I’m fixing my eyes on Jesus as I run towards the finish line. I’m going to be like the great runners who came before me and I’ve heard many stories about their triumphs. David slayed a giant with just a sling and a stone, Moses parted an entire sea, Joshua led an attack on a fortified city which fell only with the sound of voices. They were able to accomplish such great feats and become immortalized forever because of their astounding faith in God. It is God who empowered them to do the unthinkable. God was with them wherever they went.
I imagine my name listed in the “Hall of Faith” alongside of them. I see the greatness of what they did and it inspires me to continue in belief. If they could do what was seemingly impossible, there is no limit to what I can accomplish with God on my side. Everything about my story has only cemented in my head that I am one of them. Looking back at my life, I see God’s hand at work.
I’m the oldest of nine kids, the youngest of whom is 4 years-old. I grew up in an Evangelical church and made friends who remain with me to this day. I was taught from a young age to love other people and treat them with respect. I loved going to church and never wanted to leave. I was set on a solid foundation with the lessons I was taught and the example which was set for me.
My family was evicted from our apartment my freshman year of high school and we moved in with many different families. My family was spilt up to live in different places throughout the year, but through it all God remained with us and eventually brought us back to live together in a new apartment. The most amazing thing about that experience is that the eldest daughter of the family we first moved in with is now my wife. That is a blessing from God if I ever saw one.
Everything I’ve put my mind to has had some kind of payoff. I remember playing baseball even when I was three years old. All of my hard work eventually landed me a scholarship and my work ethic carried me through some of the most grueling days of college: from 6 am lifting to 5 hour practices. Even though it never worked out the way I thought it would, it was more than worth it because of the memories and friendships that were forged through the process.
I was blessed with the chance to go to college and study under some professors who would help shape me into the man I am today. I met pastors who made a disciple of me and I explored new churches, engaging with many different types of believers. I know much more about the world than I did before and am no longer oblivious to many of things I used to reject offhand. I stand right now at the highest point in my life, knowing that things will not always be this way, but trusting that God will be with me through thick and thin. He has never left my side. I don’t believe he ever will.
I can hear the runners of Hebrews 11 cheering as we speak. I drown in the applause and bask in the light because, you know what: I deserve this. I’ve been through challenges and overcome them because of my faith in God. I have been through the darkness and this is my chance to celebrate finally escaping the tunnel. I see the faces of David, Joshua, and Abraham and they smile at me. When I get to the end, Jesus is going to be so proud of me.
But I turn my head and, among the runners, I see a man fallen on the ground. Every ounce of blood in my body tells me to keep running, to ignore him and stay on track, but my heart tells me otherwise. I jog across the gravel to place where he lay and I recognize who it is instantly: it’s Saul. No, not the Saul who became Paul or the one we better call, but the first king of Israel. He keeps trying to get up and run and but it’s almost as if an invisible force holds him down; his hands are dry and cut up from the falls he’s taken.
Why is Saul so important? Why is he even here? I mean, he’s the bad guy isn’t he? He disobeyed God on many occasions and tried to kill David, the “man after God’s own heart.” He made unholy sacrifices and refused to follow God’s orders in battle. God sentenced him to death because of his faithlessness, right? This is a man of unbelief: no wonder he can’t run. If he would just…
He glances up at me and I get a better glimpse of his pale, pain-stricken face. My heart rises in my chest and my eyes widen in horror as we lock eyes for the millisecond before he puts his head back down. Those eyes are so hollow, so lifeless, and so broken, but the face is so familiar. The vertical scar on his forehead and the unshaven goatee bring back countless memories that were suppressed for so long.
It’s my dad.
He’s the second youngest of six kids. He never got the chance to go to college because his older sisters did. He grew up Catholic in a home with an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abusive father. He would watch his dad go to church and worship peacefully, but then would be scared of him the second they left the sanctuary. He knew his dad loved him but he swore that he would never be like him.
He is now the father to 11 kids, all of whom love him. I grew up watching and playing sports with him: he taught me how to play baseball from the time I was three years old. I inherited my work ethic, and my stubborn attitude, from him. I cannot count the numerous hours he spent outside, in the sun, rain, or snow (mostly snow), trying to save our family money by fixing a broken vehicle.
He was a factory worker for many years of his life at a company his older brother managed – so of course he was made the brunt of jokes. He worked as a TSA screener, a job that he loved but didn’t pay very well, and he ended up leaving it to pursue a childhood dream of being a mailman. One mistake, just one small mistake, cost him that job and left him without employment and without a place to return. He couldn’t tolerate another day at the factory; there were no more openings at TSA; he was left having to restart or give up.
Looking back, I honestly don’t know what he chose because I was only 11 at the time. What I do know is that he went without a job for many years, which culminated in our eventual eviction from our apartment. We had to move around to many places, the first of which was difficult because he felt ashamed in the presence of such a well put-together family. He lived with my mom and younger siblings at a homeless shelter for many months, where the best meal they had is whatever they could get from Walgreens. God wasn’t there as a comforting figure: he was there telling him to get his act together.
No matter what he applied to, he couldn’t land a job that he enjoyed. He made money, but had never been taught how to spend it. He went to church, but he always felt people looking down on him for being a horrible father. His work ethic and stubbornness reinforced the belief that he didn’t need anyone to help him, so he fought through life on his own. He couldn’t tolerate the man he had become and what he had created.
So he left us to start a new life.
He tried to run, but an invisible force held him back. He tried to stand, but kept tripping over what he could not see. God stood before him as his accuser. God was not with him.
God was with me.
The crowd has stopped cheering, no more runners pass by me, and my eyes focus on the wounded and defeated man in front of me. He taught me right from wrong and how to remain safe in this chaotic world. He spent countless hours helping develop my skills so I could do what I love. He spent more hours training me how to respond when life doesn’t go according to plan.
So why is it that this man, who put in so much effort to be a godly example, is the one left on the ground? Why did he always feel like God was against him while I knew that God was for me? No one cheers for him anymore. No one bothers to be near him anymore. If I’m the hero of this story, he is the tragic hero: the one destined to fall no matter how much he tries to fight it. As I am striving to be David, he has ended up like Saul.
For the first time in my life, David is forgotten, and it is Saul who deserves my attention.
I no longer need to win this race. I don’t need the glory and the raucous applause as I cross the finish line. I will stay right here because when I look at my father, I see a man who sacrificed everything to make sure I got to live a full life.
I’m fixing my eyes on Jesus.
*I am indebted to J. Cheryl Exum’s book, Tragedy and Biblical Narrative, for opening my eyes to the story of Saul. It is because of Saul that I have been able to wrestle with my own story and look at it through fresh eyes. It is certainly worth the read.