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?




Some Life Lessons from the Olympics

Anthony Ervin first won a gold medal in the 50 meter freestyle medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. For the next 8 years his life spun out of control as he succumbed to heavy drinking, drug use, and sex addiction. After a failed suicide attempt Ervin said, “I woke up the next morning only to find I had failed to even kill myself. At that point, I had a moment-with-God-type thing. I was reborn, in a way.”

Last Thursday Ervin again won the 50 meter freestyle, 12 years after his first Olympics. Commenting about his presence at the 2012 Olympics, Ervin said, “Not to be pedantic, but it’s like the ending to a body of Shakespeare’s work. As with Prospero, who kind of had his redemption and was returning to where he came from, so did I feel like my being here is my own form of redemption.”

Some of the most heartwarming stories during these Summer Olympics come from athletes who have triumphed over setbacks and have come back in inspirational ways. 10,500 women and men are participating in this Olympics, with only 302 gold medals to be awarded. That means over 10,000 athletes may be dealing with disappointment and failure of one sort or another. The honor of being selected for a national team and the joy of simply being a part the Olympic experience is overshadowed at times by personal expectations and national pride.

For some competitors it’s not enough simply to participate. After years of spending every waking minute of every day focused on this one moment in time, this one chance, success is measured only by a medal and, for some, only a gold medal.

The truth is that each one of us has experienced the thrill of victory as well as the agony of defeat, although our setbacks and failures are not played out to an international audience.

It could be the loss of a job, a boss who does not recognize our talent, being passed over for a promotion because of office politics, dealing with chronic illness, recovery from an accident, dreams that are forever dashed, or expectations that will never be met.

Many times the setback is beyond our control. How do you and I recover from disappointment, grief, and pain? How can we redeem situations that seem hopeless? How can setbacks be transformed into comebacks as we regain our footing with dignity and grace? How can we be reborn?

First, embrace your reality and allow yourself to feel the pain. Setbacks can open a path to fullness of life when we invite God to sit with us and hold our grief, embarrassment, and shame. How often have we lamented, “I only wanted my family and friends to be proud of me, and I feel as if I let them down. All of these years of school or practice have been wasted because I can’t find a job that supports my family. If only I hadn’t been treated unfairly, if only I hadn’t been sick on such an important day, if only the timing had been better, if only, if only ….”

U.S. swimmer Dana Vollmer set a world record in the 100 meter butterfly 8 days ago. She is the first woman in history to swim the event in under 56 seconds (55.98). Dana won a relay medal at age 16 at her first Olympics in 2004. Four years later, however, she failed to even make the U.S. team, finishing fifth in the 100 butterfly and seventh in the 200 freestyle at the Olympic Trials. “Coming back from 2008, after trials, I didn’t know if I was going to swim,” she said. “I had worked for so many years to reach that one goal, but along the way I had a shoulder injury, a back injury, and I was having to deal with fatigue and so much pressure that I just wasn’t having fun with it at all.”

As many of her friends traveled to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Vollmer traveled instead to Fiji, where she taught children to swim. She returned with a new perspective, recovered her childhood joy of swimming, and risked trying one more time. Setbacks become comebacks when we acknowledge our feelings and name the intensity of our grief before letting go of its fierceness and moving on. Second, challenge yourself to an attitude adjustment. Some people wallow in their pain forever. Others determine to recover their equilibrium and discover that new hopes and dreams emerge from the ashes of their failure. Wiping out negative thoughts, seeing the cup as half full rather than half empty, and making lemonade out of lemons may seem simplistic. However, history has proven again and again that God is bigger than our defeats, and the human spirit is resilient.

16 year old Jordyn Wieber, from DeWitt, Michigan, was the 2011 world all-around gymnastics champion going into the 2012 Olympics. The leader of the U.S. gymnastics team, Jordyn was taken by her mother as a 4-year-old to a moms and tots gymnastics class, and immediately she excelled. Jordyn’s natural coordination and muscle strength, ability to focus, and love of performing led her to London as the favorite to win the all-around gold.

