Meeting Jesus at Mile Twenty

I don't remember her name. I can no longer hear her voice. I barely recall what she looked like. But this woman, though limping herself, carried me through six of the hardest miles of my life. 

Where do we go to hide? As a child, we burrow deep under the blankets from the dark phantoms of our imagination. As an adult, we crawl inside bottles of fermented amnesia. We erect walls decorated with trophies that chant, “You are great! You are great!” to silence the screams of unworthiness that echo through the chambers of our minds. Reality is untenable; it must be escaped. Something must be done to shut up the voices inside.

It was an unusually sunny day in November when she and I met. Our separate paths converged on the streets of San Antonio. We were both running—running to something, running from something. It was a Rock and Roll Marathon, but the music to which our feet danced was of a genre all our own. She was running from the fear of getting old; I was running from the fear that my life was already over.

They’re all around us. People running from fears. Heaps of guilty burdens crushing their spines. Darks waves of shame from abuse, neglect, and belittlement scar the faces well-versed in the art of faking a happy life. You might be sleeping with the person. They might be over at the next desk. Their problem is reality. It’s strangling the life from them. So they hide or run from it; mask it; medicate it.

The cramp in my right hamstring came out of nowhere. Mile fourteen. Twelve miles to go. I would never make the 3 hours and 15 minutes that would qualify me for the Boston Marathon. Months of training and now this. I cursed my body, the heat, life, and the choices that ushered me to this damnable day. The year before, to my shame, a second marriage had ended in failure. I told myself that if I could run and finish this race, qualify for Boston, I would have something to look forward to. Now I didn’t. Now all I had was the life I was running away from, but which had caught up with me once again.

Everybody says that sometimes you have to hit bottom before you finally get up and put your life back together again. But hitting bottom and finding yourself alone only plunges you into deeper holes from which there may be no return. So God places people at the bottom with us. They may be family or friends or coworkers. They may be total strangers. They may also be fellow sufferers who’ve hit their own bottom with you. Whoever they are, they wear the mask of Jesus the crucified. In them and through them the Lord is at work to love you.

We met at mile twenty. Somehow I’d managed to hobble six more miles through the sporadic leg cramps. She was hurting; I was hurting. We were both ready to throw in the towel. I'd cramp up and stop, doubled over with pain. She would stop and talk me through it. She’d cramp up and double over with pain. I’d stop and talk her through it. Block by block we staggered along. Strangers leaning on each other, sharing suffering.

Mile twenty six finally came. The cheering of the crowds was an anesthesia. We entered the narrow corridor at the end. Almost there. As we ran the last few yards, she reached over and took my hand in hers. She held them up together as we crossed the finish line. Then, in an instant, she disappeared into the crowd. I never saw her again. 

The hidden God often dons the masks of fellow sufferers, as he did for me that day. The failure to qualify for Boston was a success in the long run. More than an accomplishment, I needed one more defeat. A defeat that would destroy my means of avoiding reality. But with that defeat, with that rock bottom destruction, I found what I needed. @@I came face to face with the God who limps along with us in our pain.@@

I don't remember her name. I can no longer hear her voice. I barely recall what she looked like. But this woman, who carried me through six of the hardest miles of my life, was the hands and lips and feet of Jesus that day. He met me at the bottom. He lifted me up. He showed me his own scars. And he revealed that what I needed was not a trophy but a cross. A death that ends in life.