Scandal, performance enhancement, & blood manipulation: Is blood really the secret to finishing well?

Cycling news has been littered with scandal lately.  Unless you’ve been on an island, it has been hard to miss the media firestorm surrounding the Lance Armstrong case.  The USADA has spent weeks laying out a case highlighting illegal performance enhancing drug use and elaborate blood doping schemes among the top professionals.  We have now witnessed public apologies, admissions of guilt, firings and sanctions along with confessions of  “win at all cost” mentalities, and so on.  No matter how much you believe about who did what, when, and why, it is clear that the world of cycling is, to use a technical term, in a big whopping mess. As I read through the stories and testimonies, I’m amazed at the lengths to which some have been willing to go (and at great risk to personal health) to get to the top.  The thought of any type of blood doping sounds like a terrifying prospect to me – but I’ve never been a big fan of needles either.

So what is blood doping/manipulation and why do it?  To put it simply, our muscles need oxygen to perform.  When oxygen is depleted, we get tired.  But what if there was a way for our body to produce more red blood cells, which are those cells tasked with carrying oxygen to our muscles?  There are two main ways (that we know of) that athletes can try to cheat the system that involve blood.  One way is to introduce a drug (EPO) into the blood stream which can stimulate the body to produce more red blood cells.  A second method is for an athlete to have their own blood drawn and then frozen for use later.  Once the body replaces the lost blood, the frozen blood can be taken out of storage, thawed, and put back into the system, thus increasing the volume of blood and number of red blood cells (and in my mind making blood the consistency of thick maple syrup). This seems to be the harder method to detect since there are not any drugs directly involved. In either case, the methods are considered illegal, and are very dangerous.  It is evident though that some will attempt to win no matter what the risk.

Now, winning is not inherently a bad thing – I think we probably all like to win, (I do – just play a board game with me sometime) but it should never be at “all cost.” It is also important for us to remember that “winning” is not always synonymous with “finishing well.”  There is a difference. Although many of the accused and admitted dopers technically “won” their event by crossing the line first, it is now clear to all that they did not finish well. So what does it mean to finish well?  What does it look like? The writer of the book of Hebrews offers valuable insight by painting a vivid picture of true success, using of all things, a racing analogy.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”  -Hebrews 12:1-3

This race starts back during the infancy of the church, when early Christians found themselves in a world of mixed and competing cultures. The world we encounter in the pages of the Bible had been greatly influenced by Greek culture, and this was often a source of tension between the Jewish and Hellenistic (Greek) worlds. One of the things the Greeks brought with them when they marched across the east was their love of sport, and we can see this influence in the writings of some of the New Testament.  Even the apostle Paul in his epistles often makes allusions to racing and other sporting activities.  Here we see the writer of Hebrews taking a similar approach. As this is a sporting analogy within a first century context, and since Death Valley or Lambeau field weren’t really the types of venues that the writer had in mind when these verses were written, let’s first look a typical race and racing venue in the ancient world.  Let’s boil it down to five key components:

1. The Stadium (race course): Unlike our oval shaped modern stadiums, the typical Greek arena was rectangular, with a length of roughly 660 Greek feet.  It had an opening at one end, and a “goal” at the other.

2. The goal:  This was a tall rectangular pillar set at one end of the stadium, opposite the entry. (If you are from the deep south like me, I feel compelled to say that a “pillar” is not the thing you sleep on J )

3.  The Herald:  The herald had an important job.  At the beginning of a race, it was his duty to announce the name and home country of each competitor.  At the end of a race, this information would be repeated for the victor, with the name of the victor’s father would also be announced.

4.  The Judge:  Presiding over the games, it was the right of this individual to award the prizes at the end of the game.

5.  The Prize: Typically this was a wreath or garland, worn like a crown, made from various types of plant branches.  Yes, it might seem strange to us to get all worked up for the honor of wearing a plant on your head, but that’s how they did it. Some of the various plants had different symbolic meanings. One plant was even believed to convey mythical powers to the athlete when worn as the victor’s crown.  Look around though (Kona anyone?), the tradition of a victory crown is still carried on by many today.

