As the sun reached its highpoint for the day, I finished my race. Twenty-three miles and 5000 feet of elevation. I was exhausted from and elated by the joy that came from finishing, and I was weighed down with the realization that I had to do it again tomorrow.
This past July, Jenny Smith wrote The Second Marathon, a Word for Pastors on Walking the New Normal which compared pastoral ministry during this resurgence of Covid with a fictional story of marathoners who, after giving their all for 26.2 miles, are not given medals after crossing the finish line but new race numbers and are told to start running again. This time the runners are tired, sore, and broken. Smith offers some wonderful insights into how we must live into our new reality.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I gave this metaphor a go. We signed up for the Transrockies Run: a six day, 120 mile stage race from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, Colorado. There would be a couple of obstacles. We had never run that far in a week in our lives. We live at roughly 700 feet of elevation while the race took place between 8500 and 12,500 feet. And we had never in our 23 years of marriage ever camped one night, let alone six nights together in a tent. What could go wrong?
Over the week we experienced a wide range of emotions. We were overwhelmed with joy. The beauty of Vail, Leadville, and Beaver Creek was amazing. We suffered. The pain of the event made us worry, hurt, and even made us (OK, me) swear at the thought of another mile, let alone another 20, the following day. We laughed. Making friends dumb enough to sign up (and pay!) for something like this made everything just a little more tolerable.
As I ran the second marathon (and the third, the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth), Smith’s words echoed in my ears and continue to do so as we live into our new normal. Here are a few of my thoughts on living into the stage race of Covid.
First, if we are to endure we must admit that we are broken. Every night we would sit down for dinner. We would eat (a lot) and then listen to a program teaching us about the history and people of the land we were running in. It was always really good. . .until we stood up. After sitting for a couple of hours we left the mess tent limping. Spoken and unspoken thoughts could be seen on everyone’s faces as we hobbled to the next event of the evening.
We were tired, sore, crabby, and all of us had doubts about whether or not we would survive the next day. Admitting our pain brought us closer together. “How’s the knee?” and “Have you stopped puking?” became regular evening conversations. There were no delusions of superhuman strength. There was a community of brokenness, who, in spite of our individual pain, showed a genuine concern for one another.
We would do better today, I think, if we could acknowledge our pain. As a pastor and as a person, I am broken. I’m tired of the emails, the opinions, the bad theology, the animosity. Some days I am just tired of people. How does one pastor when one is broken? I guess the first step is just acknowledging it. I’m broken. And maybe the second is a grace-filled understanding that the people I am living life with, even the ones I’m struggling to love right now, are broken too.
Second, we must slow our pace. Smith is right, we are not running the second marathon, we are walking it. We ran every day knowing that we had to run again tomorrow. Or at least we should have. On the first day, I came out a little fast. I was pumped with my time. I looked with not a little smugness at all the people who finished after me. I think my ego left me right around the time my wife took my vomit-filled ziplock bag to the garbage while I tried to rehydrate in my sleeping bag. The rest of the journey went better, because I ran (and walked) understanding the length and nature of the journey ahead.
We would do better, I think, if we slowed our pace. From church programming to club soccer and everything else in between, we have run ourselves ragged. Broken people have to move slower. We have to rest. We have to take time to care for ourselves and others. I am not just speaking of reducing our commitments, we must slow our critiques, our advice, our certainty. We must leave extra time for grace for ourselves and for others.
Finally, we must journey together. Finishing this race for me was a team sport. The volunteers for this race carried my luggage, set up my tent, cooked my food, gave me rides, massaged sore muscles. They carried me (I wish literally) so all I had to do was my relatively small part. . .run.
I slowed down to run the last day with my wife because of her sore knee. It was the least I could do after she carried. . .well, you know. We met friends and developed a community. Faster people, slower people, conservative Christians, transgender accountants. . . all of us formed a community motivated to make sure everyone succeeded.
We would do better, I think, as we endure our race if we did so together. The polarization, the vitriol, the hate speech are hindering our race together. Broken people need to admit that we need help. I cannot do it anymore (not that I ever could) on my own. I need to be held up even as I am holding up my neighbor. Like it or not we are in this together. Conservatives, liberals, and whatever else had better be willing to lay some of their smugness down in order to lift each other up. If we don’t, we don’t stand a chance.