Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Hidden Treasure

Today's entry is a guest post by Joseph Elsakr. Joey is a 2:24 marathoner and studies at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. 

Running is kind of a hidden treasure that isn't very well hidden. 

Everybody knows about it but only a few people truly understand it. And those who do understand it are usually in love with it. They may run 50, 100, or even 150 miles a week. They sacrifice energy, time, hanging out with friends, just relaxing after a long day, and sometimes even work or sleep just to do it. When people hear that somebody runs 10-20 miles a day, they usually think they're crazy. When I hear that, I usually want to be their friend. 

I know why they do what they do. I know how joy and fulfillment can come from cruising on a mid-week 13 miler, totally unplugged and uninhibited, completely free. I know that when running is tough and uncomfortable and you struggle to accomplish something that should be well within your limits, you still end the day with more than you started with. The workouts that drain you are really fuel for your training, your mind, and your life. That is why when I meet someone who knows that I get excited. I know instantly that we share something special, something only a few of us understand, a common love, a hidden treasure. 

Christianity, like running, is also kind of a hidden treasure. Everybody knows about it, few really understand it, and those who do are usually in love. They make sacrifices for it, get excited about it, talk to their friends about it, and are always happy to meet someone else who shares their treasure.

Though the view of running as a hidden treasure may be unique to me, the same view of Christianity is not. Jesus goes through a series of short parables where He gives us an idea of what heaven is like. One of them is as follows: "Again the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."(1) 

I've always thought that this verse sounded a little weird. At base level, I think it makes sense. Jesus is telling us that heaven is valuable, desirable, and should be sought after. But what about this guy in the verse?! He literally sold everything he had just so he could have this field with the treasure in it. Doesn’t that seem a bit excessive?

Maybe it seems excessive because I just don’t understand the treasure, like a non-runner hearing about a guy who runs a ton and loves it—it sounds weird to him or her. But even then, that doesn’t explain it. I love to run, but I would never sacrifice everything for it for a couple of reasons. First, the sacrifice would be too great. There are other things in my life that, collectively at least, are worth a lot more than running. And second, even if, in some strange world, I wouldn’t lose everything or didn’t have anything to lose or something like that, I know I would never be completely satisfied with just running. Without a doubt I love running, it gives me fulfillment and joy that is very real, but I couldn’t live with only that. I’m not sure how to explain this as clearly as I feel it, but I need more.

In the past couple of years I’ve become a pretty big fan of a man named Fr. Meletios Webber. He is an Orthodox priest, former alcoholic, has some very inspirational sermons on youtube and an awesome book (admittedly, I am only one chapter in) (2). He has this theory that the natural state of the human mind is a state of depression. The mind is constantly aware of its mortality and recognizes that everything it experiences is fleeting and will eventually be lost -- relationships, hobbies, Chipotle, everything. So how do people function and not live in a constant state of despair if this is the case? Because the mind is very good at keeping us distracted. Each day, it can find a reason to wake up, something to look forward to, a purpose that keeps us going.

Recently, I feel like I’m becoming more and more aware of this in my own life. Whenever something goes poorly, or something I value is lost, I usually just divert my attention to something that’s going well. Most recently when things weren’t going well, I started leaning more and more on running. 

Training was going great and I was in the best shape of my life. But as any runner knows, nothing is guaranteed. My peak race a couple weeks ago, for unknown reasons, went absolutely terribly. And what I found on the other side was a whole lot of sadness. I had invested so much of myself into something I thought could make me happy but was really fleeting and fragile. Throughout this time, I think God (in large part via Meletios Webber) has been trying to teach me an important lesson: You won’t find true happiness by merely keeping yourself distracted.

This brings me to an important difference between running (or whatever your hidden treasure may be) and Christianity: “Christianity is not a philosophy, not a doctrine, but life.” (3)  While running is certainly a gift that can provide a lot of great things -- most significantly, in my opinion, an idea of what God’s hidden treasure is like -- it can also become a distraction of the type I’ve just mentioned. We cannot completely rely on running or any other earthly treasure. I think deep down we all know that, which is why the story of the guy who bought the field seems bizarre. Maybe it seems bizarre for a reason though. Perhaps Jesus is trying to highlight the idea that heaven is not like any earthly treasure, that it is actually worth giving up everything for.

What is the result of completely relying on God, or investing everything one has into Christianity? Unfortunately, I cannot speak from personal experience here. But from 24 years of listening and reading and watching and learning, I think the result is a feeling of complete fulfillment that all of us are trying to find, even though we are usually looking in the wrong place. If we gave up everything for God, we would find that we end up with more than we ever head. This idea is hinted at John 10:10 (having life more abundantly through Christ) and Matthew 16:25 (He who loses his life for Jesus’s sake will find it)(4). 

So how can we get to the point where we are completely invested in God? I think that is the topic of another post (by a much smarter author), or maybe a book, or perhaps more likely a lifetime of reading, learning, and participating in the life of the Church. But I think recognizing that this is where one wants to go is the first tiny baby step, and it is the step that I’m currently trying to take. 

Thanks for letting me share.

(1) Matt. 13:44 (NKJV)
(2) Webber, Archimandrite Meletios. Bread & Water, Wine & Oil: An Orthodox Christian Experience of God 
(3) Webber, quoting Archimandrite Sophrony
(4)The most striking example of this I’ve seen recently is the guy (and his mom) from this video. This is someone who has truly invested everything in Christ and, as a result, is unshaken by even the most terrible situation. Instead of a great loss leading to a state of depression, it becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the amazing magnitude of God’s love.

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