And now, off to the races!!!

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

The writer of Hebrews describes a great “cloud” of witnesses.  When I read this, my mind quickly races to the old cartoons with angels floating on clouds playing harps.  That however is not what is in play here. The term “cloud” can simply refer to a large number or mass of people.  Since this passage uses a sports analogy, let’s look at it from that perspective. In the previous chapter, the writer had just given us a long list of heroes of the faith, those who had not lived to see the promises of Scripture fulfilled in Jesus, but nevertheless were faithful and died holding on to that hope.  I see the picture here as one of the saints of old gathered around the arena of our lives, not literally as if they are all gathered together on a celestial seat cushion, and not as spectators, but as encouragers (witnesses) to us by way of the faithful lives they conducted while still living. It may be a strange metaphor, but I think of their lives as the “cowbells” of faith – a loud reminder clanging in our ears to spur us on to faithfulness.

“let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

 Historically, one thing that made Greek culture controversial was its very differing views on modesty (or lack thereof) – in other words, a runner might not wear any clothes.  This is not at all what the writer is suggesting, but the more literal translation of the verse points to laying down any “weight” that hinders.  Try running with a full pack sometime!  Even today, we run in the least constrictive clothes possible so nothing extraneous slows us down from reaching our destination. The point is the same – get streamlined and dump the things that weigh you down (which certainly includes sin, but sometimes good things as well) so you aren’t deterred form your goal.

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,”

 How are we to run?  “With perseverance.”  We are not just running for running’s sake, but we run in a certain way.  The letter to the Hebrews was one addressed to a group of Christians who had undergone persecution.  The Greek word we translate as “persevere” is actually a strengthened form of the word for “abide.”  Meaning more than simply to “stay,” or “remain,” it carries the idea bearing up under a trial courageously through the suffering.  This was a strong word of encouragement for those Jewish Christians who at the time were being tempted to turn away from their newfound freedom in Christ.

“fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

What is our goal?  First century racers saw a rectangular pillar before them, a fixed point, so they new where the finish line was and could run full force towards it.  Have you ever run a race without knowing the course map or where the finish line was?  An aimless and anxiety inducing proposition for sure. In a sense, you would run aimlessly.  We might be in a big hurry, but without any real idea of where we were going.  But we look to Christ, his life, the hope he offers, his example in the face of suffering, and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit within those who belong to him, as that pillar is transformed into a cross.

“For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

 What did he endure? The sinless Son of God suffered separation from God the Father, something he had never known, the wrath of God that was rightfully ours, and excruciating physical pain on the cross, all that we might be saved and brought into a relationship with God.  To say it was hard is not enough, as we cannot fully comprehend his suffering, but he was willing to endure it for the joy to come, paying a price for us that we could never pay ourselves. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:12-14) Paul clearly saw the prize for what it is, and it is the same one we are to pursue today.

 “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

 What are we to do?  Consider Jesus and his example (“consider” does not mean simply a passing thought – this calls for deep and meaningful contemplation).  And why?  God knows our hearts and our tendencies. He knows our temptation to give in. We are to turn to Christ and his example so we do not grow weary and give up.  We don’t want a DNF!  When we compare our daily trials to those that Jesus endured, we gain hope as well as perspective. As Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy, we also want to be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”  (2 Tim 4:7-8)

 One day our race will be done and the Judge will make his pronouncement. When those of us who know Christ one day cross the final finish line and receive the victor’s crown, there is one thing we will want to hear.  It is not something as mundane as our place in a race, or even the phrase, “you are an Ironman!” No, we will want to hear, “well done good and faithful servant!”  That is when we will know we have finished well. And to the question, “does it really take blood to succeed?  Over one hundred years ago, Lewis E. Jones penned a now famous hymn with the refrains, “There’s power in the blood, power in the blood….wonder working power….”  So the answer to that question is a simple and emphatic “YES”, it does take blood to succeed.  The secret is that the blood required is not our own.

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