Guest speaker Alex Costanzo encourages us to build spiritual endurance for our faith journey.
Good afternoon everybody.. It’s really great to be here. It’s been over a year since I last shared at Cornerstone. Time flies and I’ve hit a couple of significant milestones in my life that I thought I’d share with you this afternoon. First, our oldest son, Rocco, left for college a couple of weeks ago. My husband and I have three boys. So a one down, two to go. So far so good. We’re on the plan. Of course, I’m trying really hard not to call him every single day like a helicopter mom. He will say, “Mom you called me, this is the fourth time this week.” I’m trying to be better about giving him some space. Second, I recently celebrated my 40th birthday for the 11th time.
If you do the math, that makes me the big 50, but I will say when you live with cancer, you welcome every birthday, even the big ones. It feels really, really good. I got to thinking how Rocco and I are on such different points on the timeline of life. In a way, he’s just starting out. He’s got his whole life ahead of him. So many possibilities, so many adventures to look forward to. We’re so excited for this new season in his life. He’s doing great. But what a 50-year-old like me knows better than a college student like him is, that life has a way of wearing us down. We experience issues with our health, relationships, and careers. We even suffer tragedies and trauma. The hard times can really shake our faith.
I think that one of the key challenges as a Christ-follower is to hold our faith steady through the ups and downs of life. Wouldn’t you agree? My father turned 80 this year. We have a lot of big birthdays in our family. He always used to say, “Life is like a marathon. You got to go the distance. You have to go the distance.” I didn’t fully appreciate the statement until I actually ran a marathon. It was the 1996 Marine Corps marathon in Washington, DC. I know 1996 sounds like ancient history. Doesn’t it for some of you? You might be wondering how an unsighted person can run a race. It’s true that I have no sight today, but back then I could see maybe about five or six feet in front of me. I’ve lost my vision slowly over time throughout my life.
The plan was to run it with my girlfriend who would act as my guide. The good news is that I finished, but the bad news is that it was a comedy of errors. I’m going to give you permission right now to just laugh along with me, as I tell you this story. It was a crazy time in my life. I was working a lot, maybe 80 hours a week, and traveling constantly. I didn’t really do a lot of research about the race. I didn’t even read the info packet that they mailed to us. Back then we didn’t have the internet. You actually had to read pamphlets in the mail through snail mail. I didn’t know that there would be 20,000 runners. Imagine that. I had told my girlfriend, “I’ll just meet you at the starting line. No problem.”
Needless to say, I couldn’t find her. Before I knew it, the starting pistol fires, what do I do? I decided you know what, I can do this. I can do this without her. I’ll just stick with the people that have the same pace as me and everything will be fine. What could go wrong? The first five miles? I felt really good. So I didn’t bother to hydrate, which is a rookie mistake. But by mile six, I start paying attention to the drink station because I know I need to start hydrating. The drink stations were set up at every mile marker and operated by Marines in full uniform. As I ran by, they would yell one of two things, “Water or accelerate.” When they yelled, “Water,” I would reach out my hand and they would give me a cup of water. When they yelled, “Accelerate,” I would speed up because I figured they were ushering us past the empty drink tables, it was chaotic through the drink station areas. So I thought they were just trying to move us along. But soon I’m looking for the Gatorade because you can’t run 26 miles on just water. But I can’t figure out where the Gatorade is.
Mile after mile, the Marines are handing out water or just telling us to speed up. I find myself back on the open course again. You have to understand something, my husband is a Marine, I’m used to the way that Marines talk. They don’t talk normally like we do. They don’t say, “Start and stop.” They say, “Engage and abort,” and they don’t say, “Speed up.” They say, “Accelerate.” So when these Marines are shouting, “Accelerate,” at me, I’m naturally thinking they want me to speed up and move along. Guess who was the main sponsor of the race? A sports drink company called, “Accelerade.” So they’re yelling, “Accelerate, accelerate.” Which is what I’m looking for. I’m literally running away from them. Unfortunately, I did not realize this little fact until after the race. So at mile 15, I am losing energy fast. I’m getting passed by runners left and right, including a guy dressed up like a giant Kermit the frog and an 85-year-old man running backward.
At one point when he passed me, he said, “You know, you’re running the wrong way.” And for a minute, I was a little confused actually. By mile 18, I’m barely walking, and then I’m crawling on all fours. Then I just couldn’t move anymore. I just lay there in the middle of the street, in the fetal position. I accepted the fact that I was just going to die. I started having thoughts like, “Too bad. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Michael. It would have been nice if I had children.” Remember that movie line? “I would have liked to have seen Montana.” Do you guys remember that one?
