As we looked across that parched sports field, squinting out from under a minute tree on the hottest day of the year, and as sweat trickled in unmentionable places, my stomach lurched. There he was, our youngest child, on the worst day of the school year as far as he was concerned. Sports Day. Never chosen for teams. Never excelling in any physical games. Toby believed he'd never be good at anything. His desperate lack of coordination, innate ungainliness, and a constant, steady speed of 'no-need-to-hurry' had thus far excluded him from being successful in sports. Yet in that moment, despite my mama-anxiety, I was able to smile. If you look again at this picture, you'll realise that he's the only kid standing. Everyone else was sat in their neat team lines, all waiting until it was their turn to hop, skip, jump, run, toss, throw, or anything else they decided passed as 'sport'. But not my boy. Here he stands, completely bemused by the whole thing, trying to piece it all together in a way that made sense to him. I smiled because I’d seen that look before.
He's never fitted in. Never been 'average'. Never experienced the banality of 'normal'. As a baby, he was way above the usual percentiles in terms of weight and growth, and that got us a lot of disapproving looks from health workers and parents, I can tell you. He wasn't sociable, wouldn't smile and coo and perform like so many other babies we saw. He preferred to be under a table or hidden in a corner, focusing on books or shapes or anything that wasn't too loud or energetic. However, he was noticeably extraordinary. I know, I know, I have a bias, and I make no apology for it. Toby's inability to fit in and go with the crowd has marked him out as remarkable. And so it was this day.
As the sun beat down, Toby stood where he was told to stand on the starting line, skipping rope at the ready. He couldn't skip. I knew he couldn't skip. Why had they entered him for a skipping race when he couldn't skip? What was wrong with these people??? As the sun ramped up to 85 degrees and he squinted at the finish line, I saw Toby stoically arrange the rope around himself, an end in each hand.
I was going to vomit. I couldn't bear the thought of him feeling inadequate and useless.
'Ready. Steady. GO!' He took off running, arms flapping, skipping rope trailing behind... and then he did something extraordinary. He flung that rope over his head for all he was worth and made the first jump. Over the rope! Ran again. Made another jump. Ran again. So he continued, running and jumping past where we were standing together. (Praying he wouldn't trip and break his neck!) He was actually winning. Not with any grace or style. Not with tactics or speed. But he was winning. He just kept on going. Running. Occasionally jumping the rope. Winning!
Just as the theme tune from Chariots of Fire began to ramp up, it happened. The needle slipped across the record as one end of the rope slipped from his sweaty little hand, and he stopped. I wanted to scream out, 'Run, you wally!' (Yep, 'wally'. Keeping it real here, folks.) 'Just keep running!' Fortunately, my voice was clamped silent in my throat by the fist of fear that was rising in my chest. I could see another boy was gaining. Toby didn't care. He didn't see anyone or anything else. All he focused on was the skipping rope that he was trying to arrange so he could skip properly—there was no way he was going to continue that race unless he was doing it correctly. And so, with a final tussle of the rope, he'd got it, and was off running again for the remaining short distance.
Second! HE CAME SECOND!! We screamed as if he'd come first! I bounced like Tigger needing a Cross Your Heart bra, forgetting about the unladylike amount of perspiration dripping from my forehead (and other places) as I clapped and squealed and celebrated in complete and utter disbelief. Phil was slightly more composed, of course. But you can bet we were both thinking the same thing: 'Blimey! He didn't fall!'
Now look at this kid. Do you see him? Yellow t-shirt, smiley face. That boy might have come second in a race that day, but he knew he was a winner. The other two children on the podium didn't even smile, yet Toby, who never usually smiled for photographs, knew he'd done something remarkable. He didn't care about the winner's stand, and you can bet he was super-chuffed with himself!
God is just so amazing, you know. As I sat looking at these photos again today, here’s what he whispered to me: Being a winner doesn't mean you have to come first. I think we‘d all do well to learn from Toby and let go of our desires to be the best, to beat the rest, and focus solely on being the most brilliant versions of ourselves. In my last post about glittery polar bears I suggested that God created us to stand out, to be seen, to be different and amazing for his glory. To be anything but ordinary. And so, I suppose, this lesson from Toby (Perhaps there should be a whole blog dedicated to things I've learned from him!) is simply a continuation of that thought. But more than that, I want to encourage you to stay the course. To not give up, and know that you can do hard things. I'm not one of those people who believes we can do anything if we just set our minds to it (sorry), but I am one of those people who believes we should try anyway. Does that make sense? The triumph is in the trying. You see, that sports day wasn't remarkable because Toby came second. It was remarkable because Toby couldn't skip, yet he tried anyway. He approached that start line full of self-doubt, not quite understanding what was going on, with a fear of failing and looking stupid, and he set off at such a clip that he didn't even think about looking back. He set his eyes on that finish line. Did he think he'd win? Nope. Did he think he'd even place in second? No way. But he ran the race anyhow. And that, my friends, is why we (well, I) screamed and cheered like a thing possessed. He did it!
Honestly, I believe God does the same as we run our race, that one he's set before us. Whilst he's unlikely to be the same soggy mess I was that day, I know he's leaping up and down, cheering us on, believing in us to finish the race in one piece. Yes, there'll be setbacks. Yes, we'll trip over our rope more than once. But he'll be there to hoick us back up and cheer us on again. He is our all-time greatest fan, and he knows we can do it!
So get back in the race and get running. Or skipping. Or even drag out that sack and start jumping. (The sack race—wasn't that horrendous?!) Whatever your thing is, YOU CAN DO IT.
Even if it's hard. Because you’re not alone and need not do anything in your own strength. You have the birthright to call on all of heaven to help you with the hard things.
And if you're wondering if I cried that sports day, I can only think you don't yet know me so well. My absolute, guaranteed trigger for tears is Toby. Every. Blinkin'. Time.