Why on earth would you run a 5k race on Thanksgiving?---It was a question frequently asked of me this year. To be sure, I asked it a lot of myself. For those not on the inside of the decision making process, my brother-in-law Jon, whom I used to think loved me dearly as I did him, called up my wife and asked who all was going to run in the Dan Gibbons Turkey Trot with them. As we are working on the local YMCA’s Lazy Man’s Triathalon, it seemed an easy way to knock out 3.1 miles, at least to some. But, I had gone off my diet the past week, I did need the miles, and hey, how bad could it be?
Truthfully, my intention as I ran was to thank God for all the blessings of this past year. I often pray as I ride my bike, and so it made sense to use the same tactic while running. I figured my prayer list would be good for at least a quarter mile while running. I thought that the unasked for prayers that I pray for parishioners might total close to a half mile. I could pray for help in the Human Trafficking ministry, in the Community Meal ministry, Winnie’s Place, and a bunch of others that needed His grace. I even knew that at some point, prayers for deliverance would kick in. (Please, Lord, don’t let me die like this!) If they were early enough, this might be a truly prayer-covered event. Plus, the run was for a great cause. More than a quarter century ago, the race was started in Elmhurst, Illinois with the proceeds going to benefit the homeless in DuPage County, a suburb of Chicago. They estimate today that there are 160,000 homeless in the county. They could certainly use the help and the awareness so that all those people can be helped.
Unfortunately for me, bicycling does not come close to the problems one faces while running. First of all, there were lots of people to serve as distractions. Did I just get passed by a family of smurfs, including Papasmurf with a cane? It is 40 degrees and a wind chill of “it’s too cold to be out here running” and these nuts are running in speedos! I haven’t had so many little kids pass me since I was last on a ski-slope. At least Superior Ambulance is the best in the business, locally, and the hospital is a straight shot from here.– Things like that were running through my head, and while distracting, they were not productive or helpful. Plus, there are obstacles that are in one’s way. “Walkers in the back of the starting area” apparently means “walkers, bring strollers and dogs and line up across the street with your friends near the front” to some. All the bars in Elmhurst opened early Thanksgiving Day to help some runners get fortified for the run. Hey, I'm a big boy. I embrace the Episcopal gospel that when three or four are gathered there is always a fifth, but c'mon! Think drunk drivers are bad? You should try and navigate drunk joggers or sprinters or men on their knees offering the pavement gods their pretzels and peanuts offerings. I wonder how far ahead Jon and Nathan are? What happened to Karen and Sarah? At least I am not like those poor dads whose kids, when asked by runners, "are you lost, little boy/girl?" respond simply "nah, I'm just waiting on dad to catch up!" And there is always the panicked thought “Will I come in dead last out of 8-10,000 trotters?”
But, after a while, things sort themselves out. The crowds thin as people settle into their running rhythms. The joggers and runners make it through the vise grip of walkers. All that’s left is the runner, the pavement, the internal cadences and thoughts, and the pain. Running in the cold causes its own problems. It hurts to breathe in the cold while getting so hot. There’s a reason God gave us noses with vessels to warm the air that we breathe. Unfortunately, the body’s demands for oxygen trumps His design. And each step causes the lungs to hurt a bit more, to say nothing of the ankles, knees and hips.
It is at this time that it is good to start one’s prayers. Though I was mightily tempted to begin with the prayers for survival, I spent time on the others. Unfortunately for me, I was not even halfway done by the time I finished my prayers and began praying to God for the run to be over. At about the point where I did not care whether the race for me ended at the finish line or the back of an ambulance, I encountered a young boy and his father. Nearly ran over is more like it. The little boy was upset and in pain and wanted it to be over. He was my hero. Then he asked the question.
Why are we doing this? Why can’t we stop and go home and eat? I give the dad a lot of credit, if he ever finds and reads this. He was sucking wind and trying to reason with an exhausted child. Dad was teaching the son a lesson about finishing the things that we start, a true family value here in the Midwest. But why? was the only answer he received from his son. When he noticed me, he apologized for doing this in the middle of the road. No worries, I assure him. It was a great excuse for me stop for a minute. I asked the little boy why he wanted to quit so badly. He told me because it did not really mattered. We got no money for running. We had no chance of winning. Nobody but us was really paying attention.
I asked him if he knew why we were running. Because dad had told him it would be fun. I asked if he knew why dad wanted to run this day. He didn’t. I then asked if knew about all the people around his town that had no home, were sleeping in the cold and the rain, and who would not be feasting on turkey later. He asked if they were very many. And I told him there were more than could fit in two Soldiers' Fields. He asked what good our running was for them. I told him that we had paid money to run, money that would be used to fix them food and give them a place to sleep and to take a shower. Ya. But who really cares if I finish the race or not? I asked him his age. He said he was 8. I asked him what he thought would happen if someone serving a meal to a homeless person or giving a towel or blanket to someone in a shelter happened to mention to that needy person that an 8 year old boy like himself had run, on Thanksgiving Day no less, to help raise money or help raise awareness of that needy person’s condition. You think someone might notice and tell them? I know I noticed. Would you tell people? Of course, but then I’m weird like that. How so? It is my calling to tell people where God is at work in the world today. Wow! Will you really tell people? I will. But you know what will make a great, happy ending? What? If I can tell people how you ran so fast your dad couldn’t keep up with you all the way to the finish.
Just like that, he was off. Dad took just enough time to glare at me and sarcastically thank me for inspiring his son. What do you do for a living, that you tell people where God is at work in the world around them? Oh, sorry, would you tell him I am a priest. A priest! Yep. Why are you running this, isn't this a special day for you? Apparently it was so I could visit with your son and remind myself that His power is made perfect in weakness? What? Never mind. You better catch your son. I don’t know what the finish line will be like, but if it anything like the start . . . But tell him I will share the story, if I am lucky, for many years to come. I will even tell people that God used an 8 year-old like him to feed people who had every reason to believe that no one cares, let alone 8 year-old boys. He waved me off as he scanned the crowd ahead and took off in pursuit.
As I climbed the little hill on the way to the finish line and began to suffer in new ways, I also gave thanks. I gave thanks that so many people took the time and gave of themselves that people most will never meet would be fed and clothed. I gave thanks to God that I was apparently going to live through this race. And I gave thanks for little 8 year-old boys who aren’t afraid to ask questions, questions which most of us asked that day, but had to trust that God would one day answer, especially those who would benefit directly from our sweaty efforts that Thanksgiving morning. Most especially, I gave thanks to God for giving me ears to hear, eyes to see, and the perfect pace so as to come upon an unnamed dad and his boy. But so help me if Papasmurf brags again about running faster than me with a cane, he will be walking with that cane somewhere else for many days hence. Such is the life of those He has redeemed! We are a work in progress, progress that is sometimes slow and often painful. Happy Thanksgiving to all, and a blessed Advent Season.