Are You Okay?

“Are you okay?”  Hundreds of thousands of people around the world were asking this question last Monday.  Many were seeking to know if their loved ones running the Boston Marathon were safe.  Others were emailing, tweeting, Facebooking, and calling because they weren’t sure if their friends were running or not.

Because I’ve run the Boston Marathon eight of the last fifteen years, I received several dozen inquiries throughout the week, “Are you okay?  Were you running today?  Thinking about you.”  Others were hesitant to contact me and called Gary or other friends instead.  “Are you okay?”  The sensitivity and compassion of this simple question is one of the most profound marks of being human, for it opens the door for others to share their deepest fears and greatest hopes.

Boston MarathonI was sitting at a car dealership waiting for my oil to be changed when I saw the breaking news about twenty minutes after the bombs went off.  I involuntarily began to cry because no one who has ever run this iconic race can forget what it feels like to run down Boylston Street toward the finish line.  “Are you okay?” asked a woman sitting beside me.  “I can see how heartfelt your response is.”

The bombs were a complete shock, yet in another sense it did not surprise me.  More than once since September 11 the thought has crossed my mind that an attack on the Boston Marathon would make a stunning statement for anyone wishing to wreak havoc.  It’s almost impossible to secure a marathon, especially the most famous marathon in the world where huge numbers of spectators enjoy the Patriots’ Day holiday by partying along the entire 26.2 mile route.

As Gary and I began processing this tragedy late Monday afternoon, I blurted out, “This is the most dastardly and cowardly act I can imagine.  What pain could have prompted someone to target innocent runners and spectators who are celebrating the determination and persistence of the human body and spirit?  Whoever did this has no idea who they are dealing with.  Nothing can stop us.  We will keep running.”

“If you want to run, run a mile.  If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.”  These words were on the back of a friend’s t-shirt as I was running at the local health club last Tuesday.  The quote comes from Emil Zatopek, a Czech runner who won three gold medals in the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics, the last coming when Zatopek decided at the last minute to compete in the first marathon of his life.  The editors of the February 2013 issue of Runner’s World chose Zatopek as the greatest runner of all time.

Are you okay?  “Yes,” a marathoner will say. “I’m okay as long as I can run.”  The mystique of the marathon is that in 26 miles we experience a microcosm of life itself.  To run a marathon is to make a decision to experience a different life by doing something great.  Make no mistake, running 26 miles is something great, no matter how fast or slow we run and no matter whether we are at the front or in the back of the pack.

How do marathoners experience a different life?  We do three things that produce greatness in all areas of life, not just running.

  • We prepare. 

The process of preparing for a marathon is transformative in itself.  To experience a different life we have to make a commitment to the training.  We follow a plan that gradually builds up our mileage over the course of months.  We alternate hard and easy runs, long and short runs, and rest days.  By resting and eating well our muscles repair themselves, preparing us to train whether we are tired, sore, depressed, under the weather, or overwhelmed.  To run a marathon is to drag ourselves out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to willingly undergo suffering for the sake of a noble goal.

The vast majority of Boston marathon registrants have to qualify by running another marathon at a pace that sets them apart from other age-group runners.  Some try to qualify for years until finally it all comes together and their dream becomes a reality.  Others are able to register for Boston by contributing a certain amount of money as a charity runner.

The actual marathon contains an entire lifetime in two to six hours.  On Boston Marathon day we get up early, butterflies in our stomach.  We shake off the phantom aches and pains that turned us into hypochondriacs for months.  We make sure our digestive system is working properly, gather our gear, eat and drink food that agrees with us, kiss our loved ones goodbye, take the subway to the bus, and ride 26 miles out to the start at Hopkinton.  We meet new friends, make small talk, and ask constantly, “Are you okay?”

By the time the fighter jets scream over ahead, we hear the Star-Spangled Banner, and we’ve stood in line one last time at the porta-potty, we are ready to begin the journey.  “Are you okay?” we ask complete strangers.  “You’re gonna have a great race.  You’re prepared.  Now enjoy every minute.  This is your time.”  There are high fives and fist bumps all around, and off we go.  Even the apostle Paul is present through thousands of runners who repeat the Philippians 4:13 mantra, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

runnersIn the same way, the police, first responders, and marathon volunteers did great things last Monday because they were prepared for anything.  They were present to the wounded within seconds of the bomb blasts and saved the lives of many with traumatic injuries because they were trained and ready.

  • We let go of assumptions.

Experienced marathoners know not to assume anything about a marathon because we never what’s going to happen in such a long race.  We have to continually adjust to changing temperatures and wind conditions as well as hydration and food intake.  We may go from an adrenaline rush at the start, to feeling great and on pace at five miles, to a leg cramp at 10 miles, to the deafening cheers of the Wellesley College women at the halfway mark, to a boost from a little kid giving you an orange slice at 15 miles, to the agony of Heartbreak Hill at mile 20, to the shuffle past Fenway Park, to the last exhilarating half mile down Boylston Street where adrenaline returns and wooden legs keep on going.  Sometimes we have the race of a lifetime.  Other times we tank and never really know why.

