By Steve Rees, Special to the ASSIST News Service
FERGUS FALLS, MINNESOTA (ANS – October 11, 2015) — Finishing her first Half Ironman Triathlon in second-place behind a former Olympic athlete from South Africa, Pastor Mary Bangs focused on her race time – 6 hours and 33 minutes – before its prophetic significance hit her.
Matthew 6:33 reads, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” These – the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew – have guided Mary from her youth in Northbrook, Illinois, the one-time, speed-skating capitol of the world. There, she trained with three Olympic champions in speed skating – dreaming herself of bringing home a gold – and excelled in gymnastics and track-and-field.
But her home changed to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and over time so did her athletic ambitions, along with her spiritual life and physical health. Yet, Matthew 6:33 remained a constant. Married in 1980, Pastors Steve and Mary Bangs today lead a thriving children’s ministry, have four children and seven grandchildren. Six years after her marriage, Mary was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.
Husband Steve, a fellow competitor and friend, joined by a ministry-school student, and a medical doctor didn’t doubt the tenacity, resolve, courage, spirit and faith of Bang’s training for the Half Ironman Triathlon (1.2 miles in water, 56 miles on bike, and 13 miles on foot), or that she would finish her race; what troubled them was Addison’s Disease, an autoimmune condition that left Bangs in a coma near death and tied to a bed in 1986.
Slightly over a month before the longest distance competition of her life (and second-place behind the former Olympic athlete), Bangs suffered an Addison’s crisis during an Olympic-Distance Triathlon praying, “God, I don’t know if it’s stubbornness, but I’m going to cross the finish line if I have to crawl over it.”
Cross it she did, her body shutting down and falling into the arms of Pastor Steve, who arrived in time with a jar of pickle juice. It, along with steroids and medications, neutralize hormonal deficiencies normally regulated by the body’s adrenal glands. The condition impacts kidneys and livers and can lead to diabetes.
Resolved to compete six weeks later in one item on her “bucket list” – a Half Ironman Triathlon – the pastor enlisted help from her former endocrinologist, a student in the ministry school where she teaches, a close friend and fellow distance runner and, of course, husband Steve who is her biggest supporter.
Even before Mary lined up her support team, there was an intercessory prayer pastor at her church in Colorado, whose direct questions inspired her and brought Matthew 6:33 into sharp focus: “What did you like doing when you were a child, a teenager, an adult?”
“My two favorite things have always been studying and teaching the Bible, and athletic competition. After I answered those two questions, I knew God would be with me to the finish line,” she remembers thinking in advance of the September 2015 Half Ironman.
One of her students, Ben Miller, agreed to help Pastor Mary in training, particularly the cycling leg of the three-part event. He and Dr. Phil Hooper, who diagnosed the pastor’s adrenal/thyroid condition almost 30 years ago, turned out be big supporters whose encouragement made the difference during the training and race itself. Bangs says she benefited not only from Hooper’s medical and dietary advice and personal support, but from Miller’s encouragement, which proved to be prophetic words that spurred her onto victory.
“It’s something God set up so that you two could have a father/daughter day,” Miller said. “Race day is not a pass or fail,” the student told his teacher. “It is the day you get to be the apple of His eye. You will be all that He is watching. There is no defeat or fail in this. This is your worship. The pass/fail happened in training and preparation,” Miller told her.
“It was a spiritual thing that I don’t know how to explain,” says Bangs, adding that the Holy Spirit spoke to her about strategies, including the words “don’t overheat,” during the run and race segments. “I did feel my Heavenly Father’s tangible presence on me, and I do believe that I was the apple of His eye.”
Friend Chris Vick, who’s competed side-by-side Pastor Mary in numerous endurance events and insisted she go for her “personal Olympic gold medal” by competing in and finishing a Half Ironman, says she’s amazed by her pastor’s tenacity coupled with her wisdom.
“It was impressive to watch her push through difficulties in training, including an Addison’s crisis,” says Vick, who completed her own Half Ironman in a different age group. “When a lot of people would have given up, she did everything including contacting her doctor for wisdom,” she says.
Recalling his wife’s triumph and his fear of her physical body’s failure a month earlier, Pastor Steve talks emotionally talking about the dual realities they faced that day. “The tears come from emotional relief that the race was over. Her previous race experience, and nearly having to take her to the hospital had cast a pall of angst over me.
“Therefore, when she crossed the finish line and I saw how great she was, the pall lifted. Tears of relief welled up from inside. It was over but it was good,” Pastor Steve says.
Looking at her finish time, 6:33, Pastors Mary and Steve say they were reminded of God’s faithfulness to them in their ministry and personal lives. By seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness “all these things” – the Heavenly Father’s pleasure, a personal gold medal, and an inconsequential disease when it counted – were added to them on race day.
Photo captions: 1) Mary coming to the end of the race. 2) Mary takes off on her bike. 3) Mary on the dias. 4) Mary displays her awards. 5) Mary with her husband. 6) Steve Rees.
About the writer: Steve Rees is freelance Christian journalist who loves the church and writes about how it engages the culture and works toward fulfilling the Great Commission. He lives in Longmont, Colo. and attends Resurrection Fellowship, a nondenominational, missions-driven church that honors all the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the five-fold ministry offices. The church is in Loveland, Colo. Rees formerly worked as a newspaper reporter and was among the first journalists who wrote about Promise Keepers before it spread nationwide from Boulder, Colo. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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