I was recently asked to participate in a Lenten project at our church. The task was to take a Bible passage and interpret what it means to your life. Our Associate Pastor assigned Psalm 31: 9-16. It reads like this:
Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and body with grief.
10 My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,[a]
and my bones grow weak.
11 Because of all my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friends—
those who see me on the street flee from me.
12 I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.
13 For I hear many whispering,
“Terror on every side!”
They conspire against me
and plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hands;
deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
from those who pursue me.
16 Let your face shine on your servant;
save me in your unfailing love.
You may wonder what that might have to do with running and riding and swimming. But there’s plenty, and a potentially important lesson to think about even for people who are not Christian believers. This is what I wrote.
“Mercy is the great collective in this world, for it is formed of Forgiveness, Love, and Hope. When we find ourselves pressed by fear of loss or called to carry out some task seemingly beyond our abilities, the first instinct might not be to ask for mercy. That sounds too much like an excuse, or giving up before you get started.
Yet Psalm 31 instructs us on what to do, and how to ask: “Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.” That’s not just an admission of weakness. It is also a call for strength.
Think about the practical applications. A runner standing on the starting line of a distance race already knows there will be pain to encounter. In that situation, we might be screaming “Lord have Mercy” on the inside even as we lift our eyes to thank God for the ability to run, or just to breathe. We should pray first in gratitude for these things, and then determine what is possible. It does not mean we’ll achieve everything we set out to do, but we will know that we are loved now matter what the outcome might be. That is a mercy unto itself.”
See, I’ve always had problems with the idea that God would help you perform better than you might do on your own. I don’t think that’s God’s role at all. I don’t think praying for a win or even a personal record is the purpose of prayer.
The idea that “all things are possible through God” is inviting, however. Yet it has been my experience that the things possible through God often have nothing to do with our own expectations or desires. They have everything to do with comprehending our ultimate place in the universe. I’ve seen people close to me die. Parents and a spouse. I know what it means for life to come to an end. I know what it means to have mercy extended before that happens, and why it is so important to show mercy however you can to others. It is our true role as human beings to do so.
That is why mercy is so important. Human beings are blessed (and cursed) with the ability to feel emotional pain and emotional joy. We travel between these poles in our lives from birth to death.
It seems to me that our efforts in endurance events are a rehearsal of those dynamics. We bring suffering on ourselves in order to better understand our minds and our hearts. We also compete with others as a measure of our efforts. Sometimes that competition can feel all-consuming. We falsely compare ourselves in some ways, and choose to ignore it in others. We deceive ourselves that way. It’s hard to know where to fix your motives. But through time and trials, you learn. And that’s why it is good to compete. It teaches you the core of your being. So when people cross themselves before a game and point to the sky, I can’t help wondering at times if they’re praying for the right or wrong thing. In the end, that is understanding what’s most important. Sometimes winning isn’t.
Some of us call God into that play because the depth of understanding necessary to comprehend reality truly goes beyond our grasp. It is too great for our limited minds to engage.
That does not mean we should not try to figure out the world. Science is as beautiful and necessary as religion in this world. Yet if you’ve played that game where you try to imagine infinity, and that it just goes on and on and on, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I suggest that is where science and religion converge. We desire to know the unknown. We also sense our limits. Yet it is our job to push on. To transform ourselves. To transcend reality. To feel spiritual as well as real.
It has been my experience that there is a force in the universe that truly can help us comprehend our own successes and failings. It aligns with what we call love, and it helps us know the power of forgiveness for others and for ourselves. It is thus healing and inspiring at the same time.
That’s what I take to the starting line, and everything I do these days. The will to try is balanced by the acceptance of forgiveness. Many times in my career I’ve been fortunate to find that sweet spot in time, the place where the joy of competing is rewarded with the relaxation of knowing I’m doing my best. But not always.
When that hasn’t happened, there have indeed been times of grief and sorrow. But that’s not where God or the physical universe really calls us to stay. There is an energy in life calling us back. While we’re here, that is the parallel mercy of living. It’s always good to try.
So to conclude my Lenten observation, I wrote this short prayer.
“Dear God. Your mercies in this world are not always seen, but we know they exist through grace. Give us the heart of gratitude and the hope that mercy provides, and prevails. In your name we pray. Amen.”