May 24, 2015

The Marathon of Enduring to the End

Today, I had the opportunity to speak in church, in Sacrament meeting.  I was asked to speak on enduring to the end, which is a fitting topic for me.  You know, enduring...endurance...endurance events...running!  So really, I got to speak about running at church to the whole congregation.  I shared my story of running a marathon and related it almost as a parable to enduring to the end.  As I spoke, I felt my words be guided by the Holy Ghost, to try and speak what most needed to be said.  Here is the text of my talk.  It's not exactly what I said in my talk, but it is close.  I hope that you enjoy it and maybe even learn something new from it.

Enduring is a process that we will be undertaking the rest of our time in mortality.  It is much like running a marathon.  In fact, I just ran my first marathon back in April, the Big Sur Marathon.  This race was breathtakingly beautiful.  The course runs on the scenic Highway 1 in California and it runs parallel and right beside the Pacific Ocean.  To my left were beaches, waves, cliffs, and all manner of coastal beauty.  To my right were glorious majestic mountains.  And in front of me loomed the toughest physical challenge (aside from giving birth) that I was about to face.  They call it a hilly course, but coming from here, the high plains of Texas, it was a mountainous course.  Huge inclines, shooting high into the mountains lay before me, and seemingly never-ending rolling hills taunted me along the way.  I had to overcome all these challenges just to finish. As I covered those 26.2 miles, each mile was a testimony of the importance of enduring to the end no matter what trials lay in wait.

I trained four months for this race, with about two years even before that of just running.  Our training for this mortal marathon began in the preexistence and continued to the day we make out first covenant.  In fact, receiving saving ordinances of the Gospel marks the start of our enduring race.

As runners at the starting line, we tend to be excited and anxious with our new covenants and responsibilities.  We want to do well.  We wonder if we are prepared enough. We envision the finish line and the glorious reception that awaits us once we have earned that coveted finisher’s medal.  But sometimes it seems, shortly thereafter, that things get hard.  Difficult trials try to impede our path, maybe those closest to us are not supportive of the new life we are living.  Temptations arise. 

The first three miles or so of any endurance event hurts.  It’s hard, there’s so much distance still left to cover.  In fact, I remind myself that these first few miles are a warm-up and get me used to this forward movement.  For that is exactly what we are doing once we receive the saving ordinances of baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and all the temple ordinances—moving forward towards Christ.  And with all this work we go through through to get to that point our life, it is only the beginning.  We can only ensure our eternal salvation as long as we endure to the end.  As Elder Robert D. Hales said, “Enduring to the end applies to all of God’s commandments.”  All of them.  After receiving our saving ordinances, enduring to the end in keeping His commandments is what will allow us to achieve exaltation.   “Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life.” [3 Ne. 15:9]

Any runner can tell you that the first three miles in any endurance race are hard.  I usually feel stiff, awkward, and heavy.  This was true for the Big Sur Marathon.  Many influences of the world try to get us to just quit, right there, in the first ten minutes.  But never judge a race by the first few miles.  “Be patient in thine afflictions, for thou shalt have many; but endure them, for, lo, I am with thee, even unto the end of thy days” [D&C 24:8].

Now as I’m running, especially in a race, I like to find a running buddy.  Someone I can chat with to help the miles seem not-as-long.  Don’t we have those same people in our own lives?  Our family, our friends, coworkers, acquaintances, ward members, club members; the list goes on.  Some of these people are great running buddies.  They encourage us, they motivate us, they support us and help us do our best and try our hardest in our race.  However, some of them are negative influences.  They may complain, they may demean, they may criticize either ourselves or the race we are undertaking.  They may try to get us to slow, to not try as hard, even to just quit.  They may say something like, “Why are you even doing this?  It’s so hard.  Let’s just enjoy ourselves and quit now.  Most people don’t even run marathons, so why are you even trying?”

