There once was a boy who played a lot of video games. He always got picked last in gym class and he had started to believe he wasn’t ever going to find something he was good at.
There once was a girl who had lots of friends but lived in fear they would find out her secret shame. She lived in a household with lots of pain. She wondered if the scars would ever disappear.
There was another boy for whom running came easy. He was good at it, but had never really risked working too hard. It was easier to give it half an effort and feel ok about the results, than it was to give it his all and not live up to his potential. He liked hearing people talk about how good he could be. Deep down he was afraid they were wrong.
And there were more—some happy, some melancholy, some supported, some alone. Some were anxious about their changing bodies, and some were awkward in theirs. There were kids new to town, and kids whose parents had lived in that place for generations. All of them were figuring out who they are—that’s the cross you bear in middle school after all—so many variables to navigate and so little hard data on the depth of your own reserves.
Somehow they found their way to cross country practice. Many of them weren’t sure why, but whatever brought them there told them it might be worth a shot. Maybe there was something there for them. Maybe they could find a place -- their place. Maybe they would find friends, teammates, comfort for their pain and a way to excel.
The crazy thing was they found a different kind of discomfort, but it felt good. They found hard work and they figured out new things about themselves in the process. They found teammates who were figuring things out, too. And they heard voices shouting their names with “you can do it” attached to people who they never knew cared about them.
All those young ones find a way to practice not shying away from a challenge. They find a way to keep going when it’s hard; they find out they can do it. They try out building something within themselves one step at a time. They can run when they are tired, they can move out of their comfort zone, and they can finish the race. They can get better at something. They can surprise themselves with what they are able to do. These young ones carrying all these feelings and questions and fears and aspirations create a team, and that team makes many people rejoice and be glad.
Redemption is a lot like that: you learn you can keep going when it’s hard, and you find provisions and support sometimes where you least expect it.
And life is like that: a series of challenges and new adventures where your resilience helps your story find its rhythm.
Cross Country isn’t about running fast, it’s about living life with courage.
And so the moral of the story is that courage isn’t what we learn from life, it’s what we find within ourselves when we take a chance and give ourselves to life. And finding our courage and feeling its capacity to make good things happen makes the world a better place.
*The descriptions here are a conflation of stories of different runners I have coached these last few years, but no one description refers to a specific runner. I often wonder how I would have made it through my adolescence and teenage years without running. So, there’s a part of me in those descriptions, too, I am sure. In the spirit of parables, the story points us beyond itself to a larger wisdom about life. The middle school runners I coach inspire me to re-member that everyday.
The Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, PhD is a theologian, minister and author of Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports. Marcia and her family have been involved in football in the NFL and at Division I collegiate levels for over two decades. She is also a middle school cross country and track coach in West Lafayette, IN.