True Grit

Sermon for the Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost
Preached by Jaylene Johnson, Ministry Coordinator
at saint benedict’s table.

I recently came across the studies of Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, who researches what she calls “Grit”, named after the film “True Grit”, a Western that depicts the journey of a young woman’s gritty and determined quest to avenge her father’s death. Duckworth uses the term ‘grit’ as synonymous for persistence and perseverance, and has discovered that it is a key determinant of high achievement, actually surpassing natural talent, intelligence, and socio-economic status. Grit is a quality, a “no quit” attitude despite failure or adversity. We might attribute it to an athlete who makes countless sacrifices for years to qualify for the Olympics, or the runner who digs deep and pushes past pain to finish the last leg of a marathon, or anyone, really, with admirable tenacity in the face of obstacles.

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Grit was surely the drive behind Colonel Sanders, who pressed on after 1000 rejections of his business proposal to finally hear the “yes” that became what we now know of as “Kentucky Fried Chicken”; Thomas Edison had 1000 failed attempts before successfully inventing the light-bulb; “Gone With the Wind” was rejected by 38 publishers; J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by a dozen publishers; Charles Schulz who created the “Peanuts” cartoon couldn’t get one drawing accepted for his high school yearbook. Winston Churchill failed grade six and was defeated in every election he undertook until he finally became prime minister at age 62. A doctor I know tried to get into medical school six times before finally being accepted. I ask myself – what’s my number? How many rejections or failures can I handle before getting deeply discouraged, disillusioned and giving up? Sadly, that number for many of us can be pretty low. Failure, rejection and discomfort don’t feel good at all, and naturally we want to avoid them. It doesn’t help that we live in a society of immediacy, of instant gratification and seemingly overnight success stories. If we have an itch, we want it scratched, quickly and easily, and for no more than three low payments of $9.99!

We might say that only certain people have innate, stubborn determination, but there’s ample indication in scripture that we are all called to “grit”. In the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus seems to draw a parallel between persistence or – grit – and faith. A widow pesters an uncaring and ungodly judge until he gives in and offers her vindication from her adversary. We don’t know what her specific problem was, just that she did not quit. She knew that the judge, regardless of his personality traits and values, had the authority to give her what she needed. He knew she wasn’t going to go away. The judge even feared for his personal safety, saying he would give her what she asked for so that she wouldn’t come and attack him – speaking to her relentlessness and strong passion in pursuit of justice for herself. Jesus then says, how much more will God listen to the prayers of His chosen ones and enact swift justice for them – God who loves us, hears us and desires the absolute best for us; the Ultimate Authority, with whom all things are possible.

Jesus also knows us very well, however; our human nature and the challenges it presents on our spiritual journeys. So he concludes the parable with a question: When He returns, will he find faith on the earth? Will He find “true grit”?

Exercising grit in the context of prayer is an exercise of faith in the surety of God, who will not fail us and who does not reject us. It’s not toward an unknown end, or trophies or anything that perishes or can be taken from us. God doesn’t always answer the way we want, or when we want, but we are answered, and by a God who desires the best for us. And I don’t think Jesus’ parable is implying a mysterious number of times we have to pray to get answers, like in some kind of contest. That falls more in line with the old, merit-based way of thinking, not with New Covenant grace. But we are encouraged to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), to earnestly, with thanksgiving, seek answers (Philippians 4:6). And we’re invited to do so boldly (Hebrews 4:16) because Jesus has brought us close, and we’re clothed in His righteousness.

The Jeremiah 29 (1, 4-7) passage is, in another sense, an example of God’s call to “True Grit” versus “quick fix solutions”. Judah had been decimated by Babylon, its leaders and thousands of principal citizens taken north in exile, the poorest left behind under a different, appointed king. Another prophet was telling them that God would vindicate them in just two short years, which would have sounded a lot more appealing than the truth. It would, in fact, be some 70 years before the exiles would return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Jeremiah deals with the false prophet, and delivers the true prophecy via a letter to the exiled leaders, which in today’s vernacular might read: Settle in folks, because its going to be a long ride. Build houses. Plant, and harvest gardens. Have kids and grandkids. Increase and don’t be diminished. But the real kicker comes in verse 7, when God tells them: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Talk about taking the requirement for perseverance up a notch! Not only were they not to take a defeated posture, they were to increase and prosper. And not only were they to pray for themselves, but also for the needs and blessing of those who captured and conquered them! I don’t know about you, but I have a feeling that was a tough pill to swallow. Granted, this was a people that had turned from God. But maybe their exile and what God took them through as a result was less about punishment and more about building something in them – humility, yes; a hunger for and dependence upon God, absolutely, but also grit. God ultimately kept His promise to them, knowing the plans He had for them, plans to prosper them and not to harm, plans to give them hope and a future (Jer 29:11) but the answers were not immediate. They would have to dig deep and find a way to thrive and be a blessing in Babylon, despite decades of exile and subjugation. This must have built something in them – strength and endurance.

There’s something transformative about grit and perseverance in any context because it does build endurance and character in us. CS Lewis said, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.” James writes in chapter 1, verse 4 “let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. And Paul in the book of Romans says: suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame. (Romans 5:3-5)

The exercise of spiritual grit was part of God’s plan for Judah’s ultimate benefit, and is for ours as well. But it’s up to us to be “gritty”. When we don’t get the answers we want, when God’s version of “swift” and “acting quickly” turns out to be much slower than we desire, or when we don’t find God to be exactly as we imagined or wished, do we give up? Do we doubt that He hears us, that He loves us? Do we question who He really is – good and faithful, the only wise God? Do we put a wall up between Him and us or walk away from the community of saints? Or, do we press in? Draw closer? Do we keep praying, giving thanks that He will, in His perfect timing, answer us? And further yet, as the people of Judah were asked to do, do we pray and enact blessing into the circumstances around us, even when it involves the blessing and benefit of the difficult people who may be causing our circumstances? That takes strong character – character that God builds in us through persistent faith.

To be honest, sometimes the mere idea of ‘grit’ can feel exhausting. Some of us may find ourselves in a place where we can barely get out of bed, let alone take on a discipline of any kind, spiritual or otherwise. But I think we can start somewhere, even if it’s just in how we think; changing warped or negative views about God, or just asking Him to reveal Himself. We can seek truth and draw encouragement from the scriptures, and from one another. No matter where we’re at, we can pray from that place, and ask God to strengthen us by the Holy Spirit. And maybe, for those who depend on their own  “doing” and “discipline”, “grit” should take on a counter-intuitive form of “rest”, learning to lean on Him and trust Him – hands in the air; repeatedly, diligently laying things down before God versus carrying them by ourselves. Whatever ways God is calling us to “true grit”, whether as individuals or as a church, may we be willing, may we not lose heart, and may we, and all around us, be transformed and renewed in Him.

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