Tuesday, June 24, 2014

On Redemption and the Spartan Race 30 Burpee Penalty

       I don't think it's too much hyperbole
to describing my family and I as having "fallen in love" with  Spartan Race. It's provided a shared activity that enlists our sense of adventure, promotes camaraderie, gives common goals and offers a fun struggle that we enjoy on even more indescribable levels. Spartan Race has achieved something that many other Obstacle Course Race (OCR) companies attempt (but in my opinion do not do nearly as well); that being, to offer a holistic experience that follows the participant home and promotes an integrated lifestyle - combining fitness, community and networks of fellow racers striving to better themselves. The race itself is at the heart of the "Spartan experience," wherein one trains for the event, participates in the struggles and strives to complete it in the shortest time they can. In concentric circles resonating out from that are the training guides, the inspirational stories, the subculture of being "Spartan" and the group chatting lines from the "300" movie.

       No small amount of analogies come out of this themed fitness cult, and I have not been sparing in pointing them out. Another one came out during a conversation with my son the other day. As we walked together during an 8 mile workout, the subject turned to painful life lessons I had undergone from which he could benefit (learning from some of my mistakes instead of having to repeat them on his own). Around mile four, I shared the difference between the truth of redemption found in Jesus Christ versus the legalism I had been taught in the fundamentalist tradition on my youth. I explained how, in some church traditions, parents are so desirous that their children avoid certain mistakes (sins) that they "over sell" the permanence of consequences and "under sell" the possibility of redemption from those sins. The resulting effect can be that a defeatist attitude, "cursing" the young impressionable believer with a sense of everlasting brokenness. "What? Not a virgin when you got married? You're forever screwed!" Many that grew up in this tradition wound up losing their faith altogether when they realized that the perfection required to be a "good Christian boy/girl" was either not really possible, or was achieved at the cost of necessary wisdom for functioning off the Evangelical "reservation."

       Fortunately, not all react to this by punting their Christian rearing altogether. Some are able to later critique that legalist/defeatist warping of "God's Law" by learning more of the Father's character and the redemption offered through the Lord Jesus Christ. Are there consequences for sin? Often. Are the consequences permanent? Could be. Is redemption available? ALWAYS! The thing about God's grace is that it's not predictable, not expected and not deserved...but it's always there, lingering in the background available to the penitent. It is this same grace that says to the sinner, "Yeah. You blew it. Own it. Take your lumps, and then let's back to work." It's the grace that, no matter how severe the consequences of the failure, keep the penitent on life's track, moving forward in developing the person whose life is meant to glorify Christ. It is this grace that invades the mind of the sinner, during the darkest moments of self-condemnation, and says, "You're not out of it. You're still in the race. Let's keep going. Yes it hurts. Good for you in taking responsibility, but there's still more race to run. Let's get going."

       By analogy, the legalistic tradition of my youth would have said, "Failed an obstacle? You're out of the race. Go home." But not Spartan Race. They require a 30 burpee penalty for missed obstacles. This is in contrast to many "mud runs" that offer no challenge to those failing obstacles, allowing participants to walk around if they don't want to scale that wall, traverse those "monkey bars," carry that weight or climb that rope. Those would be akin to the traditions that so "over sell" grace and "under sell" consequence as to produce in their followers a sense of license to "do as I want." We've all seen those people too. "Pregnant in high school? How can this be happening to me? It's so not fair!" Yeah, we're all sorry for your plight, but cannot join you in the deflection of responsibility onto anyone else. But Spartan Race has offered a living analogy what is closer to the actual truth: unsavory consequences that keep you in the race, able to keep going and finish strong.

       By having the 30 burpees penalty, the motivation is kept to train for the obstacles, to strive for the fitness to complete them when we encounter them. I do not like burpees. They are an excellent exercise technique ahead of the race, but during a race they can deplete valued energy, producing a cumulative effect of making the next obstacle even more challenging. Nevertheless, I'm thankful for them. They mirror redemption in the real world. Only in someone's Pollyanna world are there no consequences for failed ethical, moral, character obstacles in life. But neither does failure kick us out of the "race" of life either. The examples range from the extremes of a recovering from a failed grade in school to turning toward a life of virtue while serving time in prison for a previous crime...and everything in between. No failure, regardless of how many "burpeess" one has had to do in life, ultimately prevents us from making those continuous steps toward the finish line, to take our place among those that never gave up either.

       To be clear: giving up, checking out, quitting...is a choice. I know of racers that performed 300+ burpees at a race, lacking the strength or technique to complete 10 obstacles or more; yet they completed the penalties and crossed the finish line, resolved to train for future races so that the obstacles could be successfully overcome. Penalties are like that. They motivate us to train harder and overcome that life "obstacle" the next time we encounter it. Without them, where is the motivation to grow, to develop, to strengthen those parts of our character that are weak? And yet the penalty, though unpleasant and unwelcome, keeps us in the race, on the course, at the struggle and among those striving too. Some act (and even teach) as though the proper response to a failed life "obstacle" would be to walk off the course in defeat, but the reality is that it is God's grace that says "30 burpees!" so that we will BOTH feel the need to grow AND stay on course.

       This is the analogy of redemption I have seen in the Spartan Race. 30 burpees "redeems" the racer by offering consequence for failure and motivation to grow, but also keeps them in race and moving forward. This is closer to the true nature of grace we see for sinners in this life. The legalists says "Failed obstacle means out of the race." The licentious (also "antinomianism" for theology geeks) think there are no penalties and it's all just a fun "mud run." But the "Spartan" sees those burpees as redemptive penalty that motivates more training, more focus and renewed determination while keeping them in the race, on the course, at the struggle and numbered among pilgrims all doing burpees together and then advancing toward the end with shared understanding of what life is all about.

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