On the video, the first thing one notices is the brightness of the sky. It is a near perfect day. The sun is shining, and the temperature reaches a crisp and refreshing fifty-four degrees. On this same date last year, the thermometer soared into the nineties, leading to a medical tent overflowing with heat-related illnesses. But not this day. This day is a near perfect day.
The second thing one notices is the discrepancy between the few people running in the road and the multitudes lining the sidewalks. Two-thirds of the runners have already finished their race. Those who remain on the road are the determined, the dogged, the ones for whom merely competing in and finishing this historic route has been a lifelong dream. One is a seventy-eight-year-old man. Even so, the crowd lining the sidewalk has not thinned. These final runners are cheered as though they’re about to win the Olympics.
The third thing one notices is the array of colorful flags waving in the breeze. From the vantage point of the video I’m watching, I count thirty national flags, and there are more extending beyond my line of sight. They represent the runners, the spectators, and all of us who look to events like the Boston Marathon for reminders that occasionally the best impulses of humanity emerge. Runners from across the globe gather not only to compete but also simply to share in this iconic experience. Kenyan standing next to Canadian standing alongside American all shout encouragement for the runners and, really, for the whole human family.
It is an earthly approximation of the heavenly vision in Revelation. St. John the Divine tells us, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…”
Those colorful, international flags are waving in the breeze when the bomb goes off. The force of the blast shreds some of them. The seventy-eight-year-old runner crumbles to the ground. Three people are immediately killed. Hundreds are wounded, many gruesomely so. In an instant, the world is shattered. Essayist Patricia Adams Farmer reminds us, “If we live long enough and deep enough, at some point in life, we will experience a quaking and breaking of everything we considered solid and sure.”[i]
True indeed. But must it happen so often? I have only recently joined you from Roanoke, Virginia, just down the road from Blacksburg, where the Virginia Tech massacre is still so recent its pain is searing for many. I have just returned from the North American Deans Conference, where the dean in Oklahoma City tells me his parishioners are still, so many years later, reminded daily of the grotesque attack on the Murrah Federal Building, which killed one hundred sixty-eight people including nineteen children. And there is Columbine. And there is Sandy Hook. And there is 9/11.
Add to such news-worthy events all the mundane tragedies of our lives—the illnesses, the accidents, the failures, the injuries we do one another—and it seems that Patricia Adams Farmer is wrong in one respect. We don’t really have to live very long or very deep to experience the quaking and breaking of everything.
As news of the bombings in Boston quickly spread on Monday afternoon last, countless people succumbed to such reflections. I did, too. But then I watched The Boston Globe’s video of the explosion a second time, and when I did, something new stood out in stark relief to the carnage. I have no idea who held the video camera. I don’t know his name, his occupation, or what he had for breakfast Monday morning. What I do know is that exactly two seconds after the first bomb detonates—two seconds—the cameraman breaks into a run. But he does not run away; he does not run for cover. He runs toward the blast; he runs into the smoke. And as his video camera jostles and shakes, we can see all around him the multitude of people doing exactly the same thing. They run toward those shredded flags representing so many peoples and nations. They run into the chaos.
The beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers shares this: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”[ii]
And with new eyes I look back upon all those tragedies, the headliners and the personal ones, and I see the helpers. I see the group of people who tackled the knife-wielding assailant at Lone Star College just last week so he couldn’t harm anyone else. I see the clients of The Beacon—homeless men and women—who rushed into the busy street to protect our own parishioner who was clipped by a hit-and-run driver three weeks ago. I see the stranger bringing an exhausted father a cup of coffee in a surgical waiting room. And I see—until my dying day I will see—the hundreds of emergency responders who rushed into the hell of two smoking towers in lower Manhattan a decade ago.
In Revelation, St. John asks his angelic guide who the multitude might be, streaming to and surrounding the throne of God. The guide says, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God.”
It turns out Monday’s scene at the Boston Marathon truly was an earthly vision of that heavenly scene. Those who streamed into that great ordeal represented a multitude of peoples and nations. Some of them undoubtedly pray to God-in-Christ; some pray to God by other names; some likely don’t know what to call God at all. Regardless, it wasn’t the smoke that attracted them; it wasn’t chaos for chaos’ sake. They ran into the ordeal, and they washed their robes in the blood of the wounded, because they were attracted by love, instinctively and overpoweringly. And God is love.
On his blog, Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes responded to the Boston Marathon bombing by saying, “It’s not easy. Love is not quick, and does not produce immediate results. It’s a marathon. It takes dedication and training and a lot of commitment. It’s not for the faint-hearted…Love takes guts. It takes faith, confidence that a greater love is at work even when we cannot see it. And it takes patience, like a marathon—the willingness to go the distance, to keep at it when your body cries, “Quit!,” when your mind thinks of better things to do, when pain and weariness make you want to give up —it takes guts to keep going anyway…To share in the world’s pain and sadness, and still keep up hope and love—that is the world’s oldest marathon. The good news is that we do not run alone. Nor do we run on our own energy: we are moved by the desire of God for the healing of the world.”[iii]
The final promise of Revelation today is that, in God’s good time, the ordeal will end. “[We] will hunger no more, and thirst no more…for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [our] shepherd, and he will guide [us] to springs of the water of life. And God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”
I believe that promise. But we live in the meantime, in which two misguided young men possessed by anger and fear set off bombs and destroy near perfect days. The author Frederick Buechner, never one to sugar-coat, says, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”[iv]
We need not fear, even in the meantime, because God is love, and God has disciples who will always stream into the chaos on behalf of that love. Look for the helpers. There are so many of them.
[i] Farmer, Patricia Adams, “The Quaking and Breaking of Everything.” Quoted from the blog of Jay McDaniel, http://www.jesusjazzbuddhism.org/boston-the-beautiful-finding-faith-after-the-quaking.html.
[iv] From Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith.