Quiet. That’s what Vienna usually is on a Sunday morning, but in these strange times the quiet extends into the rest of the week. Necessary businesses have been kept open, but shopping areas, restaurants, tourist destinations, and many businesses are closed, not to mention the fact that other offices, international organizations, universities, and schools have shifted to home office and home learning.
In the past days of gorgeous spring weather, many have flooded to the city’s parks. But even there, playgrounds are largely corded off and people are pretty good at keeping the required 1-meter distance from anyone outside their immediate household. Police are patrolling the parks, which gives one the uncomfortable feeling that one might be breaking a rule even without realizing it. (Last Sunday I got reprimanded for riding my bike no-hands — surely that’s not really illegal!?) On the island park that stretches 20 kilometers along the Danube, there would be no hope of patrolling the whole area; but one is still within earshot of the loudspeaker repetitions of the current regulations — not German at its gentlest and finest, however necessary the announcements.
But, I suppose many of us may be feeling a surfeit of Coronavirus news these days. If you are one of those, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs before I get around to what I’ve been wanting to post for months!
…The current situation for me personally is not without much good. I am grateful to be able to work and study from home and am enough of an introvert to find the quiet like a glass of cool water after a long jog. I try to do my translating work for the university in the morning, get out for a long walk or bike ride or such and soak up the glory of spring sunshine, and tackle church admin tasks and university coursework — interrupted with plenty of phone calls to friends — into the evening. Then, at some point, I decide it’s time to read — what a glorious luxury to curl up on the couch and enjoy a good book! At the moment, two books — Center Church by Tim Keller and book three of Herr der Ringe.
Even if everyone who lives alone is going to be starved for a hug by the time this is all over, it’s such a blessing to be able to see friends — whether at the park (depending how you argue, it falls within the letter of the law to meet a friend outdoors and sit at opposite ends of a park bench) or even over GoogleMeet or from an apartment window. (Yesterday I took a jog by five friends’ flats and managed to catch three of them for a chat.)
That said, certainly one of the lessons we are all learning is that this is not just a personal experience, but also a dramatically corporate one. Our social distancing may not be chiefly about staying well ourselves, and hopefully it’s not just about sticking to the law of the land. It is about caring for others, about loving our neighbor. For those of us who identify as part of a church, we see anew that we are part of the Church universal. As the Church universal, i.e., throughout time, we are encouraged to look back at how believers have faced crises in other eras, how their Faith has borne them up in Hope and motivated them out in Love during times of plague or war that, at least for me, are unimaginable. As the Church universal, i.e., throughout space, we sense not only the global nature of our current predicament, but also practice reminding each other of the Savior who through his Resurrection has already laid the groundwork for making all things new, and who calls us to actively rest in him and to extend his love in whatever ways we can.
Well, meanwhile, it’s going to last a while. On Friday, the Austrian chancellor announced that the present regulations are valid through 13 April and then, if things have improved enough, life will start to return to (the new) normal. He called it a “marathon.”
And that brings me to another marathon. About a year ago, I watched a documentary film about a small group of elite runners who were attempting to break the 2-hour marathon barrier. The idea was to combine a team of experts – running coaches, nutritionists, pace setters, etc. – who would create the most ideal environment in which the world’s best long-distance runners would see if the human body and mind were capable of pulling off a marathon in under two hours. (In case you haven’t already done the math, that means running four-and-a-half-minute miles for 26.2 miles, or about 20kph.) They didn’t quite manage it in their first attempt (missing it by 25 seconds), but their effort was certainly inspiring.
Needless to say, it came as a very happy surprise last fall to learn that the next attempt was to be made in Vienna, with just a single runner (plus his team of alternating pace-setters). There was a lot of suspense building up in the days preceding the race – a range of dates were posted, but the final decision was made just days before, after the weather forecast assured planners of ideal conditions on 12 October. (For me, the date was special: Not only my mom’s birthday, but she once admitted that she had long dreamed of running the Boston Marathon some day. I confess I found this funny, as I knew Mom as fit but definitely not as a runner, but I have never forgotten the statement.) Not till Friday was the race-time posted, which added to the suspense.
Since it’s not news to anyone who follows the news that Eliud Kipchoge made history by running a marathon in 1:59:40.2 (or at least that was the unofficial time posted at the finish line), I can only say that it was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen firsthand.
The route was over familiar territory for anyone in Vienna – a huge percentage of the local population has covered more or less the same ground on foot or by bike (e.g., where I got reprimanded by the policeman last week), or by stroller or scooter or skateboard – many of us more times than we could count. But there’s nothing like joining hundreds of other people, all rooting for one man to do something no one has ever done, right there in front of you.
Having shown up to the start on my bike, as soon as the runners had breezed by, I joined several dozen other riders who had the same idea – jumping on our bikes in a state of reckless enthusiasm and racing in parallel with the runners less than a stone’s throw to our left. I certainly didn’t ride the whole time, but since the race route was primarily four repetitions of the entire length of the park and back, there was ample opportunity to cheer from the sidelines or race along the bike paths, dodging pedestrians and people on scooters – and hobby runners seeing how long they could keep pace – yelling out cheers and joining in the general exuberance. I’ve certainly never had more fun on a bike.
The event was impressive to me on multiple accounts. Of course, it was a unique sporting accomplishment, a world record being played out in real time meters away. Moreover, on a different level, it felt like a human reality was being enacted by the gathered crowd. I remember the pastor at my home church in Knoxville talking about people’s fundamental need to worship and how striking it was to see fans at a football stadium expressing the postures of worship on a Saturday, even if they proceeded to sit unmoved in church the next morning. Even as I found myself thoroughly caught up in the atmosphere surrounding the marathon, I was simultaneously analyzing the crowd, and myself as part of it.
Here we all were – everyone cheering for the same team, everyone’s hopes set on a single individual. Yes, because we wanted to see him cross the finish line before the clock read 2:00:00 and, yes, because we wanted to see him make history – and also, yes, because his feat represented something for us collectively. We wanted to have the best distance runner mankind could offer make a statement for all of us – about physical ability and especially about mental strength. We wanted to see perfection (albeit defined on our terms). And seeing it, we were compelled to praise it. People clapped and shouted, finding themselves united around a common goal, forgetting for a moment the troubles of the past week or the ones the day might yet hold. Faces reflected joy and amazement. In the present of marathon-running perfection, the response was (in some sense of the word) worship.
Of course, one could call it idolatry and be half right. I’m sure there were plenty in the crowd who had no thought of God and whose only creed was the race organizers’ motto “No human is limited.” But calling it that would also be half wrong. We were made with beauty and excellence, and we were made for beauty and excellence. We were made for a single-minded pursuit (of God), and we are drawn to those who display an unwavering dedication to a goal. The jubilation wasn’t wrong – but it made me wish for more lively joy and wonder in the Source of all perfection and beauty and in the Goal that truly satisfies. I think of the words from the book of Hebrew: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (12:1-2).
Well, here’s to running the current marathon well — meanwhile embracing the quiet, pursuing prayer, and, in a world buffeted by brokenness, turning afresh to the hope of our coming redemption. Most days, whether there’s Coronavirus in the air or not, I find the great challenge is remembering that Jesus has already crossed the finish line for us.