The Old Man and the Sea, and the Marathon, and the Church-Plant

The Old Man and the Sea

I know I’m 64 years late to the party, but I just recently completed my first reading of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea — and wow! What a book! I felt like it was particularly enjoyable and inspirational as an international church planter and as a runner.

After my first marathon, I noticed some connections between my experiences with Amsterdam50 and my experiences with Canton’s Hall of Fame City Challenge. Still I didn’t dwell on the comparisons. I almost completely forgot about the connections, actually, until reading the Hemingway book last month. Something about The Old Man and the Sea resonated on both of these wavelengths: pain, struggle, human frailty, survival, and triumph-with-tremendous-loss. Somehow the book provided the third leg of a proverbial tripod which allowed me to step back and get a clearer picture of all the different points of comparison.

Through most of the book, I was primarily mindful of the marathon metaphors. The old man deliberately went further than anyone else dared to go and took himself to the limits of his strength. He exhibited patience and perseverance, but his adversary was not just internal. The struggle was unpredictable; it took on a life of its own. I appreciated the way the fisherman showed clear love and respect for the sea and the marlin he hunted — like I feel about running — but once the line was hooked on the biggest haul of his life, there was nothing but a fight to the finish. Some quotes that stood out to me:

“Certainly, [the marlin’s] back cannot feel as badly as mine does. But he cannot pull this skiff forever, no matter how great he is. Now everything is cleared away that might make trouble and I have a big reserve of line; all that a man can ask. ‘Fish,’ he said softly, aloud, ‘I’ll stay with you until I am dead.'”

“I must save all my strength now. Christ, I did not know he was so big. ‘I’ll kill him though,’ he said. ‘In all his greatness and his glory.’ Although it is unjust, he thought. But I will show him what a man can do and what a man endures. ‘I told the boy I was a strange old man,’ he said. ‘Now is when I must prove it.’ The thousand times that he had proved it meant nothing. Now he was proving it again. Each time was a new time and he never thought about the past when he was doing it.”

“You are killing me, fish, the old man though. But you have a right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or a calmer or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me. I do not care who kills who. Now you are getting confused in the head, he thought. You must keep your head clear. Keep your head clear and know how to suffer like a man. Or a fish, he thought.”

As I read these lines, I envisioned myself quoting them to myself or to my friend Jason on long training runs, or in the later miles of the marathon itself. I liked the sound of addressing the race as my Fish. I imagined the exhausted triumph of crossing the finish line of the Flying Pig Marathon, just like the old man jamming his harpoon through the heart of the great marlin. It seemed like such a powerful metaphor.

But then Hemingway’s sharks came: partially-submerged, swirling, ravenous sharks. They were the ones who brought everything together for me. The sharks reminded me of the last eight miles of the Hall of Fame City Challenge, when my confident dreams of finishing under two hours fell apart, dramatically and painfully. The sharks reminded me of all the challenging conversations about church leadership and succession planning with other Amsterdam50 leaders at Cafe Toussaint, Cafe Dickys, Cafe Baton, Cafe Wilhelmina, on the red velvet couches in the H88… They reminded me of the spiritual and emotional conflicts that undergirded my Amsterdam years. The cold, cruel sharks reminded me of my shortcomings and struggles that brought everything else into question…

“You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more? ‘You think too much, old man,’ he said aloud. But you enjoyed killing the dentuso, he thought. He lives on the live fish as you do. He is not a scavenger nor just a moving appetite as some sharks are. He is beautiful and noble and knows no fear of anything. ‘I killed him in self-defense,’ the old man said aloud. ‘And I killed him well.’ Besides, he thought, everything kills everything else in some way. Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.”

“‘Half-fish,’ he said. ‘Fish that you were. I am sorry that I went too far out. I ruined us both. But we have killed many sharks, you and I, and ruined many others. How many did you ever kill, old fish? You do not have that spear on your head for nothing.’ He liked to think of the fish and what he could do to a shark if he were swimming free. I should have chopped the bill off to fight them with, he thought. But there was no hatchet and then there was no knife. But if I had, and could have lashed it to an oar butt, what a weapon. Then we might have fought them together. What will you do now if they come in the night? What can you do? ‘Fight them,’ he said. ‘I’ll fight them until I die.’ But in the dark now and no glow showing and no lights and only the wind and the steady pull of the sail he felt that perhaps he was already dead. He put his two hands together and felt the palms. They were not dead and he could bring the pain of life by simply opening and closing them. He leaned his back against the stern and knew he was not dead. His shoulders told him.”

The Old Man and the Sea is such a powerful portrayal of victory and defeat all wrapped up together! I admire the contemplative, fighting spirit of the old man and his determination to exert himself again and again, regardless of the circumstances. Somehow that character really captured my feelings of being battered and bruised but still somehow wizened by my experiences, settling into my role as a career “fisherman,” even if there may be moments of empty-handedness. My experiences may feel lonely and isolated at times, but there are generational impacts that cannot be understood in the moments of struggle. As the old man’s young apprentice said at the end of the story:

“‘You must get well fast for this is much that I can learn and you can teach me everything. How much did you suffer?’ [asked the boy]. ‘Plenty,’ the old man said. ‘I’ll bring the food and the papers,’ the boy said. ‘Rest well, old man. I will bring stuff from the drugstore for your hands.'”

I’ve spoiled the story a bit for anyone who hasn’t yet read The Old Man and the Sea; even so, I would highly recommend a reading of this book for anyone who enjoys good literature. Especially if you’re also into international church planting and/or running marathons.

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