Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2 (NKJV)
This past weekend I had the joy of sharing my testimony at a reunion with my Iowa State University Track and Cross Country team. Oh the happiness and tears of seeing these dear sisters again. Thank you, old teammates, for letting me share my story with you…
For 34 years I’ve had a dream to run a marathon. Two weeks ago God helped me fulfill this dream when I ran my first marathon in Bozeman, Montana. The good news is I finished the race. The bad news is it took me 34 years, but that’s okay. My goal was to run it in 4 hours. After 8 miles my legs were hurting, at 18 miles I was ready to stop, but I pressed on. At 22 miles some fellow hollered that I could break 4 hours if I kept going, so I kept going, but crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 7 minutes. I was so thankful to Jesus to be done, thankful to be close to 4 hours, but a bit disappointed to not have made my goal. But later, when sharing a meal with my family, I asked my college son Kevin to look up the reference for “I fought the good fight, I finished the race, I kept the faith.” He found it in his smartphone BIBLE. The verse comes from 2 Timothy 4:7, 4-7 just like my time, 4 hours and 7 minutes. It was then I knew that God had His hand in the entire race, I was in His will. I believe God has had HIS HAND on all our lives, ever since He brought us together and through the tragedy that seared our hearts in 1985.
God’s hand has been upon us all since He brought us to Iowa State University in the 1980s. I see this in those He called into ministry, in those He blessed as wives and mothers, in those who are leading lives of integrity in your chosen professions, and in those who are still seeking, trying to put the pieces back together like me.
I’ve wanted to run a marathon ever since I was 18. Like most of us, I was in the best shape of my life in the spring of 1985, my freshman year of college, but it didn’t fit in with our track schedule to run a marathon. I carried the dream with me into the fall cross country season that year, and then came the accident that changed all our lives forever. In that one day, you and I lost everything dear to us and our dreams crashed in a yard in Des Moines, Iowa.
But there is Someone who can pull dreams back up and make them happen.
There is Someone who can give us beauty for ashes, joy for tears, and dancing for mourning.
There is Someone who is with us here right now, still reaching out to hold us in His hands.
I want to thank you for letting me share my story with you today. I’ve had the blessing of sharing this story with ladies groups over the years as I invite them to have TEA with Jesus, but this is my first time to tell you, the dear people who were all so much a part of it. In my ministry, I encourage ladies to sit down with their Bibles, a cup of tea, and spend time with Jesus each morning. We all have this cup called life, and we need to refill it with His Word each day. But sometimes, our cups spill and everything goes pouring out on the ground, all in a moment. November 25, 1985, was a day like that.
We all have a story to tell. Yours is just important as mine. I think of in the BIBLE how there are so many people gathered around Jesus at the cross and some are mentioned like Mary, but there are those on the sidelines who are hurting just as much, but who aren’t mentioned. Their lives were also forever changed by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, just as all of us on the cross country and track and men’s team and students and roommates at ISU were changed by the loss of our beloved coaches and teammates. Thank you for letting me share my part of the story…
I share this in honor of my Savior Jesus and the lives He took 34 years ago so that we could live. My testimony is a tribute to these dear souls: Coach Ron Renko, Coach Pat Moynihan, Runners Sheryl Maahs, Julie Rose, Sue Baxter, Trainer Stephanie Streit, and their Pilot Burt Watkins. I can’t wait to see them all in heaven!
I run in the path of Your commands,
for You have set my heart free. Psalm 119:32 (NIV)
This is my running story.
I was not always a runner. I was the one with the side ache walking at the tail end of the grade school PE class. I was the one who could never hope to qualify for the presidential fitness award. I was so slow! But something happened in late junior high. I discovered I had something that was needed to be a long-distance runner…perseverance. And so I left the sprinters to their fast legs and joined the distance runners. Slowly, slowly the side aches went away and I learned how to run. In high school, my coach, my team and my workout became the centerpiece of my life. I was dedicated to a fault, always running my complete workout, never cutting corners, such perfection was my religion.