I just remember laying there and asking God, “Lord help me or take me,” because I was so miserable. All of a sudden, a little boy came up to me and offered me a banana, which I snatched out of his hand like a wild animal. Then someone gave me a power bar and eventually I had the energy to start running again. I saw Michael at mile 20. He had been waiting there to cheer me on for over an hour. When he saw me, he yelled, “What happened to you?” But before I could explain, he told me, “I had just five minutes to reach the 14th street bridge or else I wouldn’t be allowed to finish the race. The bus of shame would have to pick me up.”
There’s something extremely powerful about public humiliation. You’re so scared of it. I imagine myself having to tell my friends that I didn’t finish. That thought pumped so much adrenaline through my body that I sprinted not only to the bridge but all the way, the last six miles, all the way to the finish line, which is when I finally got to drink some Accelerade. It was a crazy, crazy race.
It turns out that the Bible, not just my dad, uses the metaphor of a foot race to describe our faith journey. Now that I’ve shown you how not to run a race, let’s see what the apostle Paul has to say about it. If you want to follow along. Hebrews 12:1-2, I’m just going to read this through, and then we can get into it a little bit. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up and let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and now he is seated at the place of honor beside God’s throne.”
I first want to focus on the word endurance. Paul says, “We are to run the race with endurance.” Clearly, he’s giving us a clue that it’s not going to be trivial or easy. I think it would be fair to say that I wasn’t well informed about running my marathon. I entered the race a little too casually. I really should have read that info packet. Which by the way, had Accelerade ads all over it when I went back to look at it. They say that before you decide to run your first marathon, you should get in a car and drive 26.2 miles to fully appreciate how long the distance really is. I think this applies also to following Jesus, which brings me to the first idea of how to run the race of faith. Expect the journey to be long and hard. Expect it to be long and hard. The truth is, following Jesus does not mean that our problems go away. Jesus Himself told us that we would have many troubles in this world. Some are consequences of our own choices. Yes, that’s true. But some are calamities that completely blindside us. When we hear bad news we’re shocked or even enraged, but we really shouldn’t be surprised.
I remember when I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time in 2010. A lot of my friends and family, just couldn’t believe it. Why does the blind girl get cancer? As if my disability should make me exempt from any more suffering, but it doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t work that way. Our faith may prepare us for life’s disappointments and tragedies, but it doesn’t protect us from them. Look at what else Jesus said about following him. This is from the book of Luke. “Then he said to them, all whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
It’s curious that Jesus says, “Take up your cross.” I think that’s an operative word there. He’s not talking about just a burden or a worry that we have. In Roman times the cross meant only one thing and that’s death. He’s saying that if we want to follow him, we have to be willing to die for him. Now, very few of us will be asked to give our lives for Christ, but there is still a cost to following him because he’s going to ask us to put others first and to even love our enemies. He wants to transform us into His character. Transformation is not comfortable. It’s not comfortable because when we put others first, we have to let go of our own desires. We have to deny ourselves.
Michael and I have been married 26 years now, going on 27. We recently had dinner with newlyweds. When they asked us for marriage advice, I said, because I always like to go first, “It’s more important to be kind than to be right.” They said, “Oh yeah. That makes a lot of sense.” They smiled and nodded, “Thank you. That’s really great.” Then it was Michael’s turn. I don’t know if it’s the Marine in him, but he was a little bit more blunt. He said, “You basically have to die to yourself.” I think it scared the couple a little bit.
Of course, I’m thinking, am I that high maintenance? Gosh. But it’s true, isn’t it? Those of us who are married or have siblings or have ever had a roommate. Loving another human being, who’s imperfect, it takes sacrifice and there’s a cost to it. Do we have the right expectations about following Jesus? We will be rewarded with a heavenly prize. Yes. Jesus promises to be with us every step of the way, but it’s going to take endurance. It’s going to take endurance.
This brings me to my next idea, train for spiritual endurance. If you want to go the distance, you have to train for it. If I’m really honest with myself, I didn’t train properly for the marathon. I probably ran less than half the recommended runs because of my very busy work schedule. You might be able to cram for a test, but you can’t cram for a long-distance race. Your body can’t perform at a high level just because you want it to, you have to work up to it. The same principle holds for our faith.
