I’m Running the Marathon with You!

It was Friday evening, and Gary came into my home office to tell me that he had to drive to the airport to pick up a large package. The delivery man said that it was too big to fit into his car. “Do you wanna come with me?” he said. “Sure!” I replied. I’d had a productive day and was glad to accompany him.

We live 25 minutes from the Des Moines airport, and it was a beautiful evening. After we parked, we walked inside. Gary checked with the person at baggage claim, who (he said) told him the package would be coming through on one of the carousels after the baggage was unloaded from the flight that had just arrived.

Gary suggested we walk around. When we reached the bottom of the escalator where passengers exited from the gate area, I exclaimed to Gary, “That looks just like Garth!” (our son). The young man was wearing a mask and was accompanied by a masked young woman, whom I suddenly recognized as Lillie, Garth’s girlfriend. We fell into each other’s arms, and Garth said, “Hi, Mom! I’m running the Des Moines Marathon with you on Sunday.” There were no words.

Even though Garth had been talking over the past months about increasing his running mileage, I completely missed the clues. I had suggested to Gary earlier on Friday that we drive to the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines so I could pick up my race number and bib for Sunday, but Gary urged me to wait until Saturday, as he had a package coming for which they needed his signature. Now I know why.

The most poignant moment was when we arrived home. I took off my jacket, and Garth said, “Hey, Mom! You’re wearing my sweater!” When Garth was in middle and high school, he had a favorite blue sweater that was eventually left behind when he went off to college and began his career. Garth’s blue sweater has been like comfort food for me. However, I hadn’t worn it in a year. Was it a coincidence that I just happened to put it on Friday evening?

When Garth said that he was going to run with me, he meant it literally. This was his very first marathon, and Garth and Gary had been plotting the surprise for months. On Saturday, we picked up our race packets, after which we spent time at the downtown Farmer’s Market and drove back home to rest and prepare for the race.

Sunday morning dawned cool, sunny, and gorgeous. Donning my Iowa head wrap, I wondered if I had it in me to run the good race, seeing that I’d had knee surgery 17 months ago. I took several Advil to get ahead of the pain I knew I would have. What a pair we were! A first-time marathoner and an experienced but aging marathoner who won’t be setting PR’s (personal records) anymore. So, what did that mean? It meant we were going to give it our all and have a blast as we tested our physical limits. Why do I keep running, anyway?

  • For one thing, I could never sit still as a child for too long. I always needed to be doing something.
  • I run to see what I can do after months of careful training.
  • I call running wasting time with Jesus. No one can find me, and it’s just me and Jesus when I am pounding the roads or trails.
  • I love the camaraderie of thousands of others who are also testing their limits.
  • Two of our three children have now completed marathon distance races over the past month.
  • Running is a way to be outside and also stay healthy.
  • Running gives me time to think, pray, repent, and rejoice.
  • I am always inspired by the running stories of others.

I wonder. If we can run 26.2 miles with a thousand other crazy people, how might we run the race of life and the race of faith with each other? I discovered anew on Sunday that the last six miles of a marathon are always the most difficult. We’re almost there, but not quite. Our muscles are screaming, our legs are cramping, and we just want to lie down on the pavement for ten minutes and rest. We try to eat and drink as much as we can, but nothing tastes good. Other runners can’t do much more than put one foot in front of another, either. But we just keep on keeping on, step by step, encouraging each other until we reach the end. Then we stagger over to our loved ones, are congratulated by the spectators, and are given a finisher’s medal.

Garth, thank you for running the good race with me and 1,027 other marathon finishers. It was a beautiful surprise, and I’m proud that you beat me by 7 minutes and 34 seconds. You rock!!

 

Guide my feet while I run this race, (3x)

For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

Hold my hand while I run this race, (3x)

For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

Stand by me while I run this race, (3x)

For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

I’m Your child while I run this race, x)

For I don’t want to run this race in vain.

Guide My Feet – African American Spiritual (The Faith We Sing #2208)

 

PS – I forgave Gary for his skillful deception put over on an unsuspecting Bishop!

You, Too, Can Choose

It was truly a night to remember. A few weeks ago, I attended the Board meeting of our United Methodist-related Morningside University in Sioux City, Iowa. President John Reynders, now in his 22nd and last year before retirement, is the longest-tenured president in the university’s history. Beloved by faculty and students alike, President Reynders has transformed Morningside into a world-class institution of higher learning. At the annual Sioux City Chamber of Commerce dinner on September 30, President Reynders was given the 2021 W. Edwards Deming Business Leadership and Entrepreneurial Excellence Award in recognition of his vision and leadership in the Siouxland region. But it was what came next that rocked my world.

