Tuesday, May 31, 2011

You can hit the wall walking out your faith, just like in the Indy 500

I’m not a sports fan, except when it comes to the Indy 500. Growing up in east-central Indiana, the entire month of May was all about the big race. This year marked the 100th Indy 500, and what a race it was.

It was thrilling as always, with a real twist at the end.

In their next sermons, I predict many Hoosier (and other) pastors will use rookie J.R. Hildebrand’s misadventure as an example of what happens when you fail as a Christian.

Of course, they’ll tie it into Paul’s words in Galatians 5:7 where he states, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” Or one of the other passages where Paul and others compare the Christian walk to a race.

They’ll use terms like backsliding, falling away, missing out on God’s grace, and so on. Their messages will be very condemning, rather than aimed at building up the body of Christ.

And they will be wrong.

Mistakes can be costly without being deadly

In the race, Hildebrand led only in the final lap. He was cleared to be the winner until, on the very last turn before the final stretch he made the choice to pass another car high on the outside.

If you know anything about the 500, you know about the “marbles” that mar every turn.

These marbles are actually pieces of tire-rubber that tend to collect on the higher, outside area of the turns. Hitting them is like hitting gravel. At speeds of 200+ MPH, if you get caught up in the marbles, you’re going to hit the wall. It’s pretty much a given.

That’s what happened to Hildebrand.

Instead of holding steady, he took a risk, lost control, and totaled the car just a few hundred yards from the finish line; a costly miscalculation.

It was a dramatic end to the race, a happy day for Dan Wheldon who won, and a sad day for Hildebrand and his team.

Sin does not define who you are

The next day, one reporter seemed surprised that Hildebrand wasn’t crushed. He described Hildebrand talking about what happened, stating, “There were no tears. No sullen, mumbled answers. No angry fists slamming the table in frustration…His tone tinged with disappointment but not devastation.”

Then toward the end of the article, the reporter gets it, stating, “The last lap humbled him. He’s not going to let it define him.”

And there’s the point, and why so many pastors will be wrong.

Growing up in a pretty legalistic church, I heard a lot of very condemning sermons. Sermons that told me if I screwed up once after becoming a Christian, I was doomed.

Essentially what we were being told is that you have to be born again, again and again and again. Jesus said, just like being born once of a mother, you only need to be born again once spiritually.

But so many pastors like to hammer people with harsh sermons attacking those they perceive to be chronic backsliders. They’ll point to Hildebrand’s crash as example of someone who almost made it, but failed.

How sad.

It takes a team to run in a race

Over the years, the Indy 500 has made dozens and dozens of safety improvements to the tracks, the cars, and the suits the drivers wear. Helmets are stronger. Walls have been softened. Suit fabrics are more fireproof. And inside the car, the driver sits in a sort of cocoon that will remain intact in virtually the worst of accidents.

These contributed to Hildebrand walking away, unscathed, after his crash.

Coupled with this are the teams that surround every driver: Pit crews, mechanics, owners, sponsors, fans, and more all work together to support the driver’s success.

No single man or woman could compete in the Indy 500 or any other race solely on their own. It isn’t possible.

It takes the body to succeed as a Christian

The same is true in living out our faith. No single man or woman can succeed in the Christian life solely on their own. It doesn’t work that way.

This is one point pastors should be delivering based on Hildebrand’s loss.

As Christians, knowing that we will face temptations, troubles, heartaches, loss, pain, and grief, we need to put in place all the “safety improvements” the Bible offers to ensure we come through the stuff of life as unscathed as possible.

In Ephesians, Paul likens these faith walk safety improvements to putting on armor and being armed for battle. Christ emphasized the importance of prayer and vigilance. Throughout the Bible there are examples of and admonitions to encourage one another in the faith, and not to go it alone.

Hebrews 10:25 states it clearly: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

As individual Christians, we embody Christ; with other Christians, we make up the body of Christ.

There will be crashes

When it comes to screwing up as a Christian, it’s not a matter of if, but of when.

Making a mistake, choosing to indulge in sin, may result in a sort of “crash and burn” scenario. Fallout from sin is very real and painful.

But it’s not the end of the story.

When it comes to the end of the race, many of us will probably be stumbling across the finish line. But we’ll finish.

J.R. Hildebrand finished second in this year’s Indy 500, and did it by crashing into a wall. Next year, he’ll be back, humbled, wiser, and better prepared to handle everything the race will throw at him.

If you’ve “failed” as a Christian, whether you call it backsliding, falling away, or whatever, you can come back, too. You’re still part of the body of Christ, and we need you.

John put it very clearly, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9, NIV).

Our faith race isn’t over until Jesus says it’s over, and that won’t happen until He returns.

Are you ready to get back in the race? Confess your sins and find other believers to hang out with.

We’re rooting for you!


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