I count every day a good one when you learn something new. Life is mysterious and marvelous and magical and just ripe for a curious mind to learn. This past week afforded a couple of gems. First – when a once-(or-twice)-in-a-lifetime marvel of the universe is going to show itself in the sky for the world to see in the form of a solar eclipse, the absolute worst thing you can say to a six-year-old is “Don’t look at it!” They will burn with great desire to see the very thing for which they are forbidden to see. My son, Hayes, actually spent part of the day in paranoia about losing his vision. He came around, however, with a little help from a church friend who shared some optometrist approved shades. There he is! The world is beautiful, isn’t it?
A second learning – every Sunday should be promotion Sunday! Last week, after The Rising worship, we lined the designated pathway from our Children’s wing to the Youth wing anticipating our fifth graders moving on up to the Youth Group. Anticipation was full, students handed out pompoms to those lining the path and Jock Jams were playing from the rafters. Then, the announcer came over the speakers and one by one, the names of our would-be-youth-groupers were called over the loud speaker and they passed enthusiastically through the tunnel of their church family to the fanfare of celebratory cheers! The looks on the faces of those young people and their village cheering them on in such an important transition of their lives was amazing. So – my proposal is that we do this every Sunday, selecting a different group or Sunday School class to hear their names called, to pass among the cheering faithful who are saying, “You matter. Today, you take that step to grow in your faith. We’re cheering you on!” So – the Disciples class will be first. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Alan Crider!” We all need this kind of encouragement.
This same beautiful spectacle is something I’ve come to appreciate about the running community. Fans really get into the events; especially the big one. Twenty-six point two miles. It’s what separates the casual joggers from the 26.2 decal displayed on the back of marathon runner’s cars. I’ve never made that distance myself. I did my first half this past summer and I’ve never prayed more for God to take me from that road into the clouds on a chariot like Elijah. Kidding… mostly. But many who cross the marathon finish line report, in a strange sense, that the experience is profoundly spiritual. The miles slowly break you down, taking you to those unexplored areas of your soul where you are all alone with your thoughts; weaknesses exposed, recognition of how fragile our spirits can be. You’ll hear people talk about a “Runner’s High” – a sort of euphoric feeling after a long period of rhythmic exercise. Many believe this is a morphine-like endorphin release into a person’s system which puts them in a psychological positive state. Not everyone experiences it. Many more experience the opposite of the Runner’s High known simply as “The Wall.” You don’t have to be a runner to know what hitting the wall feels like in your life. It’s the point of break down; of pure exhaustion; of mental collapse. For marathon runners, this often happens around mile twenty. It is, in part, a natural process of the body depleting its fuel sources but it is often met with significant negative feelings – fear, anxiety, pain, desperation.
If you’ve ever been a spectator of a marathon, you know the hype that goes along with it. There are often big crowds and bands and people holding signs and cheering you on. And, hey, you’re going to be running for a while – it’s nice to see some encouraging faces along the way. About the time you think all of this encouragement will get you to the finish line, you discover several miles out from the finish that the crowd grows quiet. The spirit changes. And it may have something to do with runner’s hitting the wall. There’s a sense from the crowd that they don’t know if they should cheer for you, cry for you or look the other way altogether. In fact, I’ve been around some spectators at times when a struggling runner was coming by and heard them say louder than they should, “Oh my Lord. Look at the guy!” I’m sure many spectators thought that about me when I’ve run any race. Suddenly, you feel like a bad accident in the middle of the road. Supporters have turned into casual observers wondering what it must be like to feel like you look and being glad they aren’t you. This is sort of a parable about our lives. There are often plenty of supportive friends when you’re running strong a few miles in but you hit that wall at mile twenty and the crowds have dispersed.
Jesus starts his public ministry with a mile twenty mentality. Jesus is baptized, heads out into the wilderness to get his Spirit aligned with God’s vision for all that was ahead. Forty days in, he’s clear. He’s ready. He heads back to his hometown and probably stops at Red Lobster – I mean, he’s got to be hungry after all that fasting and discernment. Next? He heads to the synagogue because that was his custom on the Sabbath. I imagine the walk to the synagogue was different that day as he passed all of the familiar places of his childhood. The hardware store where he went with his dad to pick up essentials for the carpentry shop. The school playground where he played dodgeball and chased away the bullies, because, you know, Jesus. He gets to the synagogue and the community knows he’s a Rabbi on the rise. They’re proud of him – Mary and Joe’s boy so passionate about his faith – they all helped raise him. He’s handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Everyone waits with that silence we all recognize as the silence that accompanies great anticipation. Moment of truth, thirty years in the making. First public declaration of ministry. What will set the tone of what matters to him most? Jesus knows. It’s the mile twenty theology of the wall. Jesus goes right to it on the Isaiah scroll. “God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!” That’s why I’ve come.