Unfortunately, Jordyn was eliminated from the all-around competition because only 2 gymnasts from each country are allowed to advance to the finals. I can only imagine the hurt and pain of Wieber’s shattered dreams as teammates Gabby Douglas and Ali Raisman moved on.

The mark of a true champion, however, is how they deal with setbacks. Wieber could have folded, become bitter, and packed it in as she left the arena in tears. But she didn’t. Rather, she responded with grace and determination. U.S. gymnastics coach John Geddert said, “She had about five minutes of disappointment, and she let it cry out. And then she immediately responded with, ‘We’ve got work to do on Tuesday.’” A few days later Wieber delivered an outstanding performance on the floor exercise to help the U.S. win the team gold. Setbacks become comebacks when we learn from our losses and believe that God will find a way to work through our circumstances.

Third, prepare for defeat ahead of time.

Most of us are not ready for the shock of failure because our plan is always to win. The assumption is that if we even let the thought of defeat creep into our mind, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Naturally, the pressure becomes enormous, for when we deny the fact that none of us win all the time, one huge loss can adversely affect our morale and psyche for years.

Peter Haberl is a senior psychologist on Team USA who believes that a new approach is needed. He says, “The more you avoid a certain thought the more it is likely to surface. I would encourage the athlete to confront issues head on, to understand that losing and winning are both part of the athlete experience…. Thoughts about losing, and winning for that matter, can detract the mind from staying present.” The game plan is always to win, but there must be a game plan for failure as well.

American judoka Marti Malloy suffered the most agonizing defeat of her life in the 126 pound division of the judo competition a week ago. Marti defeated 3 opponents on Monday but made a risky move with 7 seconds left in the semifinals. Unfortunately, it backfired, giving Corina Caprioriu of Romania the victory.

Utterly crushed, Malloy lay on the mat, realizing that she had only an hour to let go of her dream of a gold medal and regain her poise as she faced the reigning 2008 Olympic champion for the bronze. Malloy won. Her coach, 92 year old Yosh Uchida said, “She wouldn’t let any obstacles stand in her way. She didn’t have any money, had to get a job or two to get by. But she wasn’t going to be stopped. I felt bad for her today when she lost in that semifinal but thought she would have the determination to fight through it.” Nothing is wasted in God’s economy, and setbacks are transformed into comebacks when we realize that defeat is a necessary part of the path to success.

Finally, learn humility and recognize that none of us succeeds or fails on our own merit.

In a world which ascribes unrealistic merit to sports stars and celebrities, humility reminds us that none of us are as gifted and talented as we are told we are. In fact, there are very few self-made people in this world. We are dependent on parents, teachers, friends, coaches, counselors, and peers to lead us along our life’s path.

Humility, however, does not equal shame or humiliation. Who can forget Chinese men’s weight lifter Wu Jingbiao, who was so shattered after losing a “sure” gold to his North Korean competitor that he was not even able to speak? Dissolving into tears in front of the camera, Jingbiao said, “I shamed my country, my team and all of those who cared for me. I’m sorry!”

Living in China, where the government makes it clear that only gold medals will do, Wu Jingbiao’s shame was transformed into redemption as the Chinese public voiced its impatience and distaste for their government’s “gold fever.” Every person in this world who gives forth their best effort deserves only the greatest applause and respect, for who we are and what we achieve are not identical. Setbacks become comebacks when the same people who helped us become successful are there for us when we suffer defeat.

London is famous for “The Tube,” its subway system. Everywhere there are signs to “Mind the Gap” between the train door and the station platform. The choice we all face is intentionally minding the gap between setbacks and comebacks. By minding the gap through embracing reality, adjusting attitude, preparing for both victory and defeat, and learning humility, we create God’s future. It may not be the future for which we dreamed, but it will be a future filled with continual rebirth, redemption, and moments-with-God-type things.