Perseverance and Courage
By Charles Rush
March 30, 2003
Mk. 14: 26-42
is morning I simply want to give a spiritual message on the nature of perseverance as the meaning of Lent, thinking of Jesus and Peter.
couldnít help but think of the Generals- especially General Tommy Franks and
Brigadier General Vince Brooks- this week from Central Command watching them
every morning this week as they hold their daily press briefing. I pass no
moral judgment for or against their presentation because that would be
premature. I only empathize with their situation and many of us have been in
their shoes at some point in our lives, trying to stay positive and on task in
the midst of turmoil, facing hostile and cynical questions in public. They come
out, state the goals of their campaign, review the last 24 hours, and no matter
how pointed the question, sometimes even hostile or silly, they treat it
seriously, answer it respectfully, positively and then stop. Unlike some of
those hot head political leaders that they are working for or some of the hot head
protesters that are trying to end it, they are unflappable. We are likely to
look back on this era and have a great deal of moral critique for what is
happening. But that aside, perseverance is not perseverance if you donít have
to stick to your plan with very little public support in an ambiguous situation
where you are not always sure that what you are doing is right all the time.
You hope it is, but you donít know for sure because the situation is not all
that clear. It is a tough place to be and it calls on spiritual character,
which is the story of Lent.
let me hasten to add what perseverance is not. It is not stubbornness, though
many times they are difficult to distinguish from a distance. I recently waded
through the 4-hour movie about the Civil War, Godís and Generals, about
the life of Stonewall Jackson, the famous General for the Confederate army.
This movie unquestionably ought to be nominated for a special Oscar- Ďslowest,
dullest 4 hour movie that needs 8 hours to finish.í (A category all itís own. I
had a bad feeling when I saw that it was produced by Ted Turner. That bad
feeling began churning when Ted Turner shows up in a cameo appearance in the
middle of the film, yukking it up with General Robert E. Lee.)
movie follows the interior thoughts of Stonewall Jackson, as well as a number
of paternalistic soliloquies that the General offers repeatedly on the subject
of honor, facing death, and oneís destiny. Using the language of the bible and
all the thought forms of Roman stoicism, Stonewall reminds us again and again
that God has determined the height and breadth of a man and that there is
nothing that one can do to alter this fate. Therefore, we must just accept what
we have been given to do and ride straight into battle and be done with it. He
has a little more nuance than that but it gets lost in the sheer repetition of
the theme. He got his nickname Stonewall because this is really the way he
behaved in battle, riding his horse through a hail of bullets, believing that
fate was fate so fear and worry were irrelevant. Since all of these men were
scared to death, they greatly admired the fact that their educated leader put
himself in harms way like they did and lived.
irony of his life, as you may know, is that he was accidentally killed in
friendly fire, ambushed one night by his own men, after he had gone on a
forward reconnaissance mission with some of his leaders under cover, and his
own troops mistook him for the enemy. And isnít fate just like that? I donít
know Stonewall Jackson well but if the real man was anything like the man in
the movie, he was probably just a stubborn mule who found convenient
justification not changing his mind in the providential language of scripture
and the Stoic understanding of fate. God knows we have tolerated way too many
people like that in the past and what they need is a little divine shaking up,
like yet another General I met a couple decades ago.
were attending a conference in Washington D.C. on nuclear disarmament and this
General had been an aggressive advocate of the use of nuclear weapons in
limited circumstances. And then we all heard a stunning presentation by Rev.
William Sloan Coffin, the erstwhile chaplain at Yale and later Senior Minister
at Riverside Church in Manhattan, who in his first life did a tour in the
C.I.A., one of the few Americans to speak Russian at the end of World War 2.
