The starting gun for the New York City Marathon fired on Sunday of this week as runners from around the world began the 26.2-mile race through the streets of the five boroughs. Some of the runners left the starting line in search of the prize while others will consider a respectable finish (or any finish) to be a great accomplishment.
But while running a marathon is still a popular bucket list item for many people, other regular marathoners believe that running such a long horizontal distance again and again over time can really beat up the body, not to mention the fact that logging mile after mile on the course can get kind of monotonous. An increasing number of those runners, in fact, are becoming less interested in hoofing it through the streets and more interested in the buildings that tower over them — buildings that contain miles of stairs within their dizzying heights.
Welcome to the sport of professional stair climbing.
Kristin Frey is a 29-year-old environmental scientist who turned to stair climbing (also known as tower running) after qualifying for the Boston Marathon 10 times and running a bunch of others. She turned to vertical racing after a friend encouraged her to try it, and she became hooked on running up the stairs instead of pounding the pavement. Kristin is now the best female U.S. athlete in the sport and recently ran a groundbreaking 24-hour endurance event in Jacksonville where she and three fellow climbers repeatedly scrambled up the Bank of America Tower’s 42 floors. By the time they were finished, they had logged 123,480 steps and 5,880 floors — the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest two and a half times. She’s run up most of the tall buildings in the United States, including the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Empire State Building.
Most of us would consider running up 5,880 floors to be, well, insane. After all, that’s what elevators are for, right? Indeed, Kristin says that the recovery time for running all those stairs, mostly two at a time, is longer than that of a marathon. “Sometimes I’ll feel sick for two or three days afterwards,” she says. “A few times, I’ve tasted blood near the top of a race, and I’ve seen spots in some races when I was just five floors from the top. Once I pass the timing mat, I usually fall and will crawl out of other people’s way, trying to catch my breath. I’ve stumbled when my legs are Jello-y but have never fallen. And I’ve gotten blisters on my hands from grabbing the rails, so I bought football gloves that protect the skin.”
And you thought that walking those three floors up to your office was tough.
Point is, running (or even just walking) vertical is a great way for all of us to achieve good health. Climbing just two flights of stairs everyday could result in a loss of 6lbs per year. Six flights a day could help you trim nearly 18 lbs. There’s a lot a benefit to just walking up, even if you’re not racing.
As we’ve been reading Paul’s letter to Timothy, it seems that he’s sort of feeling like a tower runner, having climbed too many steps to count as he traveled all over the Roman world preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul had certainly had his own share of blisters, falls, scrapes and blood from a myriad of beatings and imprisonments. But now, as he stands at the top of the vertical race that was his life as an apostle, Paul realizes that the race was all worth it. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” he writes. “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
For Paul, the race was always vertical because it was always about focusing upward on Christ. Indeed, Paul uses a lot of race metaphors in his letters, describing the life of a disciple of Jesus as more of a vertical marathon than a sprint. In I Corinthians 9:24, he says “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you win it.” In Galatians 2:2 Paul checked his mission with the other apostles make sure that he hadn’t run the race in vain. In Philippians 3:14 he puts it like this: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call in Jesus Christ.” To the Colossian Christians he writes, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1, emphasis added). Paul spent most of his life traveling long horizontal distances, but he was always looking up toward a higher calling and a prize worth racing toward step by step. Indeed, it was the focus on the prize awaiting him at the top of those steps that kept him going, along with the constant steps of the Lord beside him, giving him “strength,” rescuing him from “the lion’s mouth,” and saving him for “[God’s] heavenly kingdom” (vv. 17-18).
Paul is writing all this to his young protégé Timothy and the text implies that Timothy will be the one to pick up the baton Paul is passing to him and continue the long climb of following Christ. As we heard him say over the last couple of weeks, “All who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (3:12). But he encourages Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed” (3:14). There will be opposition from those who want to take the shortcut or the easy way up (4:1-4) but, Paul says, “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (4:5). In other words, keep climbing!
