The last will be first

Shellie Warren finished the New York City Marathon at 11:14 p.m. — 12 hours, 6 minutes and 3 seconds after she started. Warren was the final finisher of all the final finishers, those who cross the finish line long after most of the crowd headed home and well after the official race cut-off time of 7:25 p.m. ESPN reporter Charlotte Gibson documented Warren’s unlikely triumph, along with a small group of other final finishers. One crossed the line in a wheelchair, backwards. Another on crutches. Still another walking with a prosthetic leg that caused her much pain, but not enough to keep her from completing the marathon. They range in age from 26 to 72. Their stories recount herculean physical, emotional and spiritual courage. Many ran with the names of those who inspire them on their lips and in their hearts mile after mile.

Warren runs for her son, Brett. Every bridge she crossed on that 26.2 mile route reminded her of his tragic death: He jumped from a bridge over the Hudson River and died in 2014. Shortly thereafter word came that Brett had been selected to run the New York City Marathon. His mother, not a runner, decided this year to run it in his stead. She talked to him at the starting line. And at the end of over 12 hours she relayed to Gibson that she found peace with those bridges and rivers, “I needed to say goodbye to that deepest part of grieving and realize that there’s so much good that I can still do.”

The final finishers do not run to win. They do not run for glory. They run to honor another or to channel a determination to beat the odds. They run to finish. They turn back to help others. They run beside each other. They run without crowds cheering or world records breaking. They run for personal reasons, but they do not come to the end alone. A small, stalwart crowd waits for them, no matter how long it takes. A joyful band of people wait in the dark for the last to reach their goal. The photos in the article show loved ones embracing and strangers high fiving. Cell phones flash, crutches get raised skyward, celebration ensues with each person’s crossing.

I heard Gibson describe the scene on NPR: “Earlier in the day, there are thousands of people sitting in the grandstands at the finish line, sardined together trying to just see any glimpse of someone cross the finish line. Starting at 8 p.m., there’s about 150 people there. They try to make sure that it’s still a celebration. And it’s still — it’s a party; it’s just a mini-party.”

When I listened to Gibson, Hebrews 12 came to mind: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The stories of those who came in last revealed a well of human character and perseverance that rendered them winners despite the time on the clock when they finished the race. That mini-party of 150 remaining witnesses reminds me of the people of faith I’ve known who refuse to give up on others, no matter how long it takes, no matter the obstacles, no matter the dark, the cold or the wait. The church could learn a lot from both of these runners and those who awaited them for hours on end. We could look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who died in defeat, his final breath ushering in resurrection and reconciliation, and remember that worldly success is no measure of real victory. Final finishers reveal what truly matters and we are called to run the race set before us no matter the odds stacked against us. We can be sure there will be a small band of stalwart, joyous witnesses spurring us on, welcoming us to the party at the end.

Grace and peace,