The day had finally come for me to run my first trail ultramarathon. "Dave," I said to myself, "you're 66 years old. Are you sure you want to do this?" As I stood at the starting line, I could only hope I was prepared for the challenge that lay ahead. I wore my stock-in-trade black tank top, dark blue shorts, and Vaseline spread liberally on the unmentionable areas that would otherwise chafe. On my feet were a pair of New Balance 880s that I hoped would carry me 31 miles in under 8 hours.
Success -- or failure -- would be determined by how well my physical body performed that day. The aerobic system was the foundation, but upon it were built joints, ligaments, tendons, fascia, and other soft tissues that had to function efficiently together. Above all, a massive network of blood vessels would be asked to provide blood in and out of organs, glands, and everything else in my body. If any of these systems failed me, I would have to stop running. Each was important, vital even, for my success that day.
There are so many spiritual lessons. For starters, we have to think of the church as a body with many different parts. And all of them need to be functioning well if the body is to grow and be healthy. I've noticed there's a tendency in certain evangelical circles to exaggerate some gifts and depreciate others. For example, we do not go to church primarily to hear someone speak. We go as a body to encourage one another (1 Cor. 14:26). Each member of the body has a vital role to play. There is a constant danger of assigning to shepherd-teachers an exaggerated importance. Teachers play an absolutely crucial role, but not at the expense of the contributions of the others. In fact, Eph. 4:11-13 makes it clear that the ministry of shepherd-teachers was designed by the risen Christ to be a catalyst that enables others to play their part in the growth of the body. Let me quote this passage from the Good News Bible:
It was he who "gave gifts to mankind"; he appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, others to be pastors and teachers. He did this to prepare all God's people for the work of Christian service, in order to build up the body of Christ. And so we shall all come together to that oneness in our faith and in our knowledge of the Son of God; we shall become mature people, reaching to the very height of Christ's full stature.
The Bible insists that all members are ministers. We do not go to church simply to worship God as individuals. We go to church as a body to encourage one another. Each of us has a vital role to play if we are to grow into maturity. Thus, it is not just a special group of people in the church who are the "ministers." The whole people of God has that responsibility.
Start at 5:00.
As I see it, all too often the problem in our churches is the failure to affirm the full range of spiritual gifts -- to fail to appreciate "God's varied grace" (1 Pet. 4:10). Only when all the gifts are affirmed and operate together, cooperatively, can the church function properly as God intended it to function.
The day of the ultra came and went. I finished, but barely. Running an ultramarathon gave me a crash course in gratitude, perseverance, humility -- and theology. It is difficult to find a better description of what it takes to complete an ultra than Paul's words in Rom. 12:4-5: "We have many parts in the one body, and all these parts have different functions. In the same way, though we are many, we are all joined to each other as different parts of one body."
That day all the members of my body worked together. None failed me, thank God.
It seems like a cliche but it's true: there is a great variety in the gifts God has given his church. And he wants us to use these gifts in service to others. We meet, not primarily to worship God, but to encourage one another so that we might be equipped to worship him better the rest of the week.