It was the Summer Olympics of 1968 hosted in Mexico City. Tanzanian Olympic runner John Akhwari was struggling to keep up with his competitors; he was not trained to run at this altitude and it was beginning to show. Around the 19km mark, he fell, hurting his knee and dislocating a joint. The other runners continued and the race was finished. As fans were leaving to go home, John got back on the track. Over an hour later, after the first place winner had already crossed the finish line, John completed the race, putting him in last place. News reporters surrounded him asking why he even bothered to finish the race after it was all ready over. His reply was this: "My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race."
There was a common thread woven between all of the words Alicia and I sang and spoke in our almost 3 week trip to Africa: keep running your race. Our final Sunday there, Alicia and I were asked to sing and speak at the church our hostess attends in Arusha. As I spoke my message and as Alicia shared this story of John Akhwari, we encouraged the people of Tanzania to fight through the opposition and discouragement they have been facing. It doesn't matter how their race has started, the time that it has taken them to get this far, or the circumstances they have faced along the way. What matters is how they finish the race that God has set before them.
We reminded them that they are valuable and loved by God, and that they are the pioneers of their country. They are the first to think like they think, see what they see, dream what they dream. They aren't doomed to repeat the lives of the ones who went before them, but they could create a new life with God; and through doing this, the next generation would have an even better start in life. We exclaimed,"Our finish line is the next generation's starting line."
It was around this time that Alicia was demonstrating what it looked like to pass the baton in a relay race. Much like how a marathon runner passes the baton once they finish running their stretch of the race, we pass the baton spiritually to the next generation once we complete our part in our life race. Finding the prop closest to her, Alicia used a case for eye glasses to represent a baton.
We asked those who felt that our message was for them to stand up because we wanted to pray for them. Almost all of the congregation stood to their feet. We ended the service by praying for them and shaking hands afterwards. Some came up to us sharing how our message had been confirmation to them and how it had encouraged them. Not truly being able to know the impact made during that service, we left trusting God that through our obedience, He was changing lives. We had to hurry to the hotel in order to eat and get ready. We were having our second worship concert of the trip in only a few hours at a different church nearby.
Hours later, we finished the worship concert and were enjoying meeting and talking to the people who had attended. Our hostess came up to us and greeted us with a young man standing by her side. She introduced the young man and said that he had something to give us. In his hands were two metal batons: one pink and one blue. Interpreting for the young man, our hostess shared how he is a competitive runner. He was in attendance at the church service earlier that day when we spoke about running the race. Our message had so impacted him that he went home and found these batons to bring to our worship service that night. Noticing that we used a case for eye glasses as a prop, he wanted to give us both a real baton that we could use for illustrations the next time we deliver a similar message. He shared that these batons were made for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and were given to him as gifts, and that he wanted us to have them. In tears, Alicia and I accepted these sacrificial gifts.
Spiritually speaking, the batons were handed to us long ago; but symbolically they were given to us through the generosity of this young man, and we intend to continue running our races as best as we can. Some days, we feel like we might not have gotten the best start to our race. We sometimes face altitudes for which we soon realize we were not properly trained. We have faced hurts, disappointments, and devastations along the way. At times we feel like we are trailing behind the others, coming up in last place.
But like John Akhwari and the people of Tanzania, we get up and run anyways. We don't allow the past to hold us back from the future that God has for us. We don't let the scars of where we have been stop us from moving forward. We have picked up where those before us have left off, and will continue to run full speed ahead. And when we have completed our race, we will proudly pass the batons on to the next generation. Because through the story of John Akhwari, through meeting the amazing people of Tanzania, and through the three weeks of our lives being transformed in the beautiful continent known an Africa, we were once again reminded of a faithful truth: God did not send us here to start the race, he sent us here to finish it.
God bless you all.