By Brian Hammons
The Boston Marathon. Those three words bring to mind tradition and endurance. For anyone who runs, the words carry a sense of awe, difficulty, and maybe ultimate accomplishment.
But this year, the Boston Marathon carried even greater significance after last year’s finish line bombing. Especially for the people of Boston and anyone who ever has crossed that finish line. This year, it was “Boston Strong” – proud, resolute, determined.
I’m one of those. Having run the Boston Marathon ten times (now 11) over the last 25 years, the event has a special, personal significance. Last year on Patriot’s Day in Boston, I was in the Atlanta airport headed for Mozambique with our conference’s leadership team when the news broke about the tragic bombing. Memories of the course and finish area flooded my mind as I thought of the people who were there, those who had already finished, and those who were trying to help the injured and sort out what happened. I even received several texts, e-mails, and calls from people asking if I was there, expressing concern.
So a few weeks later, when my daughter April said she had qualified and wanted to “run Boston” again (we ran and finished together in 2011), I knew I had to go back too. So did almost 36,000 others as the race officials enlarged the field to accommodate the outpouring of support. But going back wasn’t easy. I had to train during the summer and run another marathon (26.2 miles) in a qualifying time, then navigate the registration process that cut off in September. All that got done, and the anticipation began building all over the nation as the April 21 date approached for the 118th Boston Marathon. Eventually, marathon weekend arrived.
Logistics are always tight with such a large event. And this year security was extra tight for participants and spectators, although it seemed that everyone understood. Actually, I thought the organizers did an outstanding job keeping the event safe with very little disruption to “normal” routine.
All over the city people wore t-shirts or displayed signs saying “Boston Strong” to show solidarity with the spirit of continuing the marathon, actually recovering from last year’s tragedy to be even stronger. Packet pick-up was a special time as people took pictures. Large banners were displayed at the expo for people to sign and leave messages of encouragement, reflection, or prayers. The finish line area was even more crowded with people gathering, taking pictures, and remembering what happened a year ago.
The day before the race was Easter. My family had decided to worship Easter Sunday at the Old South Church, an old traditional-looking church next to the marathon finish line on Boylston Street. We arrived early for the second service, but found a long line of people who had the same idea. After waiting and visiting with folks in line, we got in.
What an uplifting worship experience! “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” seemed even more significant, with orchestra, choir, and a sanctuary full of people lifting their voices. One highlight was a blessing of the runners, where after a prayer each marathon runner was given a blue and yellow scarf knitted by someone from a church somewhere in the U.S. Mine was from Littleton, MA while my daughter’s was from Jill at a church in Kansas City. The note attached said “This scarf is interwoven with love and courage.” Love, courage, and strength were themes expressed over and over during the weekend. Oh yes, and this “scarfing” became an outreach of the church as they stood outside during two days presenting any marathon runner with a scarf. I suppose they also came with a blessing and prayer – certainly with a sense of appreciation by the runner recipients. The final highlight of the worship service was everyone singing “The Hallelujah Chorus”, which was even more significant for Kim and me since we missed singing it with our choir at home in Springfield.
Marathon Monday dawned clear and beautiful. Everything seemed to go well, from the early morning bus ride out to Hopkinton to getting to the starting corral on time. As our wave prepared for the starting signal, the significance of the event hit me – what a blessing to be here, having come through the training and travel logistics, with so many thousands for whom this event had such personal significance. The marathon was back! I turned to my daughter April and said a prayer out loud, thanking God and asking for protection, strength, and perseverance to finish the tough course.
Ah – perseverance. That word is in one of my favorite scriptures in Hebrews 12:1-2, which I think of and repeat often during a long race: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith...”
I really relate to that idea of witnesses (there were a million cheering people lining the streets of the course), getting rid of excess stuff, running with perseverance, and fixing our eyes on Jesus. The writer of Hebrews thought the athletic imagery fit well with our Christian lives. I agree. Just as the last few miles of a marathon can get tough and perseverance is put to the test, so it is with our leadership in the church. Sometimes we really do need to be reminded of all those who have gone before and are “cheering us on”, that we must persevere to reach our goal for the Kingdom, and that we must keep our eyes focused upon Jesus.
Well, we did run the Boston Marathon with perseverance – although my legs slowed after mile 22 after we got past the famous Newton hills (including Heartbreak Hill). What a thrill to see my wife and some family members at the 24 mile point – I even stopped to give her a kiss and my son a high five (then mumbled something like “I’m going to finish this” which he caught on video and posted to YouTube). And despite cramps on the final stretch, I crossed the famous finish line. Giving thanks and looking up.
So Boston this year was about coming back from difficulties, refusing to yield, affirming common bonds with courage and strength. Celebrating life. What a blessing to be part of it!
May all of us lead in our church with such an attitude, as Hebrews instructs – with perseverance, putting aside distractions, and keeping a fixed focus upon Jesus – the main thing!