Run and Not Grow Weary: A Sermon Dedicated to All Those Who Live with Cancer (In other words, all of us)
Preached on February 4, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett, with gratitude to marathoners Jennifer Caron and Kate Pietrovito, and to Jen Kalnicki, and all of the families in my congregation who live with the devastating affects of cancer. You are all inspirations, though we love you just as much at your most uninspired, uninspiring and weariest.
Sermons are usually better heard (though this one features bad singing because I forgot the tune to the song).
My son learned a song at Village Green preschool that he made me sing with him all day Friday. Maybe you know it.
We're goin' on a bear hunt
(We're goin' on a bear hunt)
We're going to catch a big one,
(We're going to catch a big one,)
I'm not scared
(I'm not scared)
What a beautiful day!
(What a beautiful day!)
A big dark forest.
We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
We've got to go through it!
Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!
So it is with the darkness of our deepest suffering. We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it. We can’t get around it. We’ve got to go through it.
In our passage from Isaiah today, the prophet is speaking to those who have been suffering for a long time. He is addressing the Judean people who have long lived in exile, in Babylon. They are tired, beaten down, and in the depths of despair.
The prophet is trying to coax them to remember God’s promises to them, using almost a pleading tone. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told from the beginning? Our God created the foundations of the earth, the people are like tiny ants below. The Holy One created all of this, called it all by name, loved it all into existence. Wait on the Lord. He will give strength to the powerless; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
Lord, in this bleak midwinter, we gather around this communion table of grace to renew our strength, because we are weary from stumbling in the dark.
As your pastor who has the honor of knowing you deeply, I know that the amount of people here right now who feel powerless, and worn out from despair often far outweigh the amount of people who feel joyful and fulfilled on any given Sunday.
We are tired. We have endured daily images of people on the news who need our help and protection: from wildfires and floods, mass shootings and white supremacist rallies, refugees and #metoo movement, Muslim and Jewish hate crimes, the opioid crisis and the health care crisis…and so our empathy triggers are on high alert, and they have started to wear out. We have compassion fatigue.
Given our exhaustion, it’s pretty impressive that we can still dance our buns off on Friday night, and then serve a Saturday lunch for 100 people on Saturday, then show up here today, and auction off some delicious Super Bowl food to fuel a Pats win this afternoon.
Joy anyway! Joy in spite. Joy beside. Joy in resistance. Joy in defiance.
I also just want to say, Lord, because it needs to be said, we are sick of cancer; tired of cancer; DONE with cancer. This church can’t catch a break with that terrible beast of a wretched disease. Really.
Cancer is an indiscriminate dasher of spirits. It is a silent killer of faith. It steals lives and livelihoods and children from their parents and parents from their children.
And cancer has much to teach us about the depths of our weariness, and the depths of our strength.
I talked to our beloved Jen Kalnicki on the phone on Thursday, who just had her first round of chemo last week, and she was so weak that she said she had to drink from a straw all day because she couldn’t lift her head off of the pillow. She was so weary, Lord, she couldn’t lift her head. She has these two beautiful little girls, and sometimes she can't lift her head.
When I was a kid, my mom used to sing: “if somehow you could pack up your sorrows, and give them all to me, you would lose them, I know how to use them, give them all to me.”
I am picturing the whole congregation just singing that to Jen, lying there in that bed. You don’t have to wait on God for strength when you have a community that brings God to you. I picture the whole congregation gently lifting her head up, lifting Paula Fogerty’s head up, and Ranny Sabourin’s, and Jeffrey Nideur’s, lifting up the heads of families who have lost loved ones to this disease, far too early—the Leonards, the Quinns, the Cransons, Pam Dell, the Joyces, to name only a few. I think we are in the business of gently lifting up heads and pointing them in the direction of the sun.
The prophet in the book of Isaiah tells the long-suffering Judean exiles to wait patiently on God, who will eventually give us strength.
Patience is a virtue, but it’s not my best virtue. My favorite prayer is “Lord, give me patience. And hurry.”
The scripture says that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Well, I’m definitely not a runner. To be honest, if a bear was chasing me down the rail trail, I’d just give up right away, lie down and ask the Lord to take me. I’ve led a good life. My children will be fine…they have good fathers.
So given that running is not my strong suit, I reached out to two of the marathon runners in our congregation. “I’m writing a sermon,” I said, “on how to run and not grow weary. I have no idea how that’s done. You two are always running marathons. Do you have advice?”
And I want to tell you what they said, because its just pure insight about living a good and faithful life. In fact, they were so convincing that they almost made me want to do one of those couch to 5K programs.
Jennifer Caron said this:
First of all, there is no such thing as long distance running *without growing weary*. We DEFINITELY grow weary!
Endurance training, though, is all about how to push our capacity so that we grow weary later on into the run (when you first start running, weariness might be at 3 miles, but through persistence and extending the mileage slowly each week - pretty soon you don’t grow weary until 12 miles, and so on). Also taking care of our bodies - eating healthfully, getting rest, getting bodywork, etc. is necessary.