I also learned early on that runners come in all shapes and sizes and that it is foolhardy to stereotype people on the basis of how they look.  When our son, Garth, was in fifth grade I ran with him in his first ten kilometer race.  I’ll never forget the look on Garth’s face when an “old man” passed him running up a steep hill.  Indignant, Garth exclaimed, “He’s a grandpa!”  That’s nothing compared to being passed by Dick and Rick Hoyt, competing in their 31st Boston Marathon last Monday.

Dick and Rick HoytPeople who do great things do not let their own theories and hypotheses blind them to what they are really seeing.  When the bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, some assumed that it was the work of foreign terrorists.  Harsh and uninformed words were spoken about who the perpetrators might be.

We eventually learned that the suspects were Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 26 and 19 year old ethnic Chechen brothers who lived, studied, and grew up in the U.S.  Even then some immediately blamed their Chechen ethnicity and Muslim religion while others cited the influence of their American upbringing.  At the time no one knew the real story of why these two brothers became murderers.  Rushing to judgment is always unwise.  We experience a different life by starting with a clean slate devoid of assumptions and remaining open to whatever truth emerges.

  • We ask, “Are you okay?”

Marathoners often greet one another by asking, “How’s your training going?”  Runners often perform best when they are part of a running group where everyone can offer support and encouragement.  We don’t compete against each other.  We compete against our own expectations, goals, and dreams.

No one can complete a marathon, let alone live a different life, unless we have the support of our loved ones and friends.  That’s why the Boston Marathon is so beloved by runners.  It’s because of the spectators.  Every one of the 25,000 runners streaming down Boylston Street toward the finish is cheered on as if they were the winner – because they are all winners.

“Go for it!  You can do it!  You’re looking great!  You’re almost there!  You’re okay!”  It is precisely those words that enable all of us to finish strong, whether in a race or in life itself.  It did not escape notice that the vast majority of victims were not runners but spectators.  Last Monday it was the runners’ turn to ask, “Are you okay?  How can I help you?”

            Thousands of photos and videos sent to law enforcement enabled them to zero in on two people.  The FBI released pictures of the two suspects on Thursday night and again asked for the public’s help.  A citizen alerted police on Friday night to the fact that someone was hiding under the tarp in his boat in Watertown.

Heroes stepped out of the crowd to help, medical personnel saved lives by their immediate response, and people around the world sent prayers to heaven.  Thousands of Boston residents offered to open their homes to stranded runners and visitors.  Acts of kindness overshadowed the smoke and ashes.  It was truly a marathon effort on the part of everyone to locate the suspects.  If our world is going to become the kingdom of God, we need each other, and the only way to do that is by asking for, as well as accepting, the help of others.

Everyone will experience a different life after the Boston bombings: runners, family, friends, a grieving city, and a shocked world.  Yet our spirit has not been extinguished. 

Greatness happens when people of love and peace ask, “Are you okay?  How can I help you?”  We experience a different life when people of resilience and courage ask, “Are you okay?  What do you need?”  Light overcomes darkness and grace overcomes evil when people of faith and hope ask, “Are you okay?  With God’s help we will get through this together.” 

            “Are you okay?”  And the answer?  “Yes, nothing will stop us.  We will keep running and cheering, and we’ll be back next year stronger than ever.”




Bless all the Dear Children

Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Every Christmas Eve we sing “Away in a Manger,” and for the past 30 years I’ve cried whenever we get to stanza 3.  I can’t get through it.  There is nothing more important in our world than the nurture, care, and security of children.

That’s why I’m grieving, I’m sad, I’m angry, and I’m determined.  Like the rest of our country, I am grieving the deaths of 20 first-graders and 7 adults from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, who were gunned down by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.  Lanza’s own mother was the first victim.  I can’t comprehend how such a horrific tragedy could happen in an ordinary town that has always been a safe place for children and families to live.

Millions of people the world over have gathered to pray for the families of the victims, those who survived, and first-responders.  This is the worst mass murder since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and is the latest in a string of multiple killings this year.

Since we are in the season of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, the Massacre of the Innocents comes to mind.  King Herod ordered all the boy babies under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed in the hope of snuffing out the life of the child Jesus, a competing “King of the Jews.”  Matthew’s quotation of the prophet Jeremiah, referencing the killing of these babies, rings true today, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

I still remember the Bible story book my mother read to me as a child.  Every Christmas story about Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ birth in a manger, the wise men, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is fresh in my mind.  I remember nothing, however, about the Massacre of the Innocents and am grateful that my mother spared me that gruesome story, which I didn’t need to hear as a little kid.