Jesus calmly rolls the scroll back up and hands it to the worship leader. And does the crowd go wild? Absolutely not. “That’s why you’re here? That’s all you have to say?” And “Yes,” says Jesus. “That’s why I’m here.” Why? Because the world lives at mile twenty. Our daily lives are jam packed with people who have hit the wall; who feel they can’t go even one step more. Jesus puts down the scroll and heads out of that synagogue to mile twenty to give those people hope; to give them a hand; to call them by name and help them move forward. He preaches a mile twenty theology and it fell flat on the congregation. By the end of the day, the hometown faithful were ready to hurl Jesus off their hometown water tower to his sure and certain death. Hard to go home after a day like that. “How was your day, Jesus?” “Well…” It wasn’t the message they expected to hear and we all know that we love our expectations to be met. But Jesus knew mile twenty is where real life takes place. If you’re not hitting the wall yourself, you need to be there to help someone who has. Sometime it will be you. REM’s early 90’s song said it well: “Everybody hurts sometimes. If you’re on your own in this life… the days and nights are long… when you think you’ve had too much of this life to hang on, hold on. Everybody hurts, everybody cries… sometimes.” Everybody hits mile twenty at some point. The neighbor down the street whose wife has just left him. The single mom next door whose child, struggling with ADHD, has nearly pushed her over the edge, the folks in wheelchairs at the nursing home who are lined up like a parking lot of abandoned cars. Will we meet them there?
In nineteen hundred and eighty-one (seems like a world ago, yes?) the first cases of AIDS were being reported. Soon, millions were affected by the virus and it raised great fear in the world. Before we knew about it what we know now and before we had good medicine to help combat the disease, many children contracted HIV from their mothers and were often abandoned. A group of lay monastics north of San Francisco felt called to create an unconventional hospice home for children with HIV. They took up residence in a farmhouse in Sonoma County and called themselves the Starcross Community. They spent their days training others to care for children with AIDS – how to give them dignity and help with daily tasks. When a child was sick, they spent time with them in a rocking chair and spent nights rubbing their backs or scratching itchy sores to offer them any sense of comfort from someone who saw them not as a disease but a beloved child of God. Some of these kids hardly ever experienced touch in their lives – maybe twice a day when a diaper got changed or a bottle was given. This monastic community simply offered the gift of everyday living – the love of family, the security of home, the joy of childhood. Brother Toby, one of the founders said, “In a society in which only long, eventful lives are revered, we must somehow recognize that there is a beauty even in these short lives.”
It doesn’t matter how long your life is, where you live, or who you know, mile twenty is an experience we all will have. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to show up in those places with a willing spirit. Whether that’s on the streets of Tulsa, in the home of your neighbor, or the dirt roads of Chacraseca, if we claim the faith of Jesus to be the guiding force in our lives, we have to show up in those places. Instead of putting a 26.2 decal on your car, we might give witness to a “Mile 20” decal that notes to the masses that you have eyes to see. One woman said, “If you want to have a ministry that cares for the needs of others, then walk slowly and it will happen to you. If you want to avoid [mile twenty], then walk fast.” It’s another way of saying, “If you really want the way of Jesus to have an impact on your life, you’ve got to walk slowly enough, listen closely enough, clear your schedule enough, make margin in your day enough, to pay attention and respond.” Jesus says, “I came to proclaim good news at mile twenty.” And he did it over and over and over again until he was killed for it. It wasn’t a popular notion. It was at odds with a clean, rule laden existence which most were simply comfortable with. Clean and comfortable – that’s the message they wanted to hear from Jesus; not the stuff of mile twenty.
Maybe you’ve hit the wall in life right now. You may not be showing it on the outside but perhaps it’s eating you inside. Part of being church is being able to express our Mile 20 moments and carrying each other through the trials. Maybe you know someone else is in such a place and you’ve hesitated to reach out. “It’s none of my business,” we argue with ourselves. “They’ll ask if they need something,” we think. “I don’t even know what to say anyway.” If you know someone is hurting like this, meet them there. Say their name. More than anything, they may just need to know someone sees them, believes they matter, and cares enough to say, “I’m not sure exactly what you must be feeling nor do I know exactly what to say but I’m committed to walking with you through it.” And then. Show. Up.
