This was part of our sermon series inspired by Steve Chalke’s book Apprentice. One very helpful and inspiring blog is that of Katharine Welby-Roberts. In her recent blogpost on Where is God? (which I quoted in the sermon) she challenged churches to include testimonies of “how people live IN the fight. How do people keep up their hope, when things are not changing?”
So, before the sermon we did something similar to that. I asked people to think or talk in small groups about a situation in which they were currently persevering. Most people talked to those around them, and then I invited people to say something to the whole congregation. There were some really moving and inspiring stories of people carrying on struggling with things, and also knowing that the church and God were there in the midst of the problems. Thanks, Katharine, for the challenge!
As part of this talk was about the ‘cloud of witnesses’ that inspires us and gives us ways of thinking about God and our faith, I thought that it would be a good idea to model something of this, so included quite a few stories and longer quotes. I think it worked!
Persevering; Reading: Hebrews 11:32-12:3
We’re persevering through our sermon series on Apprentice at the moment, and we have indeed reached the topic of Persevering. Keep on going, keep on hoping. I want to start with two examples from the news this week.
The first is the amazing pictures of Pluto beamed back from the probe New Horizons. It was launched 9 years ago and has spent most of the journey in hibernation mode. It was also launched a couple of months before Pluto was officially downgraded from a planet to a dwarf planet. Think dropping from the Premier League to the Championship, if that helps. If you don’t like science or sport then just getting through this sermon awake will be a lesson in perseverance!
Back to Pluto. One of the team, Mike Summers has spoken about what the mission was like. He said:
Science is hard and good science is harder – it takes persistence and tons of patience. When we began planning a mission to Pluto over 15 years ago, we knew it was going to be, as they say, a long haul. … we had to do tons of prep work … And our work didn’t end with the launch nine-and-a-half years ago – there was still plenty left for us to do here on Earth.
Summers talks about “zillions of teleconferences” and trying to prepare computer models to interpret what they would eventually, hopefully see, if something didn’t go wrong. Colliding with a single grain of dust at the speed the craft is going out could destroy it. But, even now, this isn’t the end. Mike says:
We’ll be working on understanding the brand new data for years. And this is nowhere near the end for the New Horizons team. We’ll stay together to plan an Extended Mission for New Horizons to fly by another dwarf ice planet … hopefully in mid-2018.
That’s a good example of persevering, of keeping on when things get tough or dull. The second is perhaps more what you might expect. The Tour de France is on at the moment. As you probably know, it’s a three week cycling race round France and is the highlight of the road racing calendar. You may remember it starting in Yorkshire last year. Well, yesterday’s stage winner is a Briton called Steve Cummings, who hasn’t won a stage in the Tour before. Afterwards he said that
the last few years I thought I could do this but I needed to find the right team.
Cummings is now riding with the first African team (MTN-Qhubeka) to race in the Tour, and he spoke of the way that they had supported him, which led to Cummings winning his and their first stage in the Tour. It’s a great example of
Run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
And, the Tour de France is also perhaps a more helpful image for understanding what sort of course is marked out for us. It’s not the clear track of the athletics stadium, where you know exactly where you’re going and how many laps are left. The sort of race marked out for us is more like a cycling road race where it can be foggy or there can be torrential rain, where there are steep hills, cobblestones, sharp corners and unexpected things in the road. The course is laid out all right, but that doesn’t make it easy to follow or easy to race on. And, actually, it’s even harder than that. All the cyclists follow the same route and in some ways that’s true for us, and in some ways it’s not. We’ve all got the same destination, but for each of us the exact route is a bit different. The steep hills and cobblestones, the challenges and struggles, are going to be a bit different for each of us, as we heard for those talking about persevering earlier.
Another way that perhaps it’s more helpful to think of a cycle road race than an athletics trace is that, like Steve Cummings said, the team is very important. Most of the riders in the race know that they aren’t actually going to win the whole thing. So, they race to help their team leader, to win individual stages, or to win one of the other prizes on offer. For most of the way the team leaders are riding behind their team-mates, who are helping power them along the roads and up the hills, as they ride in their slipstream.
Part of being members of the body of Christ, apprentices of Jesus, disciples, is that we’re called to do that for each other, to take it in turns to ride in someone else’s slipstream, and to take turns riding at the front. Part of the perseverance we need is that it’s a long-distance race, not a sprint.
In the Tour, there are often breakaways, where a few riders get away from the main group and try to get to the finish first. These don’t succeed very often, but they’re more likely to when the riders in the breakaway, usually from different teams, work together to stay ahead of the chasing main group. In those cases they have to persevere for miles and miles in scorching sun or wind and rain. That’s a much better image for us to picture than a single racer on an athletics track.