Typical Bill, he raised many winsome questions and he was very provocative. At
the end the General got up to respond and gave what I thought was perhaps the
finest compliment to a Minister I have ever heard. Said the General, ďReverend,
when I came in this room, I had my mind made up. But the more I listen to you
talk, the more confused Iíve become.Ē
strikes me as pretty real. We donít just get a clear divine mandate that all we
have to do is implement. Usually, we get confused to start off with, shaken out
of our certainty, awakened for our dogmatic slumbers, so that we can genuinely
the story of Lent lifts up for us is that the call of God comes to us,
generally speaking, in a way that we have to make a pledge to follow, then make
it again in a different way, and again in a different way. Genuine spiritual
perseverance is opening up in new ways and committing yourself again. It is not
a one-time deal and, if the life of Jesus is any reliable guide on the subject,
the only way that you are able to take in profound challenge like his suffering
unto death, is because you have already made a commitment and a recommitment so
that spiritually you are up to it.
begins with the temptation of Christ. He is brought into the wilderness for 40
days to fast, to concentrate his spiritual focus. Satan tempts him with food,
then with faith-daring Jesus from a great height, then with power and
wealth-offering him all the kingdoms of the world. Each time, the bible says
that Jesus countered these temptations with the priority of being in Godís
will, of following after Godís path. The gospels depict this time of temptation
and fasting as a turning point in the life of Jesus. He committed himself in a
deeper way to what he sensed that God wanted him to do, to actualizing the
Kingdom of God in his life.
he went about teaching, healing, developing community in love and compassion,
forgiving, empowering other people. That is what takes up the middle part of
the gospel stories, different stories dealing with each of these.
we get an ominous portent in the gospels. They say, he set his face towards
Jerusalem. Looking back on the life of Jesus, one hundred years after his death
and resurrection, the Gospel writers remember this as the culmination of what
he had come here for, to go to Jerusalem. There is a sense about the text, that
what God wants for Jesus is unfolding before him again here, more fully, and he
is making another commitment. There is some palpable sense that he knows that
what he is about will bring him into confrontation with religious authorities,
with political authorities, the center of power and authority that resides in
Jerusalem. He would not just stay with the dispossessed in the country, he was
moving in this direction.
when he enters Jerusalem, he is hailed as the coming Messiah by the people, a
story we remember on Palm Sunday, when they threw down palm branches and cloaks
on the street as he rode by on a simple colt. But he doesnít fulfill what the
Jewish Messiah is supposed to do and come in triumph. Instead he goes to the
Temple and throws out the Moneychangers, everyone that was making trade that
you had to make to fulfill your religious duties in Judaism. Now, he is
unquestionably drawn the attention of the political leaders, who are worried
then, as now about would-be Messiahs. And he has drawn the attention of
religious authorities by making a scene suggesting that they are morally
compromised. No commitment here is actually spoken, but it is implied. There is
some palpable sense that he knew what he was doing, he was fulfilling what he
had been sent to do and he knew there would be a price to pay for it. People
around him were full of fear because of his actions. They werenít sure what
they meant. His disciples werenít really sure what he was even about.
Presumably they had some conversation about it that wasnít recorded in
scripture because we have this undercurrent at the end of the gospels that they
are concerned, following with him, but not really sure where this is really
then at Gethsemane, he asks them to go with him. And he asks them to pray with
him, to really pray. It is a scene that is full of pressure. He knows what is
at stake and has internalized it. We are told he prayed until sweat ran like
drops of blood. That is serious concern. He concludes his time in Jerusalem,
like he is concluding his life, saying. ďLet this Cup pass from meÖ but
not my will but Yours, O God.Ē I donít want to go where I think this is
taking me but I want to authentically be filled with Godís purpose, come what
is a commitment made again, and again, and again. The way that the gospel
writers depict it, each time he made that commitment, he got spiritually
stronger and he seemed to understand more deeply what was at stake for him and
what it would cost. The spiritual life is like that and the virtue of
perseverance comes from that sense of being more deeply committed, more infused
with the transcendence of God, more aware of what is at stake, more able to
endure suffering, loneliness, forsakenness, even ridicule.
