In a book entitled Prayers of Dark People written at the turn of the 20th century, the great black scholar and social activist, W.E.B. Du Bois lifted these words to the Lord:
We must endure to the end,
learn to finish things,
bring them to accomplishment and full fruition.
We must not be content with plans, ambitions and resolves;
with part of a message or part of an education,
but be set and determined to fulfill the promise
and complete the task
and secure the full training…
Give us then, O God, to resist today the temptation of shirking,
and the grit to endure to the end.1
Du Bois seemed to understand something very essential about human nature: we have a tendency to give up on things before they have been completed. We quit too soon. We abandon the struggle too quickly. If things do not come easily and effortlessly we are inclined to shrug our shoulders, say that it was not meant to be, and walk away. How many marriages have ended because someone gave up and walked away too soon? How many academic programs have been abandoned, how many book manuscripts are gathering dust on a shelf, how many career ambitions have been traded in for something less difficult, less challenging, a little easier to attain all because people lack one basic thing; the ability and determination to endure?
I doubt that what am about to say here today will be new to most of us, but it bears being repeated: nothing in life that is worth having is going to come easily. In pursuit of whatever our goals or dreams may be there will be times when the only thing standing between us and either victory or defeat is our willingness and our ability to endure. This word endure is not complicated to understand, but it extremely difficult to master. It means that when you are tired, you keep going. When you seem overwhelmed you keep going. When all the odds seem to be against you and success seems out of reach you just keep going. Endurance! There is nobody in all of history who has ever achieved anything of substance who did not have to dig down deep for a little more strength and determination and simply endure.
I was deeply moved by the speech that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave when she addressed the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Co., last August. She quoted some lines from Harriet Tubman, the woman who on 19 separate occasions led runaway slaves from bondage to freedom. Clinton quoted Tubman as saying:
When you hear the dogs barking – keep going.
When you see the torches in the woods – keep going.
When you hear them shouting after you – keep going.
Keep going. Don’t ever stop. If you want a taste of freedom keep going.
That is the spirit of endurance that has marked the journey of our people in this country. That is the spirit of endurance that has marked the legacy of this country over the last 233 years. And that is the spirit, the spiritual resource that I am urging each one of us to stir up within ourselves today. Keep going. Don’t ever stop. Ask God to give us the grit to endure.
This is the victory song that Paul is singing in
This is our challenge today; to endure whatever difficulties and obstacles are set in our path and finish whatever race we are attempting to run. It will not be easy; in fact enduring is usually quite difficult. However, endurance is precisely what we need as we go through life. Let me be more specific: first we need to be able to endure in pursuit of the goals we have established for ourselves in life. Second, we need to be able to endure in response to the harsh disappointments and setbacks that might come our way. Third, we need to endure when it becomes clear that there are some dreams we had for ourselves that are not going to come true, but we discover in those hard hours that life is still worth the living.
Let me examine this first point with you; we need to endure in the face of things that may be hard but are worth whatever effort we need to invest to achieve them. I was intrigued last week by the debate on sports radio and TV channels about who was the better player, Lebron James or Kobe Bryant. The debate was fueled by the fact that on last Monday Kobe Bryant scored 61 points against the New York Knicks inside of Madison Square Garden. Two days later Lebron James scored 52 points, and had 11 assists and now they say only 9 rebounds. I don’t know which one is better. All I know is how hard both of them work to be as good as they are. No matter how much natural talent and ability they may have, the key to their success is their work ethic.
If you want to achieve something great in life be willing to work hard to get there. When what you want does not come easily do not quit trying; endure. This is not only true in the world of sports; this is true in every area of life. If you want to raise children in a world like this you have to work at it. And on those days when things do not seem to be going as you had hoped, do not give up on them or yourself; endure. I believe that ½ of the marriages that end in divorce could have been saved if the people involved had been willing to work a little harder and endure a little more uncertainty until they could find some common ground that could carry them forward. Marriages are not made in the Walt Disney Studios where everything turns out fine and we all live happily ever after. Marriage is tough and those who succeed are the ones who show determination and “the grit to endure to the end.”
There is a status in academic circles known as “ABD.” Those letters stand for All but dissertation. That means that a person has taken all the classes, passed all the exams, and entered into candidacy for a Ph.D. degree. However, at some point and for a variety of reasons they could not finish their dissertation, their extended paper that was both proof of their mastery of the material in their field of study and their own contribution to that field. They had done a lot of work, but they did not finish; ABD. There are all kinds of ABDs in this world; close but not complete. There were career goals that are ABD. There are financial plans that are ABD. There are relationships that are ABD. Life is full of people whose every other word is “if only” or “almost” or “I tried.”
During Black History Month, I invite you to learn the lessons of black history which still go untaught in schools all across this country. The Tuskegee Airmen should never have gotten off the ground. People did everything in their power to stand in their way. What happened that allowed those black pilots and their ground crews to be so successful in such a hostile environment? They endured. The leader of that group was General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. He never should have emerged as a major figure in American history. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. For the entire time he was there not one white cadet spoke to him outside of class, or shared a meal with him, or bunked in a room with him. How did he survive that isolation and discouragement? He endured.
This has been our story in America; we have endured. Jackie Robinson endured on the baseball field. Joe Louis endured in the boxing ring. Thurgood Marshall endured in the courtroom. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., endured in the halls of Congress. Sojourner Truth endured as she fought against slavery. Wilma Rudolph endured as she overcame polio to win three Olympic gold medals in Rome in 1960. Tiger Woods endured when he won the U.S. Open in 2008 with just one good leg. Serena Williams endured when she won the Australian Open tennis Championship in 120-degree temperatures. Each of them struggled in different arenas and with different skills, but they had one thing in common: the determination and grit to endure to the end.
