First of all, thanks to everyone who prayed, reached-out or otherwise expressed concern. We had some relatively close calls near the finish line yesterday, amongst family members and friends, but by God’s grace all are OK.
Our older daughter, ‘Sunny’ was running the race (her first). (I was not.) She was about one kilometer away from the blast, closing in on the finish when it happened. They stopped her. By God’s grace, strangers on the street took pity on her and gave her clothing and money. (She was exhausted, obviously, and wearing only shorts and a thin shirt.) I’ve heard similar stories played-out in other places. Angels, much? She had to walk a few miles to where my wife was able able to pick her up by car. We’ve already joked that her first marathon was really an ‘ultra’.
Much closer to the blast, only a block and a half away, perhaps 150 meters, were our younger daughter, ‘Springy’ and my niece ‘Resilient’ (age 13) plus some other friends. Some of their ears were ringing, and they were pretty upset by the mayhem and confusion which ensued as everyone ran every which way in fear for their lives. I can scarcely imagine.
Focused prayer for them would be most appreciated! Some of the most real trauma is not physical.
The main purpose of this post though, is to take a larger perspective.
Dan Shaughnessy is one of Boston’s foremost newspaper columnists. What I’m about to say should not be taken as reflecting on his writing or character in any negative way. In fact, the accuracy of his column is what makes what I’m about to illustrate all the more pointed.
Here’s part of what he wrote today, in the Boston Globe, about yesterday’s tragic events:
And there goes another piece of our freedom, another sacred and oh-so-local institution. We honor some sweet and goofy things here in Greater Boston. …Patriots Day is a sacred part of that tradition.
Sacred. He basically nailed it. For many, both runners and spectators, Patriot’s Day and especially the Boston Marathon are just that: truly ‘holy’ (set apart as special) in a world where few things are anymore.
For those new to this blog, I used to run marathons — lots of ‘em, including Boston, as well as even longer, crazier stuff not worth mentioning here. I first watched the Boston Marathon in 1980, as a teenager. I still remember where I was standing, what the weather was like, who I was with, and who was in the lead pack (Bill Rodgers and Toshihiko Seko of Japan, battling it out, shoulder-to-shoulder.)
It was galvanizing — far, far bigger than Christmas. I remember being in absolute awe.
(Years later I would have the privilege of running with ‘Billy’, far more slowly, via a friend’s introduction which I snapped up the instant he called, dropping everything I had planned for that day. I recall being mildly disappointed at the fact that Billy’s face didn’t glow like Moses coming down off the mountain. He’s a delightful, charming man, but thoroughly human. Age takes its toll on all of us.)
I would not have put it in these terms at the time, but watching that 1980 race, which he won, I felt I was watching men with god-like special powers — powers I wanted for myself.
Three years later, still a teen, I ran the race for the first time, finishing in the top five-hundred or so. (Such a feat was a lot easier back then. The race was about 1/5th the size it is now — casual, almost cultish, totally lacking in commercial accoutrements, much less prize money.)
Many scenes from that race are still vivid — the sights, smells, sounds and feelings. It was a watershed in my life and athletic ‘career’ and I felt I had grasped at some kind of greatness. (Having a million people yelling your name for three hours or more will tend to do that.)
For decades, I was convinced that I needed only a little more devotion (beyond my already obsessive level of it) to achieve, well… something huge, permanent and life-changing. I remember longevity and bragging rights as being conscious, even dominant motivations but the way that was all supposed to fit together was far from thought out.
In hindsight it’s clear I was looking for the peace of God in Christ Jesus. Running seemed a reasonable substitute for a long time… until it was shown to be corrupted by sin and death, just like the rest of this world.
I ran Boston off and on over the ensuing twenty-six years until my knees got too bad to continue. (I chronicled my last marathon — and I knew at the time it was my last — here: ‘Running on God’s Time’.)
We live near the course, in the Newton hills section, so even when I wasn’t training to race, I was running on parts of the course every few days. Running friends who came into town each year for the race would remark at how fortunate I was to have such a ‘special’ place virtually in my back yard. In effect, they meant holy.
(One dear friend from that era contacts me twice a year — with a card on Christmas and a call as the leaders go by every April. If you’ve never been part of the scene, it’s hard to describe how perfectly natural that still seems and how much I look forward to it.)
It is with that as backdrop that I can make the following statements with authority:
Many think of the Boston course generally, and the finish line on Boylston Street specifically (where the bombings took place) as ‘hallowed ground’. It is commonplace, at any time of year, to see runner-tourists jump out of a car or cab solely for the purpose of taking photographs of themselves or a loved-one crossing the line. (It remains painted on the ground year-round.) I have done this myself and facilitated it also for others.
The finish lines of many marathons and endurance events are set up as arches: in effect, altars — false ones. In the minds of many, such places are holy portals of transformation — places signifying a culturally lauded rite-of-passage which promises a changed life for those determined and disciplined enough to earn and fight for the privilege of passing through.
And such a life change often does happen… in a worldly sense.
Such change is not eternal, however.
One may live longer, even fuller in some ways, but one will not live forever. One does not escape the wages of sin by running a marathon. I actually used to think it made one virtuous. It does not. Nothing could be further from the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ, by his blood. Marathoners may clean up their act in some important ways, but it is all self-effort. It will not be enough to make one holy. The religion of marathons is simply false. Filthy rags don’t wash filthy rags.
