Fr. Bryan is a friend of the blog, and a priest in the Pacific Northwest. The other day, he sent me an email, encouraging me to write a post about “eternal security.” Also sometimes called the doctrine of “once saved, always saved”, it’s the idea, popular with a lot of evangelicals (particularly of a Calvinist bent) that a Christian who is truly in a state of grace cannot ever lose that grace, no matter how grave a sin they commit. We Catholics don’t believe in that doctrine, but Fr. Bryan suggested that I write a post arguing that there’s actually more “security” for the believer in the Catholic position.
This is not that post.
But it is the post before that post. It’s a not-so-subtle exploration of how some evangelical ideas (like eternal security, or like sola fide) that seem to offer comfort to the Christian can actually do him a great deal of harm.
Fr. Bryan, your post is coming up a little later in the week. But until then, I offer you…
“Fluffy Around the Middle”: A Parable
Once, there was a young man named Ryan, who wanted very badly to run a marathon. He had watched the elite Kenyan runners come racing down the streets during the Boston Marathon one year, and felt the thrill of watching them charge onward after twenty-some-odd miles of grueling New England hills, and new immediately: “THAT is what I want to do!” He wanted to feel the immense joy of crossing the finish line after running a long distance race, wanted to experience the famous “runners’ high,” wanted to hear the roar of the crowds…
And as luck would have it, he spied a sign hanging on a light pole on Beacon Street that read “Want to Run Your First Marathon? Call Coach Martin at xxx-xxxx!”
Ryan called immediately, and set up an appointment for his first personal training session the following week. He was very, very excited: with Coach Martin’s guidance, he felt sure that next year it would be him that was flying into Copley Square at sub-5-minute-mile pace. In his eagerness to start, he went and checked out a few books from the library on “How to Run Long Distances.”
On the first day of training, Coach Martin greeted Ryan warmly. Seeing the library books under Ryan’s arm, he chuckled. “I’m not really into having a bunch of rules and plans. I think they can really discourage a runner, and weigh him down. My belief is that the most important thing is that a runner believe he’s going to cross the finish line. It’s important to remember that the Race Organizer wouldn’t let you begin the marathon if he wasn’t going to make sure you got to the end.” Ryan began furiously taking notes, but that started to feel like an awful lot of effort…
“Come on!” said Coach Martin, “let’s head down to the track.” As they walked through the office building towards the quarter-mile track outside, they passed by another coach’s office. This coach seemed much less friendly than Coach Martin, and he looked up only long enough to give them a snarl. “That’s Coach Ulrich,” whispered Coach Martin. “He believes that some people are born runners, and some aren’t, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Between you and me, he’s not much of a coach.”
Once they got out to the track, Coach Martin gave Ryan a big smile, and said “alright, why don’t you start with a quick lap around the track.” “Sounds great!” answered the still-excited Ryan. He ran the lap as hard as he could, wanting to make a good first impression. But to his chagrin, Coach Martin looked disappointed. “No, no, no, listen: running a marathon isn’t about working hard. It’s about believing. If you work hard at this, you’re just going to get discouraged.” “Ok, well, what should I do instead?”
“Nothing,” said Coach Martin. “I think you’re ready. You want to do this, right? I’m signing you up for the Cape Cod Marathon next week”
“I said you’re running the marathon next week. You’ll do fine. I don’t mind if my runners do a lap now and then, but I don’t want you to think that running a marathon is about work. Believe that you’re going to get to the finish line, and the Race Organizer will make sure the rest happens. If you don’t stop believing, then you won’t stop running.”
“Well, should I work out more? Maybe go on a diet?”
“Nah. Listen, if you’re going to eat fried chicken, eat fried chicken boldly. Just keep believing that you’re going to run the marathon, and you’ll be across the finish line before you know it.”
Race day came (all too quickly), and Ryan was a bit nervous. He looked around, and the other runners seemed really fit and in great shape. He took a look at himself in the mirror, and if he was honest, Ryan had to admit that he was a bit–how can we put this delicately?– “fluffy around the middle.” He bent down to tie his shoes–and they were loafers, mind you: Coach Martin had insisted that running shoes were invented by superstitious old Italian coaches who were looking to make a quick buck.
The starter’s pistol fired to signal that the race had begun. As he began running, Ryan immediately sensed that something was terribly, terribly wrong. After a quarter of a mile, he was breathing heavy. After a half mile, he felt queasy. Finally, just before the one-mile marker, Ryan puked, then passed out.
When he regained consciousness a short time later, Ryan was deeply embarrassed: a lot of people were staring at his puke on the side of the road. And he was also deeply discouraged: hadn’t Coach Martin said that believing that he would finish was what counted, and that the Race Organizer would make sure he got to the end? Was there even such a thing as a Race Organizer??!! This race certainly didn’t seem very organized to Ryan.
Ryan was having a bit of a “crisis of faith.” Running the race was not at all like Coach Martin had assured him it would be! He asked a lot of questions, looked into a lot of theories about running…and finally looked back at those library books he had checked out. He noticed a book towards the bottom of the pile by somebody named “Coach Francis.” This book had some interesting theories nestled in its pages, theories that definitely contradicted a lot of what Coach Martin had to say…
Oh, Coach Francis knew all about the Race Organizer, and he definitely believed that the Race Organizer wanted all of the runners to finish the marathon. But he also talked about a lot of difficult things that went in to running a marathon, things that, to be frank, sounded like a lot of work. In fact, he made it very clear that not everyone who starts a marathon is able to finish it. Coach Francis was all about disciplining yourself to run a successful marathon. He had some bizarre training methods (apparently, during his glory days as an Olympic runner, Francis would roll around naked in the snow…), but he seemed to know what he was talking about.
So Ryan set up a a training session with Coach Francis. And they worked out a plan: Ryan was going to start running a little more each week. He was going to eat healthy, and give up smoking once and for all. He would put some inspirational pictures of runners up in his bedroom, just to give himself some extra motivation. He would meet weekly with Coach Francis, and he would have to be honest about how closely he had stuck to the plan, but Coach Francis would be kind about it and give him a few words of advice. And, whether it was an Italian superstition or not, Ryan was going to invest in a nice pair of running shoes…
It’s been a year now since their first session. Ryan hasn’t run a marathon yet. But you know what? The other day he ran 12 miles, and he did it in a pretty good time, too. He’s going to keep training hard, working to get closer and closer to his goal.
And the funny thing is, as much work as it is, he feels more confident than ever that the Race Organizer wants him to win the race…