But we know that climb of following Christ isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for Paul, nor is it easy for us. Paul was concerned about finishing well, hitting the timing mat of his life in good order, and to do that it takes some of the things we’ve been talking about in this series about our one wild and precious life: to embrace the gift of the Holy Spirit, to live lives that are God-approved, godly, and focused on an eternal perspective. Without a clear goal and the motivation to achieve a good finish, we can wind up falling down the stairs in an epic collapse. Even those who look like they’re built to win can stumble and crash.
When I was at Asbury Seminary for one of my doctoral sessions, I decided to take a run one afternoon. Now, this isn’t something I normally do. While I love my weekly workout routine, running is something I’ve mostly despised since my Army days. I only did it then because someone was yelling at me! But one morning I decided to get out and jog about anyway and I happened to find myself running through the town cemetery there in Wilmore, Kentucky.
As I was running through the cemetery, I came across the grave of one of my former professors. David Seamands was a professor of pastoral care at Asbury, and he was an amazing teacher. I still have all of his lectures on cassette tape. He had been a missionary to India, was the author of many books, was highly respected in the United Methodist denomination. Every class was a form of healing for all of us there. Jennifer and I also went on a Marriage Encounter weekend that was led by this professor and his wife. It was extremely helpful to us and to many of the other student couples that were there. David was one of my biggest influences during those seminary years.
A couple of years ago, however, it came to light that while he was teaching us about the sanctity of marriage and how to work with people dealing with the brokenness of extramarital affairs, he himself had been harboring a secret—that he had had an affair with a member of his congregation over the course of many years just before he became a professor at the seminary. When the story broke, David, now in his early 80s, had to confess that it was true. It was a devastating admission. He died a year or so later, his legacy tarnished.
Over and over again we hear stories about people whose public life was one of success, admiration, and a golden reputation…only to learn later that, in private, their lives were broken. Often, that brokenness finds its way outward in a risky or sinful behavior that, when discovered and brought to light, can destroy not only that person’s reputation but shake the faith of those who put their trust in him or her. These are people whose lives seem to have an asterisk on them—they did a lot of good, but they stumbled down the stretch.
As I stood there at the grave of my beloved professor, I began to think about my own life. I know that I have the capacity to fall like that; we all do. I also know that God’s grace can overcome any fall, any sin that causes us to trip. We can be forgiven, as I know God forgave David. But the question in my mind was, and still is, how do we keep from falling short of the finish line? How do we finish well? That’s a question of vital importance if we’re going to live our one wild and precious life with an eye toward the prize.
Interestingly, professional tower runners like Kristin (and Paul) have a lot to teach us about this Here are some tips from those who run the vertical race for fun:
Keeping Running Up
– Keep running up. Very few tower runners have the nagging injuries of marathoners, so long as they keep running up. Running down the stairs, on the other hand, can lead to a wide variety of injuries and potential for falls. The effective Christian climber gains strength by always focusing upward — staying in God’s Word (3:16), lifting our hearts in prayer, lifting up others through service. The daily discipline of looking up through cultivating our relationship with God and serving others helps us to keep moving toward the finish line one step at a time.
One of the reasons I am glad to be a Methodist is that John Wesley, much like Paul, focused on the Christian life as a marathon and not a sprint. It’s not about the lightning strike conversion, the dynamic experience of salvation in a moment (though he certainly believed that was possible). Instead, Wesley focused on the Christian life as a continuous movement toward the finish line, which he called “Christian perfection” or entire sanctification. The Christian life is all about pursuing holiness of heart and life, which Wesley defined as love for God and love for our neighbors. The more we are shaped by this love, the more we reflect the image of God we were created to be.
But going on to perfection and holiness of heart and life doesn’t happen without working at it. Our salvation comes to us as a gift of God, but it’s our task to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul put it in Philippians 2:12. To put it another way, “Christian” is not so much a status as it is a vocation. We must enact the gift, cultivate it every day, moving ever closer to the finish line.
We know that following Jesus isn’t just about waiting for some spiritual elevator that will take us to heaven someday. Instead, it’s about investing our lives in the hard work of climbing step by step toward the goal of what Paul elsewhere calls “the prize” (Philippians 3:14). Those steps are taken in devotion, worship, service, compassion and justice — steps we take every day that lead to health for us, hope for others and the renewed health of God’s good creation. We are each called to pick up the baton and continue the vertical race toward the crown of righteousness. The key is…don’t stop! Keep moving!
