

When our hearts praise God, we praise the most generous being alive, a triune being of infinite love. Worship like this changes giving and makes it “cheerful.”  And in that cheerfulness, talking about money becomes less awkward. After all, it’s just our servant, not our master.

  1. Giving exposes the wealth of grace

Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India, once said, “You can give without loving, but you can’t love without giving.” The first time I read it I reacted: “Of course you can love without giving.” Then Jesus came to mind. His love was always full of grace. At its core, grace is giving what others don’t deserve. In fact, one of the words in the New Testament for “gift” (charisma) is built on the word “grace” (charis).

When grace changes our hearts, our love deepens to something stronger than emotions or friendship. Christian love stands on the bedrock of grace: we want to love others by being willing to give what will bless them. This is why the lack of a generous heart reveals a poverty of grace.

In 2 Corinthians 9 Paul rebukes the wealthy Corinthians for not giving more. His strategy was unusual. He casually reminds them of the need (verses 1-4). But then he speaks to their hearts:

“For your generosity to them and to all believers will prove that you are obedient to the Good News of Christ” (verse 13).  

A lack of generosity proves we are obedient to the “bad news” of trusting our money. We let it call the shots in our lives. But generosity announces we are obeying good news: news of grace that God is working in us. And that is true riches.

3. “What some do poorly, I won’t try at all” is an unfortunate outlook

Precisely because grace is so good and so free, it is often abused. The many stories of Christian financial misconduct- some goofy, others tragic- remind us this problem is as real today as it was in Jesus’ time (Mark 12:40).

Since every ministry leader is imperfect, funds will never be used perfectly in every situation. Giving is always risky this side of heaven. But to hold back in skepticism or in fear of being disappointed, ironically, is a greater risk. It shows we are being “overcome with evil” instead of “overcoming evil with good.”

It’s easy to find bad examples- they often make juicier stories on blogs and newspapers. But if we keep our eyes open, it’s also easy to find good examples. Millions of dollars of sacrificial gifts keep thousands of godly ministries going year after year. And the cumulative force of these ministries is changing the world.

In some ways, a system that does not rely fundamentally on grace (like the free-market economic system) will better protect people from the dangers of abuse. So I think to myself, “It would be so much easier if I could earn all my income somehow and never have to look needy in front of others.” But for all the risks involved, God has chosen grace to show off his character. He calls us to live that way too– yes, with wisdom, but wisdom that tempers love, not wisdom that holds back love. If I were entirely self-sufficient, I would miss out on seeing Jesus in those who take a risk on my behalf and sacrifice to keep my ministry going.  

  1. It’s OK that fundraising is reason to connect with long-lost friends because friendships are always forged in movements

Occasionally I’ll get an email from a long-lost acquaintance asking for financial support. My cynicism reacts: “Ah, now I’m your friend now that you need money…”

Then I started building my own email list.

And I wondered, “Is anyone thinking the same thing about me? It’s true I have not really been in contact with these friends in a while and I’m sure it would have meant a lot to them if I just reached out to see how they were.”

Then I had a simple thought that liberated me and helped me add the most distant friends to my update email. Friendships are always formed around movements. Friendships don’t happen because two strangers sit down together at random and decide to be friends. We become friends because we find ourselves side-to-side engaged in something bigger than making friends (or keeping up with them). Going to school is an educational movement. We didn’t go to university with the one purpose of making friends. We went for education, and that movement aligned us with real friends. The same thing happens at church. Our mission is bigger than being a social « friend group ». As we submit to Jesus’ mission together, we connect to one another. There are many other examples: sports teams, Boy Scouts, a corporation, even marriage: they are all things bigger than just friendship, yet they unite people in profound ways.

Missions is a movement– in some ways the greatest in history. It goes back to the promise God made to Abraham that all the tribes of the world will be blessed. It will continue until Jesus returns and people from every tribe and nation gather around his throne to praise God. It’s the one story that unites all the other stories.