I’m also blessed that my mother and father were able to give me a safe childhood.  They were excellent parents, and I wish that same kind of secure upbringing for all children in this world.  But I now know there was also a lot of luck involved, for the world can be a scary place, and even the best of parents cannot always protect their children.  That’s why I grieve.  I grieve for the lives that could have been and for those who are suffering through this unthinkable tragedy.  Be near them, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay.

I’m not just grieving, I’m sad.  I’m sad because of the destructive ways in which human beings choose to abuse and hurt other people.  God created each one of us with free will, which means that God will not stand in the way of the decisions we make.  Because we are not robots we can choose evil over good, but we also bear the responsibility for our decision-making.

Sometimes I wish God would just intervene and stop this madness, but that is not God’s way.  God wants us to follow the ways of Jesus, to do good rather than harm.  How God must suffer, then, when we freely choose to hurt and kill one another.

God yearns for us to imitate Christ in our thoughts, words, and actions, but God will never force the heart.  God goes so far as to invite us to be God’s representatives on this earth.  It’s up to us to create a world of peace, mutual understanding, respect, and inclusivity.  I am awestruck by the millions of acts of kindness that take place every day in our world.  They far overshadow the mass killings.

I am also sad for Adam Lanza, for his tortuous life that prompted him to inflict such evil.  I am sad when people with mental illnesses don’t receive the help they need to live with joy and fulfillment, and I’m sad when we label other people and don’t reach out to those on the fringes.  God loved Adam Lanza, too.  Close by them forever, and love them I pray.

I am not just grieving and sad, I am angry.  It’s a righteous indignation that some Christians are using this mass killing as an opportunity to promote a religious/political agenda that has nothing to do with the tragedy and defies God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was asked on Fox Live how God could let this tragedy happen, and he responded, “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools.  Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? …  Maybe we ought to let Him in on the front end, and we wouldn’t have to call Him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.”

Huckabee’s pronouncement mocks the amazing effort and skills of our public school educators and administrators to teach character as well as academics.  It also disregards the reality that government-mandated school prayer is unconstitutional for good reason.  But the greatest travesty is that Huckabee assumes God was not present during the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.  God is always there in the moments of our greatest need.

Equally distressing were the comments made by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association on his radio program last Friday, “You know, the question is going to come up, where was God? …  God is not going to go where He’s not wanted…  No, we have spent 50 years telling God to get lost…  ‘We don’t want You in our schools’…  We’ve kicked God out of our public school system.  And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect children, but you gotta invite me back into your world first.  I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted.  I am a gentleman.’”

Such declarations remake God into the image of a small, mean, and vindictive deity who refuses to protect children, and that image has nothing to do with what we know about God in Jesus Christ.  God does not duck out because God is “not wanted” or “offended.”  Rather, we see in our scriptures a God who never causes brokenness and evil and comes to us even when we turn away.  Moreover, in Jesus’ crucifixion we see God’s willingness to suffer the very pain and evil that afflict us.  For God is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Our Christian beliefs affirm that God was there with the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings.  Jesus was the very first responder last Friday, giving courage and comfort to the children and teachers and cradling those who were shot in God’s eternal arms.  Bless all the dear children in thy tender care.     

I am not just grieving, sad, and angry.  I am determined.  Enough is enough.  We must put an end to our love affair with guns in this country.  Why is it that my daughter’s friends who live in other countries tell her, “We don’t want to live in the United States because everyone has access to guns.  Why is everyone allowed to have a gun?”  At a Taize prayer service on Saturday night, someone mentioned that a friend stationed in Afghanistan posted on Facebook, “Why is it that I am safer in Afghanistan than you are in the United States?”

In many parts of the country the predominant culture is not sports, music, or technology, but guns.  There are an estimated 300 million guns in our country.  Connecticut’s “Gun Valley” is the birthplace of the U.S. firearms industry.  Ironically, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the second largest gun lobby in the U.S. after the National Rifle Association, is located in Newtown, just 3 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In another odd twist, the Michigan legislature approved Senate Bill 59 last Thursday, the day before the mass shooting.  This bill would allow concealed weapons in formerly off-limit places such as schools, day care centers, stadiums, hospitals, and churches.  The bill is waiting for Governor Rick Snyder’s signature.

Many churches have declared themselves gun-free zones, including the West Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church.  If our churches are indeed sanctuaries, what place do guns have in our buildings?  Are there any sacred and safe places left?  We are called to bring in the kingdom of God not with violence but with shalom, grace, hope, and forgiveness.  And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Could this be the tipping point?  What are we willing to give up in our country so that all people can live in safety?  I am determined to advocate not only for gun-free churches and schools but for common sense regulations that do not permit ordinary citizens to own assault weapons that can kill dozens of people in a few minutes.

We have just one world, just as 20 sets of parents in Newtown, Connecticut had just one first-grade child.  Do we have the courage and the will to put our children above our guns?  Are we fit for heaven – and for earth?


P.S. The next “Leading from the Heart” will be published on December 31.  May the angel’s song be yours as well this Christmas and always.