Endurance and Gaining a Soul for the American Church


Malachi 4:1-2a

Psalm 98

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Luke 21:5-19

Prayer of the Day: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Luke 21:19.

The woes of Jesus’ warnings in Sunday’s gospel are playing out in real time as I write. For the first time in eight decades, war is raging in Europe and another is brewing over the Korean peninsula. The bloody insurrection of January 6, 2020 threatens erupt once again as widespread violence strikes the families of our leaders, threats of violence surround our voting centers and hate crimes rise to unprecedented levels. Famines are again plaguing northern Africa and the middle east. Moreover, there is no shortage of ominous signs of impending ecological disaster as forests burn, carbon content in the atmosphere increases and glacial and polar ice melt into rising seas.

As if all of this were not enough, Jesus warns us that the bonds of human community will decay resulting in increased violence, particularly against those who would align themselves with God’s gentle reign. That, too, is becoming evident as political discourse devolves into swinging hammers, threats of violence and the rhetoric of civil war. I have always had sharp political disagreements with folks who identify as conservatives, but I have never before feared them. But last fall, when a humvee with a machine gun* mounted on it arrived in the square of a neighboring town surrounded by a group of people dressed in colonial garb and crying out for another revolution against the government and “the rein of liberals,” I was a little unnerved. One particularly boisterous fellow was shouting at the top of his lungs “Liberalism is a mental disease” at cars with progressive bumper stickers driving through the town center. There are a lot of those in these parts as the population is generally liberal leaning. There were banners proclaiming, “Trump is still president” and various Q type conspiracy memes.

I wanted in the worst way to approach one of these folks and ask them, “What is this all about? Do you hate and fear people like me so much that you think killing us is the only way you can live in peace and security? I’m an old man with grown children and grandchildren like many of you. Don’t we all want a better, healthier, friendlier world for them? Can’t we have a civil discussion about how we get there together? Does it have to be your way, my way or no way?” Those were questions I was burning to ask. But the truth is, I was worried that any attempt to have a discussion with these folks would end badly. We have finally reached the point where even dialogue is a risky venture. So we remain safely behind our barricades and shout slogans at each other. Thankfully, for the most part, that is as close to civil war as we have come. God help us the day it goes beyond that.

In the face of all this, Jesus admonishes us to endure. Truthfully, I wish Jesus had some better word of promise for us. I wish he would assure us that “the sun will come out tomorrow.” I wish he could promise us that things will get better soon. I suspect the disciples felt the same way. They were all starry eyed over the Temple. That is hardly surprising. If it were still standing, the Jerusalem temple constructed by Herod the Great would doubtless be one of the world’s architectural wonders. The disciples could no more imagine it in ruins than I could have imagined the Twin Towers in ruins the day back in 1975 when I first visited New York City and stood under them, gawking like a typical tourist. I suspect, too, that most of us find it hard to imagine the United States of America in ruins-or so drastically changed that we no longer recognize it as the country we have known. But Jesus seems to be warning us that we might well be called upon to live in and give testimony under drastically different conditions than we take for granted today. The road from where we are today leading to God’s reign of justice and peace is a long one with ups and downs, hills, valleys and plenty of formidable obstacles. Endurance, not speed enables one to finish the race.

“By your endurance,” says Jesus, “you will gain your souls.” Interestingly, the New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek word “psyche” as “soul.” The old Revised Standard Version translates the same word, “life.” Both translations are subject to misinterpretation. The biblical word psyche has a wide breadth of meaning. It can mean simply one’s earthly existence, but it is also used to denote more than a person’s vital functions. The psyche is the “the life force or principle” of living things. It is the “seat and center of the inner life of a [person] in its many aspects.” It can also refer to the “feelings and emotions.”  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (Translated form the German by W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich, pub. by University of Chicago Press, c. 1957). Its meaning depends largely on context. In this particular context I believe the term psyche can be understood as the person of the disciple as defined by that disciple’s relation to Jesus. To endure, then, means to continue one’s allegiance to Jesus throughout the shifting winds of political and environmental change. It is to perservere as a community in which the mind of Christ is formed, resisting all of the cultural forces pulling it in different directions.

We have heard repeatedly that the upcoming election is about the “soul of America.” Frankly, I don’t even know whether nation states have souls. As there were no nation states in existence in biblical times, we are unlikely to find a direct answer to that question in the Scriptures. What I do know is that there are numerous currents of thought and action normative in American society that are contrary to the mind of Christ. Chief among them is the formative influence of white supremacy in the origins, development and ongoing life of our nation. There is a toxic culture of patriarchy and misogyny in our schools, churches, workplaces. Additionally, laws now governing the practice of medicine are making life for our women and girls perpetually unsafe. Last but not least, ours is a culture of violence and intolerance for LGBTQ+ folk. All of this is being given divine sanction by persons identifying as Christians. What ails America ails the church, which I am quite sure does have a soul.  

More important in my view than saving the soul of America (assuming such a thing exists) is preserving the soul of the church. I fear that it may be in mortal danger. I am not certain that we American Christians are capable anymore of distinguishing our call to follow Jesus from the societal role America has assigned to us-and which we have all too uncritically accepted and are trying frantically to hang onto. If the stage were to collapse and the script were lost, would we have any memory of who we were before we became starstruck by landing a part in the great American drama? Should the American nation state implode, fracture or devolve into barbarism, would American Christianity have the spiritual maturity, theological depth and moral courage to be a community formed by the mind of Christ? Can we recover the faithful imagination and thick spiritual practices that sustained the church in past ages through the disintegration of civilizations, persecution under openly hostile governments and public excoriation/indifference?  

Here is a poem by William E. Stafford I shared previously calling us to wakefulness, awareness and attention to what should hold us together and guide us. Perhaps this is something like what Jesus means when he calls us to endurance.  

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

 Source: Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (Norwood House Press, 2013) William Edgar Stafford (1914–1993) was an American poet. Born in Hutchinson, Kansas, he was the oldest of three children. His family moved from town to town during the Great Depression as his father sought work. Stafford helped to support his family by delivering newspapers, working in sugar beet fields, raising vegetables and working as an electrician’s apprentice. He received a B.A. from the University of Kansas in 1937 and began pursuing a master’s degree there as well. Before he could complete his program, however, Stafford was drafted into the United States armed forces. He declared himself a pacifist and was registered as a conscientious objector. He performed alternative service from 1942 to 1946 in the Civilian Public Service camps. During this time, Stafford met and married Dorothy Hope Frantz, with whom he later had four children. Upon discharge, he returned to the University of Kansas where he completed his master’s program. he received a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1957 after teaching for one academic year in the English department at Manchester College in Indiana, a college affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. Stafford was 48 years old when his first major collection of poetry was published. Despite his late start, he was a frequent contributor to magazines and anthologies and eventually published fifty-seven volumes of poetry. You can read more about William Stafford and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

* I am not a munitions expert by any means. Still, I am reasonaby sure that the humvee was a dolled up pickup and the machine gun was neither loaded nor operative. Nonetheless, the message was clear when that vehicle rolled onto the public square of a town populated in the main by left leaning folks like me: “You took our country away from us and we mean to get it back if we have to kill you for it.”

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