I had just gone to our Recreation Center for a little run. It was nothing special; going for a run is something I have done for decades now. Granted the years have slowed the pace of the run. In fact, there are times when it surely seems like the run is masquerading as a walk! But that’s ok; I’m still moving.
It also is not unusual to find a variety of college students doing various things in the Rec Center, as we call it. Part of the joy of going there to exercise is to be with the younger ones who are in the prime of their lives. Most of them are so fit and healthy, they rightly feel on top of the world. I don’t envy them; I hope they stay on top of their world for a very long time. I can’t even see the top of the world anymore, but that’s ok. I’m still moving.
Then I noticed a group of hurdles being placed on the track. Obviously some of the hurdlers were preparing for their practice. I have seen this scene countless times, but suddenly an analogy popped into my mind. Life is like the hurdles’ race. Not a bad metaphor, I thought. It is similar to the metaphor that the apostle Paul used in the New Testament when he talked about life as a race. I know there have been many metaphors for life. A favorite one has been the journey. Life is a journey. Pilgrimage is another favorite in spiritual literature. You probably have heard of other ways to describe life.
As I continued to exercise, I thought some about the metaphor of the hurdles’ race for life. As with all metaphors, there are limits to their usefulness. But they are helpful; so let’s pursue this one. The easiest connection to make between the hurdles on a track and life’s hurdles is how they must somehow be jumped. The hurdles on a track are fairly easy, in the sense that they are well spaced and that you see them coming.
As a hurdler prepares for the race, he or she waits for the gun to signal the start. When the gun fires, off the runners go. They build up speed very quickly and this actually aids the process of jumping the hurdles. In fact, the hurdler goes so fast that he or she does not even seem to jump over the hurdle. Instead they glide over. If you watch a really good hurdler, you can hardly see them go over. They are going so fast when the approach the hurdle, they seem simply to step over it as if it is not there.
Because the hurdles are well spaced, the hurdler takes each next hurdle in stride---without breaking stride. The hurdles are all the same height, which makes hurdling very predictable. No one ever messes with the spacing or the height. And obviously this is where the analogy of the hurdles as a metaphor of life breaks down.
Life does have its hurdles. I suppose life’s hurdles start popping up when we are only children. Not all childhoods go easily. Kids get sick, get taunted at school, etc. And then there are the teenage years. Any of us with memories know those are not carefree times! Adulthood often is replete with hurdles---financial, relationships, careers, etc. Sometimes the hurdles are momentous. In fact, we can be tempted to despair sometimes. But we must move on or we are done for---dead.
Like the hurdles on the track, life’s hurdles have to be negotiated and traversed. Notice I said “traversed,” instead of merely “jumped.” Some of life’s hurdles are too big or daunting to jump. But we need to get around them, so part of life’s journey is figuring out how to negotiate a hurdle that simply is too big to jump. This is where human courage, ingenuity, determination, and sometimes, community come into play.
When words like these are used---words like courage, ingenuity, determination, community---I contend that we have introduced the spiritual. These are words of the human spirit. They may not yet be “God words,” but they are spirit words. For me “spirit” is the animating force or energy that propels us forward through life. Spirit provides the energy and ingenuity to negotiate life’s hurdles.
I would like to think that God is behind and within all of the human spirit that gets exercised as we run our race or complete our journey. In my theology it is not necessary for someone to profess a belief in God to have God present in his or her life. Insofar as each of us has an animating spirit, I affirm that spirit is somehow being fed from the wellspring of the very Spirit of God. God’s being and presence in the world is not contingent on my believing it.
Of the spirit words used above, let’s focus for a moment on community. Life may feel like an individual race---being up to me to win it or lose. With that image I do have to clear all the hurdles myself. On the contrary, I believe most important life races actually involve community. I am eternally grateful to my fellow hurdlers for their presence, encouragement and often hand to help me negotiate my personal hurdles.