I skipped church on Sunday morning. It felt strange, for sure. I'm a pastor, after all. I usually work on Sundays, preaching a sermon, presiding at the altar, teaching a class, leading children in prayer. I'm someone who finds great meaning and power in the Word and Sacraments and the fellowship of the Christian community.
But my Sunday apart from my routine of spiritual fellowship and leadership was not devoid of meaning. Quite the contrary. I took off this Sunday to run in the Army Ten Miler, the largest ten mile race in the country (30,000 registrants; 21K+ finishers). When I first committed to running this race, it was meant to be a capstone to a six-month return to fitness. Yet, after an injury that kept me from training for two months, the race became less a capstone to my return to fitness than it was a gut-check as I struggled to stick to one of my exercise goals despite the set-back.
Truth be told, I had no business running the race. I hadn't run more than five miles over the past month, and when I tried for six miles on a recent training run, I crashed and burned with just under a mile to go. But I ran the race anyway. It had enough meaning to me that I ran.
And indeed, many among the gathered collection of humanity at the Army Ten Miler were running with meaning. Sure, there were many people like me who made completing the Army Ten Miler a fitness goal, and many others who had goals of finishing in a certain amount of time. Particularly in an age of rising health care costs and ever-increasing indicators telling us that we're unhealthy, such goals can be very powerful and motivating.
But people were also running as members of teams. Over 700 teams competed in the race, from teams comprised of members of military units, to teams of staffers from military contractors, to at least one church team that I saw, to college teams, and so forth. Their team camaraderie and dedication was fun to watch.
Most significantly, however, were those who were running in honor of soldiers serving overseas, and those running in memory of soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where my wife and I were running – in the back 1/3 of the pack – perhaps as many as 1 in 10 of the runners wore shirts revealing a deep and personal connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: shirts printed with the picture of a soldier killed in action; shirts printed with the picture of a friend or spouse serving overseas; shirts showing that the runner had served in a certain unit at a certain base overseas. And then, of course, there were the soldiers in wheelchairs, having lost a leg or two in battle. This race was for many a memorial event, honoring and remembering those who have served and those who continue to serve.
The Army Ten Miler was an amazing, meaningful experience. Quite different, to be sure, than my usual routine of Sunday morning worship and fellowship. It's like comparing apples and oranges – both fruit, both good for you, but nonetheless quite different.
It has become clear that fewer and fewer people are making meaning on Sunday mornings by gathering for worship and fellowship, or are making meaning during the week by meeting for Bible study or prayer groups. But just because the church no longer has the lion's share of the meaning-making market doesn't mean that people are not making meaning. It is soooooo easy for us in the church to suggest that folks who are outside of the church are leading hapless lives devoid of meaning and purpose (a sentiment I've heard stated more than once). On the contrary! Beyond the hallowed walls and stained glass windows of the church large throngs of people are deeply involved in groups and communities and activities which shape their identity and give them meaning.
In an era of church decline our call, perhaps, ought to be to put our ear to the ground and listen to what it is that gives people meaning and purpose, and to believe that God is doing something beyond our walls. This is not to suggest that churches should abandon the riches of our tradition and faith for ten mile runs, or that God is at work in every activity that gives someone meaning. Not at all! But it is a call to take seriously how people today are making meaning, and to consider the experiences of those who do not sit in our pews as worthy of our attention and respect.