It is also commonplace in the running community to speak of ‘dedication’, ‘devotion’, ‘commitment’, ‘mental focus’ and ‘sacrifice’ as the ultimate compliments. In order to run any marathon — and particularly a tough one requiring qualification or heavy fund-raising, as Boston does — one has to push off or degrade other priorities for six months or more. To qualify, one generally needs to run another marathon and run it fast, often in the Fall. That demands another six months of…‘dedication’, ‘devotion’, ‘commitment’, ‘mental focus’ and ‘sacrifice’. Six plus six equals twelve: a full year. It all can become an addictive cycle very quickly.
In a Biblical context the disciplines listed above are only positive when applied to the worship of YHWH and His Christ. (The term ‘disciple’ is closely related to, in fact derived from the word ‘discipline’.) When applied to anything else — anything else, including ‘good’ stuff — such things are an abomination (e.g., dedicate/devote to destruction; false sacrifice; false prayer or worship, setting one’s mind on the things of this world, etc.)
Thus it dawned on my yesterday with a new level of clarity that among the stream of 27,000 runners flowing by, many had made a Boston finish their ‘god’ in a very real sense — at least for awhile. To wear the finishers’ medal and be able to say to friends and colleagues back home that one finished Boston is, for many, an essential crutch to flagging esteem. Trust me on this. I have been there and know many with the same mindset — some freed, some not. (For more on the back story of my own experience with this, see this post: ‘He Will Guard the Feet of His Faithful Ones’.)
Certainly this does not apply to every single one of the runners. I could not even fix a percentage. Yet I’ve been part of this community long enough (then as runner; now as coach) that I can say with certainty that it applies to well over half. And that’s being generous. The brisk business the organizers do every year in merchandise and memorabilia is proof enough. Again, not bad in and of themselves. ‘Stuff’ is morally neutral. Just not imbued with the everlastingly salvific, peace-and-joy-conferring qualities many assume them to have. I have friends who have entire closets of jackets, walls of medals and race numbers, desks strewn with plaques: street value well into the thousands. I love these friends dearly. I still have a mouldering collection myself.
Yet it is those same expensive commemorative jackets which I saw yesterday on live TV being looted shamelessly by ‘ordinary’ people, including runners, simply because there was no one to stop them.
Does that make them any more sinful than the rest of us? No. All have sinned and fallen short.
But what it does do is to illustrate the religious nature of this event and others like it. (Ironman has built a profitable brand franchise in precisely the same manner since the time I got involved in that, 20+ years ago.)
It is a particular form of idolatry that’s especially sneaky because the people involved are outwardly attractive (not only physically but in terms of self-confidence and intelligence). The serpent was too. Further, such pursuits are often the substitute for something widely agreed to be socially and personally negative, e.g., smoking, drinking, anxiety, poor self-image, over-eating, etc.
Yet I know from personal experience how many ‘pray’ (often quite literally) to be able to run a Boston-qualifying time or, on the day, to run a new ‘PR’ (personal record). There is nothing inherently wrong with doing one’s best. I coach kids all the time with these things in mind. Yet there comes a point where using one’s gifts grades over into worship of created things. That point — like all addictions — is only possible to see in hindsight. To most it is very very enticing from the front end. The deeper false promise only becomes apparent later-on.
In the eyes of those doing race like Boston, all of the hard work training can be wiped out by a failure to finish… the failure to cross that hallowed line. I know. I have been there. I’ve known many with the same mindset.
My friend ‘D’ and I were talking about some of these things yesterday as we watched the runners pass by, waiting for my daughter, ‘Sunny’. Thus I was startled to find queued-up in my morning reading Ezekiel chapters 6-7. The first paragraph of chapter 6 struck me especially hard as I thought about the pictures from the awful scene at the finish.
Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense altars shall be broken, and I will cast down your slain before your idols. 5 And I will lay the dead bodies of the people of Israel before their idols, and I will scatter your bones around your altars. 6 Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be waste and the high places ruined, so that your altars will be waste and ruined, your idols broken and destroyed, your incense altars cut down, and your works wiped out.
It pains me deeply to write this and make these connections. We should all continue to pray for those harmed and killed, as well as the perpetrator(s). As false gods go, running was good to me. Yet in our walk with YHWH’s Christ, the pretty good things must go in favor of the ultimate: an intimate relationship with Him in Spirit and Truth.
It saddens me deeply, but I cannot read and reflect on these things without coming to the horrifying conclusion that I have lent decades of my life, and much of my enthusiasm to the fervent worship of something good-in-the-flesh but which distracts from and serves as a substitute for the Living God for far too many.
Still, God is good. He redeems. His grace overwhelms. I am at peace. But at the same time, I am beside myself at how many are literally running the wrong way. Without the Spirit of God, repentance (turning) is about as easy as telling one of the super-determined runners I saw yesterday to do an about face and walk back to Hopkinton. Impossible. Insane. In fact, deeply offensive. To propose such a thing in such a context would be heresy.
Yet with Him, anything is possible. What once seemed glorious beyond measure will be seen for the spiritual horror hiding just underneath the surface, e.g., the sin of pride.
Was yesterday’s bombing a tragedy of profound evil? Absolutely. What should be our response?
As Jesus noted in Luke 13 –
1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent [turn], you will all likewise perish.”
The race of life on earth started in Eden — in effect, spiritual Jerusalem. Since the fall, it has been headed down hill, just like the Boston course. It may be tough to run against the tide of so many bent on the wrong finish line but Jesus said it was essential. It is only by His grace that we can weave in and out of the crowd, perhaps persuading some to come with us, back up the hill towards the New Jerusalem and the God with whom we had close fellowship when it all began, before that other ‘finish’ line (death) began to seem appealing.