Someone once told me the following and it’s really stuck with me, “Don’t try to be like Christ, train to be like Him. Train to be like Him.” Just like an athlete follows a training regimen. We need a spiritual training regimen that consists of both nutrition and exercise. The discipline to stick with it. Let’s talk about nutrition first. Our spiritual food is God’s Word and we need a steady flow of it. A weekend service like this is one way to get a helping, but can you imagine an athlete eating just once a week? That doesn’t work. We really need daily feeding, but a recent survey showed that only 45% of regular church attendees read their Bible more than once a week. In order to get to know Jesus intimately, we have to make time to spend with Him, talking to Him, praying, reading, and setting His word. Maybe we journal or meditate. We can start with just five minutes a day.
The theologian John Wesley was one of 19 children. His mother Susanna is famous for her devotion to daily prayer, to signal to the kids, not to bother her. She would fling her apron over her head when she was praying. I just love that visual, imagine a woman surrounded by 19 children, chaos, and she’s got the apron over her head. I love it. Because if a mom of 19 can put aside time every day we can too. We live in the digital age; we have so many wonderful Bible apps and podcasts at our fingertips. My friend uses a Bible app that tracks how he’s doing on his reading plan compared to his friends. He gets really competitive when someone passes him. It’s funny, but I love it because they all motivate each other. I personally need structure. So I’m in a weekly Bible study that has daily homework. I’m one of those weird people that loves homework, but it works for me. Find something that works for you. Let’s try to be in God’s Word as much as possible.
Let’s talk about exercise now. We want to build those spiritual muscles. We want to follow Christ’s lead, and exercise loving and serving others. Who better to practice on than other Christians. Think of Cornerstone as a giant spiritual gym, where you can get a spiritual workout. There are so many ways to get involved here, whether it’s parking, the cafe, the children’s ministry, or the worship team. Check out that Journey class, if you haven’t already. By the way, can I just put in a plug for the nursery? I help out in the nursery once or twice a month. If they’re asking a blind girl to help in the nursery, you know they’re desperate. So please help.
Maybe you need more practice loving. Join a clinic called a small group. I think we just launched a whole bunch of them recently. Maybe you checked one out and you didn’t really like the people there. That’s exactly the reason why you should go back. It’s easy to love lovable people. It’s the hard ones that are harder. Of course, we should also train outside the church. I challenge you, do something kind for a coworker for no reason. See their reaction. Smile and wave at the next driver that cuts you off. That’s a good one. A friend of mine sometimes picks the longest checkout line in the grocery store to practice patience. That’s hardcore, right? The point here is let’s be intentional about building spiritual strength during the non-crisis time so that when a crisis does strike, we’re ready.
We put our training to work. We can draw on the truths and promises of God and respond with godly actions and attitudes. Each trial is also a training exercise. We practice trusting God through it. We emerge on the other side with a little more faith. Trial after trial, if we learn from them, if we grow from them, then our faith can go the distance. Look what it says in Romans. “We can rejoice too when we run into problems and trials for we know that they help us develop endurance.” There’s that word again, endurance.
The last thing I want to say about the training is that sometimes we have to slim down to run the race effectively. Paul tells us to strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that trips up. Some of you might be wondering why didn’t I just ask for help when I ran that marathon? It would have been so much easier just to ask for help when I couldn’t find my friend. The answer is pride. Pride was a sin that was tripping me up. I was in a stubborn season in my life. Not wanting to appear weak or too dependent on others. I was in denial about losing my vision, quite frankly. I simply didn’t want anyone’s help. I really paid for it that day.
Is there something in your life that’s slowing you down or tripping you up in your walk with Jesus? Maybe you need to let go of something. Maybe you need to forgive someone or to ask someone to forgive you. Maybe you’re distracted or too busy, or maybe you just need to get back in the race. Speaking of getting back in the race, remember my girlfriend who was supposed to be my guide? Well, she ran the race alone as well. When she got to that bridge, she experienced what’s called hitting the wall. She lost her will to run and just stood there, staring out at the Potomac river for 10 minutes. A good Samaritan had to give her a pep talk and coax her back into the race. She actually ran alongside her for a little while. My friend did finish. If we had run the race together, I know that she and I could have helped each other.
This brings me to my next idea, run the race in community. Run the race in community, do not run it alone. Paul uses the pronouns us and we all the way through our passage. Faith is a team sport. We desperately need each other. Two are better than one because when one falls down, the other can help him up. Look at this verse from Galatians, “Carry each other’s burdens and in doing so, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Community you see, it’s more than socializing. Socializing is great, but it’s more than that. It’s a willingness to be vulnerable, to share our stories, and our deepest struggles. It’s a willingness to suffer together. Do you have someone in your life who’s got your back? A fellow Christ-follower who will listen, encourage you, and pray for you? Someone you can count on when disaster strikes, someone who loves you enough to tell you the truth even if it hurts?
