Perseverance. Today, we end our brief series on sports in scripture, and we end on the subject of running as sport. Perseverance. The images of and references to running in scripture have nothing to do with exercise or health improvement otherwise. Perseverance. It’s all about finishing the race. Some who run the race of life will be winners--nothing wrong with being a winner. The predominant goal, however, is finishing. To finish is to win in life, even if you happen to be last crossing the finish line. Everyone who finishes gets a tee shirt. Perseverance.
Life is like a race, and some of us live at such a pace that we feel exactly like we’re running through life--rushing, hurrying, every day a new part of the course to run, to speed through, until we drop exhausted at the end of the day and get up the next morning to sprint through that day too. Those wise ones who have encouraged us to run the race of life well were not encouraging us literally to jet through life at such a pace that everything around us is a blur; they were encouraging us to persevere and finish the particular course that is ours to run. Once we stop pressing on, we give our destiny over to forces that from that point on say how life will go for us; we lose, thereafter, the ability to influence what we want to get out of life and what kind of mark we want to make in this world.
I’m not suggesting that we have control over every aspect of our lives; we certainly don’t. Let’s say you’re running your course, making progress, doing well, and a tsunami hits. You survive, thankfully, but you aren’t sure you’ll ever have the energy to run life’s race again; grief and loss now weigh you down, and the course you were running--the only one you knew to run--has been destroyed. If you’re going to run ever again, you’ll have to look for a new track since the tsunami destroyed nearly everything that influenced how you’d been able to live your life up to the point of that natural disaster. If you don’t keep on running or start running again, what will life be to you then?
A challenging health diagnosis can stop many of us in our tracks, and what could be more understandable than yet? There are some amazing people who though at a slower pace keep running the race of life with a whole stack of health complications. Many of you have inspired me with your courage to fight through significant health challenges, still making or keeping life meaningful. Perseverance.
I heard Elizabeth Edwards in an interview that was originally done, as best I could tell, shortly after her second cancer diagnosis--though I didn’t hear it until after her death. She was someone whom I admired greatly because she kept her head held high through all sorts of would-be-debilitating circumstances. She said in the interview something to the effect, “I had no idea how to live after either cancer diagnosis other than the way I’d been living the day before I got it. The very next day, I kept my appointments and did what I’d planned to do and what I’d committed to do.”
Her philosophy in that regard is fully inspired and filled with common sense. The day after the worst day in our lives, we have to wake up, get up, and do something with ourselves. You know that I don’t mean to ignore the crisis or the tragedy or the feelings that go with them, but we can’t let those circumstances or events rob us of any more life than they already have or will.
The key to wringing as much positive life as we can out of ours is to run the race of life with perseverance, and that word, “perseverance,” will be our key word today. I will use it as an acrostic to come up with twelve key words that describe the successful runner in the race of life. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with going for the gold or being in it to win it, but the most important thing is that we finish the course, that we don’t give up on ourselves or on life. Sadly, we’ve all known probably several people who stopped living long before they were biologically dead. That’s what we don’t want, what we work against. Thus, “...let us run with perseverance the race that has been set before us.”
The “race that has been set before us,” is a biblical phrase that you’ll hear more about as we move along, but it isn’t a way of saying that whatever you come across as you run life’s race was put there by God, for your pleasure or your pain. Never believe that God does anything to cause you or any one pain.
The letter “p” in “perseverance” stands for the adjective “poised”; all twelve of these words will be adjectives describing an effective runner in the race of life. An effective runner is poised. In the sense we use it here, “poised” means self-collected and self-contained. In addition, her or his movements are not erratic or clumsy--though even the most gifted and trained runners can misstep or lose balance. There is a gracefulness to proper running that has to do with well-practiced pacing and posture. Tough race, tough track, the better runners remain poised.
Canadian Bill Crothers is now retired from running. He was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame. Before he hung up his running shoes, however, he was one of the fastest male runners in the world, and he was widely known for his graceful, fluid style of running.
How one carries oneself on the track has to do with her or his physical poise or lack of it, but poise for a runner is an inner quality also as evidenced in the definition I chose for this word “poised” that has several meanings: self-collected and self-contained. There is a kind of inner calm about the person even moments before an important race, during the race itself of course, and then after the race, winner or not.
The people who tend to inspire us most when we look at them as runners in the race of life are those who are able to remain cool, calm, and collected come what may. They live with dignity and grace, and when the time comes to leave this world for the next realm, they die with dignity and grace.
One of my congregants in Baltimore, Ann King, died while I was pastor there. I visited her at the Stella Maris Hospice that was a wing or floor of the downtown Mercy Hospital. I said, “Ann, I don’t have any good words to offer; all I can tell you is that I’m an eternal optimist.”
