Live Strong, Lance Armstrong

What do I have in common with Lance Armstrong? He's an international celebrity, a champion bicyclist, and a world-renowned philanthropist who has devoted his resources and his fame to fighting cancer, a cause most closely associated with the yellow "Live Strong" bracelets. And he's an atheist who has rather publicly ridiculed the Christian faith. I'm a Southern Baptist seminary student. But for a few days this summer I found myself with Lance (and 15,000 other bikers) bicycling across Iowa. For seven days, there we were: a group of rookies, some seasoned veterans, and one superstar.

It might be hard to imagine the excitement of riding alongside Lance Armstrong. Just imagine playing basketball with Michael Jordan. When my brother and I saw Lance Armstrong coming up behind us, we couldn't believe we were tearing through the Iowa countryside side-by-side with the man himself.

I didn't want to ruin the moment by saying something dumb. So we enjoyed a brief moment of silence. But I couldn't help myself. Caleb and I engaged Armstrong in some conversation: about the goodness of pie and homemade ice cream, about how much we appreciate his work against cancer since we lost a grandfather to it, about what keeps him going in his athletic pursuits.

We asked Lance Armstrong if he is a Christian and he told us no. We shared the gospel with him and told him that, as Christians, we're on board with his fight against cancer. We told him that we're not just against certain manifestations of death, but the whole thing. Since Jesus has overcome death in all of its ugly wholeness, we're all about taking on death itself.

I'd like to tell you that our witness about Jesus knocked Lance off his bike, like Paul on the way to Damascus. I'd like to tell you that he prayed to receive Christ and is now applying to Southern Seminary to study for the pastorate. But the story's not that dramatic. Lance didn't respond in repentance and faith. He graciously dismissed us. He may not have listened to the gospel, but what happened next sure turned my attention more closely to it.

After riding a little farther with him, my brother and I passed on ahead of Armstrong and the pack, opening up some highly coveted positions next to the superstar for other riders. As it happened, we were entering the town of Victor, Iowa. They were expecting Lance Armstrong. The streets were overflowing with spectators yelling Armstrong's name or "Live Strong," clapping, taking pictures, the whole deal. Yellow wristbands and shirts were as many as there were bikes. Lance was about 20 feet behind my brother and I and he was closing in on us. About midway through the town, he passed us for good. He and the "Live Strong" mob went on their way. My brother and I just looked at each other and laughed, as if to say, "What a crazy day."

Right then something struck me. It was kind of like when you're driving with your window down and you smell something that reminds you of a time of the year, an experience you had as a child, or something like that. The memory has a realness that almost overwhelms you. But the "memory" that struck me that day didn't come from a smell. It was from an event. And it didn't remind me of a past event. Strangely enough, it "reminded" me of an event still in the future, an event someone once wrote about.

The Apostle Paul wrote about a day that is coming when Jesus, the victorious warrior king, will return in triumph to this galaxy. Paul draws on an ancient pattern of a conquering king who returns from battle to his people waiting for him, cheering, outside the walls of the city, eager to march in with him in glory. Paul writes that all of us in Christ, living or dead, will rise to meet our heroic Messiah in the air (1 Thess 4:17). And we will march back into a new creation for a great celebration (Rev 21-22).

As I rode along, I realized how limited, by comparison, Lance Armstrong's celebration was. It is limited, ultimately, by death. Many of those cheering for Lance Armstrong will have their cheers silenced one day by cancer. All of us will have our jubilations interrupted by death. A yellow "Live Strong" bracelet can't ward it off.

I shared the gospel with Lance Armstrong as much as I could at the time, huffing along on a bicycle. I hope one day he sees it more clearly than I could say it. The day is coming when no one will be cheering for Lance. They'll be cheering for Someone Else, One who isn't on a bicycle but on a white horse. One day cancer will be defeated, not by yellow bracelets but by pierced hands and feet. Nobody will be cheering for Lance Armstrong on that day, but I hope he's there to cheer for King Jesus. I hope he hears and believes a gospel that is the only really good news. I hope he learns how to "Live Strong," with a life that is stronger than death.

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