When I headed to college, I wanted to continue running, so I walked-on as a cross country runner here at Iowa State. I remember the summer day when I walked up the stairs in the old State Gym to Coach Ron’s office to ask if I could join the team. I was so scared, but he must have already talked to my high school coach and decided to take a risk on me. A month later I was in the van headed to the grueling pre-season training in Wisconsin with many of you.
Let’s talk about those van rides. Somehow, everyone knew that the passenger seat in front was a hot seat, whoever sat there got to talk to Coach Ron. And for some reason, since I didn’t know anyone else on the team, that seat was left for me. When we would return from training or meets, since my parents’ home in north Ames was close to where Coach Ron lived, I was the last one to get dropped off. I remember him talking and talking to me and I wish I could repeat one sentence for you today of what he said, but I was so young and nervous and just wanted to get home, I don’t think I heard it. But now I know he was pouring himself out for me, as he did for many of us when we went to his office, sharing his wisdom and love for Jesus. And it was not in vain. Neither were the encouraging words from Coach Pat when I ran my spring track workouts, nor the inspiration from Julie and Sheryl and the smiles from Sue, nor the healing from Stephanie, nor the service from Pilot Burt. None of it was in vain, God had His hand on us all.
Do you recall how twice a day we met together for workouts, running dozens of miles a week? I was the slowest one. When the team did 1000 meter repeats, I would finish my 1000 meters just when you were leaving for the next 1000 meters. I would run up and down the hills crying at the end of the line, but I kept running. And the miles paid off by spring of my freshman year when I ran my best 10K ever. I kept on running for our coaches and team, you were like a family to me, you were my church, until that November day of my sophomore year…
The sidewalks in Ames, Iowa were glazed with ice as we ran our afternoon workout. We, the junior varsity runners, were on our own this day because our coaches and faster teammates were at the National meet in Wisconsin. We thought of you as we jogged along, mostly in the grass because the walks were so slick. After running together as a team twice a day for months, we felt a strong connection to those of you at the National meet, even though we weren’t there. As we dutifully completed our workout in the fading light of that November afternoon, we hoped to hear news of victory at Nationals.
As you all know, the year was 1985, long before the days of cell phones. We didn’t get news in our pockets, nor text messages from friends, nor emails on a computer. All we had was television news and corded telephones plugged into a wall. And so we awaited good news.
But what interrupted the TV shows that evening was news of a tragedy. I lived at home with my family still and was watching Wheel of Fortune in our basement with my brother, before diving into another evening of homework. Partway through the show, newscasters broke in with a startling news announcement:
“A plane has plummeted from the icy skies and crashed in a yard in Des Moines, Iowa. It was one of three planes returning with the ISU athletes after a second-place finish at the National Cross Country meet.”
I ran screaming up the stairs, unable to believe such awful news. I called my teammates at the dormitory (on the corded phone) who had just heard the news also. We decided to meet at the Student Union chapel for prayer (I think Paula set this up), an amazing act for a public university team. We met and cried and prayed, not knowing who was on the plane that had crashed, and me not truly understanding the ONE to whom we prayed.
The next day we were called together for a meeting with the athletic department in Beyer Hall. There we embraced you, our teammates who remained, and there we heard the news of who we lost. That single accident took the lives of seven dear people, and changed the lives of all those who knew them: Our two coaches, three teammates, athletic trainer, and pilot were taken from this world. Now they are part of the great cloud of witnesses who surround us.
The grief was heart-wrenching for their families, and for those of us who lived like a family on the cross country team.
Classes were canceled at the university for a day when a memorial service was held for the athletes. Our team marched in our gold uniforms and sat together in misery in the ISU Coliseum. Memorials were given for each beloved person. The one I remember most was the one Dawn gave for her friend Sheryl. Before the thousands gathered there, Dawn spoke of how Sheryl was a Christian and is in heaven now, and that if Sheryl had the choice she wouldn’t come back to earth, even if she could. As I listened with tears spilling from my eyes, I just didn’t understand such faith. Sheryl’s mom was so sad. Why wouldn’t Sheryl want to come back? Why?