She said, “Well, I’ll do the talking, and this is what I want you to know. I’m not at all afraid of death. The only thing I’m afraid of is how I die. What matters to me now is my dignity. I want to leave this world with the same dignity I have tried to maintain while living in it.”
The first “e” in “perseverance” reminds us that an effective runner is enthusiastic. Did you ever see someone win a race who wasn’t enthusiastic about being in the race? If a runner enters a race with a “ho hum” attitude, a bland, don’t care one way or another perspective, it’s almost impossible for that runner to do well in the race, much less win it.
A runner named “Kara,” no last name given, wrote online about her experience running in the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco. With Nike involved, there were some great prizes for winners and some not too shabby prizes for simply finishing the race. This is what Kara journaled: “We started out strong; its hard not to when you’re being swept along with 20,000 very enthusiastic runners.” How infectious it would be to be in the presence of 20,000 enthusiastic people. I guess those of you who are devoted to a sports team know what this feels like when you go to a game. It’s electric. It’s exciting. It’s empowering. It’s delovely!
At first, we think of excitement as always a good thing except for the frustrations about being around the chronically excited--those seem to be excited about anything and everything. Yet, some mental health professionals warn against excessive excitement even for those who aren’t heart patients.
Good exercise, like running if you are physically capable of that, benefits us emotionally because of the production of endorphins. These endorphins make us feel good, strong, happy, excited, capable, and competent. When the endorphins fade so do those great feelings. We want them back, and we can become addicted to them so some people become addicted to exercise so they can always live on an endorphin high. This can be bad.
Nutritionists working with mental health professionals have found that happy people tend to make healthier food choices than unhappy people, but endorphin crazed people who end up feeling indestructible are likely, for that reason, to make poor food choices. “Nothing can get me down; noting can hurt me,” they think, and they are as wrong as can be. Excitement in moderation, please.
The first “r” in “perseverance” stands for the word “resolved.” To be resolved is to be single-minded, resolute. I don’t mean to suggest that you can or should avoid thinking about several things at once as you monitor your body’s wellbeing and your surroundings and the terrain, but I mean single-minded in the sense that there’s no question in your mind whatsoever that you want to be running in this race.
In the book, The Lore of Running, author Dr. Tim Noakes notes that Australian Herb Elliott may have been the greatest distance runner in history. Elliott had a low point, though. In about 1957, the great runner had a foot injury that might have ended his career. Noakes says that after the injury, Elliott stopped training consistently, even after the injury had presumably healed. Instead of easing back into proper, consistent training, Elliott “spent most of his evenings in a coffee-bar with another half-hearted athlete, inventing excuses as to why they should not train.”
The opposite of half-hearted kinda sorta is single-minded--interesting juxtaposition. I suppose that the reference to the heart leans a bit toward one’s emotional self, and the reference to the mind leans to the rational self; but they both refer to that something within us that gives us or robs us of what we call down in Halls Crossroads “gumption.”
Anything I’m going to do well I have to be determined to do. If I’m ambivalent about it, doing well would be just a fluke, an accident of nature. I must resolve to achieve if I want to achieve; if I am not a resolved participant, whatever the endeavor, I will likely have a mediocre or poor showing.
Most of the courses I teach at the University and at the Seminary are required classes. Graduate students usually, not always, have a better grasp of the larger picture and can see how a required course, though not first on their list of preferences, will benefit them as intended. Most of them are resolved to do well anyway. In contrast is the younger half-hearted beginning speech student who has to learn the hard way that the only effective speakers have somewhere along the way resolved to be.
Next, the “s,” reminds us that the effective runner is a steady runner. The most famous runners in world history may well have been the tortoise and the hare. They appear, as you know, in Aesop’s collected fables. He was born about 550 years before Jesus was born, and he was born a slave in ancient Greece. Evidently, he won his freedom somehow and became a highly regarded writer of fables. A fable is a short tale intended to teach a moral lesson, and in the fables animals and sometimes inanimate objects are given human characteristics. There was a reason for that beyond demonstrating a writer’s cleverness. The idea was that a moral issue could be addressed in a much less accusatory way by telling a story where the lesson is learned by an animal or a tree rather than by a human being, though fictional.
The fable of the tortoise and the hare, then, reminds people who know they’re better than someone else at some task or feat that they may, because of their arrogance, perform poorly next to someone of lesser abilities by taking their undisputed skill for granted and letting it persuade them not to take a contest or a job assignment as seriously as the less gifted person. You know the story. The rabbit runs and leaves the tortoise in the dust but is so sure he can’t lose that he goes off course and naps; all the while the tortoise is steadily, though slowly, moving forward toward the finish line. In the end, the tortoise wins because he was the steady competitor--not because he was the most gifted runner.