My wife ran the famous Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota in June. Carrie’s recent goal was to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Coming into this race, she met the qualifying time required for her age and gender but the last two years have proven that even her qualifying time might come up short to get into Boston as the field was so competitive. Grandma’s was her last shot at improving her previous best in hopes of securing a Boston spot for next spring. A series of unfortunate events almost kept her from getting to the event at all but thanks to some rearranging and a good friend, we hopped in the car and drove straight to Duluth because, well, that’s just what you do. Race Day came quickly and once Carrie was set at the starting line, I had to figure out where I would hang. Lots of energy at the start and lots of buzz at the finish but I looked over the course and came across the dreaded incline of Lemon Drop Hill – mile 22 – the races historic wall that has ended more than a few hopeful runners race. That’s where I would wait. I knew Carrie would be pressing herself to best her time even by a few minutes so I figured that would be a good spot to give her a needed boost. It was a powerful place to watch the race. Not a ton of folks there which made it eerily quiet at times when some runners were running past with the look of death on their faces. There was a band of bagpipers there which was cool at first and not as cool a couple of hours in. I requested the theme from Rocky but they weren’t the kind of bagpipers that took requests.
I met some people on Lemon Drop Hill. Some local spectators who clearly came back year after year. I asked them if I had enough time to see Carrie on the hill and still catch her crossing the finish line. It was a great debate. I told them Carrie’s goal and one guy told me, “No way. She won’t do it today. It’s too humid.” I rejected that statement with a smile on my face. “You don’t know my wife!” I thought rather politely in my own head. Another couple, Bruce and Mary, were there to watch their son run his first marathon. We talked quite a bit and tried to encourage all of the runners as they passed. Bruce’s catch phrase, with a northern accent I can’t quite master was, “Way to dig! Way to dig!” The runners were amazing to watch on Lemon Drop Hill. The elite runners traversed it quickly – some stone faced, others with a little grimace that comes with the extra push to stay close to the front of the pack. The wheelchair athletes were amazing, some straining with everything they had to offer a full rotation of the wheel and only moving an inch at a time. This guy stopped right in front of me as his leg cramped up. He was pushing the son of a friend of his named Nathan. I stepped out to set the brake on Nathan’s chair. Twenty-two miles in. Lemon Drop Hill. Wondering if he could finish. Some walked. Some stopped. Some were crying. It was a broad spectrum of emotion and determination and wondering if the will to finish would be enough to overcome the wall.
That’s the story I see from here today. It’s the story I’m a part of. We’re all pushing through something, straining through a decision or a hardship or a relationship struggle or the pain of mind, body, or spirit. When it’s in our power, will we hold each other through it or will we standby and think, “Glad that’s not me.” Jesus says, “That’s the place I’ll be. Will you come with me?”
I stood in the middle of Lemon Drop Hill, sandwiched between the bagpipers, Bruce, Mary, and the locals who doubted my wife’s goals. A few of us whooped and hollered for every runner – seemed the least we could do – Bruce with his “Way to dig!” and my greatest hits of encouragement that were offered on a rotating basis to keep it fresh. I was tracking Carrie on my phone which was just the coolest thing. I had Bruce and Mary tracking her too even as we tracked their son. We could see well down Lemon Drop Hill and the app showed she’d be coming soon. And when I spotted her, I fell in love all over again. I was so proud and I was hollering and Bruce was yelling, “Way to dig, Carrie! Way to dig!” And when she got next to our spot, I quickly hugged Bruce and Mary, hollered at the locals “She’s gonna do it!”, and took off running up the hill after her. I couldn’t help myself. I yelled the whole way up and Carrie smiled several times before I could see a look of confusion on her face which she finally verbalized: “What are you doing?” I realized in that moment she thought I was going to try to run with her the final four miles to the finish. The worst part was we both knew that I couldn’t keep her pace even after she’d run twenty-two miles. I yelled, “You got this! See you at the finish!” and then I peeled off to find my car. I made it in the nick of time. And she blew her personal record out of Lake Superior – enough so that she can register for Boston early. There’s no doubt she’ll be running the streets of Boston in April.
Look – life is a marathon, full of walls and injuries and self-doubt and the silence or criticism from others in your greatest time of need. There will be times when you ask yourself, “Can I finish what I started? Is the pain, the hurt, the skepticism going to consume me?” That pivotal moment in life, and in Luke’s gospel, is met by Jesus who is quick to say, “There. Right there. In that pain. I’ll be with you.” Then, he hands you the scroll and looks back at you as he heads out the door of his church. He calls you by name and asks, “You coming?” Rhetorical question? Perhaps. But… truth is… we live our answer when we walk out these doors.
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 The mile twenty connection to this passage in Luke’s gospel was made for me by Mark Feldmier in his work, “Testimony to the Exiles.” Chalice Press. 2003. His influence is evident in this message.