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.”




Make Things Happen

Tomorrow is the day! Thirty-one-year-old Adam Greenberg has been given a one-day contract with the Florida Marlins, who will be playing the New York Mets in an end-of-the-season baseball game that will not affect the playoffs. But it’s going to be the coolest game of the entire year. You see, Adam Greenberg is the only person in Major League Baseball history to have his career end on the first pitch.

On July 9, 2005, Greenberg made his major league debut with the Chicago Cubs, but in his very first at-bat he was beaned in the head by a 92 mile-per-hour fastball. Adam never made it back to “The Show.” He has bounced around the minors for the last 7 years and was also on the Israeli National team. Greenberg always had a dream to get back to the majors, though.

This summer documentary filmmaker Matt Liston heard about Adam’s story and started an online campaign called “One at Bat,” hoping to enlist as many people as possible to support Adam’s return to the majors for one “at-bat.” Liston’s campaign took off and attracted the attention and advocacy of other professional athletes. Last week the Florida Marlins front office decided to make it happen for Adam. The very team whose pitcher beaned Adam Greenberg 7 years ago has guaranteed him one at-bat.

What fascinated me as much as Adam’s story is Matt Liston’s role. Liston said that he always wanted to play Major League Baseball but knew that he wasn‘t good enough. When he heard about Adam, Matt was determined to make that dream happen for him. Liston figured that his online “One at Bat” campaign had about a 1% chance of being successful but was convinced that if he could attract enough media attention, Adam might be given an opportunity.

This story is not only about baseball and the courage to follow dreams. It’s also about leadership. If I could summarize the essence of leadership in 4 words, I would say, “Leaders make things happen.” Leaders find a way. Adam’s dream wouldn’t have happened without Matt’s leadership in creating a vision, developing a plan, and then executing it.

I’ve discovered over the years that leadership cannot be reduced to a certain style, philosophy, or theology. Leaders cannot be pigeonholed, labeled, or put in a box. Simply put, leaders are able to empower groups of people to accomplish goals that move forward the mission of their organization.

So where were the leaders during the 3-month lockout between the National Football League and the NFL Referees Association? Last Wednesday the NFL finally announced a deal with the Referees Association to increase salaries and improve pension benefits. Admittedly, labor negotiations are extremely complex. Yet NFL owners have never been richer and rake in billions of dollars every year. Why did both sides fail to reach an agreement, leaving pro football games to be officiated with replacement refs from lower division college, high school, and semi-professional ranks?

As the season began, it became clear that the replacement refs were in way over their heads. Their inability to perform at a high level compromised both the safety of players and the integrity of the game. The tipping point came last Monday when a “Hail Mary” Seattle Seahawk pass was deemed a game-winning touchdown when others felt it was a Green Bay Packers interception. The player, coach, and public outcry was so immediate and vehement that the NFL and the referees reached an agreement 2 days later. Where were the leaders to make things happen before everything got ugly?

James Winkler, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, wrote last week in Faith in Action about his uncle, who was an entrepreneur and traveled all around the South selling one thing or another. Jim remembers his father telling him, “Uncle John used to say, ‘There are three kinds of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who stand around and ask, “What happened?”’ I intend to make things happen.”

Likewise, leaders in the church don’t watch things happen. Nor do church leaders ask cluelessly, “What happened?” Leaders in the church make things happen. There is no one certain clergy type that is successful in pastoral ministry. However, all effective clergy have one characteristic in common: they have a passion for making things happen. And all healthy, vital churches have one trait in common: their lay and clergy leaders don’t just talk, they make things happen.

Ten Rules for Making Things Happen in the Church

1. Know your context.

What worked in your 2 point charge in the country probably won’t work in the large downtown church, and what worked in your wealthy suburban church likely won’t work in a struggling inner city mission church. Context determines action. Therefore, analyze your ministry setting well, know your demographics, understand the community around the church, learn about your congregation’s history, and get to know your parishioners. Then develop a ministry plan and make it happen.

2. Make full use of your strengths rather than lament your weaknesses.

Leaders who make things happen build programming and ministry around their own greatest assets and the unique gifts of their staff, lay leaders, and congregation members.

3. Encourage others not to wait for permission.

Leaders who make things happen empower lay persons to discern their passions, develop ministries that fit with their congregation’s mission statement, gather similarly-committed people around them, and go for it!