gospel writers give us Jesus to show us where we could head. But they also give
us Peter, the quintessential would-be disciple, a kind of spiritual Charlie
Chaplin, because the reality of our actual lives is that we are neither one nor
the other but a curious mixture of both at different times.
is filled with what the Greeks used to call pseudoandreia, false
courage. It is a military term. The Spartans developed courage by drilling,
drilling, drilling. Regularly, they would go into battle against opponents that
didnít actually take the time to drill so thoroughly. Their leaders would try
to whip them into a frenzy of excitement with a big speech just before the
battle. They would get all worked up, charge out into battle, and proceed to
dissolve in the face of superior training. Bravado cannot take the place of
profound commitment, spiritually speaking.
is so full of exuberance it is endearing. At the last supper, Jesus predicts
that the disciples will all fall away and betray them. They all grumble and
demur from Jesusí realistic depiction of their character. Leave it to Peter to
stand up and say, ďLord, the others may fall away, but Iíll not.Ē
gospel of John has a parallel story. Jesus decides to wash the disciples feet
to teach them about servant love and compassion. Jesus gets around to Jesus and
Peter stands up and refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet, as it is not right
to reverse their authority roles. Jesus explains that if you donít let me do
this, you miss the whole message. Only those whose feet are washed can enter
into God. Again, Peter stands up and proclaims loudly, ďThen not only my
feet, but my head and hands also.Ē He just canít keep it from going
over the top.
like all the other disciples, follows Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane, to
be with him. Peter, like all the other disciples, falls asleep rather than
prays. Before he knows it the Roman guards are all upon them, just as he wakes
up. Never one short for action, Peter pulls out a sword, swings it wildly, and
cuts off the ear of one of the Roman Centurions. Jesus has to rebuke his
earnestness, his over-earnestness. Peter was probably hurt, frustrated,
misunderstanding, feeling misunderstood.
is arrested; Peter slinks out into the night, confused and licking his wounds.
Someone asks him if he knows Jesus. He denies that he does. They recognize his
hick accent from Galilee and they ask him again with a tone of ridicule. He
denies it again. They keep it up and the third time, Peter curses Jesus and
runs away in the cover of night. Real perseverance there. He is something of a
Charlie Chaplin disciple. He is us.
dialectic of our spiritual lives moves between the impulses of these two
characters, the profound commitment of the Christ and the bluster of Peter. We
ought to be reminded, in this season of Lent, that we worship the God of the
second chance, and the point of our lives is not that we consistently get it
right but that we eventually develop substantial character.
reality towards which the story of the Passion of Jesus points reminds us of
the real depth of challenge that actual character formation requires. These are
challenges that we spend most of our life trying to avoid but if we are lucky
to live long enough or deeply enough, they will inescapably seek us out.
now the press is covering the reality of human loss in warfare. Whether it is
the loss of a soldier on either side, it is only small consolation that they
died for a worthy cause or a patriotic cause. The reality for the families is
just the blunt grief of the loss of a son, a spouse, a mother. None of us ever
seeks out living through that profound difficulty in order to grow. We try to
avoid it at all costs. And there is no medal for living through the loss of a
spouse, the loss of a child.
if we are lucky to live long enough or live deeply enough, we cannot avoid
coming to these profound spiritual challenges either. We rarely get to choose
the time and the place of our loss, our frustrations, or lack of control. The
profound reflection in the season of Lent on the passion of the Christ is that
these too are part of the process, that God is with us in the midst of
suffering and loss, in setback. We have the spiritual resources to deal with
it. Ultimately, our faith walks us up to and through the doors of death. It
takes in the bitterness and tragedy. It does not dissolve them, it does not
resolve them but through God, it does transcend them. That, unfortunately, is
the spiritual profundity of human existence. My brothers and sisters, I pray
for you too, this season, courage and perseverance.
© 2003 .
All rights reserved