The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 

Pentecost XIII: perseverance


​Attending college in Kentucky in the 1970s meant that corn whisky and thoroughbred racing mattered to you, even if you weren’t a horsey, bourbon person when you walked on campus.[1] Becoming comfortably conversant in the subtleties of fine horse flesh and smooth sweet whisky[2] were unstated yet very real parts of the curriculum. 

The year Secretariat[3] won The Triple Crown, I was a junior at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. I had the chance to be on the infield at Churchill Downs for the Derby that year, and I chose not to go.[4] I had the opportunity to be on site while history was being made, and I wasn’t there. I have regretted that decision every Derby day since.


​He already had shown himself to be exceptional; before the Derby there were murmurs of War Admiral’s style, but it would take the Triple Crown to legitimate his name being spoken in the same sentence as Man o’ War. Secretariat set the still unmatched, still unbroken Kentucky Derby record, covering 1¼ miles on decent dirt in a blistering 1:592⁄5.  Perhaps the most thrilling features of race were his successive ¼-mile “splits,” each of which was shorter than the one before it. As Secretariat passed each pole, the hair raising truth emerged-  he was accelerating throughout the entire race,[1] continuing to speed up even at the wire.[2] 

Now before assuming that I’ve wandered into the woods of equine reverie and collegiate nostalgia, please know there’s a point here. There is a metaphor. There is a biblical lesson illustrated in the career of this great stallion. 

Secretariat was a horse, not a human being. Whatever self-awareness he had probably did not extend to consciousness of an immortal soul. It is easy to anthropomorphize, attributing human traits to animals; human beings are particularly good at this with their dogs and their horses. And we think in terms of schooling horses, not horses schooling us. That caution fully acknowledged, every time I hear today’s epistle, I think of him...I think of Secretariat, a horse modeling faithful human behavior: 

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”[3] 

Yep.  That’s him...a 1000lb beast in a small herd of 1000lb beasts, deriving from them and giving to them the kind of energy that only running together can provide...a beast that just loved to run...a beast that trusted his jockey, explored his limits, and never fully found them. Secretariat with Ron Turcotte up, showed us what it means to “Lay aside every weight...that clings so closely and...run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” 

The hardest part is “laying aside every weight.” Many of us never get as far as needing perseverance because we get distracted by and stuck in the “weight” that “clings so closely.” Hebrews invites us to genuinely and authentically repent, to ask for forgiveness and mean it, so that we may in fact “lay aside every weight that clings so closely.” Then and only then are we free to persevere. 

Perseverance is a spiritual characteristic; endurance describes the observable physical manifestation of perseverance. Without perseverance one cannot endure, one cannot last, one cannot complete the committed expenditure of self. The Letter to the Hebrews gives encouragement to faithful people. Hebrews 12 reminds the faithful that Jesus has already run the race and finished it; He gets it...He’s been there and done that...and He loves us so much that we are encouraged to do the same, even if it costs us what it cost Him. 

Perseverance is a virtue because it describes a soul that is committed, a soul that is willing to embody a value larger than itself. In Secretariat’s case, that larger-than-life value was the joyful exultant freedom to be a horse, doing exactly what God made him to do. On the day he sealed his immortality, Secretariat started back in the field, and seeing what was set before him, he was not fearful. He ran toward it, not away from it...glory not the motive but glory surely the result. Secretariat persevered. 

In our case, that value-larger-than-self is a covenanted life with God. Perseverance is not “I can stand anything for X”. Perseverance is instead “I cannot take back my commitment. To do so would hurt far worse than anything else that might come along.” Perseverance is not tooth-grinding resistance to strain; it is abiding, stable, enduring unanxious presence.

We are given to each other for the sake of the abiding, stable, enduring, unanxious presence we give to and derive from each other...because, like horses, we are herd animals, whether we esteem that image or not. 

The metaphor won’t break, and the best is the last known; when the veterinarian necropsied Secretariat, he found that Secretariat’s heart was more than twice the size of a typical thoroughbred stallion’s. Meditate on that image, with all of its implications!  

Every day is another race. Every single sunrise is another Call to Post. Even though I have more the frame and temperament of a Percheron or Clydesdale than a Thoroughbred, I still hear that Call. So do you. In spite of my draft horse temperament, I want to run.

In this lifetime of daily races, have we the courage to be Us with Jesus up? Have we the courage to accept the blinders voluntarily limiting our vision from all that might distract us, Jesus knowing better how we run than we do? Do we want to lay aside every weight except the weight of Him up? With a crowded field ahead of us and clods flying off the track into our faces, do we want to be Us with Jesus up? Jostling in the pack with the mean or scared distractions of others, do we trust Him to sustain Us? Is there any desire in our hearts to trust always that His heels and calves will speak, and if He goes to the whip, can we want even then to be Us with Jesus up? Have we the will to run with perseverance the race that is set before us honestly and authentically, as Us with Jesus up? Can we, will we, set a good time, and not waste His? And at the finish of each day and at the finish of it all, chests heaving, will we feel Him lean forward along our neck, and feel His hand touching us? Will we run so that we feel the bit ease in our teeth, telling us before He says a word that we ran well, and He was glad to be up? 

Please God. Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, 14 August 2016, being The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
 
[1] In my era, the only sport that matched thoroughbred racing’s following among Kentucky college students was the Adolph Rupp legacy in Kentucky Wildcats basketball.
[2] We had more frequent access to the whisky than to the horses; my recollection is that my fraternity brothers and I studied the bourbon lessons thoroughly, some even attempting a major. While not “dissolute” strictly speaking, we came in sight of it occasionally, and knew its definition. In the long-term, what tastes good and when to stop were the abiding hard-learned lessons.
[3] That Spring, he frequently was a topic of table conversation. Talk of Secretariat was as extensively informed and genuinely serious as basketball or the emerging revelations that would lead to Watergate.  In the weeks leading up to the Derby, he was cause célèbre. Though we had some sense that Secretariat was a very good horse, we had no idea that he would be among the greatest horses ever to race.
[4] I had rational reasons for choosing not to go: 1) being among 50,000 inebriates lying around in the humid sunshine of Louisville on the first Saturday in May did not sound like a good time to me, and 2) I would be able to see far more of the race (its entirety) on television than I ever would have seen from that muggy, alcohol-hazed infield. This was my unimaginative, solid, “sensible-shoes” logic.
[1] 251⁄5, 24, 234⁄5, 232⁄5, and 23...his fifth ¼-mile was 2 1⁄5  seconds faster than his first ¼-mile.

 

[2] One can only wonder if Ron Turcotte had driven Secretariat another 2 furlongs, could he/would he have posted a sixth successive shorter split?

[3] Hebrews 12:1-2