Use the Rails
– Use the rails. The best tower runners, like Kristin, use the handrails to their advantage, grabbing the rail and pulling themselves up like yanking on a rope. The rails provide the helping hand that gets the runner to the next level. We might think of the church community as acting like those rails, encouraging others to keep moving, pulling them up when they are sagging and strengthening each other for the climb. Even the strongest will sometimes need something or someone to lean on. In 4:9-11, Paul recounts that most of those who had traveled with him had deserted him, except for Luke. Paul then asks Timothy to bring Mark with him “for he is useful in my ministry” (v. 11). Paul understood that the church is to be the support for every individual to hang on to as he or she runs the race.
One of the greatest stumbling blocks for Christian faith is our American idea of self-reliance. We believe that we can do it ourselves, that we don’t really need anyone else. Lots of people in our culture, for example, say that they are spiritual but not religious. They don’t need a community of faith to help them. Only 20.6% of people in the Tri-Lakes region, for example, are connected to a community of faith. Even within the church community leaders can become isolated and begin to think that they’re special. It’s often those who become celebrity Christians who are most vulnerable.
But we were never made to run the Christian marathon alone. As John Wesley put it, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” Instead, it’s always about community, a group of other Christians who act like handrails, providing support and boundaries for the climb. The early Methodist movement was built around participation in small groups called Class Meetings, where people received spiritual support and encouragement. It was a place where they could confess their struggles within a group of people who loved them. Think of it as an AA group for sinners! If we’re going to finish well, we need a similar group of people around us.
Why do we need the church? We need it because we need each other if we’re going to finish well. We can’t do this without a support team giving us a hand up. Who are the people in your life who support you? Who hold you accountable? Who is the 2:00AM friend you can call when you are in trouble or in need of help? Who in your life has permission to tell you when you’re full of it? It’s hard to finish well without them. I want to encourage you today to get with a group of other disciples who can help you finish well. We’ll talk some more about that next week.
Focus on the Finish
– Focus on the finish. The point of every race is to finish. Some will finish faster and stronger than others, but everyone who undertakes a race does so to do their best. We know that tower running is becoming more popular because it’s something anyone can do, even if they’ll never be as fast as Kristin. In fact, tower running is never about racing directly against your opponent. All tower runners compete against themselves and the clock, doing their best to finish the race in their own best time. The vertical race of following Jesus is about doing the best we can, too. It’s not about comparing ourselves to others, but encouraging each other to do the best we can in running the race to achieve the prize — the upward calling of God in Christ.
Yes, there may be stumbles along the way, and when we stumble God is there to offer us forgiveness. But the goal of the race is to keep moving. When we keep the finish line ahead of us, when we run together, we can live our one wild and precious life with a purpose.
The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson captured this well. “When you were born,” he wrote, “you were crying and everyone else was smiling. Live your life so at the end, you’re the one who is smiling and everyone else is crying.” Finishing well is all about knowing that your life matters, that you have fought the good fight, that you have finished the race, that you have kept the faith.
What’s keeping you from running well? What are the potential stumbling blocks in your life that may trip you up? Are there desires, temptations, or trials that threaten to send you tumbling back down the stairs? I want to invite you to overcome them through the grace of God, who encourages you to finish well. I love the way the writer of Hebrews put it:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so close and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-3).
Let us run the race that is set before us with perseverance, looking to Jesus, the one who finished well for our sake. And one day, when you cross the finish line, may he say to you, “Well done, good and faithful runner. You have finished the race. You have kept the faith.”
You may not have run in the New York City Marathon, but you can take the stairs to your office tomorrow. When you do, think about those who race to the top and about how you can keep moving toward the best prize ever!
Note: This sermon is adapted from one I wrote for the Oct-Nov 2013 issue of Homiletics. I have been the Senior Writer for that publication since 2006. To check out the magazine and subscribe, go to HomileticsOnline.