Tomorrow – assuming I get away from the Diocesan Synod in good time – I will be running through 10 kms of mud in the two-lap Standish Hall trail race, something I strangely enjoy.
I’ve been running in such races for nearly 50 years (gulp) without any conspicuous success but such experience does mean that, if nothing else, I have a good judgment of pace. Invariably on the second lap I gain about 20 places, even more sometimes, taking those runners who have started too quickly.
For the first 800m is on a sound surface and slightly downhill and with a small crowd cheering you on, there is every temptation to match the pace of the leading runners. Running uphill through the deep mud of Elnup Woods is altogether a different proposition; there is every temptation to give up and start to walk. It could be a scene from Pilgrim’s Progress.
And so we read in Hebrews 12, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (v1).
It’s one thing to start well, what counts is keeping at it, pressing on when everything inside you says “Slow down”. And so the writer urges this cautious congregation: “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees!” (v12). Keep at it, stay engaged. Whatever you do, don’t give up!
Again, you can hear the apostle Paul’s frustration as he writes to the church in Galatia: “You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? ( Galatians 5:7). He reminds them of their splendid start and confronts them with their failure to finish well. “After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? (Galatians 3:3).
When I arrived here in Aughton the Diocese sent me a splendid manual, “New Beginnings” published by the Alban Institute in Virginia, on becoming a vicar of your new church. Essentially it said to avoid burn out, begin as you intend to finish. “Each pastoral start should be viewed as a ‘dangerous opportunity.”’ Pace yourself.
For that reason I am always wary of enthusiasm at the beginning of any project or appointment. Enthusiasm is a dangerous motivator. For as American horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft confessed “I fear my enthusiasm flags when real work is demanded of me.”
For it is inevitable that in serving God you enter the equivalent of Elnup Wood, when the going gets tough and the flak begins to fly. To quote Colin Urquhart, using 1980’s non-inclusive language, it is there you see the difference between the boy Christians and the men Christians! And yet such hard testing is at the heart of being a disciple. We should expect no less.
So whatever God has called you to do, keep on keeping on. And what is the secret of such stamina? Here we go back again to Hebrews 12. “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross!” (verse 2). For Jesus not only is our example of perseverance, he actually resources through his Holy Spirit dogged discipleship.
So the apostle Paul prays, so to speak for us, for all Christians: “We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us.” (Colossians 1:10-12 Message translation).