I wasn’t going to write about the Grand Rapids Marathon, which I ran yesterday, but I couldn’t help myself. The spirit of the marathon is so mysterious and compelling that every participant has a story to share.
While laying out my gear on Saturday night, my biggest decision was which long sleeve shirt I was willing to sacrifice, knowing that after a few miles, I would end up tossing it along the side of the road. I have several dozen long sleeve t-shirts, accumulated from races over the years, but I didn’t want to part with any of them. Of course, that’s a story in itself, a story about my own reluctance to part with my stuff. I finally decided to wear my First UMC, Grand Rapids shirt, thinking someone might pick it up and wonder where First UMC is and who they are. It was my effort at servant evangelism.
Right before the race, I was standing in line at the restroom, and a young woman saw my shirt. She said, “I’m a United Methodist, too. I’m a member of a UMC in Warsaw, Indiana.” After confessing that I was a pastor, she enthusiastically told me her story: she has taken Disciple Bible Study 1, 2, 3 and 4, plus Jesus in the Gospels. She’s a member of the contemporary worship team and is now going through Stephen ministry. Her story is that she ran a marathon the day before in Indianapolis and was running this marathon in celebration of a friend whose cancer was in remission. As we parted ways, I blessed her, convinced that this brief encounter was as meaningful as any Sunday morning worship experience.
I heard snippets of other stories along the way. A father and son were running the marathon holding an American flag, the son currently serving in the military. I heard 2 young men discussing whether Jesus would have ever considered running 26.2 miles. At mile 23, as I could barely put one foot in front of another, 2 teenage boys breezed by me, one saying to the other, “You know, I haven’t even prepared for this race.” My only consolation was that I was at least 3 times as old as they were. I ran alongside several runners who were pushing handicapped children in wheelchairs.
This was not my best race. I’ve participated in a few races over the years where I was in a “zone,” and everything seemed effortless. Not Sunday. I decided to hang out with a pace team that was running a 3 hour 44 minute marathon. Around mile 18, however, I could no longer keep up the pace I intended to run. Every part of my body screamed out in pain, and my mind kept saying, “Come on, Laurie. Just stop and rest for a bit. It’s not that big a deal.” When both body and mind team up to say, “Enough!” it’s the heart that keeps on going. Ken Nash, teaching pastor at Cornerstone UMC, used the word “mental anguish” to describe his experience. Ken completed his first marathon yesterday!
That’s the essence of the marathon mystique. The race is too long and grueling to take lightly, even if you’re a world class runner. So why do we do it?
- Runners are passionate people, who are willing to suffer a long time to realize their dream. Runners would rather risk failure than never reach their potential.
- Runners do not expect instant gratification or a quick high. They plan, prepare, train and execute until they achieve their goal.
- Runners don’t compete against each other. Each person has their own reason for running, whether it be stress relief, weight loss, achieving balance in their lives, raising money for a charity or honoring the memory of a loved one.
- Runners take a stand against laziness, procrastination, age, gender, health issues, busyness and quitting.
Most of all, the marathon is a microcosm of our lives and provides insight into who we are and what we are made of. During a marathon you are guaranteed to see the human spirit at its best, like the stranger who ran with me the last 10 miles of my first marathon in 1984 because he knew I was struggling.
Over the last few miles, I played every mind game I knew to keep on going and finally made it. After finishing, I hobbled around for a while, watching and praying. A middle-aged son ran into his father arms, heaving great big sobs after he finished the race. Children screamed with delight when their parents finished. A woman who collapsed at the finish was tended to by other runners until paramedics could take her to the hospital. Parents with great big smiles congratulated their handicapped children for completing the race and expressed deep appreciation to the runners who enabled that to happen.
Many runners were crying as they crossed the finish line, grateful for the ability to run, relieved that the many months of intense training were over, and amazed that they actually did it! We human beings can do far more than we think we can.
Everyone has a story, and everyone needs to share that story with others. That’s the essence of our faith isn’t it? Our story as Christians can only be understood in light of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. God has created us with limitless potential, Jesus has offered us the wholeness of salvation through his life, death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit empowers us to bring in God’s kingdom on this earth.
Bringing in the kingdom is hard work however. There are no quick fixes to poverty, AIDS-HIV, immigration, global warming, and genocide. Our job is not to sit around eating bonbons, waiting for God to call us home. Rather, God calls us to be out in the world, listening to people’s stories, helping to connect those stories with God’s story, and witnessing to the hope that is in us.
The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a calling that never ends. It will take all the energy, determination, perseverance and single-mindedness we have to keeping sharing the story. But the good news is that, like a marathon, our faith story is a journey, not a destination. We don’t share our stories because we are banking on being in first place when we arrive in heaven. We share our stories and listen to other’s stories because the love of Christ compels us to make a difference in the world by bringing in the kingdom for all of God’s people. How will you tell the story this week?
I love to tell the story, ‘twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”