The moral of the moral story was always or almost always stated in Aesop’s day, and in the case of this fable, Aesop had the hare himself state the painful lesson he’d learned in a rhyme no less: “After that, Hare always reminded himself, ‘Don't brag about your lightning pace, for Slow and Steady won the race!’” Slow and steady won the race.
The truth is that slow won’t win many races, but steady will. The steady runner may not be overall the fastest, but the steady runner may well win because she or he is well-paced. In the race of life, the steady runners nearly always enjoy life, relish it more than those who somehow have come to believe that the only effective way to live is on the run.
The effective runner is mentally and emotionally “engaged” in the race. This quality is related to “resolved,” but moves it to a different level. My mind has to be on this race if I’m going to get to the finish line; if my mind is in a hundred other places, I don’t have a shot at finishing. We uphold multitasking skills in our culture as signs of higher-level intelligence or good ole common sense. Multitasking serves us well on the job and at home at times, but we can easily get to the place where we have so many things on our minds that we end up doing poorly at everything on the list because of brain drain. Most of us can only do well with one primary task at a time; yes, the back burner works for most of us, but we can’t have five items on the front burner at once.
A pal in seminary once told me that his wife went to sleep while they were making love. There’s no such thing as one-sided loving making; since she feel asleep, making love was downgraded to one-sided sex. He was having sex with her and was so into it that he didn’t realize for a while that she was asleep; when he did, can you imagine the ego boost he experienced?
She did a pretty good job of trying to save the moment by telling him that the ecstasy she was feeling overwhelmed her and she mildly fainted. The snoring sounds he heard, which prompted him to find that she was sleeping, she said were figments of his imagination, and what he was hearing were his own wild animal sounds that he wasn’t usually aware of; but she heard them always, and they turned her on.
Poor guy, he fell for all of that malarkey. After that, he thought he was the hottest seminarian ever to cross the Josephus Bowl as Southern Seminary. I don’t know what became of them. I hope she became a fiction writer; if so, they’re rich, and he probably gave up preaching to go around and tell that story to someone every day of his life.
We don’t usually do well in life being stuck in places or situations where we don’t really want to be. We can’t be engaged there. Our minds are elsewhere. Same with trying to have our minds in too many places at once. Something will inevitably get neglected.
An effective runner is a vigorous runner. The “v” gets us to “vigorous”. Now, “vigorous” is a relative term. Vigorous for a 21 year old usually means something different from vigorous for an 81 year old. That’s why in many racing events there are lower and upper age limitations. It is better for competition, fairer usually, if we compete against those in our general age group.
My ex-wife had an uncle and aunt whom I dearly loved. I hated losing them in the divorce, and I suppose I didn’t have to; but I just couldn’t figure out how to relate to her family after the divorce. Some people do that well. My ex-wife for a long time would drop my mother a note now and then, and it pleased Mom because they really had been close.
Anyway, Lindon’s Uncle James, married to Aunt Bertha, were cream of the crop human beings in every way. He had gone deaf as his retirement years had approached, and Aunt Bertha went with him to American Sign Language classes so that she could communicate with him better at home and so that she could sign the Sunday sermon to him at church. Smart cookies, those two, they picked up the language quickly and effectively.
Another thing Uncle James did in retirement was to become a runner. I believe he began racing against men his age when he was exactly 65 years old and retired as the accountant for the Ford Dealership over near Asheville, North Carolina. He had always taken care of himself physically, but this boosted his physical health and his mental health; and in a way it helped compensate for the hearing loss. He excelled as a senior runner and kept at it until well into his 80’s. He won some noted race in his early 80’s, and he sent me a copy of the newspaper clipping. I was delighted.
Uncle James outlived Aunt Bertha, and when he became a widower he did the only thing a Baptist missionary kid could do in old age--move into a Baptist retirement home. He had many wonderful years there and was the favored male dinner companion for the single ladies because he was a virile running stud, and his sex appeal alone made them, most of them Baptist too, blush in delight. Vigor on the track, and vigor in the race of life. Uncle James had it.
An effective runner is an earnest runner, “e” for “earnest.” One thing’s for sure, if you don’t want to be a runner, you will not be a runner--not in a free country anyway. I suppose there have been dictators, ancient and modern, who decided who would be a competitive runner and who would not. In a free country, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him run.