The evening focused on a celebration of our veterans and members of our Armed Forces, with keynote speaker Melissa Stockwell, who has written a book, The Power of Choice; My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion. Stockwell captivated the audience by sharing her story. Melissa was a 24-year-old 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army, deployed to Baghdad in March 2004 as part of the Global War on Terrorism. Three weeks after Stockwell arrived in Iraq, an IED roadside bomb exploded under the Humvee in which she was riding. A combat medic pulled her out from under the vehicle.

Stockwell wrote, “‘I’m hurt!’ I screamed out. Then I was gone. As soon as I screamed, I passed out. It was quick, probably only ten to fifteen seconds. It was the strangest experience. I went to the most beautiful vibrant place, full of pink and purple flowers. It was the happiest, the most joyous place that I had ever experienced.

“Then I resurfaced. Sergeant Pavich, a combat medic, was pulling me out of the vehicle by my bulletproof vest and laying me down on my back. He had been a few vehicles behind us and heard my scream.

“I had just been in my happiest place. Now I was trying to understand exactly where I was. It had been like a scene in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, where pretty music played, and everything was colorful and animated and full of life. I’m in Iraq. I was on the ground, I was hurt. Sergeant Pavich was working on me.”[1]

Melissa, who was seriously injured, was transported in a military helicopter to a hospital for life-saving surgery. When she awoke, she learned that she had lost her left leg above the knee. In fact, Melissa was the first female in the US Armed Forces to lose a limb in active combat. Stockwell was eventually flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. for recovery and rehabilitation and to learn how to live with a prosthetic leg. She received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

But Stockwell found herself at a crossroads. Losing her left leg was not on her to-do list. How would Melissa reinvent her life? Would she become stuck in self-pity or decide to live her life fully? Would she lament what she had lost or focus on what she still had left? In confronting her own loss and self-pity, Melissa met many people at Walter Reed who had injuries that were far worse than hers. She marveled at their resiliency and learned that none of us has control over every aspect of our life. What we can control, however, is our attitude. Melissa decided to commit herself to those who offer their lives daily in the military, especially those deployed far from home. And, having been a competitive athlete since she was a little girl in swimming, tennis, and gymnastics, Melissa chose to devote herself to sports again.

Rio de Janeiro – Provas de triatlo feminino PT4, PT2 e PT5, em Copacabana. (Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil)

In an interview with the  Chicago Tribune in 2016, Melissa said, “Obviously, losing my leg was a traumatic event, but I had the power to choose how I went from there. So I chose to accept the loss of my leg, to be resilient through it and to make my life what I wanted it to be.”

Melissa became the first Iraqi war veteran to qualify for and participate in the Paralympics, which welcomes athletes who fit into six disability categories: amputee, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, visually impaired, spinal injuries, or other (not fitting into the other categories). Unlike the Special Olympics, athletes in the Paralympics must meet certain sport-specific qualifying standards.

Stockwell participated in three swimming events at the 2008 Paralympic games in Beijing, China and was honored to carry the USA flag during the closing ceremonies. Subsequently, she made a transition into paratriathlons. Stockwell represented the United States in the 2010 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in Budapest and won the Women’s TRI-2 (above knee amputee) class. In 2011 and 2012, she defended her TRI-2 World Champion title.

Melissa subsequently won a bronze medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and was honored as Paratriathlete of the Year for two consecutive years. Today Melissa is married with two children. She is also a certified prosthetist and elite coach and has dedicated her life to service and giving back to others. In The Power of Choice, Stockwell shares life lessons that have shaped and formed her life.

  • Stockwell affectionately calls her prosthesis “little leg.” On each anniversary of the attack, she acknowledges the injury and celebrates the life that she still has.
  • Melissa’s hospital stay was the turning point. “I have a chance. I will deal with this.”
  • We cannot change reality, but we can always choose how we will react to events beyond our control.
  • There is great power and hope in the resilience of the human spirit. The enemy took Melissa’s leg, but they could not take her spirit.
  • It doesn’t matter what you look like. By coaching kids, Melissa regained her confidence and self-worth.
  • Find people you can trust and rely on.
  • Give yourself credit. Maybe I CAN do this.
  • There are two roads – determination or self-pity – recovery or giving up.
  • There is power in perspective. Is it really this bad?
  • Focus on what you still have and not on what you lost.
  • Life is short, and dreams can come true.
  • What matters the most is how we live and love and make a difference.

As Stockwell concluded her inspiring talk, the “MC” for the event came forward and announced to Melissa that they had a surprise for her. A man suddenly walked onto the stage and gave her a hug. It was Alex Pavich, the medic who stabilized and saved Melissa’s life after the bomb went off seventeen years ago. They have stayed in touch over the years but had not seen each other since that traumatic event. There was nary a dry eye in the audience.