However, there is another kind of endurance I want to lift up and invite you to consider. It is the power to endure in the face of setbacks and disappointments. It has less to do with career goals and personal ambitions. Instead, it involves physical challenges and health related problems. It seems that every time I turn around somebody is being diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, or they have suffered a stroke or contracted some deadly disease. Sickness becomes an invitation for some people to give up on life and to abandon any thought of healing and recovery. Even more unsettling is when you have gone through some procedures and you think the worst is behind you. Then you find out that some cancer or some blood clots or some infection in the blood is still there. What do you do when you thought you were out of the woods but the darkness of doubt and uncertainty returns?
Peggy and I thank all of you for your prayers and support of us during her recent surgery for breast cancer. I had been telling you that she was doing fine and recovering well from that surgery; and all of that is true. She is recovering well from that surgery. However, we had been told that we would not know the true status of her condition until some of the tissue taken from her body was sent to a pathologist for microscopic review. That would not come for a week after the initial surgery, but it did come last week. We now know there is still some cancer in her body. We know that more surgery and chemotherapy will be needed. We know that despite our most fervent and earnest prayers that one surgical procedure would resolve the problem that her struggle goes on.
Peggy is not alone in this predicament; there are many members of this church and members of your families in other locations whose struggle with life-threatening sickness continues. The first round of procedures did not work. The first round of treatment was not enough. There are some challenges that still await them. What do you do when you find yourself in this position? The same word applies here as in other moments in life; endurance. However, I now feel the need to move beyond Paul’s words of “I have finished my race” and move on to his words “I have kept the faith.” There are times in life when you cannot do one without the other. There are moments in life when the only way we are able to endure is when we hold on to God’s unchanging hand and believe that God will see us through.
As strong as any of us may be, there comes a time when we need to hand our situation over to God. There are times when relying on our own strength and resilience is not enough. We have run the race as far as our legs could carry us. We have fought a good fight as far as our strength could take us. We have endured all that can be humanly endured. Nevertheless, the problem is still there. The pain has not gone away. We are all out of options and out of ideas and out of ammunition. In moments like that there is still hope. It is the hope that Thomas A. Dorsey was lifting up after the death of his wife and their newborn son. Can you hear those old, familiar words that have now been translated into 40 languages around the world?
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, help me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, and I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light,
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me on.
When we cannot endure by our own strength it is time to endure by the strength of someone else who can and will see us through. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on.
In the 1992 Olympic Games there was remarkable story about a track athlete named Derek Redmond and his father Jim Redmond. The two had trained together for years getting ready to compete in the Olympic Games. The son had qualified for the 1988 Olympic Games, but he tore his Achilles tendon just 10 minutes before his first race was set to begin. He underwent five surgeries to repair that injury, and now, four years later he was at the starting line again. The day they had worked for and dreamed about had arrived and the big race underway. If he won this preliminary race he would qualify for the final race which was the medal round. With less than 200 meters to go he felt a pop in his leg as his right hamstring muscle is torn. He falls to the ground in pain and disappointment. Once again his dream was not going to come true.
Rather than lay there in self-pity, Derek Redmond gets to his feet and begins limping toward the finish line. ESPN.com describes it this way:
Redmond lifts himself to his feet, ever so slowly, and starts hobbling down the track.
Suddenly everyone realizes that Redmond isn’t dropping out of the race by hobbling off
to the side of the track. No, he is actually continuing on one leg. He’s going to attempt to hobble his way to the finish line. All by himself. All in the name of pride and heart.
One painful step at a time, each one a little slower and more painful than the one before, his face twisted with pain and tears, Redmond limps onward, and the crowd, many in tears cheer him on.
Finally, with Derek refusing to surrender and painfully limping along the track, Jim Redmond reaches his son at the final curve, about 120 meters from the finish, and wraps his arm around his waist. “I’m here, son,” Jim says softly, hugging his boy. “We’ll finish together.” Derek puts his arms around his father’s shoulders and sobs.
Together, arm in arm, father and son, with 65,000 people cheering, clapping, and crying, finish the race, just as they had vowed they would. A couple of steps from the finish line, Jim releases the grip he has on his son so Derek could cross the finish line by himself. Then he throws his arms around Derek again, both crying, along with everyone in the stands and on TV.
Derek Redmond won no medal that day, but he won a great victory. Of course he was disappointed for a second time. But rather than turn around and walk away in total defeat, he endured. He found the grit to finish the race. He leaned on his father’s shoulder and he finished his race. It wasn’t his coach who came to his aid. It wasn’t one of his teammates who rushed to his side. It wasn’t another runner in that race that walked him up to the finish line; it was his father.
I tell you, there may come a time in your life when you may fall by the wayside and when your hopes and dreams simply do not come true. There may not be anything that anybody else can do for you. They will probably have already gone on with their lives. But if you look closely and listen carefully, there is someone who will come rushing to your side to pick you up from where you have fallen or been knocked down. There is someone who will invite you to lean on the everlasting arms and who will help you to finish the race. All you have to do is keep the faith.
Doctors don’t have the last word. Keep the faith. This bad economy does not have to fill you with permanent despair. Keep the faith. Barack Obama may not be able to fix all the problems of this nation. That’s alright; keep the faith. James Cleveland wrote a song about determination and endurance that says:
My way may not be easy,
You did not say that it would be;
But if I get lost and can’t find my way,
Help me put my faith in thee.
Lord, help me to hold out until my change comes.2
1. Du Bois, W.E.B., Prayers for Dark People, U of Massachusetts Press: Amherst, 1980, p. 27.
2. “Lord, Help Me to Hold Out,” James Cleveland, in African American Heritage Hymnal, GIA Publications: Chicago, 2001, p. 446.