“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 for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”—Hebrews 12:1-2
I remember feeling slightly insulted at first; but that was more about me than Coach Brewer. Coach was (and still is) a long-time friend of the family, so I honestly didn’t expect him to push me too hard. I had gone out for cross country in high school primarily to spend time with my friends and because, well, in small town Nebraska you had go out for something. So I chose the sport my friends chose that was coached by our family friend; and I had a great time and that’s about it. I didn’t expect much from myself or contribute much to the team other than the occasional (I know this will shock you) belly laugh.
But then came that day late in the season when Coach challenged me to run over the summer, to condition for track, to buy in…in other words, to work for something larger than myself. He wasn’t harsh, but he also didn’t pull punches and challenged me to something more. He pointed out that doing something special required effort, sacrifice, and a whole team. More than anything, he saw potential.
Jesus only uses the word “perseverance” once in the New Testament, when describing the seed that takes root in the parable of the sower. He speaks of the plant bearing fruit with perseverance, pointing to the long, but faithful growing process of the seed into maturity. Paul is not so stingy with the word, using it over twenty times in his letters as he calls the church to continue growing and sharing even in the midst of hardship. If it sounds familiar to our more seasoned Presbyterians, it is probably because of the doctrine of the “Perseverance of the Saints”; the belief that God sustains and protects the Church through times of doubt and trouble. It is a core belief of the church that even though life on earth can be full of doubt and trial, one of God’s great gifts is seeing the potential of the days ahead and calling us to live in them with assurance, hope, and determination. We serve God and neighbor, even when it is difficult…because we believe that work produces an eternal impact of love, grace, justice, and life in Christ.
Four years (and 800 summer miles later), Coach Brewer put a segment of the passage above in our locker room my senior year of cross country. Every day before and after practice we would see: “Run with perseverance the race set out for us”. It was a reminder not only of where we were headed, but where we had been. Several members of the team had talked to each other about running 200 miles every summer, checked in to make sure it was happening, and committed to pushing each other in practice. Our team (or at least this member) had moments of pride and tension around personal goals, but the focus of both team and goal brought inspiration and shared purpose. Coach’s call to perseverance and ability to see something in us brought us together and changed the way I viewed myself, leadership, and life.
And that is why, as we head into month seven of our COVID quarantine here at Northminster, and I can’t get Hebrews 12 and specifically the word “perseverance” out of my mind. Over these months, there have been moments when the weight has been heavy. Moments when the days drown in struggle and the brokenness in all of us overwhelms. Moments of despair and frustration when we wonder if we can do a “new things” and if the world is even capable of change. Moments when hurt and grief cloud our eyes to the point we can’t see potential any longer. Moments of paralysis and retreat.
I’ve had those moments these months as well…I think we all have…but it is in those moments that I’ve seen the “great cloud of witnesses” and remembered that we run this race together. I remember that it is the race set out for us and not just me. A perfectly timed card comes into the church. A picture of Joe Rembolt laughing shows up on my desk. And old inscription from a seminary friend folds open in a book. Moments when I give thanks for the people in my life who have helped me set aside the weight of hurt so that I can keep running…and, in turn, refocus myself to being a witness to God’s grace as well.
I was back in Minden a while back and ran into Coach. He gave me a clipping from the Minden newspaper about our team my senior year. The clipping has sat on my dresser for the past several months; I’ve kept it there as a reminder of the power of resolve, perseverance, and faith. I’m thankful not only for those memories, but incredibly thankful for the ways your resolve and love have helped me through the past few months. We can’t stop now, friends…and we can’t let time wear down our hope.
We keep running. We witness. We keep being the church. We set aside the burdens of despair and self-pity.
We do more than survive. In promise and potential, we persevere.