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The Way of Perseverance

Sometimes I think we don’t give Jesus enough credit for all that he had to deal with in life. Maybe from a distance of 2,000 or so years we've sanitized his story. Or perhaps it’s because our tradition elevated him to sinless status and God status. Perhaps it’s because scripture never reports any complaining or even much struggling (outside of the Garden of Gethsemane) about his life and mission.

Seriously, let’s think about this for a minute. Jesus obviously felt called to bring people closer to God, to share a deeper spiritual way than was currently being expounded in the synagogues, plus he was a champion of the poor, the outcast, the oppressed. But he faced multiple challenges and struggles including relatives who thought he'd lost his mind (Mark 3:21), being run out of his hometown (and maybe others), little time to himself, pressure from the Jewish hierarchy and the Roman authorities to back off. He had to worry about how to feed and shelter himself and his followers. He had conflicts with his disciples, struggles to get them to understand, competition between them. He was constantly being bombarded with requests for help and healing. Not to mention that there were people out to kill him!

Through it all he perseveres. It is one of the ways that he taught us to be.

Just think of all we persevere through! Of course we've had the pandemic and all of the challenges it has brought in the last two years. But even outside of that we have illness, death, grief, aging parents, broken hearts, uncertainty, job loss, moving, loved ones with addictions, rejections, depression, anxiety, abuse and more.

Life is tough. I'm pretty sure that Jesus got through because he had a solid relationship with the divine. What about us? Repeatedly, in the books and resources I’ve been reading, spirituality came up as an essential component of resilience and perseverance. By this I don’t mean religion, per se, though church may have been a part of some people’s spirituality. But, by spirituality I mean a trust and belief in a connectedness to something more. Joan Borysenko describes it as: “Feeling an authentic connection to a larger intelligence, whether we relate to it as a loving, forgiving God or a universal energy of compassion, encourages what’s best in us… providing a true north that orients us when we’re lost in a sea of change or desperation…” 

William Stafford’s poem, "The Way It Is" provides a beautiful image of the presence of the divine in our lives.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread..
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

The thread is the constant, continuous presence of the divine no matter what is happening in life. The trick with this thread is that it is very fine and can be hard to see. You know it is there and you’ve felt the strength and comfort of it when you’re holding on, but it’s hard to describe to others because they may or may not have ever encountered the thread. When we hold onto the thread, we can’t get spiritually lost, no matter what happens. Jesus did a really good job of holding onto the thread.

Let me share two other stories of people who held onto that thread in tough times.

There is a story of a Norwegian pastor who worked secretly underground during World War II, saving Jews, gays, Gypsies, those whose lives were threatened by the Nazis. He was called into Gestapo headquarters and told to sit in the metal chair opposite a German officer. After turning on a harsh lamp, the interrogation officer took out of his holster a Luger and placed the pistol on the desk between himself and the pastor. Without a moment’ hesitation, the pastor reached into his satchel and placed his Bible on the desk next to the German Luger. The officer demanded, “Why did you do that?” The pastor replied, “You put your weapon on the table and so have I.” With trust in the rightness of his choices, the minister withstood the long interrogation and, undaunted, returned to his church and his dangerous work. 

The second story is about a woman named Maria who had a small stroke the same year her husband was laid off work and her son entered treatment for meth addiction. She felt like the biblical Job. Though she got disability payments, she was afraid they’d lose their home. With her meditation teacher she worked with the practices of trust and present-moment awareness. She used prayer beads to focus her mind, especially during her months of rehabilitation, and recited, “Rest in the present. Heal in the present. Trust.”

As she and her son gradually recovered, she practiced self-care and attended Al-Anon meetings. After a long, difficult time, she healed, her husband got his job back, and her son completed a year in rehab and is so far clean and sober. “Without trust, I would never have made it,” she confided.

Both the Norwegian pastor and Maria kept a tight hold on the thread even as their lives were threatened in different ways. For the German pastor, his Bible kept him connected to the thread, to a higher power and purpose, helping him persevere even in the face of persecution and possible death. For Maria, her prayer beads and her meditation kept her connected to the thread, to an energy of healing and strength to help her persevere through all the difficult things that had come upon their family all at once.

Unfortunately, when times get tough, we often feel like we need both hands, and all of our attention, to manage all that is going on, and we let go of the thread. Plus,sometimes when our souls are raging, or mourning, or hurt, it is hard to even pray, much less trust that the thread is still there.  But it is.

This week I spoke with two friends of mine who are retired pastors who had to deal with very difficult deaths while they were still pastoring. The first friend lost her 34-year-old daughter to cancer. And the second lost his wife after a long illness. I asked them both if their faith had helped them. It was a difficult question for both of them to answer, probably because faith for them was so entwined with church and the church had failed them both.

Still when they stopped to think about it, my friend who lost her daughter said she found her faith in the people who were put on her path. Using our metaphor today, those people helped her remember there was a thread, and even if she was hands free at the moment, others were holding on for her. Even though she was exhausted, devastated, hurt, and angry those people embodied grace and love even when she didn’t know she needed it and even when she couldn’t voice it. They connected her to the thread.

And my friend who lost his wife said that when in the midst of the day-to-day caregiving, and trying to maintain a job, and caring for a son, he lost sight of that thread. But he found it again easily when he had a few moments of respite to take a step back, to take a drive in the country, or to do something to refill his soul.

Here’s what I’m trying to get at. The energy of the Divine, the energy of love and strength and compassion and grace runs through all things. No matter what life throws at us it is always there. When we are able to reach out and grab hold, it helps us to not lose ourselves and helps us to stay centered. But even if we aren’t consciously grabbing hold, it is still there, within us and around us. I do believe that if we spend our easier days practicing hanging on to the thread, that it will be easier, more natural to hang on in tough times. You don’t want to have to learn how to ride a bike when you have a 50-mile ride in front of you!

So, the WAY of perseverance is part of our spiritual journey. Hold onto the thread, let it ground you, strengthen you, comfort you and guide you… it may seem delicate and fragile, but it is stronger than you can imagine.

Love & Light!