A Journey Toward Spiritual Surrender
Week 5: Can't Stop Now!
Contributed by Stephanie Sparks
Minister of Christian Development, Huffman UMC
Chair, Adult Discipleship Team
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
I love the imagery of being surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses. It’s easy for me to think about people I know who have gone on to their eternal reward being in this crowd of people encouraging me while I journey through life; people whose testimony and witness of faith and trust I can recall and lean on in tough times. Because it’s easier though to put things in a box that I understand and that has to do with what I’ve personally experienced, I forget these “pioneers that blazed the way, these veterans cheering us on” include all the people mentioned before these verses, in Hebrews chapter 11. Take some time and read the chapter before this passage. Think about these men and women of faith who make up the cloud of witnesses who have been where we are and know the things we endure. We read about it each year but I confess that all too often I only think about Jesus walking a road that required more perseverance than I can even imagine only during this Lenten season. And when I do pause and recall this truth, considering that he did this so I will never have to experience all he endured is sweetly difficult to accept. And yet, we still go through hard things. Life is full of ups and downs, experiences we celebrate and wish would last forever, and those we dread and wouldn’t wish on the person that’s the hardest to love. Especially when we are going through tough situations, knowing someone else knows how we feel makes a difference. It seems easier to bear knowing we aren’t alone in the experience, no matter how lonely we may feel. To know and accept that Jesus Christ not only is aware of how we feel, but has experienced the emotions, feelings, sufferings and disappointments helps us not become weary as we move forward.
Oftentimes it’s not until we have experienced something first hand do we have an appreciation for the experience. This study is being developed in the year 2020. We are living through the first global pandemic in over 100 years. Along with things worthy of being celebrated, survived, and figured out, 2020 brought with it a perspective on perseverance for each of us; and it continues to do so moving into 2021 with light at the end of the tunnel in sight. Whether you have felt the illness of COVID-19 in your body, cared alongside a loved one who had/has it, been quarantined due to exposure, lost someone during this season, or just been living in the midst of all the things impacted by being in a pandemic, we are in the midst of persevering through something very different than we thought would be our reality. To think of what Lent will be like in 2021 is difficult to consider because not only was our Lenten and Easter experiences in 2020 unique, but it’s difficult to plan or forecast what 2021 will allow us to do as we continue to look out for what is best for our neighbor as we navigate this season of life.
According to merriam-webster.com, perseverance is defined as “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition; the action or condition or an instance of persevering; steadfastness.” Failure is an interesting word to consider in this context of Jesus’ journey to the cross, but when you think about all the times he told the disciples and those he was teaching who he was, what his ministry was about, what it all meant, and they could not get it, it had to have felt like failure. While it’s odd to write and even consider that, on the flip side, it is encouraging to remember that Jesus, being fully human, felt all the things we feel. He knows what it’s like when we feel like we’ve failed, or think we’re about to!
Years ago a dear friend suggested that we train and run a half-marathon together. Though it seemed daunting, this meant an exercise routine, a runDisney race that involved running around Disneyland and through Angel Stadium, all while raising money for a great cause (The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society), and that made it seem like a goal I could at least try to accomplish, possibly crush. The race was great! I loved training, was able to run longer than I would have ever dreamed (let’s be honest, I walked a lot of it too!), and I experienced strangers cheering us on- wanting us to accomplish the goal of finishing this race. I cried as we approached the finish line – not because my feet felt like they would fall off (that came a few hours later!), but because I completed something and that is emotional and worthy of whatever feelings rush over you in that moment. It was something I’d never experienced and in that moment I was happy never doing another one. However, the next year I found myself signing up again. This one was scheduled for January in DisneyWorld. Long story short, due to weather it was cancelled the night before the race. Although making a safe and cautious decision is always wise, we were devastated. In that moment all the training and effort to prepare to accomplish this goal felt like a waste. They offered us consolation prizes that included our finisher medals for a race we didn’t finish, let alone even get to start. Don’t misunderstand, it was generous and kind in light of something the organizers couldn’t control causing us to not be able to race, but it wasn’t what we set out to do. My stubborn self was sure to still walk 13.1 miles that day around all the parks, and before we were even back in the hotel room I decided I was doing another race. I was bound and determined to complete this task, to start and then cross the finish line. Within a few months there was another race coming up in Disneyland that happened to fall on my birthday weekend so to overcompensate for the one that was canceled I thought it would be a good idea to do a combo race – a 10k one day and the next do the half-marathon - 19.3 miles in all. I’m not sure that was the best decision I’ve ever made. Training wasn’t my best, but I got after it and nothing was going to keep me from that finish line. The 10K went great – I enjoyed the distance, I crossed the finish line, got the medal and felt amazing. The next morning though, I woke up nervous for the half. I discovered the night before that an unfortunate sock malfunction led to blisters on my feet and I was tired. 