Staying the course!

It was one of those special moments to bottle! After two seasons of basketball and playing his last game before feet surgery this week, Arli found himself at the free-throw line with his mighty U10 Whitehorse Mustangs. Despite giving his best and loving playing with his friends, Arli hadn’t scored a basket in more than 25 games. In this his last game of the season there was lots of speculation that this just might be the day for that special basket.

Given the rare syndrome Arli lives with he lacks core strength and flexibility, making it so much harder to get height on a basketball shot, despite his daily attempts at home.

So here he was, nervously standing at the free-throw line. His first shot just misses and he is greeted with lots of encouragement from his team and their parents. One of his team mates gestures to pray as he makes his second attempt.

And it goes in!

A memorable childhood sporting moment, but as I wipe tears from my eyes, I am struck by the fact that this is really a prize for persistence!

Like so many things in life, Arli takes the shot in his stride and tries to avoid the fuss and his Dad’s desire for post-game photos.

But as we leave the game and walk to the car, Arli seems to walk just a little taller. There is a spring in his little steps. This has been a great boost to his self belief.

And for me – I am thankful to God for this special, yet ordinary moment in life – and the deeper reminder of the difference perseverance brings to life. I am thankful for my little man and his dogged persistence and the lessons he keeps teaching me.

As I’ve reflected on Arli’s persistence this week, I’ve been reminded of his Little Athletics season in Newcastle in 2016.

Arli was determined to join Imogen and sign up at Kotara South Little Athletics. I love sport and was keen to encourage him, but Megan and I both shared concerns at how he would fare given his lack of physical strength and energy.

Week in and week out Arli turned up and participated – most days with a smile on his face. In each track and field event he came last, but he kept at it! Megan and I even had to deal with the discouragement from a few parents who made it clear that they thought it was a waste of time to have Arli participating.

But my beautiful boy kept turning up!

Last night we watched a short video clip of Arli running a 400m race in November 2016. He was coming last – he was well behind the rest of the pack – but he was still running as best he could. Suddenly two other boys tripped over and in true Steve Bradbury style, Arli ran past them. Unlike Bradbury he didn’t win gold, but he ran across the line in 12th place. He hadn’t come last and he held up his number 12 place-getter tag with the biggest smile on his face.

I was quick to tell him this is a prize for persistence and how proud of him I was!

Many sporting moments celebrate persistence. One of my all-time favourites is the inspiring story of John Stephen Akhwari, the former Tanzanian marathon runner, who competed in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

While competing in the marathon, Akhwari cramped up due to the high altitude of Mexico City. He had not trained at such an altitude back in his country. At the 19km mark during the 42km race, there was jockeying for position between some runners and he was hit. He fell badly wounding his knee and dislocating that joint plus his shoulder hit hard against the pavement. Akhwari however continued running, finishing last among the 57 competitors who completed the race. The winner of the marathon, Mamo Wolde, of Ethiopa, finished in 2:20:26. Akhwari finished in 3:25:27, when there were only a few thousand people left in the stadium and the sun had set. A television crew was sent out from the medal ceremony when word was received that there was one more runner about to finish.

As Akhwari finally crossed the finish line a cheer came from the small crowd. When interviewed later and asked why he continued running, he said, “My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5000 miles to finish the race.”

I love that simple, but challenging quote. It reminds me that so many things in life that are important to me require perseverance and staying power.

If you visit the International Olympic Committee Museum in Switzerland there is no mention of the winner of the 1968 marathon, but Akhwari is celebrated as an Olympic hero. He didn’t win the gold, but his persistence etched him into Olympic folklore.

The dictionary defines persistence as: “continuing in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition”.

All of us at times face challenges, difficulties and opposition. We move through seasons of adversity. How we respond in these times shape us.

I know in my own life it’s easy to express faith and display determination when I am on the mountaintop of life, but it’s another thing to have to draw within when the mountain is right in front of me and the challenge seems beyond my capacity.

Look at the synonyms for persistence: perseverance, tenacity, determination, resolve,  resolution, resoluteness, staying-power, purposefulness, patience, endurance,  dedication, commitment, doggedness, steadfastness, stamina.

In an age that beckons us to instant gratification, quick-fixes and wins, immediacy and short-term thinking, the qualities of persistence and perseverance stand as counter-cultural values in our hectic 24-7-365 world.

And yet innately we all know that the deeper things of life, the things we yearn for most require resolve, dedication and steadfastness.

As the ball fell through the net for Arli’s first points in basketball, suddenly the word persistence was echoing in my mind and I’ve found myself this week thinking about how important this character quality is in life and relationships.

Today where might you need to reclaim this vital character quality? Where in life do you feel tempted to throw in the towel? Where are you being stretched? Where is life is calling on you to embrace endurance and determination afresh?

In Joshua 14, we find one of my favourite stories in the Scriptures as an old man, Caleb, comes to claim his prize of persistence. For more than forty years, Caleb, a man of faith, had stayed the course, despite the odds. He could have so easily thrown in the towel many times over, but he remained doggedly determined to stay faithful and claim his prize.

This story paints a great persistence image – because Caleb held fast to faith and perseverance for more than four decades; but he was never alone in this journey. He wouldn’t have made it on his own. Many others turned their backs on God, lost sight of his power, peace and provision, became overwhelmed by fear and became jaded and cynical.

But Caleb knew a God who was faithful – a God who was with him on the mountaintop and when the mountain was in the way; a God who could be trusted even when with human eyes the way forward looked beyond his capacity. Caleb could affirm – as the Psalmist does in the famous Psalm 23 – that God would get him through dark valleys. His call was to co-operate; to stay true to his faith; to champion persistence.

In Joshua 14 we read:

Now, as you can see, the Lord has kept me alive and well as he promised for all these forty-five years since Moses made this promise—even while Israel wandered in the wilderness. Today I am eighty-five years old. I am as strong now as I was when Moses sent me on that journey, and I can still travel and fight as well as I could then. So give me the hill country that the Lord promised me. 

I love to picture this old man – an 85 year-old stayer – leaning down and picking up some dirt and rubbing it in his hands, with tears in his eyes. He has stayed the course and as he looks at his dirty hands he knows it has all been worth it!

Today we need to reclaim and celebrate the vital importance of persistence and perseverance in life.

In the pursuit of our key life goals, in our marriages, in our parenting, in our workplaces, in standing for good in an unjust world, in going the distance with others, in investing in causes that matter, in our prayers, in our service, in chasing our dreams, in facing adversity, in embracing challenges, in overcoming obstacles, let’s remind ourselves of the beautiful prize of persistence.

I’m thankful to God for those who have gone the distance with me!

I’m thankful to God for the things I cherish that are the product of perseverance.

I’m thankful for the inspiration of those who model to me the difference staying power makes, even when they face such great odds.

I’m thankful for my beautiful boy who reminds me each day of the prize of persistence in the ordinariness of life!

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