By Tina W. Ganong
My husband, Marty, ran 20 miles before church last week. He even managed to stay awake through the sermon afterward. Quite an impressive feat since he started his training at 4:30 a.m. Admittedly I slept through it. (His run that is, not the sermon.) My man has kicked his marathon preparation into high gear now in anticipation of his race. He has only one 20-mile run left in this training program before he tapers down to let his body rest for race day. His marathon target pace is 8.5-minute miles.
Dripping wet shirts and nasty socks aside, I’ve learned a lot about Marty and his sport of long-distance running over the past five years. I’ve grown accustomed to the noxious odors and recipes from Runner’s World magazine to the point that I can even appreciate the appeal it holds for him now. He loves drawing constant parallels between running and his Bible translation work. If you want to hear him talk, just get him started on this topic. Seriously. This subject rivals talking about the Packers for him.
Marathons appeal to Marty not only because he loves to run, but also because the discipline involved spills over into his spiritual life. Trail time also becomes his think time. He has gleaned four important spiritual truths from running:
Lesson 1: You Need a Coach
The tendency to overstride, a common problem among distance runners, causes calf cramping and knee soreness. It seems counterintuitive. But Coach Barb pointed this out to Marty. Sure enough: when Marty reduced his stride length, his pain went away. Years of running and two Boston Marathons put Barb in a position to help Marty fix his problem and move forward in his sport.
My Marty isn’t the only one who needs a coach in his life. Nor is his need for mentoring limited just to athletics. From the very beginning to the present, his Bible translation mentor, Brad, has given Marty translation advice, coaxed my man along when he was discouraged, held him accountable for his work, and pointed Marty clearly toward the finish line: a complete New Testament and Pentateuch for the people group we so love.
Call them coaches. Call them mentors. Either way the Bible names multiple examples of God’s people learning from godly people who are a few steps ahead of them in their spiritual journeys. Joshua matured into a great leader for Israel under the watchful eye of Moses. Elisha followed Elijah and absorbed his wisdom. Then, when Elijah was taken up into Heaven, his mantel of prophecy fell on Elisha. Jesus spent three years teaching his disciples in both word and deed. Paul mentored Timothy. Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos. The point is that each of us needs more mature people in our lives to help us improve our spiritual strides.
Lesson 2: Diet Is Huge
I once had a free personal trainer for a day. I might have actually kept her, but I couldn’t afford to pay her. She did teach me that in the wellness equation, exercise only counts for 20 percent of the picture. Nutrition actually accounts for 80 percent. That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, since changing my eating habits is not my strong suit.
But Marty gets this. While he’s training, he cuts way down on sugary and processed foods. He limits his soda intake to one can per week. High carb, low fiber foods like pastas, sweet potatoes, and green leafy veggies become his staples. Black bean burgers are in. He eats more fruit and consumes chocolate milk as his recovery drink.
The obvious parallel here is spiritual food intake: our devotional times reading the Bible and praying. Now you would think that a Bible translator who spends hours each day pouring over Scripture wouldn’t have any problems staying fed spiritually. But you would be wrong. Dissecting Greek phrases doesn’t always give you a spiritual charge. Analyzing each semantic component of the word communion may not leave you feeling connected to God. This exegetical time where Marty spends most of his focus in Bible translation is informational, not relational. Marty has learned that just like every other growing Christian, he needs to read his Bible and pray, spending time with, learning from, and listening to God. Even for Bible translators, it requires an intentionality to maintain a healthy spiritual diet. There is no such thing as automatic or default.
Lesson 3: Stick with the Program
Marathon runners do better and stay healthier when they stick with their training programs. Training programs for distance runners never begin with long runs (10 plus miles). Instead they are incremental, increasing distances as the athlete’s stamina and muscle tone increase. Even Marty’s current regime, which alternates his long and short runs, increases distances slowly and methodically. Though the specifics differ, the training programs achieve the same goals: to build strength and endurance for running over the long haul. They turn novice cross-country runners into seasoned marathon machines.
In the spiritual realm, the goal is mature Christians. These Christians have kept the faith and grown closer to Christ year after year. They are the people who look the most like Jesus and share him with others. They know their spiritual gifts and use them to build up the church and minister to the world. They do not flinch when trials come. They are those who finish the race well because they’ve spent a lifetime studying the Bible, praying, giving, worshipping, serving, and keeping company with fellow believers.
Sticking with our spiritual disciplines is the only way to build bedrock faith, lived out in action, prompted by Christ’s love. There are no shortcuts. Consistency doesn’t work that way. The writer of Hebrews echoes this call to tenacity: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1). We must faithfully stick with God’s program day by day, year by year, decade by decade, until our marathon is done.
Lesson 4: Get Back on Track
By far this parallel is most significant for Marty in his Bible translation job. His running discipline has taught him not to give up when things don’t go right or when the training schedule gets interrupted. There will be snow days and family emergencies. A popped calf tendon requires time to heal. But after the lapses, my husband regroups. He puts his shoes back on and hits the trails again. It takes him time to build himself back up. Sometimes he walks just to move forward. But he gets back on track, both literally and figuratively. Eventually he’s back in his stride.
Do you see the overlap? For Marty, completing the James translation was like finishing a short run. He’s started a long run now working on Exodus. Life is derailing him a bit. He has to run in the rain sometimes because of computer and software issues. But he’s determined to do his part, knowing God will do his.
My plodding man continues to faithfully move forward with a steady pace, both in his runs and with his Bible work. I’m so proud of him!
Tina W. Ganong and her husband, Marty, serve on a West African Bible translation team.