Recently I was thinking about my Dad. He is such an amazing man and has done so many great things in his life. If you were to ask him what the greatest joy in his life is he would say “The Gospel and My family”. I know this because I have heard him say it over and over throughout my life. I love him for this. In my mind, my Dad and my Mom are my hero’s. They have both gone through so much heartache, and yet have come out of that heartache smiling and as faithful as ever.
One day when I was thinking about my Dad and some of the struggles he has had throughout his life I wondered why so many people had to deal with so much pain, while others did not. It didn’t seem fair. As I contemplated this, a story formed in my mind. I have shared this story many times to my kids. It has helped them show love and empathy in situations they otherwise might not have.
Once upon a time in a beautiful kingdom called Himaya, a wise ruler, King Balzac, lived out his life serving his people. For many years he taught them how to be prosperous and live in peace, but now he was growing old. Realizing that his end was nearing, King Balzac sent proclamations throughout the land that all were to meet in the capital city for an important announcement.
On the appointed day, citizens of Himaya gathered to hear the king’s words.
“My beloved people,” the king began, “my days on earth are coming to an end. Soon I’ll not be here to guide and rule over you. Even now, I feel the pains of old age upon my body. For this purpose I have assembled you to announce that the kingdom will be conferred upon my first-born son, Prince Sandrival, upon my death”
A low wail rippled through the crowd. The people loved King Balzac and already they mourned his passage. Hundreds of eyes swung from the king to the Crown Prince. In looks and actions, he was almost an exact copy of King Balzac. It helped ease some of their sorrow to know he would carry on in the role of his father.
King Balzac gazed at his people with tenderness. “It is not good for my son to rule alone. He will need the help of trusted servants and wise advisors. With this in mind, I have decided to hold a contest, to help us choose the members of the new king’s court.”
The response was deafening as neighbor turned to question neighbor. What kind of contest would the king hold? King Balzac raised his hand for silence. In the descending hush, he continued, “There will be a meeting held tonight in the great hall for all those who wish to be considered. Prince Sandrival will address you then. Remember that there are many positions available and people of all talents and skills should attend this meeting if they feel they have something to offer their king.” Sunlight caught the glint of moisture in the old king’s eyes and his hands shook as he grasped the arm of a nearby guard. Slowly the two men returned to the the king’s chambers, followed by the remainder of the royal party.
As dusk turned to dark, curious onlookers crammed into the great hall. What kind of contest would be held? What were the qualities that the king would be looking for? Which of all the contestants would have a place in the royal courts? Each person strained to hear Prince Sandrival’s words.
“I will need much help in running this kingdom. It would be foolish for me to appoint an unproven advisor, so any who wish to serve their king must be tested. To confirm the worthiness of each contestant, we will hold a race. Those desiring to participate in the the race will be required to journey to an isolated land, away from all they know. There they will prepare for the race, separated from their loved ones, until the day my father dies. On the day of his death, I will send an envoy to transport the contestants home to our kingdom. When they are back among us, the contest will be held and the winners of the race will be chosen to help rule the kingdom. For those interested, the place you will be taken to train is Tyloma.”
Consternation silenced the room. Tyloma was far away, and the way was treacherous. Ancient legends told of dark mists that had the ability to suck away one’s memories. A sudden movement broke the stillness. First individuals, then groups headed toward the doors of the great hall. The test had become a great risk – one they no longer desired. Only a meager portion of the hopefuls stayed to receive instructionsAt the time appointed for departure, the royal docks were crowded by those bidding farewell to contestants who had accepted the king’s challenge.
“Remember,” Prince Sandrival counseled, “all who board the royal ship have committed to follow through with the testing. Once the ship has set sail, you cannot change your mind.” Deliberately he met each set of eyes, then nodded to the ship’s captain. With a grating screech, the gang plank was lowered and passengers boarded the ship. The crowd erupted with cheers and throwing of flowers. Frangi-pani and jasmine still scented the air as the boat grew small in the distance.
