(My youngest daughter is the “she” of the story below. This was published ten years ago as she was just entering her teenagery years. She now is an impressive young woman.)
She coaxed her father into the ocean. He put down the book, blew up the raft from Grandma’s storage closet, lathered on the sun screen, and they were off. “Not too far,” she urged as they crossed the beach. “The waves keep knocking me over.”
“Basically, there are three ways to deal with waves,” he recommended. “Try to jump over them, dive underneath them, or ride the tops of them.” Riding the top of waves intrigued her, but it was the toughest option, since you needed to get beyond where the waves were breaking.
Suddenly, Dad got weird. He took the raft and placed himself and his daughter behind it, wielding it like a shield. Together, they marched towards the sea. A wave hit. “Not so bad,” he muttered and walked forward with daughter in tow. Another wave crashed around them. She stumbled back a step, but he yelled out to the horizon, “You call that a wave?!”
The daughter righted herself, discreetly rolled her eyes, and thought, “Oh, boy, here he goes.” Step forward after step forward, wave after surging wave, each merited a defiant shout from her old man. “Pffft, Lake Erie was nastier than this! I’ve seen bigger waves in my bathtub!”
And she laughed, and stepped, and before she knew it, together they were beyond where the waves were cresting. They swayed with each swell, lounging on the raft, catching their breaths. The father looked over to the daughter and challenged her, “Think we’re done with those waves now? We’re not. See, the ocean will keep pushing us back in, so we have to keep going against the tide if we’re to triumph over the ocean.”
Persistence of Spirit
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,
Who is to judge the living and the dead,
And in view of his appearing and his kingdom,
I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message;
Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable;
Convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.
For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine,
but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,
and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
As for you, always be sober, endure suffering,
do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
— 1 Timothy 4:1-5
In his book Dangerous Wonder, Mike Yaconelli suggested roller coasters as a model for the ups and downs of Christian life. Yaconelli’s image implied the passenger strapped in for the ride of a steady climb of growth with many twists and turns along the way, until the ride (and what a ride it is) is over.
Wave riding is a different sort of adventure. The phases of the moon and tropical storms keep the condition of the surf ever changing. Life is meant to be an interactive experience. Each day’s experience will differ from that of the previous day.
The young disciples/wave riders, however, must remain ever vigilant in their involvement with their own passage, freely choosing some of the challenges they must face by their own efforts. Faith and spirituality are meant to be interactive experiences. Paul charges Timothy with the works of faith: proclaiming the word, convincing, reprimanding, encouraging, dealing with challenges, and evangelizing.
If we’re to be fully engaged in the ride of the ups and downs of a Christian life, we must remain constant in our persistence. Paul expressed these sentiments to the Philippians when he wrote, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (3:12)
How does spirituality play out in our lives and ministries? For many of us, it simply is chosen by our enduring commitment, our own stick-to-it-iveness. The spiritual practices of stick-to-it-iveness, therefore, while seeming ordinary, can be elevated to the extraordinary.
Stick-to-it-iveness necessitates persistence in inconvenient, as well as convenient, times. Stick-to-it=iveness spirituality is allowing the Lord to possess our selves in all circumstances as we do the God’s work. Our goal upon the waves of life, therefore, becomes to humbly but righteously declare as Paul did to Timothy that our ministry is fulfilled and that “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4: 7)
Constant Discernment of Vision
The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it;
but that it is too low and we reach it.
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Fulton, Md., has a wonderful name for their youth ministry activities: AYM (Assisi Young Ministry) High. What a wonderful source of encouragement to young people—AYM High. When Christ has taken possession of us, as Paul suggested to the Philippians, and we engage in a pursuit hoping to attain perfect maturity, we’ve placed our aim to the highest target possible.
Discernment of this vision demands a supportive, nurturing, challenging community of friends. This is essential for two diverse reasons. First, a community of friends are the ones who can best see the gifts and possibilities within us and encourage us to aim high. Also, this same community might help us see beyond the iconic perceptions of our “heroic” life choices. Authentic maturity must incorporate our daily living with choices of faith. The heroic choices of Sunday must be integrated into the daily choices of Monday morning, Wednesday afternoon, and late-night Saturday.
Finally, the ocean of life is continuously changing. While we must keep our eyes intent upon the horizon, we need to continue to allow our vision to evolve and refocus as well. “No one puts new wine into old wineskins…” (Luke 5: 37). The Lord of the wind and sea invites us to continually go deeper in faith. While there is apparent safety in remaining close to the coast and what is known, our ocean experience is rich in abundance waiting only for discovery and exploration. Without openness to the new, we’re left with our old unsatisfactory whines.
