by Colonel Phil Needham –
This past summer I did something for the first time. I ran a 10K. So did my two brothers, but for them it was nothing unusual. They had not only run in a number of 10K races over the years, they had run marathons! But for me the 10K was a giant leap forward.
I was a latecomer when it came to running, and I was reluctant. I do not find running particularly exhilarating; I much prefer an intense tennis game. But as my schedule got busier and travel more frequent, finding a tennis court and a partner within the narrow window of time available became difficult. But you can run most anywhere. So I’ve been running fairly regularly over the past several years.
Keitha and I were in Atlanta for a couple of weeks’ vacation following the Congress. It so happens that every year the largest 10K race in the world, the Peachtree Road Race, takes place there on the fourth of July. My brothers would be running. Walt, the eldest, said he would try to get me an entry. It was too late; none was left. But he found out that Major Jeanne Miller, a THQ officer, had an entry and would not be able to use it because of an injury. Jeanne, a sessionmate of ours, kindly gave me her place. I was in.
So were 55,000 other runners. We assembled early on that warm morning. My placement was in one of the latter groups, so I had to separate from my brothers. (To keep runners from being trampled, there are at least ten sections. I was in the eighth. Our group was not released to run till 45 minutes after the race had begun!)
When you think of a race, you think of running to come in first. It’s all about winning, and indeed those serious qualifiers, those with the best credentials, were in the first section.
Fortunately, winning was the furthest thing from the minds of most of us. We just wanted to finish in one piece!
I am fairly proud of the fact that I did finish. But what I want to share with you goes far beyond my success in completing the course. It goes to the serendipity of that experience, the unsuspected nature of a long run down Peachtree. As crazy as this may sound, that experience felt like church. In fact, it became for me a kind of parable of the Church. Let me explain.
As I stood waiting for our section to be summoned to the starting line, I began talking with the man next to me. To our mutual delight, we discovered that we were both Hurricanes, which, being interpreted, means that we were alumni of the University of Miami (Florida), about five years apart. We shared our college experiences and, of course, indulged in the usual braggadocio you would expect from any self-respecting ‘Cane about the glory years when Miami dominated college football, beginning with the defeat of then top-ranked Nebraska in the ’83 Orange Bowl. Naturally, we agreed that the return of the glory days was just around the corner.
Church is about a shared history. In the fellowship of faith we find companions with whom we have something in common, we find friends with whom we can share the journey. As we run the race, we need them. They keep us connected. This is part of what church is about.
Once our part of the run was underway, I was surprised by how many people had come to see the event. All the way along the 6.2-mile course, I saw overwhelming encouragement. At the one-mile mark I saw a sign that said, ‘Congratulations! You’ve run a mile already!’ Later on, another that said, ‘You can do it!’ At the last mile mark: ‘Only one mile to go. You’re terrific!’ Signs all over the place, cheering us on. Bystanders looking us in the eye and shouting their enthusiasm and appreciation for our effort. Many passing out cold water or ice. Some even creating a fine spray with their water hoses to give us a cool space to run through. (Even in the early morning, Atlanta is quite warm and humid in the summer.)
The Church is about encouragement. On that day in July, I had thousands of encouragers, and it made me feel awfully good about myself and what I was doing. (I must admit I hadn’t felt that good about it when the alarm clock had gone off early that morning.) All of us need those sideline encouragers, don’t we. If there is anything that will release a corps to achieve its potential, it is encouragement. And it will make a corps a place of joy.
Speaking of joy, there was plenty of it. The race was an occasion for celebration. A number of restaurants and bars were located along the route, and all of them with musical ensembles of various kinds had managed to get the musicians up early (quite a feat considering most of them had probably played late into the previous evening!) to set up along the way and play upbeat music for the runners. Music was everywhere. Some spectators were dancing on the sidewalks. A few runners even tried some fancy steps. Everyone was having a great time. It made the run more fun.
The Church is a place of joy. The mark of joy distinguished our early Salvationists. ‘Joy in The Salvation Army’ was an ever-present strain. The joy of the Lord is the Church’s strength (Nehemiah 8:10).
When we came to St. Philip’s Cathedral, I saw something I was unprepared for. The priest was standing at the curb, dressed in a brightly colored robe. Periodically, he was throwing some liquid on the runners. Then I realized it was holy water. He was blessing us.
The Church is a place of blessing. All of us need the blessing, the shower of holy water on who we are and what we are doing, the word of promise and hope for our future. We are runners in a race God blesses.
We are also runners together. Something else I saw moved me. There were about 50 runners who ran as a group. Never mind that they were employees of the Dogwood Brewing Company. They knew at least one thing about church: they knew that they ran together. Winning some individual race was not in the mind of any one of them. Whenever the group felt that some of their number had fallen behind, they stopped, held high their company sign, and waited till everyone had caught up. They ran as one body. I pulled ahead of them and left them behind, the strains of their enthusiastic ‘We love beer’ song fading from my hearing. But I knew that if they were going to cross the finish line, it would be together.
The Church is a place of unity where life is shared and races are run together. Life is not a race to win: Jesus has already won. Life is a journey to be traveled in a caravan called the Church, where travelers journey together and help one another to the destination. There is no place for individual competition in the Church. We are one Body; each of us needs the other.
As I approached the finish line, exhausted from the run but exhilarated by the experience, I saw a large sign held by a small lady. I almost wept. It said: ‘Welcome home.’ That was where it all came together–the sharing, the encouragement, the joy, the blessing, the unity. I was exhausted, but I was crossing that line as part of a communion of runners, not alone but surrounded by companions, cheered on by clouds of witnesses, blest beyond imagining, rejoicing in a race completed, one small part of a much larger organism moving down Peachtree almost as if we were all a part of one living body.
The Church is the place that helps us find home and cheers us across the finish line. When we Salvationists have been at our best, that is what we have been. A fellowship where we are all enthusiastically welcomed and encouraged to be our best selves. A place for races that challenge us to run together. A refreshment station for our journey across the finish line to Home