With all due respect to all you brilliant academics out there, I have to tell you today the most important lesson I learned when I was finishing the dissertation for my doctoral work: sometimes it’s not exceptional creativity, deep and profound insight, or even all that much intelligence that gets you to the end of a doctoral dissertation. Sometimes it’s just tenacity.
I learned this lesson from my doctoral supervisor when, one day as the deadline for my dissertation was looming ominously on the horizon, too close for comfort, I sat in her office and she said to me: “Amy, just lock yourself in a room, sit at the computer, and write. Put words onto paper until you get to the end.”
At the apartment building where I lived at the time there was, in fact, just down the hall from my apartment, a closet, with a desk and an overhead light. I did what she said—I went to the closet, closed the door, and wrote until I was finished. I’m fairly certain the material I produced is not Albert Einstein-esque. But I learned an important lesson from that experience. Sometimes the way you make it through to the end is just by simply putting one foot in front of the other. By enduring.
Today we’re in the middle of several weeks of passages from the small book of 2 Timothy. 2 Timothy is a letter, one of the epistles in the New Testament, a set of instructions from an elder to a student, specifically about how to navigate organizational challenges and conflicts within and around the early church. In 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy, as we learned last week, the writer of the letters makes veiled references to the life of an athlete and compares it to the life of faith, references like this familiar verse you will recognize: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith…”.
All throughout both 1 and 2 Timothy, the writer seems to emphasize the three essential qualities of a successful athlete: strength, endurance, and flexibility, suggesting that these are three qualities the early Christians would need if they were going to survive the considerable challenges of living their faith in a world that not only disagreed with what they believed, but actively persecuted them for their beliefs.
Last week the passage we read talked about remembering what lies behind—how so many who have gone before us modeled for us the kind of strength we would need to live the life of faith. Today our passage talks about what lies within—the faith we claim that we can return to again and again when things seem too hard and too overwhelming and we feel like dropping out of the race.
When that inevitability happens, how will we make it to the end? We’ll do what any good athlete does: we’ll endure. We’ll keep going, one step in front of the other, drawing strength from the faith that lies within us, until we reach the finish line.
In our passage today, the author reminds his student of this very thing: “remember Jesus Christ—remember the faith that is within you, and endure. Endure all the way to the end.” The situation the author of these letters is addressing is not a situation of mere inconvenience, but rather some very deep hardship: imprisonment, persecution, being cut off from their families and from society, even being killed for their faith. Staying the course was no small thing, and being asked to endure cost the first Christians, sometimes, their very lives.
After reminding the first Christians that much of their work is enduring, hanging on until the end, the author then quotes a what must have been an early Christian hymn in verses 11-13, as if to remind his readers that he’s not telling them to endure just for the fun of it. Endurance for the Christian is not optional; it is rather a hallmark of the Christian life, a fundamental expectation for all who say they are followers of Jesus Christ.
It’s difficult for us modern Christians to understand the risk that the first Christians took to claim their faith. We experience Christian practice, especially in this country, as extremely culturally acceptable—too much, in fact. And perhaps this is where our challenge lies: living in a culture where Christian faith is often co-opted by American identity and shaped into a perverted practice that, instead of standing against the evil and sin of the culture around it, has instead become a vehicle for the perpetration of sins like racism, sexism, homophobia, violence and so many other things that do not reflect the radical love of Jesus. While we do not relate fully to the first Christians and the challenges they faced in their culture, we do certainly understand that holding onto an ethic of radical love…insisting that the way of Jesus is not the way of our culture…well, that’s going to take some pushing through criticism, insisting on a different way, enduring to the end.
As you know, this past week over 100 faith leaders from around the country—Christians, Muslims, Jews—gathered here at The Riverside Church to have a serious conversation about gun violence in our country and the role of the faith community in addressing that violence and changing a culture of death in America. Speaking from this pulpit on Friday night, Congressman Jim Himes from Connecticut’s fourth district choked up as he told us about his constituents’ persistent question to him: what are you doing about this? As his district includes Newtown, CT and Sandy Hook elementary school, these questions are not theoretical. They are personal.
