A Lenten Journey: The Broken Road to the Risen Lord
By Alan B. Ward
For fifteen years Jim Valvano roamed the sidelines as the successful coach of the North Carolina State Wolfpack men’s basketball team. In 1983, against all odds, his team won the National Championship. Valvano was a man who loved taking on tough challenges in life. He had a tremendous zest for life that came out in everything he did.
Valvano would ultimately face a battle he could not overcome, however, as his body succumbed to cancer. But even when facing those “impossible” odds his spirit remained strong. In March 1993, a few months before he died, he received the inaugural Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the first annual ESPY awards show. The speech he gave has become somewhat famous for its inspirational and hopeful words. For the full transcript and a YouTube video see: www.jimmyv.org/remembering-jim/espy-awards-speech.html.
At the very end of the speech, Valvano utters the following phrase: “Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”
Every time I return to these words I am moved. Here is a man who had to know he was facing “the end” and faced the choice we all face when difficulty comes our way.
Would he let adversity make him better or bitter?
Valvano’s legacy shows that he decisively chose better—and the world is a better place because he did. Working with ESPN, Valvano started the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research whose motto was: Don’t give up… don’t ever give up. The foundation grew from humble beginnings and has raised millions of dollars to fund cancer research.
Despite his illness Valvano chose to continue to live life with passion and joy right up to the end—he refused to be defined by his difficulties. He would not let his terminal canner diagnosis stop him from living life to the full and doing all he could to see his dreams come true.
I am inspired by Jim Valvano’s story because it’s how I desire to live. How can you not admire the man’s attitude?! When I face adversity I too want to let what I live through make me better, but despite my best intentions, I think the challenges I face in life often make me bitter.
I frequently find myself lamenting how hard my life is, sometimes to the point where it has a negative impact on others around me. People get frustrated with my attitude and say in essence: “Alan, if you spent half the energy doing something that you did lamenting your life, you could literally change the world.”
Now to be fair, the difficulties I’ve had to deal with in recent months have been significant and it’s only natural that they would impact me on some level. The point is not to deny the reality of my hardship or pretend it doesn’t matter. This approach might be what we think we’re supposed to do as “good Christians” but it’s actually more Buddhist than Biblical!
I cannot choose what circumstances come my way in this life but I can choose how I respond to them. And I think I am learning that this choice makes all the difference in the world when it comes to connecting to the power of Christ in our lives.
When I choose to become bitter about my life circumstances I give them power they weren’t meant to have. Before too long, rather than being defined by my identity in Christ I am defined by my difficulties . My circumstances now control me and start to have an impact on my mind (how I think and feel about myself), my heart (my dreams and desires), my body (physical health), and even my soul (the total package of who I am and how I act).
When circumstances take control of our lives, a subtle shift happens. For all practical purposes, we have decided that the only way we can survive is to push God to the side and take matters into our own hands. We tell ourselves it’s just for a while—until the current crisis is over.
And remarkably, when we do this, God graciously steps aside, surrenders control, and patiently waits for us to “come to our senses”. But that doesn’t mean we escape the consequences of our poor choice.
Our Enemy uses a cunning strategy to separate us from God and render us impotent and ineffective to respond to and overcome the immense problems both in our personal lives and in our world today. It is the same strategy he has used effectively since the beginning of human history. And it is simply this:
He convinces us we can do a better job running our life than God can.
When we fall for the Enemy’s lie, we place ourselves in charge, and in so doing, we cut ourselves off from the power of God—that we see in the life of Jesus, and in the life of the Church during periods of vitality and growth—that can help us thrive during times of hardship and suffering.
Choosing to walk the broken road and let hardship and suffering do their work to make me better is by far the harder choice for me. The bitter road certainly seems the easier and safer road to travel. Becoming bitter seems to come much more naturally to me. Whenever troubles come it tends to be the path of least resistance.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to face the reality of what I have been living through head-on and put into words just how painful it all has been. And when I walk the bitter road I don’t have to do that.
And I have become very proficient at justifying and defending my choice to walk the bitter road lately. Who could possibly fault me for being frustrated about the all challenges I’ve endured recently? Don’t I have a right to be upset that things aren’t going well for me right now? Doesn’t God exist to make me feel good and ease the pain of living? And if I don’t feel good and I am a believer, then something must be wrong with me. Isn’t that right? I don’t want to let the world know how I feel!
But I think Jesus is telling me that if I truly want to become better because of what I have lived through and experience the power of risen Christ in me, then I must be willing to walk the broken road. I can’t really “go around” my troubles anymore—the only way forward is “through” them.
And so for this Lenten season I choose to embark on the broken road. Will you join me on this journey? The journey is easier when we travel with friends. Will you walk the narrow way with me, trusting that strong arms will catch you when you stumble? Will you trust a power beyond yourself to help you stand firm in the face of whatever pain and hardship you face along the way?
Be warned that if you choose to embark on this journey, you are choosing to walk a difficult path. This is not a leisurely Sunday stroll in the park. The journey will require much of you; it will change you in profound ways, and this kind of change is often painfully difficult at first.
But all the risk, all the pain, and all the tears will be worth it if we encounter the risen Christ along the way and connect with the power that he alone provides. In fact, it just might be the best thing that ever happened to us!
Alan Ward lives in Baltimore, MD. He works as a writer for NASA and is paid to tell the story of NASA. His heart’s desire is to share God’s story in a language that connects with the world around us. Many of his articles focus on spiritual formation—particularly how our life experiences form us in Christ. His other calling is as husband to Laurie and father to Brady and Becca. He occasionally blogs at bigalscorner.blogspot.com.