4. Be flexible but always follow through.

Leaders and churches that make things happen are adept at adapting plans on the fly. They are invested in outcomes, not in following the letter of the law. “Whatever works” is their mantra. Such leaders and churches are agile and able to change direction at a moment’s notice.

5. Be alert and find clues everywhere.

Great leaders read widely, spend time in God’s world, and make room for prayer, Bible study, and discernment. They seek wisdom from secular organizations, observe the work habits of leaders who produce, and pick the brains of those who are successful in their jobs. The church has much to learn from the world about how to make things happen.

6. Surround yourself with people who are much more gifted than you are and trust their instincts.

Excellent leaders align their ministry with God’s mission and are acutely aware that they can do nothing apart from God. They focus their energy on equipping others to realize their potential by deep and generous listening, offering space for vision and creativity to emerge from chaos, and selflessly giving others credit. Leaders understand that in Christian community our collective gifts create a mysterious synergy that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit.

7. Light a fire in others by your presence and example.

Leaders who make things happen are connected with and present to their constituents. They are totally invested in the mission of the church and will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Because their inner and outer lives are integrated, they inspire by example.

8. Accept feedback graciously.

Leaders who make things happen seek continuous improvement, regulate their emotions, don’t waste time being defensive, and are eager to enhance their effectiveness.

9. Make sure everyone has “one at-bat.”

Leaders who make things happen understand that every individual is important, unique, and essential for the church to function at its highest level as the body of Christ. Inclusivity at every level of congregational life creates a highly effective community of disciples who demonstrate the fullness of the kingdom of God.

10. Don’t give up the dream.

Adam Greenberg will have his one at-bat tomorrow because he never gave up his dream. Greenberg lit a fire in Matt Liston, Liston lit a fire in thousands of fans, and those fans lit a fire in the Florida Marlins to make it happen. Greenberg doesn’t see his one at-bat as a mere gimmick and hopes this might be a springboard for a major league career. But even if it never happens, Greenberg knows that it will be enough to have that one at-bat.

Leaders and vital churches make things happen. How will you light the fire?




A Quacker’s View of the Church

“Is it a bus? Is it a truck? Is it a boat? It’s more fun than all 3!” A few weeks ago Gary and I and our oldest daughter “rode the duck,” which is one of the hottest attractions in Seattle. The Duck is modeled after a World War 2 amphibious landing craft and is like a duck in that it can travel on both land and sea.

Gary and I don’t usually go in for touristy stuff when we vacation. I prefer hiking all day in the mountains while Gary would be quite content reading a good book in a local coffeehouse. Alas, the quack of the Duck beckoned, and we had a blast. Actually, I enjoy observing organizations who are excellent at what they do and employees who exhibit a passion for their job because those learnings can often be applied to the church.

Ride the Ducks can be found in a number of cities around the world. The purpose of their 90 minute tours is to give customers a unique view of the city and share interesting information by riding the roads as well as traversing the waters.

The key to the success of Ride the Ducks depends on the humor and personality of the driver, audience participation, and the novelty of the “Duck” itself. Our driver Bjorn was a stand-up comedian who had an amazing amount of energy and cracked one joke after another. I knew we were in for a crazy experience when Bjorn encouraged the passengers to blow quackers (duck whistles: only $2.25) and offered to sell us an aspirin ($50 each) in order to mitigate the annoying effect of the non-stop quacking noise.

Bjorn was quick to keep us sleepless in Seattle through his folksy monologues interspersed with a diverse selection of popular songs conducive to clapping, swaying, and singing along. He even encouraged us to interact with pedestrians and other drivers as we buzzed through the city streets.

Most of all, Ride the Ducks capitalizes on its primary asset, which is transforming bus drivers into sea captains. We drove right into Union Lake and went on a mini cruise around the Seattle basin alongside kayaks, sailboats, floatplanes, motorboats, and houseboats. Seeing Seattle from the water gave us a different perspective, as all the puzzle parts of this unique city came together.

It seemed only natural to compare our Duck experience to the church. Why is Ride the Ducks hugely popular, with people waiting hours for their ride, while most of our churches sit half empty on Sunday morning? It’s because Ride the Ducks has found the secret to the 3 critical questions that every organization seeking to be profitable/successful needs to consider.

