Holy tenacity

August 25th, 2022

John Wesley described himself when he wrote in his journal in the spring of 1739 in response to George Whitfield’s field-preaching: 

I was “so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” (Journal & Diaries, 18:612) 

John Wesley’s remarks remind me of present-day mainline Protestants, particularly some United Methodists. Have we become similarly preoccupied with decency and order over and against God’s ministry of salvation? Rather than a tenacious maintenance of decency and order—where are we called to practice holy tenacity participating in God’s redemption?      

Since December 2021, I have led a Bible study in my small rural local community, beyond any church buildings. This group of eight regular participants, along with frequent visitors, formed organically one evening at a coffee shop. I was visiting a neighbor. She had been unable to find a church home where she felt comfortable and wondered openly about God questions. As she noticed others listening in from surrounding tables, she invited them to join us. The Holy Spirit gathered a group of people who were wounded by the church, but who were also hungry to learn about God. The topic that drew us and kept us gathered was God and the many embodiments of church.   

As denominations struggle to slow, much less reverse, decline, this group of eight unrelated, diverse, individuals eagerly search for Christian community. In a town saturated with Christianity, ironically, most in the Bible Study and those we encounter feel excluded, ignored, and criticized despite their hunger for and interest in the gospel of Jesus Christ. These bible study participants teach me almost daily about holy tenacity. 

What is Holy Tenacity?

In the context of this Bible Study, I have witnessed “holy tenacity” —the kind of inquiry, embrace, and sharing of the gospel I describe to and long for when teaching seminary students at Duke Divinity School. This is church in a New Testament, particularly Acts of the Apostles, Paul-meets-Lydia kind of way. 

And yet, this Bible study emerged, grew, and flourishes outside a church building.

“Holy tenacity” embodies the Triune God’s redeeming love for all by reflecting the light and holiness of God’s love in authentic Christian relationships that offer glimpses of the joy and justice of God’s reign.  Jesus sets the ultimate example of “holy tenacity” particularly in his teaching that embodies Scripture’s salvation narrative.  

For me, “holy tenacity” describes God’s work in us to courageously and persistently respond to the Holy Spirit’s compelling us to share God’s relentless love in Jesus Christ in spite of expectations of appropriate Christian, or “churchy,” behavior.

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Loving Well

Implicit in John Wesley’s words about tenacity and ministry is a central question about how to love well.  We are called by the Triune God, in both Old and New Testaments, to love all God’s creation—those with and without power, especially children. We are called to love the unloved and the unlovable—even Judas.

It is difficult to study the Bible (and participate in Christian community) without having a sense of the whole biblical canon and its purpose. Through stories, poetry, and parables we learn about God’s relationship with humanity and creation. The Bible is often mistakenly described as a rule book—or even a reference manual. The Bible is the narrative of God’s salvation for all creation. This does not mean there are not difficulties, challenges, expectations, and unrealized hopes as we read divinely inspired human composition. The Bible is about God’s unrelenting love. 

The primary guideline for the Bible study gathering, agreed upon almost instantly is “no judgement” among and beyond participants. The group’s rationale is based on their ubiquitous experience of receiving judgment from Christians and church members.  Interestingly, the Bible is very clear regarding God’s role as the “author of salvation” (Psalm 62:7).  Therefore, no one but God may save—or judge. Inspired by these biblical themes the Bible study agreed by consensus, “Our main role is to love God and love each other well.” 

Bible Study and Christian Practice Need Each Other

Christian communities, no matter how small or large, practice holy tenacity when they embody God’s love. This can include random acts of kindness. Paying for someone’s snack at the drive thru. Giving a bottle of water to someone in need. These are pleasantly welcome gestures. However, the truly gritty countercultural Christianity of repentance and forgiveness changes the world.  

As we study the Bible to learn about God’s forgiveness extended to all in Jesus Christ, we stretch our imagination and very being when we receive and participate in God’s forgiveness. We discover the depths of love’s possibilities in hearing the confession of a long-held deep wound of betrayal and the request for forgiveness. In offering that forgiveness we release the burden of the wound-wielder and receive God’s healing for the wounded—that is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  

Reading Luke’s Gospel and reflecting upon Mary’s Magnificat in the context of Jesus Christ’s nativity, we discovered how practicing holy tenacity extends into a world turned upside down by God’s grace. Reading the Magnificat together in this group, we discovered how to lament the persistent oppression of systemic poverty and gender exploitation. It is in our mutual laboring to listen and tenaciously love one another, even in that small group, that we find ourselves laboring together with the Holy Spirit to release victims and victimizers from the oppressive systems through mutual empowerment to participate in God’s redemption—and God’s changing the world.  

Bible study and Christian practice need each other—over and over again, a mutually reinforcing rhythm that moves us toward holiness. Our formation as Christian disciples begins at baptism and continues throughout our lives as we participate in God’s work of sanctifying us in love.  

When We Look Together, God is Everywhere

The holy tenacity of this Bible study persists each week through God sightings. At the beginning of our gathering, each participant shares where they see God at work in their lives and community. No matter how sad, angry, guilty, or grumpy, we share about God’s work of love in our lives and in the world. And, if I cannot see God, my neighbor describes God’s work in and through me. The testimonies that unfold during these initial minutes set the tone for our prayers and biblical study. We’ve discovered that the more we practice seeing God, the more of God’s work in the world we see.  

Whether in or beyond church buildings, God’s Holy Spirit is moving in and among us inspiring holy tenacity. To what tenacious holiness are you and your community called?  

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