Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-13)
When my family moved to the Pacific Northwest nearly 16 years ago, I remember being absolutely awestruck the first time I watched the salmon make their way back to their spawning grounds in the autumn.
We had moved from Phoenix, where streams and rivers are virtually nonexistent, and before that, I’d lived in southern California, and while there was the occasional stream, there wasn’t the spectacle of spawning salmon.
The first time I ever saw the salmon heading upstream, I was driving somewhere, and noticed that several people were standing on a bridge, looking intently down into the water. Curiosity got the best of me, and I pulled over to see what everyone was gawking at. In the brook below, to my amazement, were huge fish, swimming upstream in water sometimes not more than 4 or 5 inches deep, and sometimes even less. They would wiggle their way through very shallow patches, their undersides getting scraped on the rocks. Some even had deep gashes in their flesh, garnered from predators, fishermen or even other salmon.
As the years went by, I found special viewing spots I would return to each autumn, where I could stand on the bank of a stream, and see several 15-pound salmon swimming within a few feet of me. It seemed as though I could have reached in the water and caught one with my bare hands.
Sixteen years later, the beauty and mystery of this annual pilgrimage still moves me. How do they know it’s mid-September and time to go back “home”? And since there are many streams and rivers here, and many intersect, how do they know how to find their way back to the place where their parents spawned? How do they know when to turn right, and when to turn left?
This morning, as I was riding my bike down a beautiful stretch of paved trail that follows a river, I saw the salmon spawning in a quieter, shallower stretch of water. I stopped and watched as the male shimmied across the river stones, fertilizing eggs a female had just laid. Several feet away, in an even shallower area of the river, I counted four dead salmon, bobbing on their sides in the gentle current.
Their death didn’t seem sad, but rather, noble. They had made it to the goal, laid their eggs and fertilized them, and then died in utter exhaustion, but with the knowledge that they had fulfilled their purpose. And making it to the goal is no easy feat. In fact, it’s absolutely miraculous that any of them make it home.
All along the way, there are obstacles and predators. I’ve been to the fish hatchery in Issaquah, Washington. It’s placed next to a stream where salmon spawn heavily. At the place where the hatchery is built, there’s a climb to get upstream. For whatever reason, the hatchery built a concrete wall about 4 feet high across the stream, creating a waterfall. To the right, is a concrete fish ladder designed for the fish to make their way up. However, many of the salmon don’t find the fish ladder, and they jump and jump to try to get over the wall. They are relentless.
What is this drive that God has placed within them? What is the “upward call” that makes them keep going, keep striving, keep fighting their way upstream? What is it within them that makes them settle for nothing less than getting back to their spawning ground, or die trying?
We also have an upward call of God in Christ Jesus, and a goal that He has placed in our hearts. We, too, have been called to run the race, to plant the seeds of the word of God in the hearts of those He’s placed in our lives. His Holy Spirit runs with us, and comes behind us, fertilizing the Word, so that it will grow.
There are many times when we face obstacles and have no idea how to overcome them. But we know that we must, and we trust that God will show us the way. At other times we encounter adversaries and predators, and sometimes they even manage to take a bite out of us and it hurts, but still, God strengthens us so that we can keep going.
And we, too, were created for nobility. Our nobility does not come from making it to our goal, but rather in how we run the race. Do we forget what lies behind, and press on toward the goal, our eyes fixed on Jesus? Do we keep going when the going gets tough, trusting that even when it seems like we are weak and ineffectual, that He is strong, and that the Holy Spirit is coming behind us, fertilizing every seed we plant?
When we arrive on heaven’s shores, let Jesus find us exhausted, gashed, chewed and scarred from our relentless pilgrimage toward the cross. There will be no sweeter or nobler sight to Him than a faithful servant who has heeded the upward call, and fought hard to win the prize.