Financial giving and receiving is a practical way to embrace a movement, any movement. But it especially true of missions. Because of this, giving can be a way to forge friendships. Jesus says our hearts follow our money. Which means when I am asking people for support, I’m asking people for a “heart-level” connection with me. That’s exciting. More than just financial provision, I get to see God sustain and build friendships in my life.

  1. Asking people to give helps them invest in what lasts forever.

What if we found a field where whatever was planted in it would grow to last forever? And what if we had friends who had barns full of seeds, much of which was sitting on the shelves or going into soil that produced plants that only lasted for a few weeks? It would be a no-brainer. We would ask for seeds. Not because we were needy, but because we had discovered such amazing soil and we cared about our friends.

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Europe is full of rich soil where gospel seeds will grow forever. It’s a privilege to be able to plant in this soil. And it’s a privilege to challenge others to give their seeds to plant in this soil.

  1. Giving to missions (especially in Europe) is “cathedral building”

Many of the great cathedrals in Europe had a project timeline of over a hundred years. The bricklayers that laid the foundation never lived to see the building finished or hear the organ music fill the sanctuary. But they built anyway because they had long-term vision.

Missions today requires that same kind of long-term vision. There are many godly ways to invest money that offer faster “results.” Humanitarian work like building wells for fresh water, or building hospitals in places of poverty, or creating schools help us see generosity in action. Praise God for how that encourages us.

But we should also have the long-term vision that helps us invest in “cathedral projects.” Working to see a large majority of western Europeans know the gospel is one of those projects. God may bring a great revival. We hope and pray for that. But he is also glorified through the work of “cathedral builders”– people who plug away decade after decade, celebrating the small growth they see and steadfast in knowing God is up to something that will outlive our lifetimes.

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History reminds us these “cathedrals” are possible. In 1910, just 9% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa was Christian. It was a hard mission field, often called the “graveyard of missionaries”– and this also implies the “graveyard of missionary dollars.” Many missionaries were discouraged. Many died, some came back early and many worked all their lives without seeing much fruit. Obviously it took a lot of money getting all those missionaries there. I wonder what their prayer letters sounded like. In 2010, 100 years later, 63% of sub-Saharan Africa self-identified as Christian (according to the Pew Research). In Nigeria alone, researchers estimate there are around 80 million Protestants, many more than in Germany and France combined. That’s quite a cathedral.

  1. God provides through people, making “support-raising” an adventure

God’s mission depends on him, not on us. That’s encouraging for me. My real “asking for support” is when I pray to God. If he has called me, he will provide. And he will provide through real people– people I know, people that hear about the need, people who are friends. But because it’s his work, I don’t need to pressure others or be stressed out myself. I get to walk with him through a new adventure of trust. Veteran missionaries often say “It’s surprising how God provides. The people you expect to join often don’t and those that you least expect often do.”  Isn’t that so often how God works? It’s another reminder we are not in control. But we live with vision and gladness because our heavenly father is in control. He loves us enough to shape us by teaching us to trust in the adventure story he is writing with our lives. I’m glad my life will have a support-raising chapter in it. It might even beat preaching in front of a hundred people.

Will You Do It Again?

Why go to a place like Europe, especially Geneva, where evidences of Christianity appear everywhere?

The history of the city tells the story of the need for God’s ongoing work, as well as the optimism we can have that God can intervene even when the spiritual outlook looks bleak.

In the Middle Ages Geneva thrived as a strategic city, located near major crossroads and housing more inns per capita than anywhere in Europe. Over time, conditions declined. Drunkenness and prostitution were common, the church grew corrupt, there was little awareness of spiritual things. It seemed obvious “Christianity” has run it’s course in Geneva.

Then change came. First William Farel and then John Calvin made history by calling for reform, and amid turbulent pushback, the church recovered the gospel. For the city, it was a new day. If you go to the Wall of Reformers near the university, that is what you will see inscribed in Latin on the wall: “Post Tenebras Lux” (“After Darkness Light.”)

