Every so often we encounter scenes on television or (even better) in person that are reminiscent of Ezekiel’s stream flowing out from the temple and through all creation, revitalizing every place through which it flows and making stagnant waters fresh (Ez 47). They are rivers of humanity—great colorful rivers flowing right through the heart of our most famous cities, like New York, Paris, London, Berlin and—one of my favorites because I once lived there—Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This city in northeast England is the annual host to the Great North Run, the world’s biggest half marathon. Whatever I happen to be doing, I always put it aside to watch the stream of participants because, like Ezekiel’s stream, they also have the gift of enlivening the very stones they flow over. They are, of course, the rivers of thousands of eager, enthusiastic runners of all shapes, sizes and abilities who will complete a 13.1-mile course, often in blistering heat.
Road races remind me of the great race of life that St. Paul was so proud to have completed faithfully. The resemblance starts with the motley array of runners. A few of them are “the elite.” These are the serious individuals who are there to win or at least to beat their own personal best. Some of them may manage the course in under an hour. They are in top condition and have trained all year. In terms of the spiritual journey, they would be the saints and martyrs, the few who show the many how it can be at its finest.
The other 50,000 or so will be lucky to make it in less than two or even three hours. These are the ones we often call the “fun runners,” though by anyone’s standards it is no light feat to run 13 miles in two hours. These are the ordinary people, the ones Jesus might have called the anawim, the little people, the people like you and me.
They have all kinds of reasons for running the race. Take Carol: She is running to raise funds for the hospice caring for her sick grandmother. Then there’s Mike. He had a sailing accident last year and wants to thank the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for rescuing him. Meg has just turned 3 and is proud that for the first time she can run the “baby mile” along with her older brother. Sue and Jim are running a three-legged race, reminding us that none of us will make the distance on our own in life. John is in a wheelchair, and when he hits problems, Sarah slows down to push him toward the finish line. His safe arrival matters more to her than her own. Many are running against the odds, in the face of serious illness or handicap. Many are in outrageous costumes. All are greatly encouraged by the huge crowds gathered to cheer them on and the rousing music along the way.
The first eight miles are the worst, they say—no less true of the spiritual journey, when the temptation to return to a more comfortable life can be overwhelming. But the moment comes, at least on Tyneside, when the last hill is climbed and the ocean comes into view. They are on the home stretch.
Long after the elite have broken their records and the fun runners have arrived, the stragglers continue to cross the finish line. One of them remarks: “The marathon always gives me time to think. And the slower I am the more I can think.” Not bad advice for a spiritual pilgrim either. We applaud the winners and delight in their success. But it is the losers, the stragglers, the strugglers who bring a lump to our throats and a tear to our eyes. Why would it be any different with God?
These lengthy road races, wherever they take place around the world, are occasions of joy and laughter as well as sweat and strain. Every person who shares his or her story speaks of gratitude for some blessing received or passion for some cause that will make the world a better place. No one is there in a spirit of complaint. Every time I watch a marathon, I know I am seeing humanity at its very best: a magnificent melange of countries and cultures, determination and the sheer love of life. What a difference it would make if we who are consciously running a spiritual race were as full of fun and as eagerly present to one another as these thousands of city runners.
And at the end of the race, I hear a still, small voice from the heavens murmuring, “The last shall be first.” In this great race, as in heaven, everybody wins the prize.