The trip to Tyloma was long and frightening. At times the ocean seemed to swallow the tiny ship whole but, thankfully, the captain had the skill and courage to see them through the ordeal. When at last they reached their destination, crew and passengers alike heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Tyloma was bewilderingly beautiful. Everyone had heard so many whispered accounts of the horrors they would encounter in this unknown land that when they looked around, they were confused. Instead of dark grey skies and unfriendly weather, the skies were blue and the air fragrant. There were no wild beasts ready to eat them or dangerous natives to avoid. Instead, they were greeted warmly by friendly servants who led them to a beautiful castle where each new arrival was ushered to a private room.
After a good night’s rest and breakfast of fresh fruit, a stern faced man in dark uniform addressed them: “I am the Headmaster, Prince Sandrival’s representative here. Welcome to our island where you will be training for the greatest race of your life. Today you will be given a pair of training shoes that you are to use throughout the remainder of your stay. You may never take them off, even in your sleep. If you take them off you will be punished, perhaps even disqualified from the contest. Each day, when the first bell in the morning rings, you are to report immediately to the training grounds. It is expected that you will spend the whole day on the training field, leaving only when the evening bell rings. Each day you are to run around the race track as many times as you can. You will continue doing this until the day that King Balzac dies and the Crown Prince sends a ship for you.”
He paused to let the weight of his words sink in. Many of the contestants exchanged apprehensive glances. “You will notice that there are refreshment booths placed around the track: you can stop at them whenever you need to. However, you are cautioned not to waste your time there as this test will require your best at all times. You may now all follow me to receive your shoes.”
It did not take long for everyone to fall into a pattern of training. Each morning after breakfast, the competitors gathered at the training field. There they warmed up and started down the track. After only a few days, it became obvious that some runners were more suited to this challenge than others. They would take off rat a furious pace, passing the finish line more than once a day. Others could barely make a few steps, discovering their task to be much more difficult than they anticipated. For these, discouragement soon grew.
“What is the point?” a young girl asked the servant who came to encourage them. “No matter how hard I try, there are so many faster than me”. Others agreed with her. With feelings of hopelessness they dragged their feet until the evening bell rang, spending their time chatting to others near them, or withdrawing more into themselves. As time went on, many even forgot why they were there on that island. Prince Sandrival, their families, their former occupations – all seemed like a distant dream. And so the first year passed. And the second. And the third.
By the fourth year, many contestants spent the majority of their time in the refreshment booths, staying out of the hot sun while they ate, drank and gossiped. Often the king’s servants would walk among the contestants to remind them of their purpose, and to encourage them to use their time wisely. Some would listen and believe, re-entering the training field with fresh energy. Others would laugh and say that they did not need to practice to win. “I’m already faster than most of those people out there,” bragged a gangly lad lounging on the ground.
Just then a poorly dressed contestant stopped at the refreshment booth and asked if he could have something to drink. “Oh, go away,” the braggart said. “There are lots of booths along the field, go find one for people like you.” The thirsty runner left to seek refuge elsewhere.
In the group there were two contestants, Almon and Caleb, who stood out from the rest. Almon was young when he first came to the island, barely ten years old. Life had been hard for Almon in Himaya, and he was familiar with hard work. He chose to join the race in hopes of providing for his aging grandmother and setting an example for his younger brothers. Caleb, a few years older than Almon, showed himself from the start to be one of the fastest runners in the group. He was from a privileged home, and came to Tyloma to ‘fulfill his destiny’ as he was pleased to announce frequently. There was no doubt Caleb had been born with the gift of speed. Even as a child he would race and win against those who were older than him. When the King announced the contest, everyone who knew Caleb knew that he would definitely be one of those chosen to counsel the king. His mother cried when he boarded the ship, but his father stood straight and proud. He always knew his son was born to greatness.
Every morning Caleb and Almon were the first to reach the field. By the time the rest of the contestants made their way to the training grounds, the two young men had completed their warm-ups and Caleb was already far around the track. Some days he would run as fast as he could, passing the finish line two or three times, but most days he would do one fast run around the track and then spend the rest of the day resting in the shade of the refreshment booths that lined the track. Caleb knew that some of the occupants of the booths were contestants who had taken off their shoes, and no longer had a desire to run the race. This did not matter to him. He would not be influenced by them and their easy ways. He would join them for a time and then go on his way and practice. During the time Caleb sat drinking in the booths with the others, he watched Almon carefully. There was something about Almon that fascinated Caleb.