By the early 1800s much of the city had lost interest. In 1815, Robert Haldane, a Scottish minister came to Geneva in hopes of assessing the condition of churches in continental Europe. He met with several theology students from the university. He was surprised that the pastoral students, thick in their Biblical studies, did not know the gospel. Moved, Haldane started a Bible study in a nearby apartment, carefully working through the letter of Romans. God worked with power. At the end of the study, each student was converted, and had a passion to spread the Good New. They became instrumental in a revival that spread throughout the entire region (and called Le Réveil to this day).

By the 1900s, there was a new loss of interest. In 1906 Hugh Alexander, another Scottish pastor, came to the city, familiar with the area because he had vacationed nearby as a child. Surprised at the lack of interest in spiritual things, he launched a number of evangelistic campaigns throughout the area. Again, God worked with power. Thousands of people came to hear him preach, many were converted, and the church movement “Bible Action” was founded, planting churches throughout the region in France and Switzerland.

God is free to work with power, and often does so when the outlook looks bad. The city of Geneva tells the story of what we long to see God do all over Europe. Today, the spiritual needs in France are great. Less than 7% of the population attends any kind of church, and around 1% are connected with an evangelical church. While many good things are happening, there is still so much spiritual darkness.

God, how about another powerful work now?
More information about TCC’s partnership with David at www.gospelabroad.com

October 2014 Update

Dear friends,

Greetings from Libertyville!

As many of you know, an upcoming change in my life is that, in a desire to follow the Lord, I plan to step down from pastoral ministry at Trinity Community Church and transition to serve in French-speaking Europe in 2015.

My desire is to support the French church through strengthening a sense of vision and training for gospel-centered ministry– specifically, expository preaching that centers on Jesus, theological education, and an expectation of the Holy Spirit’s work in local congregations.

The purpose of this email is to stay connected with you, ask for your prayers, and when the time comes (which may be soon), invite you to consider being part of the sending team. If I am too far out of your orbit for this to be of interest, it is easy to unsubscribe, just see the bottom of this email.

Below I have the « long version » for those with time to read. I believe that in the next few weeks, I will know more about a specific opportunity in an established French-speaking ministry. I look forward to sharing this and asking others to join in helping see a gospel movement go forward in a place of great need.

Blessings,

David

 

The cliché says that if you want to amuse God, tell him your plans.  Perhaps a better (and more reverent) way to put it is: if you want to know who really is in control of your life, tell God your plans… and then watch Him carry out His.

The good news is that His plans are better than ours; His goals are much more ambitious. In all the rough and tumble, He has told us He is up to nothing less than restoring us completely as His people– conforming us to the “image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).

——

My career plans began to form when I was in college and sensed God calling me to ministry. I envisioned serving in one of the hardest places possible (North Africa? Middle East?) fueled by the conviction that God is on an unstoppable mission to every tribe and nation with his grace. I had been on a few short-term trips, including a summer in Africa and I could see myself living in the bush and the life the came with it: tinkering with an old Land Cruiser on the side, maybe preaching in an African language, managing lots of international travel.

So I went to Bible School (finished at Moody Bible Institute after community college in CA and a one-year program in French-speaking Switzerland) and anticipated going overseas when finished. After graduation, while I was on a short-term trip, I became aware I was better wired and more passionate for teaching and preaching the Bible than the pioneer work of building relationships among unreached peoples. Rather reluctantly I applied to seminary and received a scholarship to come to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. A few months into the program, I found out I had misunderstood the terms of the scholarship. It was only for pastors committed to serving churches in the US. A few weeks before this discovery, I had told the Lord, “I will serve you wherever you call me.” And there it was: “What about ordinary pastoral ministry here in the States?”

That redirected my trajectory (no Land Cruisers or African languages) and now I thank God for it. As I was finishing my last semester at seminary, an unusual job opportunity opened up at Trinity Community Church in Libertyville, not far from the school. On paper, it looked like an awkward fit: the Libertyville community is mostly established families, many upper-middle class. I was in my twenties, single, and had nearly nothing in my bank account. But as the leadership and I prayed together, we felt like it was a fit and so I stayed.