In the days that followed, I tried to continue my running workouts along the streets of Ames, Iowa, but could barely lift my legs. How could I go on without my coaches and teammates? I questioned, “Why, God? Why?”
Since God allowed my coaches and teammates to be taken away from me, I ran from Him, in search of peace elsewhere, in food, in poor relationships. Yet those gave no comfort. The plane of my life was on its way to crash, too.
I remember the following spring I made an Easter basket for a boy I liked, filled with M&Ms and other yummy things I never ate because Coach Ron told us not to eat sugar. But then I found out the boy liked someone else so I was stuck with this basket. One day I decided I would just eat it, and I ate it all. That led to another and another and another bag of M&Ms until I had a big problem, eating too much and then running 15 miles to burn it off. Somehow I found out about a group for people with eating disorders on campus. The day I went there were four of us there from the track and cross country team. The tragedy had affected us all! But there was no group session or counseling that could take away our eating disorders or sins. We needed a Savior.
By the fall two years after the accident, I had wrecked both my parents’ cars, my bike was stolen, my life was a mess. One morning on my way to class, I stopped by the chapel of the church where I grew up. I got down on my knees and poured out my heart to God, asking Him to help me through the mess I had made of my life. For half an hour I prayed and prayed in that empty church. When I left the chapel, my heart was lighter, even though I did not know what God was going to do.
Some of you must have been praying for me, because a short time later, my roommates (Becky and Sarah) were invited to attend the Baptist Student Union and brought me along. It was in the weekly testimonies and singing, that I got to know the Savior of my soul, and my forever friend, Jesus Christ. I learned how God sent His only Son to die for our sins and someday we will be in heaven with Him and all our loved ones. My quest was over – I learned…
Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. Acts 4:12 (NKJV)
This was truly a miracle from God. Jesus gave me the peace and comfort for which I’d been searching. He washed away all my sins and mistakes. He took my broken soul and healed me. He filled my teacup.
My stopwatch for the cross of Christ,
My will for God’s will,
My earthly coaches for a heavenly Father who will never leave me nor forsake me,
And instead of beginning my day with a workout, I begin it with daily devotions in God’s Word,
And so God’s Word has become my life…
And, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me…the task of testifying the gospel of God’s grace. Acts 20:24 (NIV)
My friends, PLEASE DON’T WAIT FOR ANOTHER PLANE CRASH to turn your heart to Jesus! Look unto Jesus TODAY!
Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation. 2 Corinthians 6:2 (NKJV)
The Lord is calling us to know Jesus, to meet with Him each day!
Whatever you are facing, wherever your tea has spilled, reach out to Jesus and let Him heal your circumstances, let Him refill your cup with His Word and promises. Let Jesus give you back your dreams. Let Him hold you in the palm of His Hands. And someday, we will all be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” And Jesus will say, “Well done.” And we will be reunited with these loved ones who went before us into glory, and they will welcome us with open arms like it was just yesterday, and we will have that celebration that never happened the day after the race. It will be a day of victory!
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:57 (NKJV)
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. 2 Corinthians 2:14 (NKJV)
There is no one like the God of Jeshurun,
Who rides the heavens to help you,
And in His excellency on the clouds.
The eternal God is your refuge,
And underneath are the everlasting arms… Deuteronomy 33:26-27 (NKJV)
To console those who mourn in Zion,
To give them beauty for ashes,
The oil of joy for mourning,
The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness;
That they may be called trees of righteousness,
The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified. Isaiah 61:3 (NKJV)
Holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain. Philippians 2:16 (NKJV)
My times are in Your hand… Psalm 31:15 (NKJV)
Scripture from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson and Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984