Earlier this summer, after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Himes tweeted that he would no longer stand for a moment of silence as the congress began its workday. There have been too many moments of silence and nothing substantive done to change anything, he said. But his dilemma, he explained to all of us who had been learning all day long about gun violence and our role in changing it, is that laws alone will not change this trend in our culture. That there is something in the fabric of American Christianity that has come to understand the unrestricted ownership of guns as a fundamental American and Christian right.
In light of this conflated gun culture and Christian faith in America, our job as faith leaders is more critical than it has ever been. Congressman Himes told us that it’s not just laws that need to change. It’s hearts. And that’s why training faith leaders to teach, preach, and organize around gun violence is so, so important. Faith leaders do the work of helping change hearts; that’s our specialty.
But as Congressman Himes was speaking, I kept thinking about stories I had heard from conference attendees. “I live in rural Virginia. I’m a young pastor with a family to support, and the job market is tight. I’m scared to talk about gun violence in my church because I’m afraid I will lose my job.” All day long at our God and Guns training, faith leaders shared stories like that, and I could see the internal struggle of so many of my colleagues. How can we keep going in the direction of what’s right? How can we push hard at the work of changing hearts, even with resistance, so that something will shift? How can we endure, when the potential cost is so high?
At least for me, I found an answer to that question immediately after lunch Friday, when all of us gathered in the theatre to hear a panel of survivors talk about their experiences. On the panel was Natasha Christopher, who in 2012 lost her son Akeal on his fifteenth birthday. Akeal was shot between the eyes while walking down a sidewalk in Bushwick. Natasha, along with others on the panel, talked about their anger, frustration, pain—all of the loss that comes with living through a tragedy like that. She told us about these last four years, about trying to rebuild her life and the lives of her other children after Akeal’s death. “My surviving children have had their innocence taken away,” she said. “They learned far too young that life is full of violence, that you can lose someone you love in an instant, that they are not safe.” Natasha talked about how telling her story has helped her begin to piece her life back together, to keep going when she’s struggling with the tremendous grief of having lost Akeal, every waking moment of every day.
It seems to me that if Natasha can get out of bed every morning and keep telling the story of her son’s death so that others can hear the tangible results of the unchecked proliferation of guns in our country, then perhaps we as faith leaders and people of faith can heed the call to step up and begin applying our efforts to the work of changing hearts and minds, of divorcing the American love affair with guns from the framework of Christian faith, of speaking boldly to say that death and violence are unacceptable in our churches…in our communities…in our countries.
“The Bible says that perfect love casts out fear,” South African presenter Alan Storey told us in his plenary session on gun violence from an international perspective. “You don’t love your congregations if you’re afraid of them. You love them when you have the courage to tell them the truth.”
I think many faith leaders left The Riverside Church after the God and Guns training this week convinced that doing the work of changing hearts is critical, because standing by while violence continues to shred lives like Natasha Christopher’s is not reflective of the radical gospel of love that Jesus came to teach us. But proclaiming that message is going to invite criticism, resistance, consequences. How can we, faith leaders and followers of Jesus, face all of that and keep going?
We can do it by enduring. By revisiting what lies within—the conviction that it’s love that can change our world, that even when change seems so far off it doesn’t even seem like a realistic option…we endure. We keep going. We put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, until we make it all the way to the finish line.
The writer of 2 Timothy knew this truth: sometimes it’s not exceptional creativity, deep and profound insight, or even all that much intelligence that gets you to the end of the race. Sometimes it’s just tenacity. As modern Christians we are called to the same work the first Christians faced: living the radical love Jesus came to teach us in a world where we meet resistance at every turn. We can’t give in and allow our faith to be co-opted by the culture around us. Instead, we stand up; speak out; face opposition; and when we’re most overwhelmed and overcome, we look at the faith that lies within us and we put one foot in front of the other, all the way to the end.