Updated: Jan 19
Art Hutchinson is the author of the acclaimed ‘60s-era redemptive novel, “Covered With Snow” (Carmel Head Books, 2021). The following is a chapter from his upcoming devotional memoir, “Relentless Forward Motion: Quirky Stories and Enduring Lessons for the Christian Life from the Small, Strange World of Ultramarathon Running”
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no delight in them’... before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed. (Ecclesiastes 12:1,6)
I can recall the start of each ultramarathon I ran. Bunched with at most a few hundred others, last-minute instructions were given, encouragements traded, and, a few times, a prayer tossed up. In the moments before a gun fired, a horn sounded, or someone simply said “go,” we were a one-time confab, a flash congregation of sorts. As we set out, there would be polite jostles—not like the steel-faced jack-rabbit starts you see at the Olympics, but jaunty veneers for our disquiet. As a path turned or narrowed, a jovial almost familial chorus would pepper our soft footfall patter. After you; no, after you; I’ve got all day. Me too; hahaha; good luck!
United in that scattering mile-zero moment, the numbered “we” of that year’s event would not be “we” ever again. What lay ahead would pitilessly sift us, and the post-race banquet would testify to that culling. Some who had begun alongside us would be home already, or well on their way, licking shame-pride wounds from a drop-out, or too beat-up to keep their eyes open for the celebration, or else too fast and impatient to stick around to mix with us hoi polloi plodders.
...be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord. (1st Corinthians 15:58)
Late in his long life, I grew close to my grandfather, a retired high school principal. Active in church his whole life, he was well known in his community, enjoying more positive relationships with more people than most of us will ever meet. One time, over a simple supper—just me and him at his home, long after my grandmother passed—I asked him about his recent high school reunion, his seventy-fifth. I should have expected his answer—if I had done the simple math.
Everyone I knew is gone.
He said it offhandedly, only faintly wistful, as if he had long ago reconciled the entailments of the very long life most people instinctively pine for, but few take the time to deeply ponder. He did not mean everyone, obviously. Many former students had come. He meant his peers, his context, everyone close to his age. Everyone. Take a moment to think about that and really enter into what it would be like. Of those men who went to spy out the land, only Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive. (Numbers 14:38)
Mentally walk down the street(s) where you grew up. Skip through places you used to play. Page through a yearbook. Occupy your assigned (or favorite) seat in a class. Recall that first big meeting at your first job. Recall hearing, in your formative years, that news which made banner headlines, interrupted regular programming, or inundated your social media feeds—that frozen, mind-bending, defining shock. You studied adults for cues to deal with a world which would not revert back and, when their wisdom grew thin, you jabbered about it with peers.
Now you pace the bare halls of that memory palace alone, remembering how richly adorned it once was with living tapestries of conversation—efforts to grasp and heal. I can’t forget where I was and what I was doing when. But the chords that historic event struck in you and in others your age—your inner experience of it and your reactions—don’t transfer well. Time’s moths fray what was once a rich fabric of barber-chair banter down to a few curated quasi-historical threads: the narrative images and music someone wanted amplified. But those cultural icons barely begin to capture what it was like to get the news fresh—what it was like to be there. And then it dawns on you. The icons have become the thing. The vivid-visceral sense of it will die with you.
And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:9) ...[Hezekiah] broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it... (2nd Kings 18:4b) And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25b)
I’ve related finishing ultramarathons with others, but those are the exceptions. The greater certainty is that the happy clusters of early miles will bow to entropy. Folks settle into their own paces and face unique problems, on their own timing. Gaps slowly grow and the longer the race, the more evident the dispersion. Mid-race companions of serendipity and expediency are nice—friends-of-the-road to augment your chosen pacer—but the latter miles of an ultra are not only typically painful but also lonely. Even for winners, the finish can be a letdown: sleepy officials and stalwart friends.
Most of us will die alone. I don’t mean with no loved ones or strangers present, though that will happen to some. What I mean is that, even in great cataclysms (air crash, plague, war) we each face our end as if no one were with us. We are born one at a time, and so we go.
...it is appointed for men to die once and after this, judgment. (Hebrews 9:27b) And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them; and they were judged, every one according to their deeds. (Revelation 20:12-13).