Caleb had seen Almon run once before coming to Tyloma and he was fast – not as swift as Caleb, but fast enough to be chosen as one of the rulers. When they first came to the island, Caleb tried to talk Almon into becoming his running partner, but it didn’t work out. Instead of just focusing on his running, Almon would often slow down to compliment a runner on his style, or give encouragement to another. When someone stumbled, he was often the first one there to help them up and tend to their wounds or sore ego. Many times he reminded a weary contestant about Prince Sandrival and the reason they were in training. As time sped by, some of those in training had almost forgotten Himaya and were annoyed with this talk, but most appreciated his help and tried harder to reach the finish line.
Often, as Almon stopped to drink, he conversed with those lounging at the refreshment booths, reminding them of the importance of their practice. Caleb felt especially embarrassed when Almon talked to those who had taken off their shoes. He told them that they could join the practice if they just went to the Headmaster, confessed their mistake and paid the required price. Caleb thought Almon should just worry about himself and not bother other people. He was careful not to mention the crown prince. He did not want to offend those around him. Plus, if others started practicing hard, there would be less of a chance of him winning.
When a runner had the courage to talk to the Headmaster and report his error, Almon was always the first to welcome him or her back to the track, often assisting the first few times around.
Layla was one of those Almon reminded about their homeland. The first time he spoke to her at the refreshment booth, her memory of Himaya was dim and she had taken off her shoes a long time before. But Almon’s talk of Prince Shalimar woke up something inside her and she gathered courage to do what was necessary to return to the practice field. On the first day back, her steps were so heavy she broke down crying. “I can’t do this,” she cried. “I can’t take another step in this hot sun. Please let me take off these shoes and return to the shade.”
Almon reached out his hand. “You can make it, Layla. I remember how you were on the ship. You were full of life and hope. You can do it. Just lean on me.” Layla searched his face then struggled to stand, and with Almon half-carrying her, they stumbled along. Each day seemed a little easier, but there were many days that the only way Layla could cross the finish line was by leaning on her friend.
One day, as Almon and Caleb whizzed around the track, they spied a short, chubby youth hunched against a refreshment booth, holding his head in his hands. Almon motioned for Caleb to continue running while he squatted beside the young man and slipped an arm around his shoulders. Almon discovered the boy’s name was Timo. He spent the rest of the day reminding Timo about the purpose of their training on Tyloma, and the great things they had to look forward to if they only kept practicing. Timo was so discouraged that at first he barely listened, but, after many hours, he lifted his head and tried to stand. Almon offered to carry Timo around the track, but Timo refused. Almon stayed by his side, encouraging him with words and love. Partway along the course, Timo faltered and wanted to stop .
“You can do this, Timo.” Almon said. “Look how far you’ve come already. Not much longer now and you’ll be there. I know you can do this.” Timo drew a great breath then continued to push one foot in front of the other until they saw the finish line. After he crossed it, tears filled his eyes and he hugged Almon in gratitude.
“Don’t you realize,” Caleb once pointed out to Almon, “that if you spent less time helping others make it to the finish line, you would have way more time practicing for the race, or sitting in the shade enjoying yourself? You work too hard with these people. I mean, look at Layla. I doubt she will have a chance in the real race since she can barely make it here, plus she is so ill dressed that it reflects poorly on you. I am sure the servants are keeping track of who passes the finish line the most so you better start passing it more often.”
Almon smiled and said, “Layla’s my friend,. She’ll do great on the day of the race if she just keeps trying.”
One day a trumpet blare bugled over the field where runners were warming up. “A ship,” Caleb yelled, “I see a ship!” He leaped from his vantage point on a hill and raced toward the docks, the other contestants streaming after him. Sure enough, a large ship bearing the king’s crest had just landed at the docks. Runners barely waited till the lines were secure before storming the vessel. As they settled in their berths, the crew cast off the lines and the captain sailed out to sea again.
This time, brisk winds made the return voyage short and uneventful. Soon, the passengers were being given a hero’s welcome on the shores of Himaya. Friends and family joyfully greeted them, crying and laughing at the same time. Almon was grateful to see that his grandmother was doing well, and had been treated kindly by the king in his absence.