The times in my life, when I was most out of God’s will was when I was not in community. Let’s agree to invest in these life-giving relationships. I’m going to plug the small groups again. Try to make time for that men’s retreat. We are surrounded by faith heroes, not only in the pages of the Bible but in this room, in this very room. There are a lot of amazing people here with inspiring stories. Imagine if each of us had just one person we could count on, nobody would suffer alone. Nobody would fall through the cracks and that’s what community is all about.
I had the opportunity to encourage a friend recently, she’s a very dear friend of mine. I’ve known her for over 20 years and she just received a stage four, very serious cancer diagnosis. She’s just in her mid-forties. It took me back to the day of my own stage four diagnosis, which happened in 2015. We thought we had nipped the cancer in 2010, but it came back. I’ll never forget what my oncologist said to me. “The paradigm has shifted Alex. Once the cancer moves from its point of origin and spreads to other parts of the body, it’s no longer curable and it’s not about shrinking the tumors anymore. It’s about keeping the cancer from growing. If we can keep it stable, we are going to declare victory.”
I’ve been in treatment for over three years and I will continue treatment indefinitely. I feel really good. I’m the healthiest sick person you’ve ever met. I look okay. Thank you for your prayers. But every time I get a CT scan, I hold my breath, as I read the report, I’m looking for that little word, where is it? Where is it? There it is. Stable. Such a little word that sounds so insignificant and effortless. As if something is simply at rest. In the case of my cancer and in the case of what some of you might be going through right now, holding steady takes everything we’ve got because we’re barely hanging on.
It takes all our strength to hold back whatever is threatening to overtake us. Maybe it’s anger, fear, bitterness, or despair. We just want to give up. In those moments, Paul is urging us to fix our eyes on Jesus. I think it’s so interesting that Christ achieved victory over death, not by fighting a battle, wielding a sword, but by holding a posture of humility and suffering. We’re talking about the all-powerful Son of God who could have summoned a thousand angels to rescue Him. It must have taken a tremendous amount of strength to simply remain there on that tree. “But for the joy that awaited Him, He endured the cross,” Paul tells us.
You see, at times endurance equals victory. Endurance equals victory. My run time in the marathon was over six hours, which is not that great. I was runner number, I think 18,900 and something. But you know what? I finished. I finished and you know what I learned that day? Something I’ve learned over and over again throughout my life. Here’s my final idea. Remember that God will sustain us. God will give us the strength to endure. He will always rescue us whether it’s a banana, power bar, or calming my heart through cancer. He’s always been right there covering me.
Whatever you’re going through, don’t give up. Maybe it doesn’t make any sense or it doesn’t seem fair, but don’t give up. Keep the faith, continue to trust Him, and lay all your burdens at His feet. Psalm 55. I love this verse because it is easy to memorize and it’s so clear, “Cast all our cares on the Lord. And He will sustain us.” Give Him your broken relationships, your broken dreams, your bad day, your bad year, and maybe even your entire life. He will give us the full measure of grace to get through it. He will sustain us with courage, hope, strength, and even joy. Even joy.
My life didn’t turn out like I thought it would. Living with stage four cancer means you live with a lot of uncertainty. I know it may sound crazy, but I am filled with joy. It’s like a runner’s high because I know that eternal life is waiting for me at the end of the race. The Lord has shown me many times over that He will sustain me on this broken side of heaven and He will sustain you also.
In closing, I just want to encourage all of you. What is the next mile marker in your marathon? Is Jesus calling you to get in the race for the first time? Maybe He wants you to invest in building a community? Maybe He wants you to get more serious about reading His word? Maybe He wants you to help someone in need? Maybe He knows you’re going through something very difficult and wants you to know that He sees you, loves you, and will be your strength to endure one more day.
Let’s pray, Lord, thank you so much for enduring the cross. We all come to you today at different places. Some of us might be really tired from the race and others, we have joy in our hearts. But we know that the road is still ahead of us, Lord. We thank you for being our champion. We thank you for being our strength when we don’t have enough. We thank you for sustaining us with your everlasting love. Help us Lord to continue to run this race with endurance and joy. In Christ’s precious name we pray, amen.