Endurance

Scriptures: Psalm 10; Hebrews 12:1-17

Guest speaker: Pauline Evans

Let us run with endurance. I like it that the author of Hebrews uses the image of running. I can relate to that. I’ve never been a fast runner, but sometimes it is an accomplishment just to finish the race.

When I was in my 20’s, I trained for a 10K race. Weekdays, I only ran a couple of miles. But the guys I ran with had planned out a course at the nearby state park, where we ran on Saturdays. It started with a big hill. By the time I got to the top, my muscles were aching and I was breathing hard. And I still had almost 6 miles to go.

In a race like that, you have to pace yourself. You don’t want to use up all your energy too soon. But by mile 5, it often felt like I didn’t have much left. Yet I knew the finish line was somewhere ahead, and that if I kept going I could make it. So I just kept on going.

Running a 10K is easy compared to some of what life throws at us.

In June 1988 I was trying to establish a habit of prayer at bedtime. I read Psalm 4:8, “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” as a prayer for God to keep me safe as I slept. I had no real worries about my safety. I knew things could happen, but like most young people, I never expected them to happen to me. And here I was in my own apartment, with the door locked. (Not the deadbolt, which stuck badly so I didn’t use it, but I didn’t know the regular lock provided very little security.)

So this was a prayer that didn’t take much faith, and perhaps that was the point. I had been taught that God did not answer prayer if we had doubts, because James 1:6-7 says “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”

That night a man broke into my apartment and raped me. At the time, I was sure he would kill me when he was done. That was how it played out on TV shows like Hawaii Five-0. And it made sense – why leave me alive to tell the police about it? But he had been drinking, and perhaps on drugs, and he had this crazy idea that we could see other again, that I could be his girlfriend. He apparently believed me when I reluctantly agreed – which I hated to say even as a lie, but my attitude at that point was, anything to get him to leave.

At first it seemed like the life I had known was over. How do you go on after something like that?

Physically, I was OK, just sore. Emotionally I was a mess. I felt ashamed and guilty. I felt it was my fault, that somehow I had deserved it. I had never understood before why women blamed themselves but now it made sense – not logical sense but kind of a gut sense. Psychologists suggest that people blame themselves for things like getting raped in order to maintain an illusion of control. If it’s because of what I did or didn’t do, then I’m in control, and I can fix things to keep it from happening again.

I imagined how I might hit an attacker with a heavy object, whether I might even be able to bring myself to use a gun. But I think I knew that really, a situation like that was beyond my control – as is a great deal of life. Not that we shouldn’t take responsibility where it is appropriate, but we tend to imagine that we can control a lot more than we really can. We can only control our own choices, and anyone who has struggled with changing a bad habit knows how hard it is to do even that.

And that’s scary, not being in control. So we look to God to take care of the stuff that is too big for us to handle. But sometimes it feels like He hasn’t taken care of us very well.

After the rape, my illusion of safety was shattered. I would jump at unexpected noises. (I still do, 30 years later.) I didn’t feel safe anywhere, except maybe at work and church, where I knew people and felt confident they could protect me in the unlikely situation someone got in there trying to do me harm. I gave up running, because I worried that it was my going out alone every morning in my running gear that might have attracted the man’s attention.

I had nightmares where I found someone on my doorstep trying to get in, or at the door of my car trying to force his way in. When I would go home to my apartment – a new one I had moved to just days after the rape because I couldn’t imagine sleeping in the old one ever again – I would lock the door (with a good working deadbolt), then check every room, even in the bathtub, to be sure no one was hiding.

I felt there was no point in praying for safety. After, how much good had that done? For that matter, I felt there was no point in praying for anything. As I saw it, God had a plan, and I accepted that His plan was good, and that it was beyond my understanding. And that plan apparently had included allowing me to be raped.

I didn’t question why God had allowed it. He’s God, and I’m not. He doesn’t owe me an explanation. In the book of Job, Job demands answers from God for what has happened to him, and God responds by showing Job how limited his knowledge and understanding are. If God did try to give Job the answers he demanded, Job would not have the capacity to understand the explanation. Finally Job acknowledges, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

Paul tells us in Ephesians that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” All things. So if God had His own plan and purpose, and He was going to act according to His own plan and purpose regardless of what I prayed, what was the point in praying? I could not help but doubt that God would really answer any prayer I prayed, so any prayer was pointless, because of my doubt, even if it was for something that happened to coincide with His will. And if it was His will, He would do it, whether I prayed or not. So I didn’t.

Yet I kept going to church. Whether I found it “meaningful” or not, whether I felt close to God – which I didn’t, but then, I hardly ever had – church was one of the primary means God has given for us to grow spiritually. We learn, we encounter Him (and over time I learned that encountering God did not necessarily involve the special feelings I had assumed I would experience), we serve others, and we find strength from the support of others. I don’t remember having any sense of actually growing spiritually during that time, but I’ve since come to recognize that God’s work is often much slower than we expect, and God is much more patient with us than we often are with ourselves.

Hebrews 12 gives us some valuable perspectives on how God works in our lives through suffering. First, we are reminded that we’re hardly alone in our suffering. In Hebrews 11, right before today’s passage, we hear about many men and women of faith, and they did not have easy lives. And then there is Jesus himself – look what he suffered for us.

