Recently I learnt a lesson in knowing my limits.
As a child I used to do long distance running, and after a few years of being injured (from falling over in a game of laser tag, no less) I started running again.
A few weeks ago I rocked up to Hampstead Heath to do a parkrun and, oh man, did I back myself. I slotted into the front row of runners at the start line, overlooking the fact they were all 6’2 men in professional running gear.
The start gun went, and I found myself trapped in a pack of wild men, sprinting full pelt up a hill, carrying me with them. Nightmare. I got about 10 minutes into the run and felt like I might genuinely throw up onto one of the freakishly tall men. It was horrific – the inner circle of hell in Dante’s inferno might be a too fast parkrun. We reached a fork in the road, and I did the only sensible thing. Everyone turned right and I casually turned left. I pretended to be an ordinary runner, who had merely stumbled into the parkrun accidentally. So committed to this ruse I was, that I even did a confused backward glance and a tiny nod as I jogged away. I ran on until I was out of sight and then collapsed onto the muddy earth and lay there, gasping like a beached whale.
Know your limits, friends.
A tendency to overlook limits is a recurring fault of which I’m all too aware. I had a health check recently and took the lung test 5 times in a bid to get beyond ‘97%’ lung capacity. ‘Maybe we should stop,’ said the doctor, gently, as I prepared to exhale for the sixth time, slightly weeping.
Whilst this perfectionist tendency is partly self-imposed, I think there’s a point to which I’ve picked it up from the general culture around me. Aren’t we always urged to be the best we can – to push past limits?
Like seven-year-old-girls across the nation, I have recently been to see Frozen 2 (twice). It’s a cracking watch, but one scene in it made me pause. Elsa goes to find a mysterious ‘fifth spirit’ – a bridge between the spirit and mortal world, who will come to save everyone. She enters a dark cavern, bursts through the door and finds… *drum roll*
Her dress changes to a brilliant white (that’ll be another £45 for parents from the Disney store) and she triumphantly sings:
‘I am found!
Step into your power.
Into something new!
You are the one you’ve been waiting for
All of your life.’
There we go! You are the answer to your own troubles. Pretty great, yes?
I’m not so sure it is. What about when I reach my limits and my best actually isn’t good enough? Last week I tripped over my own shoe and sprained my arm. If the only saviour available to me is myself, then that’s a literal bloody disaster.
As we approach Christmas, and I attend the 11th carol service of the year tonight, I’m thinking about what the Christmas story has to say about myself and limits.
In a prophecy, hundreds of years before Jesus walked on earth it was predicted:
‘The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned…
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.’ (Isaiah 9:2-7)
This is a prophecy all about limits, and One who transcends them. Do you notice who has the agency here? It’s not the people who are stumbling blind in the dark, helpless. The light has been ‘shone on them’; a son ‘is given’ to them. The weight of impetus falls on the child, not them. And he offers wisdom, might, peace. More than that, he gives them something they can never earn themselves: right relationship. They can call God their ‘Father’.
The story of Christmas may seem twee and overfamiliar, but it’s a story of astonishing, irreverent proportions: the limitless, everlasting God comes to our world as an ordinary man. He sees our imperfection and lives a perfect life, then dies in our place, so that through him we might know God again. That’s the prophecy foretold, and 700 years later, Jesus was born in an obscure stable to refugee parents, and fulfilled it.
I wonder how often you think about your own limits? I’ve been learning them this past year. Having graduated 18 months ago, I tried to live life at the pace of a Cambridge term for the first 6 months in London and made myself unwell. I had to learn that my energies have limits. I’ve had a tonne of job rejections this past year, and learnt my capabilities have limits too. I’ve had loved ones become seriously ill and die. I’ve been reminded that life itself is frail and limited. And time after time I’ve failed to meet my own standards of right living, let alone God’s.
And that’s why I think Christmas is such good news: the one who is limitless made himself nothing to set right the most important relationship in our lives. He did for me what I couldn’t do for myself.
Self-empowerment may seem freeing but I’ve found it can actually be a tremendous burden. To live by undeserved grace is the most freeing thing in the world.
So, this Christmas I am giving thanks for the fact that I am, in fact, found. I’ve found a saviour and it’s not me. To question the wisdom of Elsa, Queen of Ice and Snow: you don’t have to be the one you’ve been waiting for all of your life. Because someone else is.
Wherever you’re at this Christmas, I wish you a peaceful and precious time with those you love. May there be moments of stillness and reflection to ponder on the freedom at the heart of the Christmas story. And, whatever you do, avoid the Hampstead Heath parkrun.