Then there’s what we do WHEN we grow weary.
You have to take care of yourself physically:
1. EAT! (And drink) We love snacks. Healthy snacks that nourish us and fuel us at proper intervals for what’s ahead.
2. Go a comfortable pace, tune into your body (not too slow, not too fast, just right for that distance)
Most of all, she said, you have to take care of yourself mentally: (and this is 95% of it!)
1. You have to make it fun - run with friends, listen to music, celebrate the crap out of it when you’re done!
2. All the people out there supporting you makes you feel stronger…think of them.
3. You can’t freak out when the weariness and pain comes. An old coach of mine would say “get comfortable with the discomfort”. So when the cramping and fatigue creep in, we’re not going to freak out. Instead, it’s familiar and like an old friend. I will often say out loud “oh hello there, groin/hip/back pain, ol’ friend. I thought I might find you right about now.” This helps you keep calm and not despair. Reframing “pain” as “sensations” also helps me.
4. It helps to keep a perspective about people who are suffering with way worse, and what they would give to have the good health us marathoners have. This inspires you to push on when all else fails.
5. Of course using a trusted coach to help prepare you for the way is crucial.
Kate Pietrovito says this:
The question about how to run and not grow weary makes me think of the Gandhi prayer that we recite weekly in the Spirit Play classroom, specifically, the line: “my wisdom comes from within and without”.
Endurance and motivation come from both internal and external sources. To finish a long race, a difficult race, you must leverage both.
Internally, it’s the mental and physical training and desire. This applies to everything: the desire to work hard, the desire to achieve a personal goal, the things you tell yourself to keep you going when you feel like giving up. Thinking about the work you’ve put in that would be all for naught if you quit.
Externally, our world has so many sources of inspiration. Use them! During the Marine Corps Marathon, there’s a mile called the “wear blue” mile. It is full of photographs of our fallen soldiers, and lined with volunteers—their families. Jen and I both cried through that mile.
Other times, you think of your family. You think of your friends. You think of a First Church favorite phrase, “we can do hard things” And you repeat it as a mantra when your energy is slipping away.
Jen Kalnicki recently wrote this about her first week of chemo, and she gave me permission to share it with you:
The past few days have sucked. You really take for granted the ability to lift your head, hold your phone, just breathe.
There have been moments of doubt (I can't possibly do this...), moments of dread (what if it's like this the whole time...), moments of anger (why are we treating this so aggressively, others are able to work/walk/exist, why can't I?), and finally moments of despair (just hot, hot tears...).
But each time those moments appeared, there was something equally glorious happening. Mark's steady and calming love crashing over me in waves, Ava and Lili's intrinsic ability to comfort and motivate, friends and family swooping in to carry the burden, and the freedom to cry it out. The messages lift and carry us through those lows, even when I cannot respond.
Today, I bear witness to the scandalous generosity and outrageous love this journey has shown me. Today, I woke up able to move a bit more. Today, I woke up.
And tomorrow, I'll get up and do it again.
In this long, slow slog of loving each other, and loving a beautiful and broken world…as we wait on God to give us strength for the journey, remember these tips from Jen, Kate and Jen:
Start by acknowledging that we will definitely grow weary. We are only human and doing the best that we can. Normalize that. Pay attention to it. Then: take care of your bodies. Eat good, healthy food, and drink water. Go at a comfortable pace.
Please, make it fun. Celebrate the crap out of everything. Laugh. Go with friends, and let music be the soundtrack to your life. Use the desire within you and the motivation all around you. Remember you are not alone.
Don’t freak out when it gets painful. Don’t retreat. Get comfortable with discomfort. Treat pain like an old friend who reminds you that you’re still alive, that your heart is still tender. Keep calm and don’t despair. Remember who has it worse, what you are grateful for, who you are living for, and why.
Use trusted coaches who will help you prepare the way.
Leverage internal and external sources of strength. Your wisdom comes from within and without.
We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we have to go through it. So don’t quit. Swoop in to share burdens and send messages of love. Give the freedom to yourself and others to cry it out.
Together, we can stumble trip through the darkness. Together, we can run and not grow weary. Together, we can do hard things. Together, our generosity and love keeps people alive. This grace is a scandal and an outrage, and sometimes it is nothing less than the reason people wake up in the morning. Tomorrow, we can get back up and do it all again. Not everyone has that privilege.
Don’t just wait on the Lord—be the Love and grace in world the Lord calls us to be. No hands but our hands.
Blessing for the Brokenhearted by Jan Richardson
Let us agree
that we will not say
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.
Let us promise
we will not
time will heal
when every day
opens it anew.
Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this--
as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it,
as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
is to love still,
as if it trusts
that its own
is the rhythm
of a blessing
begin to fathom
but will save us
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.