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Don’t Look Back

No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:62)

Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.
-- Satchel Paige

The eminent British neurologist Roger Bannister is perhaps best known as the first runner to break the four-minute mile, a feat that was once regarded as impossible.  Bannister can still lay claim to holding the world mile record for the shortest period of time, just 46 days.  He was eclipsed by his Australian rival John Lundy, who held onto the record for another three years.  However, in the only head-to-head race between the two runners after each had broken the four-minute mile, Bannister won.  The event, billed as “The Mile of the Century,” took place at the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver in the summer of 1954.  Lundy, who had shaved 1.4 seconds off Bannister’s world record only seven weeks earlier, led for most of the race.  Then, as he neared the finish line, Lundy made the mistake of looking back over his left shoulder just as Bannister charged past him on the right.

The race between Bannister and Lundy is now widely considered an object lesson in why you shouldn’t look back.  Bannister might well have caught up regardless, but Lundy himself preferred to think he would have won the race if he hadn’t decided he needed to find out where Bannister was.  In commemoration of that moment, a bronze statue of the two runners was erected at the stadium in Vancouver, with Lundy looking over his left shoulder as Bannister edged past him on the right. "While Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back,” Lundy later quipped, “I am probably the only one ever turned into bronze for looking back."

Until then, of course, Lot’s wife had been everyone’s favorite object lesson in why it is a bad idea to direct your gaze behind you.  In the biblical story, she and her family had been ordered to flee town before the Lord reduced Sodom and Gomorrah to a smoking ruin.  They were under strict orders not to look back, but Lot’s wife sneaked a peek behind her and met her salty demise.  For those who prefer lessons from classical mythology, there is the example of Orpheus, who rescued his wife Eurydice from the underworld and then lost her again when he disobeyed Hades and Persephone and looked back.  

What’s so bad about looking back?  Obviously, you don’t want to lose a step by looking behind you when you are in a close race with someone who is capable of running a four-minute mile.  It’s also never a good idea to look back when gods, singular or plural, tell you not to.  As a general rule, we regard “forward-looking” individuals more favorably than those who are stuck in the past.

In spiritual terms, looking back means you have forgotten to keep your “eyes on the prize,” a phrase derived from St. Paul, who was fond of racing metaphors. “I press on,” Paul wrote, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”  Jesus’ own views on the subject elicited some unusually gnomic utterances.  To a disciple who asked permission to go and bury his father, he said, "Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead."  To another who wished to bid farewell to his family first, Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Spiritual transformation is inevitably a stop-and-go affair, with breakthroughs only increasing the danger of getting sidetracked.  We may suddenly be presented with sweeping vistas and stop to admire the view.  We naturally prefer to linger over a gorgeous sunset rather than face a dark night of the soul.  Ultimately, everything we might view as a spiritual attainment looms as a potential roadblock, whether we call it salvation, enlightenment, inner peace or transcendence.  How exactly does the self transcend the self – and what remains?  In the end, a caterpillar will always prefer the safety of her own skin, but then she will never become a butterfly.

Genesis 19:15-26
Philippians 3:12-13
Luke 9:59-62

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