The River and the Race

Last week during my “catch up” week, I posted a picture on Instagram of a salmon leaping up some falls on the Sol Duc River.  It was just one of several salmon my family and I saw leaving their watery environment, but the only one I captured with my camera.  Believe me, I tried for more, but this image literally lasted a split second, and I had to stop because my eyes were going buggy.  Just picture me with my eyes wide open for several seconds at a time, afraid to blink, with my finger ready to go on my camera button.  It was a great exercise for reaction times!  

As I looked more intently at the picture, God began to speak to me about how our lives often mimic this journey.  This fish, surrounded by a massive amount of rushing water, is just breaking the surface long enough to gain some ground on its way to calmer passages.  I wish you could hear the sound of the falls to fully grasp the magnitude of what this guy was up against – it was deafening. 

I’m tempted to dive into all the reasons we encounter “rushing water” in our lives and how we grow in character as we persevere through it, but that’s not what God was speaking to me.  Instead, He was reminding me of what was on the other side – calmer waters.  The purpose of calmer water is for rest, hope renewed, and sustenance.  I knew God wanted me to explore this topic more because a few days prior, He had spoken the same thing to me through a different analogy.  He said it’s the same reason aid stations are strategically placed throughout any sort of endurance race; you simply can’t go the distance without them.  Another thing to note is that calm pools and aid stations are not only placed after strenuous sections of the journey, but immediately before as well, both serving the same purpose– rest, hope, and sustenance.  I’ve heard it said before that at any given time we are in one of three places in our lives: (a) we’re just about to enter a challenging time; (b) we are in a challenging time, or (c) we are just coming out of a challenging time.  So far in my own life and from what I’ve observed, this appears to be accurate. 

Although this may be true, it’s important to remember that God is always with us, even in the midst of the challenging times.  He understands the physical and emotional drain these experiences can cause; therefore, He’s flanked them with times of refreshing – just like the calm pools in a river, or the aid stations on a tough trail.  This understanding of His continual presence is critical to our success, but we must also understand that each course – each life – is different, and the intervals in which we find recovery spots are not always the same.  It is simply not fair to compare one person’s life to another’s as a way of judging whether God is present or not.  He is no less present with the one who struggles to make a paycheck than He is with the one blessed with fortune.  Both people need rest, hope, and sustenance, and God knows when and where these things need to be found.

Let’s first look at rest.  We know it is vital to our survival because God created us with a built-in physiological mechanism that forces us to do it - sleep.  Much of the repair of our damaged muscles, balancing body chemistry, and fighting off sickness occurs during our sleep.  A salmon needs rest for the same reasons after battling its way through the turbulent water, as well as an athlete who’s just completed a grueling leg of a race.  The length of this rest is directly correlated to the amount of energy expelled and healing that needs to be done.  Once again, we can’t be caught in judgment of others who are resting for extended periods of time because we have no idea what wounds they’ve acquired or what they’ve just been through.  In perhaps some of the most comforting words ever spoken, Christ declared to those that are battered,

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28-29

It is tempting to stop right here and want to remain in this resting place forever.  After all, cool swimming holes and aid stations are usually comfy.  Jesus is in fact saying that rest is necessary and it can be found in him, but throughout God’s Word we see that no matter how long you need to rest, this is not to be a state of passivity and disengagement.  He is very clear that rest is a means of recovery, and recovery is so we can get healthy enough to keep moving.  Listen as Isaiah captures this principle,

“He [God] gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40:29-31

God restores strength so we can keep walking, running, soaring, or swimming – in other words – moving!  A fish never ceases to stop swimming once they’ve reach a calm pool, if they do they won’t reach their spawning grounds and the journey up to that point will have been for nothing.  In the same way, a trained runner only pauses long enough at an aid station to catch his breath on the way to the finish.  Rest may look different depending on the person, but the outcome God intends is always the same – strength to keep going.

Isaiah’s passage also touches on hope, the next key element found at our recovery points.  The scent of our salmon’s birthing grounds undoubtedly becomes more concentrated with each calm pool it reaches.  Hope for the salmon is translated into a stronger instinctual pull the closer they get to their destination. For our runners, at each passing aid station people gather to cheer and shout encouraging words, letting them know it’s not much farther to the finish.  Aid stations act as a tangible location to look back and reflect on how far they’ve gone already, and what strength it took to get this far.  In each scenario, hope rises. 

The same access to hope is available to us too.  We can tap into it by simply thinking about and thanking Christ for his sacrifice and then transitioning our thoughts to the strength it took for him to be raised from the dead – a strength provided by the Holy Spirit.  If you have a relationship with Jesus, this same Spirit lives inside you and has likely helped you regain strength between tough times whether you’ve recognized him or not (see Romans 8:11).  Jesus enduring the cross, and raising to life again was meant to show us that anything is possible through the power of the Holy Spirit - one of the promises he gave us just before his ascension to heaven (see Acts 1:8-9).  If you’ve recently pushed through a time in your life that has left you weary and you don’t think you have the strength to move on, remember what Jesus endured and remember the power he placed in you, letting it fill you back up with hope.

The final part in the recovery process is gaining sustenance.  As we learned earlier, our time of rest is never done passively, and part of the time should be used to get the nutrition that is needed for the next leg of the journey.  Salmon will use their time spent in slack water to feed, and a runner will take advantage of aid stations to stock up on food and replenish water.  We must adopt the same strategy and always be feeding our body, soul, and spirit for what’s around the corner.  Once again, this must start with Christ, finding quiet time to spend with him and his Word, but can then be spread amongst various other healthy disciplines too.  Some examples may include, but are not limited to, sharing God’s love and your story with others, creating art, connecting with loved ones and friends, exercising, volunteering in your community, and donating resources to those in need.  Whatever you may choose, a key is to continue to honor God in the process. 

As I’ve reflected on what God spoke to me both through that fish leaping out of the river and through my own experience as a runner, I’ve tried to take into consideration each person’s story and journey.  They are indeed different from one another, but the way God walks with us is the same – steadfast and always providing a place of refuge.  Instead of trying to summarize in words, I’d like you to take a moment and look at the first picture I introduced you to.

 If you feel like you’re in the midst of a time like this, just remember what God has prepared for you around the bend: