Another amazing one from Chad Bird, author of Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul

A few years ago I ran my first half-marathon. And won. By accident.

The northern panhandle city of Amarillo, Texas, boasts scant trees, passels of cowboys, and a handful of runners who—taking Bob Seger literally—are always “running against the wind.”

It was no exception on September 1, 2009, when I lined up with hundreds of them to run 13.1 miles in the ever-predictable 25-30 mph gusts. I was a relative newbie to the sport. Running had morphed into my healthiest anti-depressant. So with a few 5ks and 10ks under my belt, I signed up for the annual “Mayor’s Half-Marathon.”

My goal? To finish. And live to tell about it.

Five or six miles into the course, we’d all settled into our various packs of runners, united by a common pace. On the horizon I could barely spy the elites, spearheaded by a long-legged brunette, who ran like the proverbial deer. They disappeared around a corner and I glanced at my Garmin to check my speed. All was well. I could do this.

Mile six kicked into mile seven, and seven to eight. Around that time, I came to one of the many intersections in the course. The race officials had pushed hand-written signs into the dirt, arrows pointing which way to go. But it was a little confusing. Was I supposed to turn left or right? The wind had twisted the signs so much it was hard to tell. I paused for just a second, shrugged, and headed to the right.

The remaining miles were a sweaty blur. Another runner and I were the only ones remaining in our pace group. We wound through quiet neighborhoods, down trafficy service roads, up tortuous hills. During the last mile of the race, I passed my co-runner and crossed the finish line with a time of 1:39:49.

Not bad, I thought. Better than expected.

Yeah, you could say that. As I lay on the grass, praying my lungs would soon stop burning, a large countenance looked down on me. It was the race organizer, a strange, non-smiling smile stretched like a ruler across his face. “Congratulations,” he said, with the excitement of a convenience store clerk. “It appears you’ve taken first place.”

You’ve probably already got this one figured out. Remember that confusing intersection? It seems the elite group of runners had played Follow the Leader a little too well. She turned left instead of right, and the rest is, as they say, history. By the time they realized their error, it was too late. This 39-year-old novice was well ahead of them, destined to take home his first running trophy. Completely by accident.

Trophies are funny things. They all tell lies. Or, at best, embody half-truths. They are as iconic of our failures as they are of our achievements. For behind every trophy is a story usually left untold. A story in which we are far from a hero.

I’ve always been a success junkie. Snorting achievements. Smoking victories. Relishing the high of doing well, outperforming others, feeling the rush of inner adulation as my ego swelled. I fall off the wagon and climb back on, only to fall off again. The trophies, degrees, awards of my past are—at least in part—milestones of an addiction to self-justification.

So it is with all of us, in one form or fashion. We’re not so much homo sapiens as homo iustificans, a “justifying man,” those who seek to justify their existence. I drive a truck in the freight business, dealing mainly with receivers and warehouse workers. More than once, I’ve witnessed an employee who, when he was promoted from merely pulling stock to driving a forklift, could barely climb onto the seat since his head was so bloated at his upward mobility.

You don’t have to become partner in a law firm, earn a Ph.D., or win gold in the 100-meter sprint to devolve into a homo iustificans. All’s that’s necessary is to be a little better, a little faster, a little higher than your cohorts. The trophies on our walls, or hanging from our hearts, often whisper the anti-gospel narrative of our ongoing quest to make our lives matter by becoming the hero of our own biography.

That’s why these trophies are funny—in a gallows humor sort of way. We all fail in our victories. There’s always more to the story. The doctorate we earned by missing much of our children’s growing up years. The management position we achieved at the cost of our marriage. The half-marathon trophy I took home when people faster than me made a simple mistake. The grammar trophy some just awarded themselves by tsk-tsking my use of “faster than me” instead of “faster than I.”

Our awards, as much as we might treasure them, are all monuments to the vanity of chasing after justification based upon merit, accomplishment, blind luck, or superior intelligence. In the end, we all lose.

And in that loss, the Lord looms nigh.

He too laughs at our trophies, but in a way that invites us to an inside joke, to some healthy, self-deprecating humor. The Lutheran theologian, Norman Nagel, once quipped, “Free men under the Gospel laugh at themselves; bound men under the Law laugh at others.” Christ frees us to laugh at ourselves, at our foolish crusades to find meaning apart from him, at our chasing after shadows when the Light of Light shines down on us from his cross.

In a Far Side cartoon, Gary Larson pictures three dogs standing upright in front of a fireplace. Hanging above the mantle is the front half a car, the left front fender badly crushed. The canine owner of his trophy has been bragging to his guest about how he acquired this grand vehicle. About that time, his wife walks up, a tray of glasses in her hand, apron on her waist. “Don’t listen to him, George,” she says to their guest. “He didn’t catch it…the stupid thing swerved to miss him and ran into a tree.”

All our trophies tell lies. Hide painful truths. Perpetuate self-serving mythologies.

And then there’s the trophy of the cross. A wholly different variety of trophy. The monument of pure self-sacrifice that secured for all meaning, importance, worth, justification. Unlike our trophies, this one required nothing from us. But it gives everything to us. Here is God’s work, his sweat, his blood, his victory. And our salvation.

I’m learning, very slowly, to laugh at my achievements, both those I earn by hard work and those I earn by others taking the wrong turn. Because under the perspective of eternity, they are both the same. Any pleasure they bestow is ephemeral, and deceptive.

But the cross, and the God who hangs upon it, beckons a different response. At that trophy I smile, and I worship, with the knowledge of one who recognizes in that gift what I could never achieve on my own, but which is mine, and yours, solely by grace.