By Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture: Hebrews 11:29-12:3
We are a society that loves our races, don’t we? Here in Greater Lafayette, there is no shortage of opportunities to run or walk a 5K. For the more fit and adventurous, there are 10Ks, mini marathons, marathons and triathlons. Some of us got our start participating in track or cross country in school, but local races are open to any of us at every fitness level. Just a few weeks ago I volunteered at Jeff High School’s annual Band on the Run 5K, a fundraiser for the Jeff band programs. I bet some of you have participated in the annual fall Hunger Hike along the river, raising funds for Lafayette Urban Ministry. A few years ago, our local schools started a Cupcake Run, scheduling it on a Sunday morning, of all times! Maybe some of you have done the Columbian Park Zoo Run Run or the Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot.
Nine years ago, I did something that I had never done before and haven’t done since in my life – I trained for and ran a half-marathon, which is 13.1 miles. The year before, I had been in poor health, dealing with a chronic condition that was painful and had worn me down, but in December of that year I was able to have surgery that was healing and made an immediate difference in my quality of life. And I decided as soon as I can home from the hospital that I was going to begin a new chapter. I wanted to be healthy. I wanted to feel well, to take care of myself, and to have a better quality of life. So as I recovered, I began eating differently, more healthfully. Once I was cleared to begin moving and exercising, I started walking on a treadmill in my basement. After a few weeks of walking, I started jogging (sluggishly, I might add), for brief stretches. The stretches of jogging slowly got longer. Once spring came and the weather warmed up, I began jogging/walking outside. I would jog for a stretch, then walk for a stretch, then jog, then walk. A mile or two, then three miles. One Saturday I thought, I wonder if I could go for five miles – and I did! I was amazed! I had never run this far in my life. It felt good. Not at first – pretty much every time I started running, my ankles hurt, and for the first mile I thought, I’m not going to last long this time – but by the third mile, I usually found the sweet spot of running.
After about four months of this, I started seeing publicity about the Purdue half marathon coming up in October. And I thought – I think I could do that! I began researching how to train for a half marathon. The main thing required was a patient diligence. You just had to keep running. At least a few short runs a week of a few miles, and then a increasingly longer run one day a week. So that’s what I did. Another motivating factor was my husband, who had also been running to improve his health and had recently completed two half marathons. If he can do it, I thought, certainly I have a shot! I committed my Saturday mornings to my longer runs, slowly working up to six miles, seven miles, and on up, and I was doing it! My body was coming through. And the running got easier. By this time, I was barely including any walking at all. I could even run up inclines – I had developed stamina. And my body had transformed into lean muscle. I was in the best shape of my life. Another chronic condition that I had suffered from for decades melted away from the healing effects of the running. I could hardly believe the transformation.
Race day was cold and rainy. I felt lousy the morning of the race and wondered if I could pull through. My longest run up to this point was about 11 miles. I would have to put in 13.1 miles that morning. Fear set in. Would the preparation see me through this crazy goal that a year before I would never have imagined for myself? Well, folks, I did it. I don’t even remember my finish time, it took me over two and a half hours to run it, but I crossed the finish line. I am a slow runner, but for most of us out there that day, we just wanted to finish. And people were there all along the way, cheering us on, sprinkling rain and all. I finished tired, wet, and not very pretty. And I know this because there were photographers stationed along the course, taking pictures of us runners that they emailed to us after the race, and I can assure you that these were not glamour shots! But it felt so good to complete that race.
I planned to keep up my running. I wanted to stay in shape and maintain the level of health I had achieved. For a while, as winter set in, I ran on the treadmill in my basement. A true southern girl, I do NOT like the cold, so I don’t like to run in the cold—but truth be told, I don’t like to run on the treadmill either, and gradually I found this a difficult practice to keep up. I was becoming not that invested. Gradually, I quit going down to the basement to run on the treadmill. When spring comes, I told myself, I’ll pick up running outside again. But by the time spring arrived, I had fallen out of my rhythm. I had lost the endurance I had gained. I was no longer fixed on a goal. Without the attention and commitment to those regular runs, I lost what I had gained. The chronic condition I had dealt with for so many years returned. I had taken for-granted that I that I could keep my endurance without living out the pattern that led to endurance. I quit paying attention, caring for, and investing in the things that made the difference.
