An imperishable crown


Last weekend, I did a sprint triathlon. I'd done one once before, the same race, four years ago. Last time, I had a modest cheering section comprised of my mom and a few friends, complete with neon signs. This time, my poor friend who was supposed to do the race with me tested positive for Covid the morning of. So I made my way alone to Lums Pond State Park that foggy Sunday around dawn. As I racked my bike and set out my sneakers, I struck up a conversation with the young woman two bikes down from me. She and I made our way to the water's edge and chatted excitedly as we watched the earlier waves of swimmers set off on the course. We pulled another woman into our conversation and exchanged well wishes as the clock counted down.


And then, we were off.


It's a funny mix, those first few strides and strokes as the swimming begins. There's the shock of the cold water, the jostling for place, the dodging of kicking feet, the disorientation that soon turns into a steady, quiet rhythm. What begins as a tightly packed mass thins out pretty quickly as each swimmer finds her pace. I settled into my groove and was feeling good as I made the turn around the second buoy.


And that's where things got just a little tricky—at that point, if I were doing the Olympic distance, I'd head for the next floating yellow cone in the distance. But instead, for the sprint course, I was to cut a diagonal and aim for the floating pink sphere by the white flag on shore, both tiny specks that I could barely make out through my foggy goggles. Plus, turning my head not just sideways to breathe but also forward to ensure I was moving in the right direction was getting more and more cumbersome.


And that's when I noticed her. There was another swimmer just a few feet away from me, and we fell into nearly perfect step (or stroke?) with one another. I noticed every time I breathed to the right that she was alternating her freestyle with breaststroke at times, backstroke at others. Occasionally we'd lock eyes (or at least we would have if it weren't for her reflective goggles). I found myself looking ahead less and using her as another guidepost, a comforting sign that I was moving in the right direction, and I liked to think that I offered her the same reassurance. Eventually, she sped off, and while I tried to match her pace, I was soon left to check my course on my own again.


Even in the moment it struck me. Here was the one dark, quiet, pronouncedly solitary leg of the race, yet I made even a fleeting connection with a fellow swimmer, one whose significance stayed with me. It pointed me to a journey with a far greater finish line, the journey in this earthly life toward heaven.


Admittedly, it's not a perfect analogy. We're heading for the same finish line, to be sure, but there are as many routes there as there are people on this earth. And it's certainly not our finishing time that matters. It's nothing close to a competition. Yet I can't help but think of those few minutes swimming side by side with a stranger as a beautiful reminder of just how vital it is to have companions on this journey home.


I was reminded again of this surpassing truth at my housewarming party last weekend. A dozen or so friends gathered in my little apartment, a home nearly entirely outfitted by their generosity and so many others'. There was a couple who's been dating for a few months, and another who just celebrated their first wedding anniversary. One friend is anticipating a big move to a new city, and another contemplating an equally drastic change. One woman chased around her darling foster son who she'll soon adopt, and another had just decided to put a second floor on her house in order to care for her aging parents. It was a delightful mix of ages and states of life, all bonded by our shared love of God and desire to follow His will for our lives.


Yes, we sure do need each other. We need people we can turn to who are heading for the same goal, who can affirm our direction or help to chart our path anew. We need people who are a few steps ahead of us, who can inspire us to push on when the course has gotten especially trying. We need people who we ourselves can encourage, who can remind us of God's work in our lives and offer us the chance to give of ourselves.


Yes, we need to keep looking forward, to keep our eyes on God. But He has purposefully given us each other as partners along the way, from dear friends to wise spiritual directors to fellow swimmers on the course. Run towards Christ, I've heard it said, then see who's running next to you.


Who knows—maybe you'll even cross the finish line together.

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