Some of my best loved scars came from my brother. It wasn’t like he went around stabbing me. Well, maybe once. But most of them came from adventures. He was always into trying impossible things, reproducing scenes he’d read in Mad Magazine and engaging in multiple attempts to attract the attention of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
Ever since I was a little kid, he’d drag me along. I was kind of like Igor to Dr. Frankenstein. Except Igor had a better gig. My brother would hand me something and say, “Hold this and try not to move. “ I should have caught on when I noticed him putting on oven mitts to plug in the device I was holding. The next thing I remember was him helping me up saying, “I told you not to move.”
Then there was the time he came home from chemistry class and said, “We gotta try this thing I learned today” Yess maasster. He took a bunch of bottles with skull and cross bones on the labels and mixed their contents together. The result was a strange colored gas which we funneled into a giant plastic leaf bag. I gotta admit, I was pretty amazed watching the bag float and bounce off the ceiling of our bedroom.
In my wide eyed wonder, I failed to see the lit match in my brother’s hand as he said, “Now we have to test it out”. I’m not sure if the explosion meant we passed or failed. All I remember was stumbling around in a scene reminiscent of the opening of “Saving Private Ryan”. All my senses were pretty much numb as we painted the bedroom to cover the green leaf bag which had been permanently fused to the cottage cheese ceiling stuff. It all turned out ok, though, because my brother was able to pencil in lines where my eyebrows used to be. My mom asked if I had parted my hair differently. Fortunately for my brother, my vocal cords were still so singed that I could only gasp and mutter.
I think surviving near death experiences changes the way you see life. Yeah, I suppose there’s the “Each day of life is precious” kind of greeting card philosophy you can get, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What it did for me was to redefine what makes life worth living. Great adventures make for great stories. Sure, they might add a scar or two to your body, but what it does for your soul lasts a long time. But in order to get to the story, in order to get all that an adventure has to offer, you need to be willing to leave home base. You have to wander away from safe and sound and embrace danger. The more danger, the better the story, provided you survive to tell it.
I have never lost my love for adventure and when my brother finally took me up on my challenge to run in the Portland Marathon together, I knew another one was in the works. I wasn’t sure how or what it would be, but whenever my brother’s around, something’s going to happen.
This was his first full marathon, so I had kept in touch with him as he trained giving him hints and tricks I had learned over the years on what to do to be in good shape to finish in a respectable time. Of course, he ignored all my advice, choosing instead to follow his own patched-together plan from the same authors who put out “how to lose ten pounds in twenty minutes” and “touring London on 75 cents a day”.
He actually looked in pretty good shape race day morning. I hadn’t seen him for a few months and with his matching shoes, shirt and sweatband… “Sweatband?”, I challenged, “Bro, nobody runs with a sweatband anymore. That went out with bell bottoms.” “Well, it’s back”, he announced, and the adventure began.
For the first few miles we ran slow and then slowed down. My friend Don King (No really, that’s his real name) would have been proud. We kept our pace, even when the old lady passed us. As the miles went by we looked forward to seeing my sisters at various locations to snap pictures, cheer and ask if we needed the ambulance yet.
One of the cool things about marathons is that there’s a lot of free food along the way. Not only at the fuel stations every two or three miles, but a lot of times local residents will have tables set up offering a variety of “quick energy” snacks. This one lady had a huge bowl of gummy bears. I’d never had gummy bears as a marathon snack so I grabbed a big handful, thinking to share some with my brother. He said his stomach wasn’t up to it, so I ate as many as I could and still had a fair amount left. Not wanting to waste free food, I did the best I could to stuff them in the little pocket inside my running shorts, thinking they’d be good fuel for later.
I had been so preoccupied with the gummy bears that I hadn’t noticed my brother’s pace slowing a bit. By this time we were around mile 23—about a 5k easy jog left. As I looked back to my brother, I could see some of the faster walkers gaining on us. “OK”, I said encouragingly, “We can kick it in from here”. ‘You go ahead & I’ll kick you when I get there”, he mumbled.
I knew something wasn’t right, because, for him, that was a pretty weak comeback. I slowed down to get a better look. He had all the signs; shallow breathing, sweaty clammy skin, dilating pupils and incoherent speech. I’d seen these signs five times before. “You’re in trouble”, I said. “What? How?” he gasped. “I think you’re in labor…” He didn’t even crack a smile. He really was in trouble. “Why am I doing this?” he groaned.
Why am I doing this?
It’s that little question that pops into our head when we’re in over it. It’s what we rhetorically ask when the pain has exceeded the gain, the risk has overshadowed the reward and the failure seems like our only best option.
