Pat Okker is a professor of English at the University of Missouri. She is completing a memoir about becoming a two-sport athlete at age 52. It includes the following story which was shared during worship at Broadway Christian Church, Columbia, Missouri, on September 7:
“I can’t recall if I’ve ever heard an Easter sermon about fear before. It’s entirely possible, of course. After all, the Easter story includes an angel, who declares, as angels always do, “Do not be afraid.” And the people in the story—those brave and loving women—do not, in fact, heed the angel’s command: they run from the empty tomb, filled with fear. No doubt I’ve heard these details before on Easter, but if fear itself was ever the topic of the day, I have no memory of it. For me, Easter has always been a day—the day really—to tell stories of joy and hope and rebirth. All those things as bright and sweet as Easter candy.
But this year’s Easter wasn’t in any way typical. I wasn’t even expecting to go to church. I was in Boston to run my first Boston Marathon, and running was all I could think about.
As soon as I landed in Boston, it was obvious that I was hardly alone in obsessing about Monday’s race. It’s what the entire city was thinking and talking about. On Saturday morning I walked by Old South Church, founded in 1669 and located just yards from the marathon’s finish line. Church members were on the street offering thousands of hand-knitted scarves (in the yellow and blue colors of the Boston Marathon) to anyone running on Monday. The ninety seconds it took for me to get my scarf was, in so many ways, typical of the brief but fiercely intense connections I made with other people all weekend. One minute I was walking alone, quietly nursing my self-doubts, wondering if I really could do this thing before me. The next moment a woman was gently wrapping a scarf around my neck, telling me simply, “With this scarf we wrap you in love and courage. May you have the race of your life.” I wore that scarf all weekend and clung to that one word—courage—just as tightly. It was exactly what I needed to hear.
And so I found myself the next morning back at the “Church of the Finish Line,” as they describe themselves, expecting to celebrate resurrection, life’s victory over death. But that is not what Rev. Nancy Taylor offered us. Instead she spoke about real, palpable fear: of Y2K, the Cold War, nuclear holocaust, empty retirement accounts, terrifying medical diagnoses, climate change, and yes, the tragedy and heartbreak of last year’s Boston Marathon. And unlike the Easter angel, Rev. Taylor offered no easy, immediate fixes. Refusing to dismiss our human predilection towards fear, Rev. Taylor acknowledged that Easter is “a daunting thing.” It’s okay to be afraid, she assured us. It’s okay not to believe.
If ever there was a congregation ready to hear an Easter sermon about fear, it was this one. As much as the city demonstrated its incredible resilience, reminders of last year’s horror were nevertheless all around. People on the street spoke openly about where they were when the bombs went off, ceremonies at the finish line all weekend honored the many survivors, and just steps from the church’s front door stood a small memorial to four people who died in last year’s tragedy: Krystle, a 29 year old restaurant manager from nearby Medford; Lu, a graduate student from China studying statistics at Boston University; Martin, a local eight year old, who loved math, Monopoly, and sports; and Sean, an MIT police officer killed during the extended manhunt.
And there were other fears, petty ones in comparison to what others were facing, but real, nonetheless. For months people had asked me if I was afraid to run the Boston Marathon. Not a bit, I always said. But that was only partly true. I may not have worried about bombs or terrorists, but I was afraid. Really afraid. Of mile 21 and 22 and 23 and 24 and 25 and 26 and yes even those last 385 yards. I had run just one marathon before Boston, and the emotional challenges in those last 6.2 miles, especially the overwhelming sense of loneliness, had been far more difficult than the physical obstacles. Even at the end, those feelings of pride and jubilation that I was expecting proved elusive, at least initially. The moment I crossed the finish line the only emotion I could muster was a profound sense of emptiness. So yes, I was afraid: afraid that I would have to go there again and, even more, afraid that I wouldn’t have the courage to do so. Maybe, I worried, I’d get to mile 21 and stop pushing. Maybe I wouldn’t want it enough.
Rev. Taylor didn’t erase those fears, but she did something that even the Easter angel couldn’t manage. By boldly admitting that Easter is a “daunting thing”—by refusing to pretend that fears and doubts and disbelief can simply be waved away—the Old South Church gave all of us runners that day a space to name and hold our fears, however profound or petty they were. And somehow by allowing us to acknowledge these fears not in private but together in a jam-packed, teary-eyed church, Rev. Taylor gave us something else that morning, something as palpable as our fear: a reminder that we would never be alone. Not that day. And not on race day.
It was, again, exactly what I most needed to hear.
It was also, as it turns out, not exactly what Rev. Taylor said.
Weeks later, while exploring the Old South Church’s website, I stumbled upon the written transcript of the sermon. Easter, it turns out, isn’t a “daunting thing.” What Rev. Taylor actually said is that Easter is a “dawning thing.”
No, I thought. She has it all wrong. “Daunting” is the right word—the perfect one. It’s the only word that captures so precisely the kind of fear that Easter—and yes the Boston Marathon—inspire. It’s not a fear of pain or injury. It is instead based entirely on scale and magnitude. It’s the realization that the thing before us is too big, too much, too overwhelming.
Until, of course, somehow—slowly and miraculously, like the dawn—it isn’t too much. It isn’t impossible or even inconceivable. And maybe that means it can be daunting and dawning all at the same time.”