The Marathoner’s Fragile Glory

I ran my first Boston Marathon on Monday. After finishing the race, I headed to a restaurant a few blocks away. While inside, I heard two explosions near the finish line. Walking out of the restaurant, I was met by the sounds of police sirens, ambulances, and an odd, hushed confusion. Then, through a flood of text messages, Twitter feeds, and conversations with strangers, I learned details about the blasts that killed three and injured dozens more.

For the past few years, I’ve participated in a local running group. The camaraderie has been a welcome opportunity to get to know people who would not naturally come to my church. Yet, even as a pastor, I’ve struggled to find ways to build bridges to help those in the running community see the relevance of the gospel. Discussions about anything related to running—from previous races, to expected times, even down to the mileage on our shoes—can go on for hours. But moving to a spiritual topic feels subtly off-limits, and conversations usually fizzle. 

Early on race day, I joined with friends from the group as we rode the bus to the starting location. There was euphoria in the air and we murmured our aspirations like those nearing the end of a holy pilgrimage. For the long-distance runner, the Boston Marathon is a crowning achievement. Some runners train for years to gain the coveted qualifying time that allows entry. Monday’s weather was ideal for a race. Everything seemed perfect. In the midst of this, I remember sitting on the bus, feeling discouraged over how irrelevant Jesus seemed to this crowded bus of optimistic, mostly upper-middle class, successful runners.

Changed World

But when I walked out of the restaurant, I stepped into a world that had changed. Suddenly our achievements, our medals, and even whether we had finished the race became astonishingly trivial. The near-sacred enchantment of the Boston Marathon vanished before my eyes; our medals became mere pieces of metal around our necks, the finish line was only a band of colored paint, and we found ourselves in a new race to discover if our friends were safe amid the confusion and sadness. This race had an urgency the marathon never did. Death and evil openly entered the equation, and they changed the atmosphere completely.

Instinctively, we all knew this new race, in a limited way, was about salvation. “Is so and so safe?” we asked each other anxiously as we worried and texted. In those moments, rescue and safety became the only thing relevant as we thought about our friends on the course.

The tragedy in Boston reminded me of the foolishness of assuming we can judge what is relevant and what is not. In the wonder of his grace, God has told us ahead of time which race really matters in life. Jesus wins for us the prize we could never win on our own and saves us from our eternal defeat into his eternal victory. We don’t have to wait for evil and tragedy to confront us up close to relate to it, but can live in its fullness day by day.

Our culture can make this news seem trivial or superficial. Building bridges to help others see the worth of Jesus usually involves hard work and can be slow and frustrating. But in the midst of the labor we should not forget the fragility of irrelevance. Tragedy has a way of making God relevant. And at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, it took only seconds. 

  • Tom Blanchard

    Thanks, David.
    The relevance of the Gospel really does come crashing in at the most unlikely times. I’m grateful for your perspective.
    Your old OT prof.

  • Chris

    Just waiting for certain preachers in our circles to say, “God ordained this for his glory.” That’s sickening. God is doesn’t need more glory. He’s content within himself. Otherwise, we have a pantheistic God. God doesn’t like suffering. God doesn’t need us. He doesn’t need our praise.

    • Joshua

      Hi Chris,

      What’s your alternative to, “God ordained this for his glory.”?

    • Clive

      God doesn’t need our praise. we need to praise God. and that’s also why God wants our praise.

  • Chris

    Humans brought this about because they have free will. If God controls our free will, than that’s not free will. It would be a contradiction

    • Tim

      Some would rather boast in the freedom of their will rather than in the freedom of God’s will to do all that He pleases.

      The Bible doesn’t make a boast (key word in my argument: boast) of humans having free will, but it sure does just that for God.

      “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” Psalm 115:3

      “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
      in heaven and on earth,
      in the seas and all deeps.” Psalm 135:6

      And the text shows him free to ultimately decree things we see as negative.

      “I form light and create darkness,
      I make well-being and create calamity,
      I am the Lord, who does all these things.” Isaiah 45:7

      But it’s not without compassion.

      “but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
      according to the abundance of his steadfast love” Lamentations 3:32

      Finally, God’s wisdom is unassailable by human beings.

      “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Romans 11:33

      • Matt G.

        Great thoughts!

  • Karen Butler

    “Suddenly our achievements, our medals, and even whether we had finished the race became astonishingly trivial. The near-sacred enchantment of the Boston Marathon vanished before my eyes; our medals became mere pieces of metal around our necks, the finish line was only a band of colored paint, and we found ourselves in a new race to discover if our friends were safe amid the confusion and sadness.”

    Those bombers meant it for evil, but God allows it in his sovereign will to stamp eternity on the eyeballs of all his runners. So we will finish the race well, and not be slowed down by our idolatry.

    And he wakes up those who are still dead in their sins. They want to silence the snooze alarm that’s constantly reminding them that there is a second death.

  • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    This bombing was such an incalculable horror. It has hit me especially hard for two reasons. First, I was moving homes and without internet on Monday – I found out about it much later and that seemed to make it all the more terrible. Second, I’ve run a few marathons myself – even aspired to Boston – and so it could have been me.

    And also that it took place at a marathon, such a celebratory event. Someone on talk radio here called the bombing an attack on something sacred. I know a marathon isn’t like sacred, sacred but it still feels that way. Besides loving and serving God and my family, probably nothing has been as amazing in my life as passing a marathon finish line.

    May God have mercy on this world…

  • Mike

    I was at Boston also. After the explosion, I was reminded of a point on the course when I looked to my right and saw an old graveyard on a hill. At the time I saw it, I thought about the contrast between the life and celebration of the race I was in and the silence of the hillside. I found your observation that the “new race” was really about salvation to be very insightful. Seeing the efforts of those near the explosion in making every effort to rip away the fence that separated the wounded and dying from medical care and assistance, I later reflected on the fact that this is the very urgency that I need to display in sharing the gospel to those who are spiritually perishing.
    Thanks for your column.

  • Laura

    I love how the Gospel is always relevant! We don’t have to change it to appeal to the current generation. We have to change the generations so they can understand its complete, eternal relevance. Thanks, David, for sharing.

  • kiki

    David Niblack,

    We have been sharing the gospel in running for 10 years. Our ministry is made up of runners who wear a running shirt with PHIL 4:13 on the back..’ I can do all things who Christ who strengthens me ‘ .. It’s not about how fast can we run, but who can we share with or help today ? Silent billboards of faith, one shirt at a time. And when we finish a race, we don’t talk about time, we talk about how many people we got to pray for or how many people were moved by our shirt, and thanked us for wearing it. It’s about grace ! Which is what happened after those bombs went off, grace ! Everyone was looking to help everyone, stories of faith abound !

  • dan

    Thanks David-

    Appreciated the truths spoken in this article.

  • Mark Z

    This was a very well written and heart felt article. I appreciate it!

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