After a short reunion, the contestants were whisked away to the track where they were given a royal racing robe and brand new racing shoes. The royal robes suited Caleb well, and with the new shoes on his feet, Caleb knew he was ready for his finest moment. Soon the whole world would know how fast he was and his true greatness would be recognized. He tested his shoes out and was amazed at how comfortable they felt. This race was going to be better than he had even imagined.
Through the crowd, Caleb noticed Layla. He was surprised to see how beautiful she looked in her robes. She stood tall and carried herself with dignity.
Before he could wonder at this transformation, an announcement was given for all runners to advance to the starting line. Caleb tensed his muscles and listened carefully. The signal to begin sounded and Caleb pushed hard. He was off. He could feel the wind through his hair, and his muscles work as they had never worked before. Truly this was the best he had to offer, and he had great confidence that his place in the royal court was assured
Something caught his eye as he ran. Turning slightly he saw Layla, but she was not languishing behind as she always had. She was running swiftly. So swiftly that in a moment the impossible had happened and she had passed Caleb. In a panic, Caleb pushed himself harder – it was to no avail. Layla had long passed him and there was no way he would ever be able to catch up with her. Soon Almon passed Caleb, along with a dozen other people, some he recognized, and some he did not. Before he could understand what was going on, he heard a loud, “Huzzah” at the finish line. Layla had come in first, with Almon close behind her. By the time Caleb and some of his friends from the refreshment booths finally reached the finish line, the crowd was nearly gone. Layla, Almon and eight others had been named the new royal advisors and were on their way to the celebration feast.
“I don’t understand,” Caleb cried to the only judge still on the field.
“What is it that you don’t understand, Caleb?” Caleb recognized the judge immediately as King Sandrival, their new ruler. Humbled, he mumbled an apology for speaking so brashly. The judge waved his apology away and asked again, “What is it that you don’t understand?”
Caleb began slowly. “How did Layla win the race? I could see that Almon had it in him, though I do not know how he was able to run as fast as he did, but Layla, Your Highness, she could hardly make it to the finish line in Tyloma. How could she run so fast now?”
The new king gazed at Caleb kindly. “The answer lies in the shoes”.
“The shoes?” Caleb questioned. “You mean the new ones we got here?’
“No, the shoes you were given in Tyloma,” the king explained, pointing to the pile of shoes they had worn while in training. He reached into the pile and pulled out a pair that Caleb recognized as Layla’s. “Put these on and take a few steps in them.”
Bewildered, Caleb tried the shoes on. They felt strange and heavy. He attempted to lift his leg but could hardly budge. His brow wrinkled. “That’s how Layla first felt wearing them,” the king said. “She’d never worn such heavy shoes, and it discouraged her so much that she gave up right at the beginning. Remember how she was always at the refreshment booths?” Caleb nodded. “It wasn’t because she was lazy – it was because her shoes were too heavy. It wasn’t until she’d been there some time that she had the courage to try again, and this time she didn’t give up. Every day her legs got stronger and stronger until she was able to make it to the finish line by herself. When she came here, she was given a pair of shoes just like everyone else’s, perfectly weightless. All those hours of walking and sleeping in her heavy shoes helped her form incredible muscles. Her courage helped her train to be one of the best advisors I could ask for.”
Understanding gradually lightened Caleb’s mind. He thought of all the rude comments he had made about Layla. In Tyloma, he would have been ashamed to be seen with her, but here in Himaya that had all changed.
“What about Almon, were his shoes heavy, too? Is that why he could run so fast?” Caleb asked. He wondered if he should launch a complaint that he had not been given heavy shoes to practice in.
The king raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you try them on and see for yourself.”
Caleb found Ammon’s shoes easily (they were by far the most worn-out pair in the pile) and put them on. Lifting his leg he was surprised to see how light the shoes were compared to Layla’s. This confused him deeply. “How did he run so fast if his training shoes weren’t any heavier than mine?” Before the question was complete, an image flashed through his mind, an image of Almon carrying Layla and many others across the finish line. With a deep sense of shame, Caleb hung his head. He thought of the rewards he had lost through his own choices. Removing Almon’s shoes, he placed them reverently on the pile and walked slowly home.