The believer is not alone in that intensely personal moment. Christ is our great fear-banishing hope! ...perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment... (1st John 4:18) ...[Christ] has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death... (Colossians 1:21) He gathers and firmly secures all His own. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. (John 10:27-28) They continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel... (Colossians 1:22-23) But those who are not His sheep do not hear His voice; He does not know them; they do not follow Him; He does not give them eternal life; they perish eternally. ...he who does not gather with Me, scatters. (Luke 11:23)
The contrast is stark, but in Christ, both our individual lives (and all of history) look different from what eyes of flesh might see at a seventy-fifth high school reunion. Later in Solomon’s life, he recognized that apart from Christ, everything he had sought for in this fallen world was vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2,14, 3:19, 12:8)—chaos bound for dissolution in outer darkness. (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30) Or, take the Apostle Paul, who declares all his achievements and accolades from the world to be dung in comparison to knowing Christ. (Philippians 3:7-8)
Exiled under the curse, man’s lot is indeed a hard going around in circles—as one old tune used to characterize it—nothing from nothing back to nothing. By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, God tells Adam in Genesis 3:19, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Elsewhere, God confirms that ashes-to-ashes dust-to-dust funeral certainty. You turn man back into dust and say, ‘Return, O children of men.’ (Psalm 90:3) You hide Your face, they are dismayed; You take away their spirit, they expire and return to their dust. (Psalm 104:29) All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. (Ecclesiastes 3:20)
All afterlife hope outside Christ is made-up nirvana, the opposite of heaven’s rich paradise. The term, shared among Eastern religions, means “blowing out” or “extinguishing,” as with a candle. Poof. Gone. Dark. Cold. Contrast that with the vision of seven churches which our Lord shows the Apostle John in the first chapter of the Revelation: lampstands lit by star-angels, held (maintained) in His hand. Or take God’s promise, in Isaiah 42:3b (which Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, at 12:20) that, a smoldering (or a “dimly burning”) wick He will not extinguish.
Nirvana can also indicate a state eerily close to Alzheimer’s: forgetting or being unknown, subsumed into a nihilistic oblivion. It’s a favorite fantasy terminus for those who would twist Scripture’s plain doctrine of hell—of eternal conscious torment with no reprieve—into “lights-out” ha-ha-missed-me annihilationism, with no accountability for how one lives, or any eternal justice for those who elude imperfect civic attempts at it.
Even within the visible church—those who would call themselves Christian, and do Christian things, for a time, perhaps an extended time, but without the supernatural re-birth, the inside-out change of heart which Jesus describes to Nicodemus in John 3 as essential to see the kingdom of God (...you must be born again...)—there is inevitably sifting and sorting. In Jesus’ Matthew 13 parable, three of the four soil types never bear fruit. (And the success of the fourth is not to our credit, but solely to God’s.) As such, God’s people must neither gloat about nor fear what may appear a high drop-out rate. Jesus responds to the impossibility of a rich man entering God’s kingdom not by denying it (in man’s power, the context for their question) but with: ...the things that are impossible with people are possible with God. (Luke 18:25-27) ...many are called, but few chosen, Jesus says nine chapters later, in Matthew 22:14. They went out from us, but they were not [really] of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. (1st John 2:19) A thousand may fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but it (destruction) shall not approach you. (Psalm 91:7)
Those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28)—i.e., those in Christ, history’s Author and Redeemer—can look beyond emptying memory mansions, thinning ranks of peers, and waning physical abilities to preserved treasure above all imagining: Christ Himself. All history—grand, intimate, or anywhere in between—will be revealed as having been saturated with purpose, moving toward a culmination which answers the big catechism question: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.
Just as Christ draws all (kinds of) men to Himself (John 12:32) and firmly holds us there in His metaphorical hand (John 10:28-29) He also integrates all things in Himself. In the Middle Ages, universities were birthed on the idea of Christ as the sole sense-making integration point for all knowledge: unity in diversity. At the head of His body, the church, He renews the world which He subjected to death and decay. (Genesis 3:14-19, Romans 8:18-23) His rule and reign is the very opposite of scattering, chaos, and confusion—of thinning-out, purposeless nirvana vanity. Instead, Christ the Creator and Tree of Life brings order, beauty, and meaning to all of it.
If that feels too “heady,” just camp on this. The lonely feeling my grandfather expressed—all his peers dead and gone—is redeemed in Christ. His body succumbed before his 80th “reunion,” but he went with the hope all believers can claim: knowing God for eternal life. (John 17:3) And that is where the Christian’s hope differs from my ultramarathon metaphor about things thinning out. The way I felt at the end of most of my ultras (of wheels coming off the proverbial bus) is an imprecise idiom for what comes after life’s ultimate finish.
An ultra’s physical failings mimic life’s end as we perceive it to some extent. And there is a final, objective, individual judgment also—of the clock and of the rankings. What was our time? How well did we place? Did we compete according to the rules? (2nd Timothy 2:5) But for the believer, these things are fulfilled in and by Christ, by His grace, through our faith-trust in Him. (Ephesians 2:8) For the believer, because of what Christ did—atoning for our sin and crediting us with His righteousness—what lies behind death’s door is radically different from what the unbeliever encounters. Believers find themselves instantly in perfect fellowship with God and enjoying glory unimaginable. Death is not just cessation of all of life’s ills but an explosion of joy, the illumination of vivid, glorious multi-dimensional reality as He designed it to be.
That is to say, it is good. And because Christ is there, very good, too beautiful, good, and true for unglorified minds and bodies to appreciate. Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2nd Corinthians 4:16-18)
And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4) Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)