This week I attended the funeral of a young 20-year old man. As his beautiful, hard, deep, all-too-short life was remembered, his mother, at the end of her eulogy spoke directly to the young people gathered to mourn the passing of their dear friend. She spoke to them with urgency: Stop living out of a mindset of competition, she said. Life is not a contest. Stop comparing yourselves with others. Quit being so hard on yourselves. Lighten up, be gentle with yourself, and stay connected to your family and your friends. Make time for the people and the things that truly matter. Her son had been a deep seeker, a deep feeler, and he had cared about the world and especially for people who suffered. And he had suffered, too. We are all graced with those moments when the veil between earth and heaven is so very thin, moments when the sacredness of life becomes tender and palpable. And the purpose of the marathon of life becomes clear and convicting, and we are given the opportunity to examine, first, how do I know the course, because so much in the world around me is leading me off course, and third, how in the world do I build the endurance to do this?
We simply cannot do this alone, drawing from our own energy and will power. We will be fatigued, derailed, worn out. The good news for us is that we were never intended to run the marathon alone. We need the source of life, of goodness, of our very breath to sustain us. We need faith in a goodness and source larger than ourselves.
And we need the example of Jesus to guide us. If we look to Jesus to for how to run the course, what do we see? We see a life of prayer. Jesus was always trusting in and connecting with God, following the Way that cultivated true strength. What was it that drew people to Jesus? Jesus had a depth, a compassion, a serenity, a gentle assuredness that was utterly captivating to people. He was fully present with everyone he encountered, seeing them and embracing them in a way that healed them and restored them. Jesus loved everyone – he shared life, ate with, partied with, all the people – rich and poor alike, those supposedly inside his tribe and those on the outside. In fact, he had a special regard for those who were excluded, for those in pain, for those who were lost and vulnerable. He stood in proximity to them with ease, from a place of depth, care, and centeredness. He was carefree, vulnerable in his day-to-day living, trusting only in God’s guidance and goodness, dependent on the people and communities around him. Jesus held no grudges, offering forgiveness and full acceptance to everyone. Jesus spoke the truth, always out of a place of love. Everything he did came from a source of deep love, a love that flowed from Father to Son, a love that flows to each one of us.
As the writer of Hebrews tells us, all we have to do to complete our marathon is “fix our eyes on Jesus.” How did Jesus do it? How did he prepare? How did he endure? And we know that there was much Jesus endured: “He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out before him.” In his meditation on what it means to endure the cross, Louis Savary writes that “enduring the cross” means more than accepting and bearing the losses and burdens of our lives. It also means “accepting the responsibilities and challenges of being an unconditionally loving person living in Jesus’ Way.” Fixing our eyes on Jesus, following the pattern set by Jesus, will transform us: heart, mind, and soul. It will deepen our souls and kindle a joy that we cannot manufacture on our own. Just as the runner goes for another mile – hardly believing that by just continuing to put one foot in front of another, with patience and over time, the capacity for breath and stamina is transformed – so it is that when we let go of our fears and concerns for ourselves, trusting in Jesus’s way of unconditional love, that we become new people, capable of deeper love, of deeper trust. When, with faith, we live our lives for others, living in ways that relieve the burdens of others, we will be transformed, growing gradually in graciousness, compassion, and patient endurance.
And we sure do need endurance, don’t we? Because we live in a mysterious world where joy and beauty coexist with disorder and pain. One day we are stopped in our tracks by a glowing, glorious sunset, a blessing of creation, and the next day our cat pees in our laundry basket. We are rewarded with a bonus at work, and then the alternator on our car goes out. We live in a world where medical diagnoses leave us stunned, where pandemics hang on for two years and five months and counting, where 20-year-old young men pass away. Our lives will contain beauty and brokenness. Our scripture today attests to this. As the lives of those in the cloud of witnesses is recounted, the Word affirms that life has been, and always will be, a pretty random mix of joys and hardship, success and defeat, of beauty and pain. There is a misunderstanding sometimes in Christianity that if hardship befalls us, God must be distant, or that we’ve not been faithful. But that is a misunderstanding. All the situations of our lives – the joy and the suffering – are opportunities for God’s deepening life in us – for us to grow tender instead of hard, forgiving instead of bitter, grateful instead of resentful, compassionate and loving instead of self-centered.
As we’ve already acknowledged, we can’t do this on our own. Our hope and encouragement come from the source who came to us to show us the way, who is with us every step of the way, cheering us, loving us, transforming us. So I ask each of you – what leads to God’s deepening life in you in the journey of life? How do you stay connected to the source that is Love, so that you have endurance for the marathon that is your life? Thanks be to our God who promises to be faithful to us every step of the way.
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