“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” Hebrews 12:1 New Revised Standard Version
“Just keep swimming.” Dorie, Finding Nemo
With all of the unsettling news that is constantly before us, it has been refreshing and inspirational this past week to read about Diana Nyad’s unprecedented swim from Cuba to Florida. Swimming that distance meant over 50 hours in the water. What’s even more incredible is that she made this swim at the age of 62. I’m a bit younger, and I’m thrilled when I push myself on the elliptical. Over 50 hours of swimming. 62 years old. Incredible!
But this was not Nyad’s first attempt. At the age of 60 she went through the intense training necessary for the swim from Cuba to Florida. After her first attempt, she gave a TED talk in which she describes what happened on that initial try. She was swimming strong. She was physically and mentally ready. But well into the journey, she was stung by a box jellyfish. The box jellyfish is the most venomous of all the ocean’s creatures. The body’s first response is excruciating, burning pain. After that paralysis begins to set in. But she kept swimming. Her team’s EMT who was in one of the boats surrounding her jumped in to help and he was also stung. He was a young man in excellent physical condition, but the pain of that sting was so debilitating he was flat on his back, trying to give himself epinephrine shots so he could then help her. A medical team from Florida arrived hours later and made a floating ICU around her. She kept swimming. She swam until she was stung again. She accepted this would be a staged swim and got out of the water. However the effect of the stings on her body was too much and she abandoned her attempt. Her words; she failed.
As inspiring as I found her description of that first swim, what I found most powerful was the why. Why did she decide to do this in the first place? She turned 60 and she wasn’t happy about it. Those first 60 years had gone by in a blink of an eye. In the 1970’s she had broken swimming records, but hadn’t swam competitively since. Even with her successes, she realized that she had spent a majority of time in negative thinking. She focused on her failures and her mistakes only.
Around this time her 82 year old mother died. In addition to dwelling in the past, Nyad now dreaded the future. If she died at the same age as her mother, that was only 22 years away. What would she do with the rest of her life in time that was fleeting? She set a goal, she created a dream. That dream was so big, so challenging it would push her to be fully present in her life. There would be no time for negative dwelling in the past or worrying about the unknown of the future. Chasing this dream would be the hardest thing she could undertake. As Nyad observed, the sport of swimming is like life. You face endless obstacles. But (my paraphrase) do you sink or do you just keep swimming?
The author of Hebrews had a different kind of race in mind in this first verse of chapter 12. It was a race of faith with the goal, the prize being eternal life. No matter what obstacles or challenges the world throws at us, we have to persevere. We have to keep running this race, knowing that we are running toward God with Christ as our example and “pioneer.” But I think the underlying message of this verse and of Diana Nyad’s accomplishment is hope. Hope isn’t just something that comes to us. We must persist in hope. We must persevere in hope. We have to cling to hope even though every other voice out there may tell us we’re nuts to do so. Hope requires powerful persistence. Hope requires being willing to dream something so big, so different from what reality seems to be that it seems impossible. We read throughout scripture that the abundant life God wants us to have is going to be radically different than our expectations. The kingdom is not what we think it will be. What may seem impossible to us is always possible for God. So we persist in hope.
Concluding her talk, Nyad paraphrased the poet Mary Oliver; what will we do with our one wild, precious life? We have been given a wild, precious life. How will we live it? Will we live a life of persistent hope and seemingly impossible dreams? Will we live a life of courage, trusting that God is with us in every step of this race no matter the obstacles? Will we live a life abundant in compassion, mercy and love? What will we do with our wild, precious life?