On the first day of summer vacation, I huddled in a chilled movie theater, where I had tagged along with my 14-year-old son and his friends. I was glad that he was still willing to be seen in public with me and glad that he was still interested in seeing an animated movie like Cars 3.
I love Pixar, but I entered the theater for the studio’s latest release with a little trepidation. Knowing that this film focuses on an aging Lightning McQueen, the hotshot car hero of the series, I was anticipating a psychological shot to my expanding middle-aged gut, as I wrestle with growing kids and questions of accomplishment at this stage of life.
McQueen, once the brash rookie that roared his way into the racing world, is at a crossroads in Cars 3. A new rookie—Jackson Storm—is literally passing him by. After a major crash, McQueen reconsiders his future in a sport now dominated by new technologies and training methods. (Mid-life gut shot—check!)
In response to this brave new future, McQueen turns to the past. He tracks down the coach and contemporaries of his mentor, Doc Hudson, and listens to their stories, while also getting his tires dirty in the sand and dirt of classic racetracks around the country.
This is one of the best aspects of an otherwise predictable film: the emphasis on the strong ties of community. You see it in Lightning’s playful interactions with his peers early in the movie and in the loving camaraderie of the older generation of racers. Doc Hudson was a bridge between those worlds for McQueen, who, in turn, must struggle with how to bridge to the generation below him. He learns that racing isn’t just about the current lap or the current season—it’s a living tradition that must be received and passed down to the next generation.
When the author of Hebrews urges us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith,” specific attention is given to how our running is positioned in an ongoing race. We are runners who are competing in the presence of “a great cloud of witnesses”—those who have already completed their leg of the race.
There’s more to this race than the lap we’re currently running.
Like McQueen, in order for us to run the race well, we need to know the stories of these witnesses. These include both biblical heroes of the faith and those who are part of the living tradition of the last 2,000 years. These are our stories, our shared history. By faith we have been grafted into this family, accepting the promise and the call to be fruitful and faithful witnesses before a watching world.
In Cars 3, Lightning McQueen comes to understand his place in a similar living tradition. Accepting the painful reality that he is not going to be able to keep racing competitively any longer, he gives his number to another racer who goes on to finish the race (using a maneuver she learned from the stories of Doc Hudson).
There’s more to this race than the lap we’re currently running, then. The great cloud of witnesses has carried Jesus’ name into the world for generations. In turn, we must be ready to hand the race off to the next generation and fade into that cloud of witnesses.
Paul understood the nature of this relay, encouraging Timothy to take what he’s received from Paul and entrust it “to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” As we run, we must raise up those who will carry the name of Jesus after us, until we reach the prize at the end of the race—the well-deserved rest of the people of God.
When Cars 3 ended, we spilled out of the theater, blinking in the late afternoon sun. The boys with me had just completed middle school and were in the awkward, in-between phase before high school—young and loud and a bit obnoxious. In a few short years, they’d be heading off to college, like Andy in Pixar’s Toy Story 3. Keenly aware that I am much farther into my journey, I was struggling to discern where and how God could use me to have an influence in the world.
And there in front of me—leaving me in their wake as they raced to the car—was at least part of the answer.