Trust and Strive: Embodying Christian Endurance – Br. Keith Nelson
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Jesus says: Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Endurance is intimately associated in the New Testament with the posture of active waiting for the “day of the Lord.” In today’s gospel reading from Luke, Jesus draws our attention to the urgency, the sense of responsibility, and the vigilance that the day of the Lord awakens in those who are waiting for it in faith. This is a theme we’ll hear a lot more about in a few weeks, during the season of Advent.
But after introducing this theme in today’s reading, Jesus places the “day of the Lord” in the background, and directs our gaze to the foreground of Christian persecution. Jesus prophesies about the challenges Christians will suffer at the hands of both public authorities and those people closest to them in their web of human relations. This is a shift from “out there” in space and time to “right here,” to up-close and personal events involving everyday encounters, that must take place first.
I find this shift of perspective helpful in grappling with just how “out there” this apocalyptic language can feel. For Luke, this “great day,” this decisive moment, has individual, communal, and cosmic dimensions that speak to the heart of Christian experience here and now: death and mortality; change, transition, and social upheaval; the burdens, losses, and pains that stretch us to the breaking point. In all these, we feel that our world is ending because, for us, for the one undergoing such experience, it is. Each and every one of these crisis moments or crisis chapters calls for the endurance that Jesus teaches: an endurance that will gain us our souls but can only come through the wholehearted participation of our bodies.
Limiting the range of this endurance to the direct experience of religious persecution would be a mistake. We bear affliction for Jesus’ name whenever we exercise this quality, and it is needed in so many contexts. In Romans, we hear “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience endurance.” In a very different epistle, the letter of James, we hear “When you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” And in the eighth chapter of Luke we are given the image of seeds in good, receptive soil: “These are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.”
Clearly, this endurance needs to be differentiated in critical ways from worldly endurance. The word endurance in English has its origins in the Latin durare, “to harden.” Instead of soil, it’s like stone, or concrete. The word durable – something that doesn’t break – and duration – the length of time during which anything continues in existence – are related. Endurance as a personal quality, the world tells us, is often akin to stamina.
The operative question is: how long can you hold on, with white knuckles, hardened until you make it to the other side of a crisis?
Thoroughness of preparation for such moments is the world’s usual counsel: make sure you have insurance for everything that could be lost, damaged, or stolen, and for everyone who could die. The will to endure in this way – through the exercise of strength and preparation – can be deeply admirable. Insurance is deeply practical. But this approach is secondary, and may at times conflict, with the kind of endurance Jesus teaches will gain us our souls.
So what is the nature of this alternative endurance Jesus counsels?
It seems that “softening” and “allowing” are vital elements in the practice of Christian endurance. To put it another way: there is a subtle interplay between striving and trusting, with the accent on trust. Trust calls forth a softening and allowing of reality as it is even as striving calls for a firmness or rootedness in the face of immense pressure.
Trust: Do not be terrified.
Trust: Make up your mind not to prepare your defense in advance.
Trust: I will give you a word and a wisdom that that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
Trust: Not a hair of your head will perish.
Strive: You will be betrayed by parents and brothers, relatives and friends.
Strive: Some will be put to death
Strive: By your endurance you will gain your souls.
I envision trusting and striving here like the double helix of a DNA molecule: or the cutting motion the oars of a boat make through the water. Or the air we take in and let out of our lungs. Expand and contract. Lean forward, lean back. Trust – strive. Strive – trust.
Perhaps you can remember the experience of your body in a moment of urgency and great responsibility that also called for care, gentleness, compassion, and attunement to the emotional and spiritual experience of another. In my experience of learning to provide spiritual care in a hospital setting, I discovered with fresh awe the capacity of my body to hold these two contrasting fields of physical awareness. There is the intense surge of adrenaline when a pager beeps in the middle of the night; the alertness; the hyper-clarity of sense perception; the one-pointed decisiveness needed to make the most of every second. In all this, there is striving: the unconscious striving of the sympathetic nervous system as much as any conscious effort of the will. On the other hand, there is that bundle of qualities that the chaplain must bring: a spaciousness of heart; a deep, listening presence attuned to words, silences, shifts in mood; a sensitivity to the relationships of those present. And then there is a simple availability to whatever the moment summons forth that will enable another to grasp hold of God’s saving help. None of this happens without trust in God, who uses the chaplain’s presence to make this possible.
This is true for all of us, in the ways we are each called to endure as Christians or to seek the face of Christ as we bear witness to the endurance of others. Strive all we may in some situations, but we will miss the mark if we cling to a protocol or a script or an agenda. But trust without striving may present too much open palm and not a firm enough grip. Christian endurance is a remarkable synergy of both in and through this flesh, these bodies that are members of Christ’s suffering yet glorified body.
Jesus’ teaching on endurance here contains details that are particularly embodied, which a more literal translation brings forth. Where our translation reads, “Make up your mind,” the Greek is more literally, “Put it in your heart not to prepare your testimony in advance.” Our translation reads “I will give you a word,” while the Greek again more literally reads “I will give you a mouth and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Taken together, these little differences give us a picture of the instrumental role of bodies in the endurance of Jesus. This involves hearts, mouths, and the hairs of our heads – not merely words, minds, and the gaining of souls. This is a far cry from the popular mantra “mind over matter” or the false asceticism that privileges the first over the second. Jesus calls us to strive and trust amid the heart of matter, and to entrust that matter, one moment of endurance at a time, back to the one who created and redeemed it.
In the end, all that Jesus prophesies about his followers in this portion of Luke comes to pass: first, in his own body-and-soul, then in the soul-and-body experience of his apostles in the book of Acts. There is a paradox in Jesus’ promise, “Not a hair of your head will perish.” On a literal level, this is simply untrue – as untrue for him in his death as it will be for us in ours. Every hair of every head will fall to the earth it came from. Not a stone will be left on stone; all will be thrown down. Yet these words are a promise that these bodies – this flesh – even these hairs – however mysteriously changed and transfigured they will be at the end of all things – will be loved back together again in a form entirely glorified and whole. The endurance to which we are called is not about cheating death or transcending loss but passing with Jesus through the belly of it into larger Life: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
Lectionary Year and Proper: Proper 28 C
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This is such a thoughtful and inspired reflection, honoring the paradox of faithful living. I am glad I read it. Thank you, Br. Keith.