My high school physical education teacher, good guy at heart, not the most sensitive soul ever to be born, didn’t like me at school both because I hated his classes and because as the head basketball coach he had no ability to comprehend how anyone with height could choose not to play basketball. I played church league basketball as I’ve told you and was crummy on offense there, so why would I want to be even more crummy in front of all the people with whom I went to school? At worst, the church team would pray for my improvement, but at school I could suffer serious humiliation.
Though very nice to me at church, in front of my parents, Coach Jones, I always believed, took his frustration out on me every fall when we had our running/jogging unit in phys ed. He ended up only aggravating himself as I mastered the 10 minute mile, and I wasn’t ever the very last to cross the finish line. At least I tortoised every step of the course unlike some of my classmates--the slower ones and the faster ones--who cut through the woods to get a better time.
Earnestness refers to a deep sincerity or seriousness about a relationship or a task or a goal. I did not wish to be a runner, and his screaming at me for being one of the slower kids all four years in high school surprisingly didn’t motivate me to want to change.
Wouldn’t you hate to get an anesthesiologist on the operating room rotation who was not earnest about being an anesthesiologist? What about reporting a crime and having an officer of the law show up to help you deal with it who wasn’t earnest about solving crimes or encouraging victims? And what if someone actually went to Washington as an elected official who wasn’t earnest about making the nation a better place to be? Like that could ever happen!
A great runner is resourceful, second “r,” “resourceful.” I don’t know much about the great American races, much less about great races around the world. Evidently, though, an important international race is a part of the Commonwealth Games sponsored by the Commonwealth of Nations every fourth year. Last held in Delhi, India, last year, they will be held again in Scotland in 2014.
Speaking of resourceful runners, Sapolai Yao represented Papua New Guinea in the steeplechase event at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010. This event is an obstacle race in which the athletes have to clear 28 barriers and 7 water jumps over a distance of 3000 meters. Sapolai Yao is a resourceful, diminutive athlete who stands 4′10″, and the hurdles were too high for him. No one thought of that, and it seems that he hadn’t taken a practice run around the course before the big event was held. During the race, he came to one more hurdle structured for men a foot taller than he, and he was exasperated by the disparity. At this particular hurdle, Mr. Yao spotted a large potted plant near the hurdle, and he decided to make use of it. He used it as a step to climb on top of the hurdle from which he jumped down and continued the race. The judges sadly disqualified him instead of applauding his spunk and his resourcefulness.
Well, these are the kinds of details to bring up before a race begins, not during the race. Mr. Yao could have learned that India had raised the bar, so to speak, before agreeing to run in that event. Even so, his resourcefulness should have been rewarded or recognized. He shouldn’t have been disqualified.
In the race of life, resourcefulness for some people is all that gets them through. There are so many surprises along the way, so many unexpected twists that someone who lacks adaptability and the skill to redirect on a moment’s notice may very well fall off the course and disqualify herself or himself. A person who lacks resourcefulness, through no fault of her or his own, may not know how to get over a life challenge; experience and education have failed them. At hurdles too tall, I’ve seen a shocking number of people say, “I can’t take it,” and check out of life’s race.
The “a” stands for “alert.” The effective runner, the successful runner, is alert.
Running isn’t a robotic sport. You can’t just wind the runners up and press the “run” button causing them to run the course no matter what happens; I suppose that could be commonplace someday. Human runners, though, have to be prepared for the unexpected on the track. Gusts of wind that weren’t anticipated. No one saw any clouds, but suddenly there’s a cloud burst. On an indoor track, something goes wrong with the electricity for a flash, and in that couple of seconds there is complete darkness. Another runner, accidentally or on purpose, keeps edging into your lane. This slows you down, and it could trip you.
A good runner is also alert to her or his own body. If some body part starts feeling odd or painful, the runner should stop rather than risk ripping something or breaking something, which could result in a life long injury. Better to stop and make sure everything’s OK than to keep running only to injure yourself.
The race of life requires alertness too. There are no convenient times for crises or tragedies. Even though we may be more alert than the next person, things can pop up to knock the breath out of us.
Another reason to be alert is to be ever watchful for the opportune moment. There may be one chance and only one chance to take the lead if that’s what we aim to do. If the opportunity presents itself, we should take it. If we hesitate, we may lose out for good; there may never again be such an opportunity.
Evidently, Egyptians who did not feel free under the rule of Mubarak saw what they took to be the right moment to revolt. Many of the protesters are younger Egyptians, the majority well educated, who are sick of dealing with high unemployment and lack of opportunity to move ahead. People who feel oppressed, and this has been true throughout history, look for ways to gain their freedom even at great risk to themselves. Were that not the case, there would be no United States, and if high unemployment especially among educated youth can incite protests and a demand change, even a democracy had better take note.