If we give in to these people, we have allowed ourselves to be, as Neal A Maxwell said, “persuaded out by companions who insist that they know more about life’s perilous journey than do prophets of the Lord.”  At this point we have put the opinions and approval of these people above that of God.  This can lead to an allowance of vices, pride, friends, and even family to influence us off the covenant path.  Weak commitments to eternal covenants are leading to their loss of eternal consequence (Neal A Maxwell).  We are risking the loss of eternal life for temporary things.  And we are forsaking that finisher medal.

When I found myself running with a person who was bringing me down like this, I realized that if I wanted to finish this marathon, I had to pick up my pace, even if it meant leaving him behind.  In the end, we each run our own marathon.  We can help others on the way, but we cannot carry them, and we cannot allow them to pull us down.  After trying to persuade my running buddy to pick up the pace, met only by murmurings and criticisms, I fought past the guilt he was throwing at me, and kept moving forward. 
After finally hitting my stride, the miles just flew by clear past 13.1--halfway.  Living the gospel can feel easy here, as it should.  I stuck with a fueling and hydration plan during the race to make sure I had enough energy to endure to the finish.  I took with me a water bottle and energy gels that I would consume every four miles.  I also planned on stopping at each aid station for a piece of fruit and a sip of Gatorade.  Just as I had a physical fueling plan; daily intentional scripture study, daily meaningful prayer, regular sincere repentance, weekly Family Home Evening, and church activity help to fuel our spirits to endure to the end.  Each aid station offering fruit, Gatorade, water, and motivation in the form of wonderful volunteers, was akin to renewing my covenant through taking of the sacrament, and even receiving spiritual strength as I serve at the temple.  Those ordinances sustain us, and provide us with so much strength, endurance, and guidance. 

That fueling strategy helped me to keep going, even when faced with that daunting, terrifying mountain-of-a-hill, Hurricane Point. No matter what Satan throws at us, maybe in the form of high winds, or Hurricane type winds, or maybe in the form of a seemingly impassable mountain, we just keep placing one foot in front of the other and stick to that fueling plan, trusting in God and having the eternal perspective in mind.  As we focus on our goal, to cross that finish line, we will find that we can accomplish anything, even cresting Hurricane point. 

Sometimes though, we become complacent, or maybe overconfident.  Thoughts can turn to something like, “I feel so great, I don’t want to waste time by stopping at this aid station for water, I’m just going to fly by.”  Or maybe, “So what if I don’t study my scriptures today, I usually do so I’ll be fine.  I hate the taste of those energy gels, I’ll be okay without one this time.”  And even, “I’ve got too much going on at school/work/recreation, I’ll be okay if I skip church today.  It’s only once.”
This line of thinking gets more precarious with each skipped aid station, with each abandoned energy gel, and with each neglected sip of water.  Without proper nourishment, we can only go so far.  And it’s only so long until we crash.
With each incline, I found it harder and harder to keep moving.  An old injury was flaring up horribly and my legs were hurting something fierce.  I hit the wall hard.  I went from kinda-trying-to-run, to a slow shuffle.  Everything hurt.  Everything was tired.  I was beginning to wonder why I even signed up for this to begin with.

This marathon had a time limit, and as that time loomed closer, I was genuinely concerned I wouldn't make it.  I was worried that I wouldn't even make it to mile 22 before the first checkpoint expired.  My motivation started to wane, and I had just about consigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't finish the marathon.  But hey, at least I would have earned the 21-miler medal.  Sure it’s the 21-miler medal and I set out to run the full marathon, but maybe it’s good enough.  Is it really good enough, though?
We must realize, as Neal A Maxwell goes on to say, “Whenever an undertaking is begun, both the energy and the will to endure are essential. The winner of a five-kilometer race is declared at the end of five kilometers, not at one or two. If you board a bus to Boston, you don’t get off at Burlington. If you want to gain an education, you don’t drop out along the way.”  

