With a mad dash to the car and a “Why am I always running late on these mornings?”, I mentally review the upcoming hours, ensuring that all details are in place. Heading north on U.S. 131, I go over the permutations of potential problems, trying to calm my spirit. A thought comes to mind -- the marathon I’m running today is not unlike the church service I prepare for most Sunday mornings.
I’ve woken up early and put on my Sunday best. Though I’ve anticipated the appropriate apparel in advance, I pack my suitcase anyway so that I can adapt to the setting. With weather.com’s hourly forecast suggesting 34 degrees at 8 a.m. and upper 40s by noon, much care needs to be given to the garments that will accessorize appropriately. Do I wear a jacket? Long-sleeve shirt or short? Which shoes?
As I drive, I think back to how I have prepared for this moment with regular two- or three-hour long-run retreats that refresh and re-energize my spirit, but also provide a deeper level of growth than can take place solely in the practice of near-daily, 45-minute, five-mile devotionals. In my theology, a life of faithful discipleship goes beyond Sunday morning; similarly, being faithful to the desire to finish a race requires a commitment lived daily.
I’m met by greeters at the door of the Grand Rapids YMCA, who point the way to restrooms and other spaces. At a table, I am handed my “bulletin,” where I am told that today I will be congregant number 654. I safety-pin it to my singlet, like the stickers that say, “Hello, my name is …” for the visitors at some churches.
With 800 other parishioners, we are joined to the starting line in a call to worship. We greet each other with words like, “Good luck to you,” responding “and also with you” in predictable Pentecost-Sunday fashion. Announcements are given and the gun goes off in an anthemic fanfare. Overused hymns can lose their meaning with repetition at church, just like today’s themes from “Rocky” and “Chariots of Fire,” not to mention Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”
Today’s sermon is taken from the Gospels of Bill, Arthur, Jack and Jim. That’s Bowerman, Lydiard, Daniels and Fixx, four writers who coached many as the gospel of running’s message reshaped the lives of millions of new believers and converts. Running, too, has its charismatic missionaries. Today’s sermon, however, is preached to oneself – the need to run a controlled pace.
In a marathon, the communion table is set up frequently, perhaps every two miles or so. At each, altar boys and girls offer the wine of new blood, which looks and smells deceptively like Gatorade. The bread comes in the form of concentrated carbohydrate gel packs formulated for their spiritual and other nourishment.
Prayers of petition and confession are assumed in a marathon. We ask for strength. We bargain with God, telling the great runner in the sky that if we can only run and not be weary for this day, we will never sin again. And we confess that we have failed, failed to live that life of faithful five-milers during the week, and failed to practice what we have preached to ourselves about even pacing.
The worship service analogy breaks down at offering time. In church, the act of giving is encouraged. It’s a way to return to God a portion of ourselves. In a marathon, the goal is not to give an offering, to not be bent over along the side of the road, returning a portion of ourselves. More importantly – we seek to not let our bodies be the burnt offering stretched along the road, reeking of death at mile marker 22.
As in many congregations, sharing time is optional, preferred by some and loathed by others. While some runners welcome the chance to introduce themselves and share their joys and concerns, others resent the intrusion into their solitude.
Though today’s service will go about 20 minutes longer than expected, a frustratingly too-common experience for participants in either setting, I am still greeted at the finish line with words of blessing and benediction. The lead pastor/race director raises his hands and touches a finish medal to my forehead, offering words of benediction as he drapes the medallion over my shoulders, almost doing so in the name of Grete Waitz, Frank Shorter and Pheidippides, the ancient Greek soldier who ran from Marathon to Athens announcing victory over the Persians, dying as he offered his final words, “Rejoice. We conquer.”
“Well done,” says the director. “Enter into your rest. Go in peace.” (Or maybe, given how my quadriceps, hamstrings and other body parts feel, it was “go in pieces.”) The masseuse at the aid tent annointeth my legs with oil. I want to greet each with a holy kiss.
And finally, what is church without the potluck meal? Here, bagels and bananas, hot chili and cold yogurt, salty chips and proteiny peanut butter are spread out smorgasbord-style, and we help ourselves, returning to the welcoming table as often as we like. Every line has the best food, and we interact with old friends and new, offering words of blessing and cheer.
Truly, this is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.
Written by Lyle Miller, after running the Grand Rapids marathon.