Stockwell ends her book with these words, “We all have the power – to make our lives what we want them to be, and to feel like the luckiest people alive. We have the power to choose to embrace change instead of resisting it. We have the power to find motivation in our adversity. We can adapt and thrive in life. We have the power to take charge of our destinies, however difficult it might seem, and to live our lives in ways that make the stories we want to share with and inspire the world. I hope that my story helps you along your way.”[2]

My hope is that Melissa Stockwell’s story inspires you. For you, too, can choose.

 

[1] Melissa Stockwell, The Power of Choice; My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion, New York, Post Hill Press, 2020, pp. 72-73.

[2] Stockwell, The Power of Choice; My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion, New York, Post Hill Press, 2020, p. 238.

The Way of the Heart

My life changed in 2006 when Bishop Jonathan Keaton invited me to be a district superintendent after thirteen years of pastoral ministry at First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Never could I have imagined that I would have the opportunity to come alongside clergy in a way that would engage their gifts, encourage their ministries, and empower their congregations to grow in grace and hope. Actually, I was scared stiff! I had served congregations of all sizes but wasn’t sure how all this would all work. Plus, I recognized that I would deeply miss being a local church pastor.

One thing I did know, however. I wanted to lead from my heart. I distinctly remember taking an evening walk in early July of 2006, which had become a daily practice. For several months before I began my ministry as a district superintendent, I realized that I would need to find a way to stay regularly connected with eighty clergy and hundreds of laity. That night I decided to create a weekly blog called Leading from the Heart that would be sent out by email to clergy and anyone else who wanted to subscribe. My hope was that my words might be a source of encouragement and inspiration to clergy and laity alike. More than six hundred blogs later, I want to share a few brief excerpts from my first three blogs.

July 11, 2006

In the summer, I have a practice of taking a walk every night that I am able. As I walk, I vow for this to be a time to let God speak to me through the beauty of God’s good creation. I don’t power walk. I simply wander along, opening my eyes and heart to all that surrounds me. At times, I replay the events of the day and ponder issues of concern. However, I try to quickly clear my mind so that I can make room for God’s presence to surround me with joy.

Tonight, I was walking after 9 p.m., just as the sky was beginning to turn yellow and orange. As I gazed at the sunset, I thought to myself, “These are the most amazing clouds I have ever seen!” Wispy, swirling, dancing, grace-filled clouds, beckoning me to come out and play, reminding me of the promise of a Holy Spirit that blows where it wills, urging me to rest in God’s love and then go out to serve.

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.

Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.

Be still, they say. Watch and listen.

— Linda Hogan

From July 18, 2006

The ancient Hebrews believed that the heart was more than just a physical organ. The heart was the crucible of a person’s true essence, whether that essence was good, bad, or in transformation. The heart, Lev in Hebrew, was the seat of wisdom, intellect, understanding, moods, personality, passions, and emotions. Most of all, it was within the heart that people truly met God’s word — where real knowledge and conversion took place.

When Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest of all, he built upon his Jewish heritage by replying that we need to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. For Jesus, loving God and others with our entire being is the source of the wholeness of life. It is the way of the heart. Unfortunately, what seems to be missing in much of our world today is even a little heart.

The desire of the head for more and more so dominates the heart that we forget that there is more to our heart than simply a beating muscle. We forget that in order to be a whole person, we need to do more for our heart than simply exercise it. Our hearts become so anesthetized that we can no longer feel. And because we are not able to reach out to our neighbor with passion and grace, we risk a broken heart ourselves.

Thousands of years ago, the Hebrews knew about the possibility of this type of heart. Why don’t you and I have this kind of heart? What’s stopping us? If we allow our hearts to lead us, what transformation might take place in our churches, communities, individual lives, and the world? I invite you to listen to and lead from your heart.

From July 25, 2006

Last week, for the first time in 25 years of ministry, I went to the health club on Sunday morning! I am now officially out of my normal Sunday routine. I did not need to be in church until mid-morning, so I decided to go for a swim. I admit I felt incredible guilt. I was looking around me all the time, afraid I’d run into someone I knew. I thought to myself, “This is not right! I shouldn’t be here!”

As I headed to the women’s locker room to hide, I heard a familiar voice, “Hey, Laurie!” It was Jim, who is Jewish. He broke out into a big smile and said, “I didn’t think I’d ever see you here on Sunday morning. Welcome to my world.” Actually, few people were working out that morning. Of course, I hoped that everyone was in church!

There are as many unchurched people in Grand Rapids as anywhere else in the country. You and I are called to reach people for Jesus Christ and not just stay in our sanctuaries and wait for them to come to us. At our church conferences this fall, I look forward to hearing how you are reaching out to your communities and making disciples for the transformation of the world!

Fifteen years after my first three blogs, I am still committed to leading from the heart. How might our world, our church, and our individual lives change if we all had the courage to follow the way of the heart?