It’s in these moments that the words of Robert D. Hale give us guidance, “We cannot expect to learn endurance in our later years if we have developed the habit of quitting when things get difficult now.”  Elder Hales continues, “We cannot endure to the end alone.  It is important that we help by lifting and strengthening one another.”  It was just when I was about to give up, that I could hear my Mother's voice telling me, "Rachel, don't quit!  Just keep going.  If you quit now, you'll be so angry with yourself.  You can do this, and you will have help."  An intense feeling of love filled my heart and I instantly felt comfort and peace.  Don't get me wrong, I was still in a LOT of pain and I was still VERY tired, but all of a sudden I felt like I could endure it.

And right at that moment, a man came alongside me.  He turned and explained that if I could just increase my pace ever so slightly, I could make it.  I could make it to the 22-mile cut off, and even finish before the course cut-off.  He encouraged me to just stick with him, and that I did.  I matched him pace-for-pace.  This was just the help I needed.

Anytime during an endurance event, you can always tweak and adjust how you fuel.  Even though I had skipped taking gels and water, at any time I could readjust my process and start taking in water, fruit, and gels—which my body much needed!  This is exactly what the Atonement does for us!  We can never be off track to the point where we can’t apply the Atonement and reap it’s eternal benefits.  We can never have done too much to lose those blessings.  We can always get back on track and back to progressing.  

So, now with my own fueling plan back on track, hydrating back on track, and positive influences all around, we continued up and down the seemingly endless hills, encouraging all around us to keep pressing forward.  The Lord sends us help when we need it.  He sends people to lift us out of darkness, to help us overcome trials, tribulations, and temptations.  To help us find our way back to the covenant path.  In turn, He will guide us to do the very same for others.  We cannot endure alone, nor should we.  We are stronger and happier together.  As we ran, we encouraged and strengthened each other—and even found more runners to join us—straight through those final miles.  It didn’t matter what pace we were going at as long as we were pressing forward. We cheered on the faster runners who passed us by.  We rooted for the slower runners who were trying their hardest.  We knew that we all were set on a pace and a course that would carry us to that finish line.

You know what happened next?  As I kept up with fueling, as I kept my pace, as I kept encouraging others, I made it! I crossed that finish line victoriously.  I didn’t win the race by any means, but that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I endured to the end.  Neal A Maxwell said, “Whatever your work may be, endure at the beginning, endure through opposing forces along the way, and endure to the end. Any job must be completed before you can enjoy the result for which you are working.”  And oh did I enjoy that result.  Once I crossed, I about collapsed from fatigue, and also from sheer joy.  Tears came to my eyes.  I was just so happy have completed!  I did it!  I am now officially a marathoner!

I endured to the end and earned this medal!

At that finish line stood my best friend and members from my family holding motivational signs and cheering for me to keep going, to cross that finish line, to complete the marathon.  We have so many people in our lives—both here in mortality and on the other side—that are rooting for us.  As we endure to the end, we too will be greeted as victors by loved ones.  And we will have earned that most precious medal that can never be given, only earned, exaltation and eternal life.  All who have endured to the end will receive this reward.

Elder David Bednar said, “If living the Gospel is hard, then you’re doing it wrong.”  Enduring to the end will take work, but it doesn’t have to be impossible as long as you are putting the Lord and His Gospel first in your life.  As I bore testimony of earlier, by doing so everything will fall into place or fall out.  Life happens, and we aren’t always as vigilant in scripture study, FHE, prayer, temple attendance, or whatever it may be.  The Lord understands this and that is why he gave us the wonderful gift of the Atonement and repentance.  Through the Atonement, we can get back on track.  We can fix our fueling strategy.  We can make it through those rough patches, those lethargic patches, those Hurricane Points, for they do happen!  All we must do is keep our goal of crossing that finish line in our sights, and do our best in keeping all the commandments so that we can endure to end.

As Robert D Hales said, “If we will be obedient and if we are diligent, our prayers will be answered, our problems will diminish, our fears will dissipate, light will come upon us, the darkness of despair will be dispersed, and we will be close to the Lord and feel of His love and the comfort of the Holy Ghost…find the faith, courage, and strength to endure to the end so that we may feel the joy of faithfully returning to the arms of our Heavenly Father.” 

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