13.1 miles seemed SUPER far away. My group inched closer and closer to the start and off we went. In mile 2 I had already come to terms with the balloon lady catching me and putting me on the bus, and I was absolutely okay with it. (This is a real thing and the way race organizers keep people safe and manage road closures. They really will put you on a bus and take you to the finish area if you can’t keep up with a certain pace.) I literally started saying the names of the people I was running in honor and memory of in an effort to keep myself motivated. While doing this, I heard a voice come up behind me saying, “How did I catch you?!” It was Michelle, one of the coaches who helped our team prepare for this experience. I told her I was struggling – again, not even to the 5K mark, over 10 miles still to go – and she said, “Just keep up with me. Let’s walk a little. Let’s run a little, we’re about a minute ahead, I can’t even see her [the balloon lady] now. Every now and then running 15 seconds can make a huge difference.” She helped me create little goals all along the way as we ran toward the finish line. At the 10K mark – what I had completed the day before I ran past a cheering section that had a lot of folks yelling, “Go Team!” They were people connected to other people I had trained with. Some were familiar faces, most were strangers, yet they were cheering for all of us, encouraging us along the way. Seven miles later I rounded the corner, the finish line was in sight, and a great cloud of witnesses helped me cross that line.
It hits me as I consider this and recall this experience, that Jesus was thinking of us each step of the way toward the cross. When I was running that race and struggling, I started saying the names of the people for whom I ran. Along with wanting to accomplish a personal goal, honoring what they and their families had endured was the reason I was doing what I had committed to do, and remembering that fueled the perseverance to keep moving forward. Everything about Jesus’ ministry here on earth was to help us be in relationship with God, to open our eyes and help us experience (and then extend) grace, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and love. I can’t help but think of the prayer Jesus prays in John 17. Take some time this week and read this chapter in the New Testament. On his way to the cross Jesus prays for us. We are the reason he persevered through all he did, and he gives us strength to also persevere.
In his commentary on Hebrews, William Barclay comments:
“In the Christian life we have a goal. The Christian is not an unconcerned stroller along the byways of life; he is a wayfarer on the highroad. He is not a tourist, who returns each night to the place from which he starts; he is a pilgrim who is forever on the way. The goal is nothing less than the likeness of Christ. The Christian life is going somewhere, and it would be well if, at each day’s ending, we were to ask ourselves: ‘Am I any farther on?’” (Barclay 171)1
How are you further on? How have you persevered through this day? Through this week? Through this year?
Within these first three verses of Hebrews 12, verse 2 resonates with me. This is how it reads in the Message: “Keep your eyes on Jesus who both began and finished this race we’re in.” The New Living Translation says Jesus is the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Jesus began and finished the race. We are in the midst of it, with a champion in Christ, who encourages and motivates us from beginning to end, to our goal. Perseverance isn’t the easiest thing, and rarely is it convenient. I’ve been thinking a lot about things we’re willing to be inconvenienced by. Living through a pandemic is a ginormous inconvenience and yet within the larger inconvenience are smaller inconveniences we can do – even if, and especially when we don’t want to – that make a difference. Our willingness to be inconvenienced and to experience life differently than we’d like is a way we persevere. It’s important to remember when we persevere we are moving through something. We aren’t stagnate or stuck – we’re persevering! It’s active. I am so thankful Jesus endured and persevered through all we do and more. He suffered through humiliation, pain, and conquered death so we can experience life! He began and finished this race, and runs (or walks, because some of us are walkers and not runners) alongside each of us as we persevere through this journey called life.
1 William Barclay, 1976, The Letter to the Hebrews Revised Edition, p 171.
God, thank you for the saints who went before us who make up the great cloud of witnesses that strengthen us. Amen.
Spiritual Formation Exercise
- Read about some of the well-known spiritual mothers and fathers who paved the way for us.