And, in the Tour, particularly near the end and on climbs, the road is lined with supporters cheering on all the riders. That’s part of the picture that the author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses”. We are surrounded by the witness of those who have encouraged and inspired us, who give us pictures and examples of what it is like to run the race. Like the examples that we heard at the start of the reading from Hebrews.
So, these are witnesses that we look to for encouragement, to know that what we are doing is possible, no matter how hard! So, who is included in the cloud of witnesses for you? Are there particular people who have inspired you on your way?
Have a think and thank God for them. If anyone would like to say a bit about who is your cloud of witnesses, then please do. <several did>
Since we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses we’re called to throw off everything that hinders and the sin that entangles. To put down the heavy weights of guilt and shame and thinking too little or too much of ourselves. To hear instead the good news that we are the forgiven, loved children of God. To clear the track of the things that trip us up, that wrap us up and send us off course. What are those things for you? What things do you need to ask God to help you to clear out of your way? Gossip or greed, lying or stealing, watching or reading or listening to things that damage or distort your thinking. What things are you tempted to do that damage you, damage other people, damage your relationship with God? Because the good news is that God loves us, God forgives us, God helps us, God is with us.
So, what things are you tempted to do that damage you, damage other people, damage your relationship with God? We’ll just spend a minute or two quietly praying about that. Ask God to show you if you don’t know, and ask God to help you, ask God to show you that he is with you.
Because, instead, we’re called to run with perseverance. One person who is a really good example of running the race with perseverance is Katharine Welby-Roberts. She used to work for Livability, the UK’s largest Christian disability charity, helping disabled adults and children to reach their full potential and develop their independence. Unfortunately, she had to give that up as she has increasingly struggled with mental health problems. Incidentally, she’s also the Archbishop of Canterbury’s daughter, in case you’re thinking you recognise the name. More importantly, she has been writing on her blog about her struggles and about her perseverance Recently she wrote:
“The gospel I read is one about sacrifice and hope – the God who came down to earth in a sacrifice the likes of which I will never comprehend. He spent his life facing struggle after struggle, and came to a point where he asked God to take away the pain of it. He then handed it over to God and surrendered himself to His will. This story is the greatest comfort for me. It tells me that when I sit in tears, begging God to end the pain and he seemingly doesn’t answer, Jesus gets how I feel. It also tells me that Jesus, in his lifetime, surrendered to God, accepting that sometimes our most desperate pleas don’t get answered in the way we would like. There is no answer to the mystery of why some people get healed and others don’t, or why some people get children and others don’t, or some get married and others don’t or any of the other questions in life – but there is an understanding that Jesus knows what it is like to feel like God has forgotten us, and this assures us that even when it feels like it we know he has not.
We need to learn how to walk alongside each other in the midst of heartbreak and suffering. To do this, we need to learn from the extraordinary depths of faith and hope that those whose situations are unchanging can find. We need to learn from the bible that God does extraordinary things in desperate situations – but this doesn’t mean that we will no longer suffer. We need to stop guilt tripping and answering complex questions with an absurd simplicity.
Where is God? He is here. With me. Enjoying my moments of hope and holding me in the moments of brokenness. He is the promise of a future, he is light in the dark, he is everything.
As our passage from Hebrews says, after having listed many of the people who had shown their faith:
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised
They were looking forward to the coming of Jesus, who didn’t come until hundreds of years after their, often untimely, deaths. That’s a great example of what persevering can look like.
Another example which I find helpful is in C S Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters. It’s meant to be the letters from a senior devil to a junior devil who is responsible for tempting one particular Englishman during the Second World War. Near the end of the book (ch28), Screwtape writes about the importance of keeping him alive:
if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it – all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition. If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is “finding his place in it”, while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth which is just what we want.
The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth.
We have this hope that is set before us, so we have a reason to persevere. We have something to look forward to, God’s love and power to help us, so it’s worth persevering. All the cyclists struggle and suffer, but they try to keep going because of the hope that they have. It’s the same, only more so, for us. We can keep going with God’s help and with other people’s help.
There is of course, one other thing to remember. Our goal, our hope, is definitely worth persevering for. But, there might be some things on the way that aren’t worth persevering with. There might be things that we are doing that are entangling us and trapping us. We need to know the wisdom of what to persevere with and when we need to let go of things, on the way to our ultimate hope and final goal.
But, I want to finish with some words from Martin Luther King:
Midnight is a confusing hour when it is difficult to be faithful. The most inspiring word that the church must speak is that no midnight long remains. The weary traveller by midnight who asks for bread is really seeking the dawn. Our eternal message of hope is that the dawn will come.