What is our mission and how will we fulfill it?

The mission of Ride the Ducks is to provide sightseeing fun from a duck’s eye view. Every aspect of Ride the Ducks is intended to align with that mission. Customer service is prompt and courteous. Ride the Ducks is brilliantly marketed throughout the city, and no one can spend any amount of time in Seattle and not know about the Ride the Ducks. Passengers waiting for Ducks are well organized by staff members who fire up their anticipation by using quackers. The tour blends historical information, unusual facts, catchy music, and crazy jokes to heighten the anticipation of seeing buses morph into boats.

Carefully crafted mission statements are just as important for churches as for secular organizations. Congregations whose ministries and goals align directly with their formal mission statement know who they are, offer compelling worship and outreach, and invite members and guests alike into a transformative experience with God. They develop a marketing plan, are intentional about an online presence, and follow through with guests.

On the other hand, congregations that don’t bother to prayerfully think through God’s unique mission for them often have ministries that are unfocused, scattered, and lack accountability. Worship is described as boring, is geared toward insiders, and does not foster spiritual growth or community. Marketing is dismissed as unnecessary, and sleepiness is common. Is your church crystal clear about its mission?

How do we best serve our constituents?

Ride the Ducks would not remain in business if it did not connect with its customers. Ride the Ducks has created an experience that allows riders to see the sights in a city in a unique vehicle with an engaging “shtick.” People flock to the ride because of the Duck itself, the deliberate appeal to all ages, the catchy music, and especially the persona of the driver.

Can anyone drive for Ride the Ducks? Of course not. I’d be a terrible driver because I don’t have the right stuff. I am not a full blown extrovert, comedian, and non-stop talker. Drivers are chosen by their ability to engage with their customers and are carefully trained.

The church is also charged to serve its constituents, not just church members. Our constituents are those who have not made a formal commitment to the church but are nevertheless connected to us. They may have relatives in the church, live near the church, or come only on Easter and Christmas Eve. They may even call themselves “spiritual” and not “religious” but still consider us their church home. As John Wesley reminded us, “The world is our parish.”

Just as the Duck is the centerpiece of Ride the Ducks, worship is a primary portal to the church. Vital worship offers a life-changing encounter with God, self, and community through preaching, music, movement, and the dramatic and visual arts. By using scripture, current events, and contemporary stories to help people understand their own stories in relation to God’s story, the preacher speaks the language of both God and the people, and a new identity is created.

The persona of the pastor cannot be underestimated, for people feed off the energy of their leaders. Unlike Ride the Duck drivers, however, preachers have to present a new shtick every week. In addition, effective clergy do not demonstrate one specific personality, but formal training and wise discernment of gifts is essential.

How do we know that we’re fulfilling our mission?

Ride the Ducks succeeds when customers have a good time, are satisfied that the experience was a great value cost-wise, and become quackers themselves. They recommend the ride to their friends, which, in turn, generates more business and profits.

In The United Methodist Church success is not so easily measured. We’ve become obsessed of late with numbers, primarily because almost all measureable statistical categories continue to decline. Although numbers do reflect health and vitality in congregations, holistic growth also includes spiritual formation and personal transformation, outreach to the local community and the world, a passion to quack the good news and make disciples, and a good dose of humor!

That’s where the Ride the Ducks and The United Methodist Church make odd bedfellows. The genius of Ride the Ducks lies in the ability of the vehicle itself to transform from a bus to a boat. The juxtaposition of 2 seemingly disparate modes of transportation both delights and amazes. Likewise, the genius of our Wesleyan heritage lies in John’s Wesley’s unique perspective on the Christian faith and open embrace of complementary opposites in his theology: social and personal holiness, faith and works, grace and sin, acts of mercy and acts of piety, freedom and responsibility, weakness and strength, inclusive and exclusive.

We know that we are fulfilling our mission in the church when:

• Members as well as constituents are transformed through engagement with the Bible and a challenging theology that gives us the freedom to become who God created us to be

• Worship, outreach, mission, community, and study inspire us to deepen our spiritual lives and prompt us to live out our faith wherever we are

• We can’t wait to become “quackers” ourselves and invite others into relationship with Jesus Christ

Is it God the Creator? Is it Jesus the Redeemer? Is it the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer? It’s more fun than all 3! Quack if you love the church!