Commitment: Communal and Public
We are made to persist.
That’s how we find out who we are.
What lifts our spirituality of stick-to-it-iveness to the extraordinary is that we publicly commit to it. A personal pledge to dieting is solidified with a contract with the counselors and programs at Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers. The marathon runner trains for months to make a strong showing amidst the fans and other runners on race day. Many ordinary couples live together. Marriage, however, is the extraordinary, sacramental life choice experienced publicly.
Both for adolescents as well as adults, public successes and failures, our internal perceptions of them, and the external responses to them all mesh together to determine our self-perceptions. It is only in truly experiencing achievement and disappointment in public that we build character. Feigned attempts to deny accomplishments or distresses due to perceived humility or shame only impede our growth.
Our personal choices, lived publicly, can become prophetic moments in a culture starved for spiritual leadership. For Daniel of the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as his associates Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, the more seemingly mundane decisions regarding diet and speaking truth and defining vision to power are as essential to their faith stories as was standing amidst the flames of doubt and persecution.
Furthermore, we can’t be so focused on the journey’s end that we miss the mileposts along the way. The incremental accomplishments of our lives must be celebrated. As a youth ministry community, we’ve focused in on the rites of passages for young people; adults need them too. Birthdays and anniversaries, of course, but do we commemorate our starting day of employment, our years in service, and our relationships as fully as we could or should? In a world where many feel disenfranchised, we need to celebrate each other and ourselves a little bit more, recognizing the wonders that the Spirit has worked in our lives.
Forward Movement: The Daily Something
You’re not obligated to win.
You’re obligated to keep trying to do the best you can every day.
—Marian Wright Edelman
The spirituality of stick-to-it-iveness requires (awkward as it is to say) that one actually sticks to it. Consider the postage stamp. Its usefulness consists in sticking to one thing till it gets there. Each moment and each day, the journey of the stamp is related to the words and messages contained within the envelope. Stick-to-it-iveness requires that we live lives of integrity—that our choices and actions, made each moment and each day, reflect the person and the faith found within us.
Those of us who aspire to live spiritual lives have attached ourselves to the words, messages, traditions, practices, and beliefs of our faith. Our usefulness, mission, and ministry can be found within that to which we have attached ourselves. Sin is what occurs when our choices and actions corrupt the embodiment of our person, our hopes, and our intentions.
The spirituality of stick-to-it-iveness isn’t found in the ups and downs of the journey. It’s found in the moment-to-moment decisions to continue to advance the ride, fight the tide, and stick with the word. How we do that should be ritualized and practiced in a regular resolute pattern—reminding us of our public commitments toward our shared vision.
The practices of the ordinary spirituality of stick-to-it-iveness are the ordinary practices of spiritual life. Discipleship requires discipline. “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” (Romans 12: 11-12)
It’s the disciplines of prayer, mediation, journaling, and communal worship that communicate with a source and a power higher than ourselves. It’s the discipline of discernment that continuously questions our motives (not as a matter of unsure faith but as a process of refining the intentionality of our purpose-filled lives). It’s the discipline of imagination and creativity, offering work and ministry day-by-day beyond the common or mundane, which recommits the soul to the Creator. It’s within the discipline of optimism that we remain hopeful and anticipatory of the Spirit’s role in our lives. It’s within the discipline of courage that we bear afflictions and allow them to define our character. It’s the discipline of organization and structure that frees the spirit to seek the godly in the details of our systems by demanding that our mission remains personal and relational.
It’s the disciple of stick-to-it-iveness that makes this spirituality into something which aspires for the extraordinary. This is, after all, an ordinary response to the extraordinary Lord who loves us and sticks with us throughout it all.
Just Keep Swimming
There is no poverty that can overtake diligence.
The Father and Daughter concluded their adventures on the ocean by watching a movie that evening. Keeping with their ocean theme and bonding time, Finding Nemo seemed to be the appropriate rental.
Marlin is a father fish who searches for his missing son, Nemo, with the assistance of the forgetful but relentlessly optimistic Dory. The climax involves Marlin and Nemo teaming together to rescue Dory who has become the catch-of-the-day with many other fish in a large net.
Marlin and Nemo encourage the captive fish to no longer resign themselves to their fate but to strain against the net and swim towards freedom. “Keep swimming,” they demand. (Dory, of course, happily converts this into a cheerful little song, “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”)
The daughter snuggled a little closer to the father. “That’s a great way to see life, isn’t it?” she suggested. “Just keep swimming.”