Then we are reminded of the role of discipline in a child’s life. Often when we hear “discipline” we think “punishment,” and sometimes that is necessary. When given by a wise and loving parent, that kind of discipline is a sign of love, though it generally doesn’t feel that way to the one being disciplined. But discipline also refers to self-control, and self-control is often developed in challenging situations. Verse 11 “For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” The “training” referred to there isn’t about training a child, as in the previous verses, but the kind of training you get in the gym, pushing your body to go beyond what it could before, so that it becomes stronger.

So God’s use of difficult circumstances in our lives is sometimes consequences for sin, and other times to help us grow to maturity. We often don’t know which it is, and we don’t need to. Whatever the circumstances, we need to turn away from sin, and do what is right. Verse 14 “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy.”

The word translated here as “make every effort” has the idea of pursue, strive for, seek after, aspire to something. It sounds a lot like the training I did for a race. I knew I couldn’t come close to winning, but I set a goal of how long it would take me to run the race and worked at getting closer to that goal.

It’s hard enough when things are going well to make every effort to be holy. It can be even harder when we are struggling to cope with fear, shame, guilt, and confusion. But you keep on going. There is a goal, even if it’s way to far out of sight to give much comfort at this point.

And it’s a goal we don’t have to pursue alone. Probably the biggest thing that helped me, in the months following the rape, was people who cared about me, who helped me get past all the fear and anger and hurt. One close friend, when I finally told her about it almost 2 years later (and she told me she wished I had felt able to tell her earlier), pointed out that God did keep me safe, as I had prayed. He didn’t keep me safe from the rape, but He kept me safe through the rape.

At that point, I still wasn’t quite ready to accept that as an explanation, but over time I did. And people didn’t treat me differently because of what had happened. Most people didn’t know, and I saw no reason to tell them, because it made for uncomfortable conversations. Those who did know helped me by expecting me to go on with life, showing me they cared about me and didn’t blame me for it and didn’t think I should blame myself. What had happened was bad, and it certainly changed my life, but it didn’t define my life or who I was.

One positive effect it did have was to help me see that I did trust in God. Before the rape, I had often worried about whether I was really born again, because I didn’t sense the “assurance of salvation” that I had been taught all true believers had, that other people in the churches I went to gave testimony about. I had tried asking again for Jesus to save me, just to be sure. But I still had doubts.

When I was being raped, thinking the guy was going to kill me in a short time, I prayed, to be sure I was right with God. I told God I knew I didn’t deserve heaven, that it was only by His grace, because Jesus died for my sins, and that I knew He was righteous and would do what was right, whatever it meant for me personally, and that would glorify God, and all would be as it really should be.

I found that that thought brought me peace. And if I could find peace in knowing that God would do what was right and bring glory to Himself, I must have faith in Him, even if it didn’t look on the outside like the faith of other Christians I knew. Even when I couldn’t bring myself to pray for anything, it wasn’t because I didn’t trust God, it was because I didn’t trust myself to pray with the kind of faith God expected.

Over time I found I could manage prayers of thanksgiving, but for years that was all I could do. And it didn’t seem so bad a thing, to give God thanks instead of requests. Eventually I learned to understand James 1:6-7 in a different way, having to do with my willingness to trust God and follow His ways rather than my expectations about answers to prayer. I still find it hard to make requests without wondering if there is any point in it, but I pray because I think God wants to hear His children tell Him what is important to them, even if it’s not going to make a difference in what He chooses to do.

Sometimes people ask me, how did I get through it, after the rape? Did my faith in God help me through it. Honestly I have trouble answering that. I have no idea how it would have been without faith in God. And what were my options? What would it look like not to get through it? I had struggled a lot with depression, years before the rape, and had concluded that suicide was not an option, because it would mean giving up on being the person God intended me to become. So how I got through it is, I did. I just kept going.

I had learned the song “Press On” – which we heard this morning – a few years earlier, and it seemed to encapsulate that feeling of having no strength left to go on – and going on anyway. And it’s not something we do on our own. By ourselves, we don’t have the strength. At the time it may feel like we’re just doing it by sheer effort, but looking back later, we come to realize that it was God’s grace that enabled us to go on. Whether I consciously felt it or not, God gave me the endurance to keep going.

There is one other image that comes to mind when I think of endurance. When I was growing up, my father often took us hiking on the Appalachian trail on Saturdays. Some summers we went to New Hampshire and climbed Mount Washington. One year when I was about 10 or 11, we went to Maine and my father and I climbed Mt. Katahdin. He said I was really too young, and at 50 he was really too old, but this would be our best chance to do it together.

Park rangers say to allow about 10 hours for the round trip hike to the top and down again. Hikers in great condition can do it in 7. It took us 14 hours. We started at 7 in the morning, but by the time we had climbed to the lower peak, crossed the ridge called Knife Edge, reached the summit, and descended back down to the treeline, it was getting dark. At some point in the woods, the batteries in my father’s flashlight died.

I don’t know how he could see where he was going, because I could not. I tripped on tree roots and rocks I couldn’t see, but he held my hand and kept me from falling. I don’t remember whether I was afraid of getting lost. Hiking with my father, we did get lost sometimes, and once you get off the trail it’s hard to find it again, even when it’s not dark. But somehow he had always gotten us home. What I remember of that long walk through the darkness was being very, very, tired. But what was there to do except keep going? I just plodded on and on, holding my father’s hand.

Life gets like that sometimes. We not only can’t see the goal, we can’t see the path ahead at all. All we can do is keep going anyway, trusting in our heavenly Father to lead us. He can see through any darkness, and even when we feel our strength is used up, He still holds onto us. And no matter how much the path seems to go in strange and sometimes alarming directions, in the end, He will bring us home.

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