——

Now looking back, I am so glad for the chance to serve as a pastor here. Since taking on the Lead Pastor role in 2010, I’ve learned (or maybe: am beginning to learn) more than I’ve taught. How to do weddings and funerals, how to work with a staff, what to do when your parking lot needs replacing (still working on that), how to handle differences on the elder board, how joy and sorrow so often mingle together, how God’s Word does the heavy lifting in seeing real life change. This has been a rich season. Just last Sunday I had the privilege of baptizing a man that came to understand God as his Father, through the ministry of our church, in a way he never had before.

Nevertheless, throughout this time, I felt the tug of the spiritual needs overseas. Our family has a focus on France dating back to a five-year assignment my dad had with IBM in the 1980s. Because of this, I was born in Paris. Years later, my older brother moved to France after college to serve a local church there. This has confronted me in many ways with the needs and opportunities in the Francophone world. The statistics on the spiritual condition in France are startling. Bible believing Christians make up around 1% of the population. There are 300 cities of more than 10,000 that have no established evangelical church. Where my brother is in Toulouse, there are 100,000 university students and only handful of strong churches. Add to that, currently there is a shortage of pastors–in the past few years more pastors have retired than young pastors have entered the ministry and all the while more churches are being planted.

In the midst of this need, there are exciting opportunities. In the 1970’s, there were 770 evangelical churches in France. Today there are around 2300. There are many church-planting efforts going on and the growth is expected to increase. Moreover, the French churches are working together more than in the past; renewed vision for planting more churches is bubbling up all over the country.  Veteran church leaders are saying, “This is an exciting time.”

After I finished seminary, I was told that the terms of the scholarship were limited to five years. If after five years, I wanted to serve overseas, I could go with their blessing. In light of that, and several other factors, over the last year I’ve stepped back, looked at my life, and asked again, “God, how should I be investing my life?”  I’m single, I sense I’m probably not the fit for a pastoral career here in Libertyville, and I am aware of the needs in French-speaking places. I’ve wrestled with others- many of you -as well as the elders at the church with the sense that God was leading me to transition to a different work. Overall support for serving on the mission field was strong, so I told the church this summer I was stepping down at the end of December with a desire to serve overseas, probably France or somewhere French-speaking.

Now I am in midst of seeking the right fit for where to go– right now it seems France or somewhere French-speaking in Europe. I have several potential opportunities and I expect to hear back about one specific option in the middle of October. Once I have a specific ministry plan and vision, I will be inviting others to join me, specifically in prayer and financial support.

——

This is not going to be easy. (Usually that is the case with following Jesus, right?)  I can get anxious about leaving a fruitful ministry position with a good salary and a close-knit faith family around me, one where I can preach in English, work with a staff I consider friends, and have many relationships outside the church in the community.

But I am also excited to join what God is doing overseas. A more aggressive secular culture has purified the church in France, drawn the line in the sand deeper, and many believers live with a clear sense of mission and sacrifice God calls his people to. Though most churches are small, and lack the resources we have, there is a joy, a communion fraternelle that we often miss. And laboring there is such a worthwhile endeavor. It’s something I sense God has shaped my life for, and given me gifts that fit the calling. Ultimately, it is the glory of God that is at stake, and my greatest hope is that he would be glorified as secular Europeans come to know the power of the risen Christ and enjoy fellowship with Him.

The Lord is good. “He always leads us in triumphal procession.” And He leads us in triumphal procession together– doing « full time ministry » in secular jobs or in traditional Christian vocations, sending and going, supporting and praying, being the body even across continents.

Thank you for reading all of this. As I jotted names down for this list, many, many good memories came rushing back. Friends are a great gift– and I thank God for the way each of you has made a difference in my life. I look forward to staying in contact.

Grateful,

David