No one runs alone. I saw those words on a t-shirt worn by members of a Grand Rapids church during the 15.5 mile River Bank Run last Saturday. I’ve participated in numerous races over the years and have seen hundreds of people wearing customized t-shirts. They are usually emblazoned with the name of a loved in whose memory they are running, or with a scripture verse. The most popular verse is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
I’d never seen “No one runs alone” on a t-shirt, however. And to be honest, at mile thirteen, I felt pretty alone gutting it out by myself. Indeed, no one can run a race for us. However, I am convinced that the only way we can journey through life with faith, hope and joy is the knowledge that a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us and cheers us on.
No one runs alone. I couldn’t get those words out of my mind during the race because a variation of that sentence formed a prayer I said the night before at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. A 21 year old young woman from a church I served many years ago had a tragic lawnmower accident on Friday, leaving her right hand mangled. Chrystal’s father, Dave, called from the ambulance, asking if I would meet them at the hospital. Chrystal’s family has given me permission to share this story.
I knew it would be a difficult visit because I was at another hospital fifteen years ago when the teenage son of Dave’s girlfriend (now wife) Marian, drown in a local lake. I relived the pain and agony of that tragedy as I drove to the hospital, knowing that Chrystal’s father and step-mother were reliving the same thing.
The surgeon was honest with Chrystal and her family that she would most likely lose two fingers and maybe more. In the midst of Chrystal’s fear, we surrounded her, laid our hands on her and prayed for her, the surgeon and all those assisting in the operating room. I assured Chrystal that no one runs alone and that God and we would all accompany her on this journey. Chrystal later said that during the prayer she felt God literally lifting her up as she entered surgery.
While we waited, Dave, his brother, Tim, and I sat on a ledge outside Meijer Heart Center. It was a beautiful spring night. Dave said, “I’m sure not a city person, but I could sit here all night looking at the leaves blowing on those two trees across the street. I’d even like to prune one of them. Even in the midst of this tragedy, life is good, and God is good. When Justin drowned, the only way we could get through it was by the grace of God and the help of so many people. We did not have to run alone.”
Dave shared how much he had grown in his faith since Justin’s death. He and Marian decided after Justin died that they still had a lot more parenting and nurturing in them. They wanted to make a difference in the lives of troubled children, so they became foster parents and have even adopted several children. Dave went on to profess his faith. He renewed his desire to witness to God’s grace in all that he does and was convinced that God will help everyone in his family to grow from this tragedy. Tim said that this experience was teaching him not to worry about the small stuff but instead concentrate on caring for others. He vowed to help Chrystal keep a positive attitude by focusing not on what she had lost but on what she still had.
Dave remarked, “You know, I’ve been thinking. God has been nudging me to have a heart to heart talk with my ex-wife (Chrystal’s mother). We haven’t really communicated for such a long time. I think I need to go back to the waiting room, find a quiet spot and ask Darcy to join me.”
Friday night was a kairos moment in my life. Time stood still as we sat on the ledge outside Meijer Heart Center, feeling the warm breeze of the Spirit blow around us, embracing our pain, pondering the future for Crystal, and discerning how God is calling us to bring good out of this tragedy.
The miracle for which we were hoping did not happen on Friday night. The surgeon could not save two of Chrystal’s fingers but did his best to reconstruct two other fingers. Chrystal will face a long recovery, but she’s a determined young woman. Already she insists on doing things with her left hand, and I have no doubt that Chrystal will continue with her career plans to become a nurse.
But other miracles did occur on Friday night. Chrystal’s family and friends decided that she will not run alone and have covenanted to be there for her in whatever way she needs them. Dave discerned that God was calling him to talk with his ex-wife, and said they had a wonderful conversation. Chrystal’s mother, Darcy, decided she needed to make some changes in her life. Tim renewed his vision to focus on what is truly important. Chrystal’s sister ordered shirts that say “Chrystal Rocks!” and show a hand minus her two fingers, which just happens to be the symbol for “I Love You” in sign language. And I realized once more that one of the most important roles of a pastor is presence – mere presence.
When we are present with those we serve, we re-present Christ to them. We pray when they cannot. We offer hope when they see only despair. We shine light in the darkness. We bring peace in the midst of fear. We remind people that they need each other and that no one runs alone. We are bearers of God’s grace and unconditional love.
- Knowing that many people come to church because they crave a place to belong, how will you lead your congregation in ensuring that people do not walk alone?
- Realizing that you cannot tend to every need and stay healthy and balanced yourself, have you trained others to re-present Christ?
- Have you ever considered Stephen Ministry as a way to provide comprehensive pastoral care for your congregation?
I thank God for all of the lives that you have touched forever by your presence.
When all is said and done, our parishioners will rarely remember any of our sermons. They’ll rarely recall what we taught in Disciple Bible study. They may not count us among the best preachers, teachers, visionary leaders or most charismatic personalities they’ve ever encountered. But they will never forget our presence during the most important times of their lives. And, in the end, that is enough.
No one runs alone.