Blessing the runners

This Sunday, May 1st, the Pittsburgh Marathon returns for the first time in three years. Tens of thousands of runners, and visitors from across the country and around the world, will be downtown. It’s like no other day all year.

First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh and Trinity Episcopal Cathedral next door are right in the middle of it all.

Roads are shut down all over the city on Marathon Sunday, making it hard to get to many churches. But not our churches. You can take the “T” to the Wood Street Station, or drive in and park in the Mellon Square Garage, each a half a block away.  

God put us in the perfect place to bless the city on Marathon Sunday.

We will be out on Sixth Avenue at 5:45 AM, blessing runners. You should join us.

Many runners are so scared before the big race that they’re shaking. They wonder, “What was I thinking when I signed up for this?” Some are quite literally looking for a higher power.

Some are running to raise money and awareness for a loved one who passed away, or who suffers with a particular condition. Some are running to glorify God. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace means a lot to them.

People I prayed with in years past come up to thank me. They remind me that I had said that when they “hit the wall” around mile 20 they would experience a “following breeze.” They tell me that prayer was answered.

This year, after we bless the runners early in the morning, we’ll hold a combined worship service outside at 10:45, weather permitting. Our friend, The Very Reverend Aidan Smith, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, will preach from our unique outdoor pulpit. What a privilege to be the church in the heart of the city.

What are you running for?

Rachel Feintzeig is the Work and Life columnist for the Wall Street Journal, which means she writes about the “intersection of jobs and everything else.” Last week her column was, “Yes, you can be more than your job title.”

Rachel told of getting the new job at the paper and being asked to write a paragraph to introduce herself. She said writing the first few sentences was easy. She reviewed her past reporting, mentioned her husband and kids, and then…what? What could she say that would distinguish her amid all the daily routines of life? Her days were “a blur of work and kids.” She felt lost.     

She recalled one particularly stressful day when, without thinking, she dug out a pair of gym shorts from her dresser and just ran. She ran a mile in a loop back to her house. She was still stressed, so she ran some more. 

Rachel had never been an athlete, but as she started to run more, she noticed that it made her feel better. She was better able to handle stress, better able to focus and write. 

Now Rachel says that being a runner makes her better at all her other roles in life.

Next Sunday, May 1st, the Pittsburgh Marathon returns for the first time in three years and our church will be in the middle of it all.

For over a decade, we’ve been out on the street at 5:45 AM on Marathon Sunday, blessing runners. We pray with folks in small groups or one-on-one, or over the loudspeakers to the hundreds of people heading to their corrals. Many people are nervous about taking on so big a challenge. In the moments before the race, many are anxious, seeking a higher power. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace is important to them.

Sometimes I ask them, “What are you running for?” It turns out that many people run for God, for a loved one, or for a cause that matters to them.

But shouldn’t we all know what we’re running for?

Shouldn’t we all ask ourselves what drives me; what is it in life that I just have to have to know that I’m OK?

As much as running makes us better at everything else, one day, our knees will say, “Enough.” Over the course of our lives, we’ll all eventually have to give up the things we’re running for.

That includes running.

But we are more than our job title. And if we run through this life for the One who gave us our knees and legs, heart and lungs, in the first place, we will “run and not grow weary, we will walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

Glimpses of joy

It was February 13, 1970, and I had just come to pick up Jana for our first date. The moment she let me in the front door, I heard a sound coming up from the basement: “Hee, hee, hee!” 

Jana took me downstairs to meet her dad. He was lying on the floor watching TV, literally rolling on the floor in laughter. 

My first thought was that this family must be out of its mind.    

But that was Lonnie. He laughed like that all the time. He simply loved life. He got joy out of whatever he was doing.

In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul wrote that we are to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Lonnie always rejoiced because he could see God in everything. 

He rejoiced in hunting and fishing. He rejoiced in fixing his old boat. I think he actually rejoiced when it broke; so he could fix it.

He rejoiced in his wife and his family. In good times and bad, he rejoiced.

Where did he get that endless reservoir of joy?

In Colossians 3, Paul wrote, “Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above….”

Fascinating. Paul was writing to Christians who were still living, but he said, “You have been raised.”  It’s already happened.

The main purpose of the Christian faith is not for God to swoop down and take you to heaven when you die. Heaven is not an ethereal place far away where you float in a kind of disembodied existence. 

That’s not resurrection; that’s death.

When the Risen Jesus met his disciples after the resurrection he could still eat, but he could also be anywhere at once. He was somehow more real.

And he didn’t tell them to wait around until they floated off, he sent them out to make the world more beautiful and just, starting now, like he did with my father-in-law Lonnie.

Heaven is here, another dimension of reality that most of us are out of touch with, and Jesus followers live at the intersection of the two. They’ve been raised with Christ to give the world glimpses of the ultimate joy that awaits us when heaven and earth are fully joined at last. Alleluia!

Or as Lonnie would say, “Hee, hee, hee!” 

Let them think you’re crazy

Centuries before, the Prophet Isaiah said that God would one day do a new thing. There would be streams in the desert and roads in the wilderness; even wild animals would worship.

What if that wasn’t a metaphor?

What if it was finally happening—the Creator making a new creation?

It would mean you’d have to forget the past and live in a new way. And the new way might not be easy. People would think you were crazy.

Jesus had just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, a clear signal that the new creation was underway.

For Jesus it meant riding in triumph to a mock trial and the cross, and all the ironies of a conquering king riding on a borrowed, unbroken colt.

But for Lazarus, it meant sudden, unwanted celebrity. No one had seen a dead man come back to life. And since Lazarus was Exhibit A of the new creation, the authorities wanted him dead too.

Coming to grips with the new reality was bewildering.

And of course, it still is. As Jesus comes riding in, we ought to be cheering and waving and throwing our coats in the road, even if we don’t quite grasp what’s going on.

This is no time to be holding back.

Go ahead. Let people think you’re crazy.

Something else to complain about

I’ve complained here before about my first assignment in the Air Force. The climate in Northern Maine was harsh in winter; the black flies were thick in summer; the job meant hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror; and the bombers we flew were as old as we were.

Complaining was a way of life.

Many years later I got a dream job commanding a flying training squadron in Sacramento. The climate was mild, the sun shone every day. If you drove east for 90 minutes you could be skiing in the Sierras. If you drove west for 90 minutes, you could be standing on Fisherman’s Wharf. The job included flying Boeing 737s equipped as navigation trainers up the Pacific coast or across the mountains down to the Grand Canyon.

And everyone still complained.

Our instructors who’d flown fighters before thought it was beneath them to fly in a nav trainer.

The ones who’d flown bombers just hated to fly.

They complained out of habit.

The Book of Numbers tells how God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt. With military precision and attention to detail, God prepared them for the Promised Land. For so many to survive in the desert for so long, they had to be disciplined, organized, and obedient.

God provided for their every need, but they complained so much they talked themselves into believing they’d be better off as slaves again.

That’s the problem with complaining. We think if we just had a better house, a better job; a better spouse, etc., our lives would be OK. But when we get the better thing, we just find something else to complain about. It’s how our fallen hearts work.

Until our hearts are set on God, we’ll always find something to complain about.