I’m thinking it’s that same thought that flashed through Peter’s mind on the blustery sea. Matthew tells us that Jesus had been walking on the water, while Peter and the dudes were rowing against wind and waves to reach shore. On seeing Jesus, Peter is up for the adventure and asks to join Him. With a single word, “Come”, Jesus invites Peter into His adventure. Peter leaves the secure confines of the boat and begins walking on the water to Jesus. The Gospel writer tells us, “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid…”
That was the moment, the “Why am I doing this?” moment.
What looked good on paper, seemed like a good idea at the time, is suddenly replaced by not only a sinking feeling, but a sinking reality for Peter as he starts slipping into the waves. In an act of desperation Peter cries out, “Lord save me!”
It’s a cry a lot of us can relate to. We get in over our head and are out of options. There’s that point in the race of life when you feel like everything is shutting down, that you’re about to crash, and there’s nothing you can do. And the worst part is, deep down, you know it’s nobody’s fault but your own. You didn’t prepare enough, didn’t cover all the bases, miscalculated or just flat out did wrong and now you’re going down.
What happens next in Peter’s “Why am I doing this?” episode is life changing. The Bible tells us Jesus reached out His hand and took hold of him, saving him. Now, Peter gets a bad rap for lack of faith and a bunch of other theological stuff. For our purposes, here’s what I see: We’re still telling this story today. It’s a simple story about a guy on an adventure who gets in over his head and a God who rescues him and gives him a story he’ll never forget.
I’m thinking for the rest of his days, Peter will never forget the touch of that hand that reached out and grabbed him. Forever etched in his memory would be the grasp of the strong arm that saved him. All the stupid things Peter had done to get himself into trouble his whole life would pale in comparison to that one event.
I suppose what Peter teaches me is that you think you can know something just with your head. You can hear about it and see it from a distance and think you got it. But the truths that become life changing stories, the ones that form us, often don’t appear until we’re in over our heads and think we’ve got nothing left. It’s so often at those times that God shows up, either directly or indirectly, and reminds us that none of us is beyond His reach.
Immanuel, “God with us”, is in the business of leaving the 99 to find the 1, raising up the last to first and leaving Heaven to come alongside our struggle on Earth. He gets it that our eyes are often too big for our stomachs, our good intentions exceed our poor abilities and our heroic ventures can leave us needing to be rescued from ourselves. His arm is always extended to anyone who would simply receive it.
There is this great passage in 1 Corinthians 10 about God not letting us be tempted, or tested, beyond what we can bear. Even when it’s our own fault, even when we’re the ones who got us in over our own heads, even when we offer up that last gasp, “Why am I doing this?” In His faithfulness, the author writes, God will always provide a way out. His arm is always extended.
I was snapped back to reality as my brother slowed to a walk and started making motions as if to hail a taxi, which wasn’t likely to happen on a closed road. We were now less than two miles away and I wasn’t about to let him cash it in this close. I started plotting to shortest legal route to drag his corpse across the finish line.
Then I remembered the gummy bear emergency supply I had in my shorts, and started to pull them out to offer my brother. Of course after 6 miles of running in a small pocket of sweaty shorts, they weren’t in the most pristine condition. In fact, as I pulled them out, they kind of stuck together like those little plastic monkeys in a barrel we used to play with as kids. They had also lost most of the color, with the whole strand taking on a greeny yellowy tint. “They’re still good”, I faked, as I pretended to put one in my mouth. They say the last thing to go before rigor mortis sets in is your sense of humor, so I knew my brother was on his way out. I even thought I heard strains of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” coming from above his head someplace.
Just then a kid with some orange slices showed up and my brother took a handful. OK, so it wasn’t Jesus plucking my brother out of a stormy sea, but it was pretty darn close. After a few slices his color returned to an acceptable pinkish grey and he started breathing easier. A couple more slices had him back to a jog and mumbling about crossing the finish line.
I’m thinking it was a few steps after the finish line, after they had put the medal around his neck and after they had stuck a rose in his hand that my brother got his answer. His disillusioned query at mile 23, “Why am I doing this?” received its response only from the perspective of the completed race. Peter figured it out when he was safely in the boat. I think my brother got it standing in the finisher’s area looking back on the course he had just finished, with the taste of orange slices still lingering in his mouth.
I gotta admit, I like telling this story a lot more than he liked living it. I see it as a little bit of sweet payback. Sure, he made it through with his eyebrows intact and only had to spend a couple hours in the first aid tent, but I got a story out of it that I’ll be telling for a long time. Each time I tell it, it gets a little better.
Well friends, stay on the road, there are a lot of adventures just waiting for you. And if you get in over your head, just remember, His arm is always extended.
I gotta run.