“N,” “nimble.” A good runner is nimble, agile; not stiff or rigid. There are so many people in our nation and in our world, in our state, who have been brought up to believe that there is only one right way to do practically everything. Many of them will fight, literally or figuratively, for the right to keep on trying to do whatever it is their own way even when it clearly doesn’t work any longer; maybe it never worked. Many wars have been fought for this very reason--many marriages failed, many churches split. The old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” doesn’t mean to keep trying what you already learned didn’t work. The square peg isn’t going to fit into the round hole last time, this time, or next time.
Rewarding huge financial entities with sick-making amounts of money even though they cheat the government and their constituents doesn’t work. No wait. It does work here in the United States. The people who control the largest amounts of money don’t want to be regulated or scrutinized so we throw a couple of offenders into jail, and let the others go right on as usual--God-awful bonuses for doing nothing that benefits the nation as a whole or the vast majority of its citizens.
For the most part, though, we have to live in readiness to make a new move. We have to be willing to use muscles we haven’t used before. We have to remember a little lesson or a little trick of the trade someone taught us long ago, and we’ve almost forgotten it because we’ve never had to use it. The track coach said once, “If this happens, your only real alternative is that.” But this never happened until just a minute ago so you’re not sure about that--if you can do it at all and if you can how quickly you can.
Life is so dynamic and ever-changing that a really big part of being educated and informed is living with the reality that we may well need a Plan B or a Plan C to deal with what just now came our way. Running the same old way isn’t going to work. Old dogs and new dogs have to react differently than they have in the past, and with ease. Jack be nimble; Jack be quick. Jack jump over the challenge that you never really thought would come to you.
Effective runners are “centered,” and the “c” in “perseverance” calls that to our attention. Being centered is considerably different than being single-minded; being centered means that I’m drawing from wells of strength deep within me both to understand who I am as a runner and to find the fortitude to stay the course. A centered runner understands whether she or he is running this particular race just for the heck of it or to attempt self-improvement or to learn some new lesson heretofore ignored. A centered runner is clear on whether she or he should try to win the race and perform in top form or if simply finishing is success enough. A centered runner understands limits and limitations at practice and and in the heat of competition.
Archaeologists and anthropologists now know that the ancient Greeks who loved, loved sports had the technology to measure a runner’s times and distance achievements, but they seem rarely to have used them except for training. Records were not kept. Of course, it was an honor to win, but winning was kept in perspective; the prize, if you remember my reference to the ancient Greeks in a earlier sermon in this series, was a little crown of sorts, likely made out of celery leaves. Unless kept cool, celery leaves are going to wilt in a few hours. The crown could be worn for a few hours only; then, it was gone.
The Greek athletes were centered. Their real opponents were themselves. They weren’t preoccupied with winning; they were preoccupied with the race itself and what happened to them as they ran and as a result of their racing.
I’d say, if you make it to the end of the course, wherever you may finish in comparison to others, and you still value yourself and the race called life, the life-force being God, you’ve hit the jackpot. Those who are crying because they didn’t win the celery leaves and therefore feel that they achieved nothing and left no positive mark on the world are wasting their energies. Those who have run the race only caught up with what they see with their eyes as they run the race of life and who never look deep inside to see who they are becoming because of the race and how they are running it are missing the point of the race.
The final “e” in “perseverance” suggests to us that perhaps the most effective runners are those have been or are being cheered on as they practice and as they run the real thing. Certainly there are those runners who have no choice other than to go it all alone and some who choose to make the run an entirely personal, private undertaking; they don’t want anyone to know that they’re running or where or when. Still, chances are, the greater number of effective runners press on and strengthen their belief in themselves because they have been and are being “encouraged” by those who care about them.
The writer of the book of Hebrews came up with the powerful image of those who have already finished the race and passed into the next realm being in the stands of the great arena as we run the race of life, and they are among those who encourage us to keep going. There may be something more than just wonderful memories to the thought that someone in the next realm encourages us when we feel weak and prone to fall. Maybe something more is going on when Dad suddenly comes into my consciousness while I’m feeling confused and discouraged. Maybe something more is going on when I walk up the back walkway and through our Memorial Garden on the way in to my office, and I see a name on a plaque or glance over in the general direction where ashes were buried and am strengthened by the warm smile I see on the face that appears in my consciousness. Bob Mahood and Dick Holmes have jokes for me. Bob Gibson is delighted that the finances of the church are improving dramatically. Bev Linn is overjoyed that the members are caring so well for one another. Charlie Wiswall is smirking as if to say, “I told you if stayed with it for ten years you’d see this church more like it was supposed to be all along.”
The book of Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith... who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.