Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
In retrospect, Stephen Amaral probably should have known from the beginning that something was amiss.
Might have, too, if he hadn’t been paying close attention to...well...a miss.
Stephen, from Crossville, Tennessee, was minding his business a couple of weeks ago when a woman who lived nearby approached him and asked if she could swim in his pool. Stephen, a little surprised, said yes. He was even more surprised when he saw that the woman was not dressed in the traditional way for swimming.
Nor was she dressed at all, for that matter.
After she splashed around for a while, she asked Stephen if he would mind helping her towel off. He was unselfishly willing to do so, and even went the second mile to help her again after she decided to go back in for another dip.
All told, Stephen sat by the pool supervising his neighbor’s natatorial escapades for about 20 minutes.
Which was plenty of time for her boyfriend to enter Stephen’s house and steal about $1200 worth of his stuff.
Reports are that Mr. Amaral is working with a sketch artist to find the thieves. So far he’s been able to tell the artist that he’s pretty sure the woman had a face...
The media have been having a pretty good time with this story, at Mr. Amaral’s expense. But it’s not entirely fair to laugh at him unless you’ve never found yourself distracted. You can laugh if you’ve never turned your eyes away from something valuable for the sake of something pretty or exciting or interesting in the short term. It’s how people lose families for a quick fling, or careers for momentary, illicit gain, or friendships over one selfish act. It’s how people compromise principles and values and lose reputations.
It’s how people let their faith slip away.
It’s the story of the human race, a theme that runs through our history. It certainly runs through Scripture:
Judas betrays Jesus for a handful of silver.
Jonah runs from God’s calling and mission for a quiet life of safety and ease.
David sacrifices his friend Uriah - and potentially God’s favor - for Bathsheeba.
Esau trades his inheritance to quiet a rumbling stomach.
It runs all the way back to our origins. It’s why Adam and Eve would trade the food with which God would have sustained them forever for a piece of fruit that looked better, somehow, in the moment.
They got distracted. They lost sight of what mattered. They believed the lie that they could have what they wanted right then and the good gifts God wanted to give them at the same time.
Recall, for a moment, Peter’s experience in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. Wind and waves raging around him, unable to get to safety on land. When he sees Jesus walking toward them - on the water - he can’t wait for him to get to the boat. He asks for Jesus to tell him to come out on the water, believing that if Jesus says he can, he can.
Right up until Peter starts to notice the wind and water more, and pay attention to Jesus less.
It’s not that we consciously choose to give up something valuable. Often we just get scared, or tired, or excited, or sad. We find something that offers comfort, security, or happiness. And we fail to imagine the potential cost.
“You of little faith:” that’s how Jesus rebuked Peter for his moment of doubt, and that rebuke should sting us, too, every time we fail to trust God enough to take his hand and walk where he tells us we can walk. Every time we fail to believe in Jesus and stay in the boat, or try to walk on the water without keeping our eyes on him.
The writer of Hebrews changes the metaphor to running a race, but the same realities apply. As we run the race through life that God has marked out for us, there will be things that hamper and entangle us. They’ll distract us. They’ll slow us down. While we’re paying attention to them, while our attention is diverted, our lives will be pillaged of everything that is really good, really valuable, really important. The only option is to throw those things off, to shed them like - well, like Stephen Amaral’s neighbor shed her clothes. But that’s exactly the problem: if human nature tells us anything, it’s that the things that threaten us most are sometimes the very things that most easily distract us.
So it can’t be just us, with white knuckles, gritted teeth, and our own will power. Our faith is about much more than our own vigilance, our own ability to lock into what really matters with laser-like focus, ignoring the distractions. We don’t have the wisdom to figure out what’s really valuable, nor do we have the ability to shut out the distractions. So it boils down to a person: One who has run the race already, and who was able to avoid the distractions and be faithful to what matters.
Jesus’ faithful life, unmarred by wrong turns and attention lapses, unwavering even in his own death, is credited to those of us who put our trust in him. So it’s no wonder that the writer tells us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus...”
Fixing our eyes on Jesus. Not on all those pretty, interesting, exciting things that might distract us. Not on holding all those things at arm’s length. Our problem, probably, is that our minds and hearts aren’t focused enough on Jesus. We don’t dwell on his words, his actions, or his faithfulness. So it’s no wonder that we’re so easily distracted.
To me, the best thing about Stephen Amaral’s story is what happened after his guest finished swimming. Mr. Amaral told police he invited her to church.
I doubt Mr. Amaral watched her swim for 20 minutes, waiting for a chance to invite her to church. But, at some point, it seems that maybe he remembered who he was. Or who he wanted to be. At some point, it seems that he remembered Jesus.
Maybe our attention has already been diverted, and that’s the best we can do right now, too. But that’s enough. Remember Jesus, put the eyes of your heart back on him, throw off what’s entangling you, and run with perseverance from here on.
And look with suspicion on neighbors who come to swim in your pool, sans suit.
On second thought, maybe “look” is a poor choice of words there....