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.
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.