Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Paul would have been a NASCAR fan.



This past Sunday evening, May 29th, I was able to witness something that I've always wanted to see in person...a NASCAR race. That's right, my wife, her two brothers and I went to the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I've always been sort of a mild fan of NASCAR. I grew up being a Richard Petty fan because, well, he's "the King" and who can't appreciate a guy that sports a feathered cowboy hat. Then there's the whole premise behind NASCAR. Take a "stock" car and fill its engine compartment with a massive V-8 engine, install only as much exhaust hardware as is absolutely necessary and drive it around a track as fast as you can. Aside from the obvious environmental impact, I can't find anything wrong with this sport. As soon as the green flag was waved and forty-some cars roared to life and passed our seats in one huge pack I knew it was going to be an unforgettable experience. One cannot truly appreciate how loud these cars are unless you have been to a race in person. During one of the cautions during the race we went to try and rustle up some grub and made the rookie mistake of removing our earplugs. The sound can only be described as earsplitting.

During this race I found myself with a new appreciation for the sport of NASCAR. Yes, I did call it a sport and if you disagree with that label I'm sorry but I think it fits. The best way I can think to describe it would be like a game of chess. The drivers, in conjunction with their crew chiefs, must strategically plan their pit-stops so that at the end of the race (this part is pretty obvious) they will be at the front. Yes, they could just make three or four laps and just see who's car is the fastest but that would not be the point. Strategy and endurance play key roles in the race. This is compounded by the fact that the Coca-Cola 600 (that is 600 miles) is the longest race in the NASCAR season. I would submit that the mathematical know-how of the crew chiefs and the endurance of the drivers, who have to pilot a car at nearly 200 miles and hour for four hours, make a NASCAR race one of the more mentally challenging sporting events.

The most interesting part of this race, no it wasn't the wrecks, was the very end. After a caution with only five laps to go Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the lead. Two laps remained and it looked like he was going to be the clear winner of the race, something he has not been for over three years. The fans were ecstatic. Then on the final turn of the final lap "Junior" ran out of gas. He wasn't the only one though, Denny Hamlin, for whom I was cheering, also coasted to a stop only a few hundred yards short of the finish line. The emotional let-down that ensued was as if someone had popped the Goodyear blimp that was circling above. Victory had been snatched out of Dale Junior's hands because he ran out of gas.

Now, I am not a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan but I certainly have no beef with him. He seems like a standup kind of guy and a darn good race car driver. However, when I saw him coast to a stop and have to push his car into the pits I couldn't help but be reminded of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9:24;

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 

There is no doubt in my mind that Dale Junior ran the Coca-Cola 600 in such a way that he should have won but in the end he simply ran out of gas. What I think Paul is getting at here is that we, as Christians, are running a race for eternity and there are going to be times when we think we are running on fumes and find ourselves wondering whether or not we are going to cross the finish line. He shares this same sentiment with the church in Philippi when he says in 3:12-14;

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself has having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 

What we must realize is that the fuel we are running on is the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit and no matter the situation it will not run out. The prize that Paul is speaking of is not millions of dollars or a trophy on this earth, but eternal life with God. James describes the prize like this;

for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him (James 1:12).

The reason that the drivers in NASCAR put their minds and bodies through such abuse is because they have their eyes on the prize that is given to the winner. This can be seen in any sport. The athletes endure all kinds of punishment because they want to win. The question for us is, will we endure so much because we have our eyes on the eternal prize that Christ offers us? I don't mean that we should go around seeking abuse or persecution but when it does come will we endure it with peace in our hearts because we want, more than anything else, to finish the race well?

You see, I believe it is all about perspective. If we are focused on the things of this earth and this time it will be exceedingly hard to press on as Paul urges us to. However, if our eyes are fixed on eternity and Christ the most horrible circumstances become just a passing hardship on the way to eternal joy and rest. Hebrews 12:1-3 gives us the same encouragement;

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame and has sat down at the right had of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Three things immediately jump out at at me from this passage:

1) We are not running alone. Not only do we have the fuel of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised us but we also have a "great cloud of witnesses" who are cheering us on. It is hard to imagine with our earthly eyes but I can almost see the scene when a saint of God is coming across the finish line called death. There in the heavenly stands are all those who have gone before cheering for them to get that checkered flag and enter into the prize that Christ is giving them.

2) Christ did all of this first. He set the example through perseverance in His most tremendous struggles. Christ did whatever it took, even death on the cross, because He understood what gain it would bring for the people that He loves so dearly.

3) We keep our eyes on Christ so that in our trials and struggles we don't lose heart. The easiest thing to do in a struggle is to admit defeat. I know there have been many times in my life when it just seemed easier to give up than keep going. The Bible tells us that these times will come but if we keep our focus on Christ we will get through, we will not run out of gas.

Christ has given us what we need to finish this race called life. Not only that but He has promised to run along side of us to keep us going when we don't think we can make it. God, through the apostle Paul, has given us words of encouragement so that we will keep our focus on the eternal, what is truly important and what the prize really is in this race.

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