This week I’m on a retreat with some of the best friends I’ve ever had. These brothers from Birmingham have given me a sense of what Jesus meant when he redefined family as those who do the will of the father, a family that exhibits how the waters of baptism run deeper and thicker than blood. Three and half years ago, we started a journey together as a Macedonian Ministry cohort of pastors. At the time, I had no idea what Macedonian Ministry was or why I was signing up for it. I just knew that someone had told me there was a free lunch, and I don’t turn down free lunches. But in retrospect it’s one of the most important meal invitations I’ve accepted, because it’s turned into an extended feast of koinonia, of knitting of souls together in friendship, of shared perseverance.
At our retreat, we’re discussing a series of questions that helps to recount where God has been at work in our lives. We’re asking things like, where were you three years ago? Where were you personally? In your family life? In ministry? Subsequently we’re sharing about where God has taken us since then, as well as where God might be taking us next. It’s a series of questions that has me thinking a bit more carefully about the nature of Christian perseverance.
We followers of Jesus often tend to conceive persevering in faith as pulling up our bootstraps and gritting our teeth through challenging seasons of life. We have visions of perseverance that depict one’s overcoming insurmountable odds, holding on to hope, enduring through great tragedy and loss. All of these experiences bear an element of perseverance, as there is surely a subjective, active, conscious dimension to our persevering. Yet when the New Testament speaks of perseverance, it’s almost always translating a Greek term (ὑπομονή, hypomonḗ) that is, in most contexts, just as easily translated “endurance” or “patience,” words which carry a more passive connotation than we might expect (though sometimes “steadfastness” would work, too). I’ve been reflecting on this more passive dimension of perseverance for several days now, and I’m quite amazed and admittedly mystified by it. I keep returning to the questions, is perseverance not something I consciously decide to do? Does it not require more effort, energy, and persistence on my part? What do I need to do to get better at this? What does it mean to toil with God’s energy or work out my salvation because it is God who works in me, as Paul explains in Colossians and Philippians? What would it mean to undertake a “discipline” of perseverance?
My experience with my Macedonian Ministry cohort helps to provide an answer. In this cohort of fellow pastors, these faithful friends that I’ve come to know so well have been willing to bear the burdens of one another and while facing the death of a parent, transitions in an out of jobs, surgeries, the birth of children, moving one’s family from one state to another, gunshots at one of our churches, all of which add to the constant and sometimes excruciating stress of simply being a pastor. In all of these instances as well as the more mundane and ordinary moments of everyday life, perseverance has been the unexpected and unmerited power of the Holy Spirit provided through the prayers, intimate friendship, and spiritual guidance of those gathered around me in the cohort.
Within months of this cohort starting in 2014, I learned that, after five years of infertility, Jessica and I were pregnant. I also learned that we’d be moving back to Atlanta, something I said I would NEVER do (and sometimes when I’m sitting in my car on 400, I remember why I said “never.”) We moved to Atlanta a week after Maggie was born, and we lived in a rented townhome in the middle of an “anywhere Atlanta” sort of area where we felt isolated and unrooted. It didn’t help that Jessica was at home with an infant who flat out refused to sleep, and I was still trying to get a handle on my new job. I had underestimated how difficult I would find fatherhood – emotionally, physically, psychologically. It was not an easy transition for us. In retrospect, I can admit that I struggled with some mild depression during these months, sometimes for days or weeks at a time. Some of these transitions were significant by any measure, but perhaps more burdensome over the long-term was the scattering of smaller moments throughout every day that weighed me down.
But I kept driving back to Birmingham. Once a month, as much as possible, I would drive back to Birmingham to gather around a table with these faithful brothers, many of whom had already been through the stage of life that I was currently in. They understood that however big or small the trials of life seemed, whether grieving the loss of a loved one or changing yet ANOTHER diaper at 3 am, that Christ was the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that the strength he offers in our weakness is freely offered and always available. They’ve helped me to understand that perseverance by my own strength is impossible, and that it’s likewise not sufficient for me to privatize my perseverance in such a way that I’m begging God to see me through to the next day without drawing on the Spirit that resides in community with others. I’ve needed these guys, not just because they were a source of encouragement, but because in the place of our joining God is alive. These places exist in Atlanta too, but my Birmingham brothers constituted an already deepened – and deepening – fellowship where I could practice vulnerability, transparency confession, and accountability.
Now that I’m on staff with Macedonian Ministry assembling cohorts, I tell people that I have the wonderful privilege of furthering a mission that I truly believe in and have benefited from. But it would be more accurate to say that I have the privilege of discerning the work of the Spirit to create a communion among brothers and sisters in Christ who probably don’t have their perseverance any more figured out than I do, but who will be astounded by what the Holy Spirit does by gathering people together in an ever deepening, intimate fellowship.
Journeying in this cohort with these brothers, I’m convinced more than ever that perseverance isn’t primarily something that I “do.” It turns out that it’s a power which we tap into precisely in those unique places of belonging, joining, and spiritual intimacy. Every moment, however trivial and seemingly insignificant, with each breath we take, we are in some way persevering. And we do it best through friendship, koinonia, that place where two or three are gathered.