April 21, 2010

"Let Us Go On"

2010 1512 page28 capet us go on” (Heb. 6:1, NRSV).*
The stirring call comes to us from the New Testament book of Hebrews. In the annals of motivational literature, there is no book like this one. We fairly hear the voice of the speaker, again and again, addressing their audience with the immediacy of the face-to-face encounter: “let us take care” (Heb. 4:1); “let us . . . make every effort” (4:11); “let us hold fast” (4:14; 10:23); “let us approach” (10:22; see also 4:16); “let us go on” (6:1); “let us consider” (10:24); “let us . . . lay aside” (12:1); “let us run” (12:1); “let us give thanks” (12:28); “let us . . . go to him” (13:13).
In the interests of space, I have selected the three appeals that top the list of concerns.
“Let us hold fast” (Heb. 4:14; 10:23)
Holding fast is not a matter of course. Hebrews is not unaware of, or indifferent to, the reasons for not holding fast. To the extent that we are able to decipher anything about the original audience, the author appears to be addressing a group that has passed through privation and hardship (10:32-34). The hardship has not fully ceased (13:3), but the group seems to be entering calmer waters (10:23-25). If this construct is correct, the challenges to “holding fast” might arise as much from peace and prosperity as from persecution and privation. Moreover, sensing the priorities of Hebrews on this point, the author comes across as a person who is more concerned about the perils of prosperity than the plight of privation.
The concern of Hebrews with respect to “holding fast” was echoed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist who, as I imagine it, looks and speaks like an Old Testament prophet in his commencement address to graduates at Harvard University in 1978: “Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings.” Solzhenitsyn began.1 Harvard’s motto is Veritas, “truth,” and Solzhenitsyn was hinting that genuine commitments are not guaranteed by symbols, slogans, mottos, or rhetoric. They come at the cost of relentless honesty, toil, and concentration. In the realm of holding fast to truth, as Solzhenitsyn presented it to his Harvard audience, is the realization that truth is “seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”2 Hebrews’ concern with respect to “holding fast” implies the temptation to take the route of less resistance, to slow the pace, and to exchange the real thing for an illusion. 
2010 1512 page28Where Hebrews describes the problem, it does it in the form of an account of Israel’s Exodus experience (3:1–4:11). Their problem, we are told, was the problem of a privilege offered that was never fully accepted and internalized (4:6). On the privilege side is God’s faithfulness. The author of this book is convinced that God’s faithfulness is not in doubt no matter how daunting the odds might seem to the believer. To Hebrews, this is the heart of the matter and the supreme reason for “holding fast,” whether we face the headwind of adversity or the tailwind of prosperity. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful,” says the author (10:23). God’s faithfulness, in turn, has been corroborated by the faithful witness of Jesus, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (12:2). Surrounding us, too, there is a “cloud of witnesses” (12:1), a host of people who did enter and who did “hold fast” (11:1-40).
For us there is also the cloud of witnesses of teachers and graduates who have pointed the way at Loma Linda University School of Medicine (LLUSM). I could mention many names, but “time would fail me” if I mention more than three.
The late Walter H. Roberts, LLUSM class of 1939, was my anatomy professor and the person who shaped my first ?impression of LLUSM. Dr. Roberts was an excellent teacher of anatomy, thoroughly committed to teaching at the highest level. He was also a deeply spiritual person, self-effacing, shy of the limelight, and yet leaving no doubt that he saw medicine as a spiritual calling. I sensed in him a man who served us unstintingly, in the unexpressed hope that we would make the most of our privilege and make good on the vision. Carrol Small, LLUSM class of 1934, was one of my pathology teachers, riding his bicycle to and from class, a man so unself-important as has rarely been seen, but also a man who was unswerving in his decision to “hold fast.” On the clinical side, I will mention only Robert Rentschler, LLUSM class of 1970. Dr. Rentschler first taught me physical diagnosis, setting a high standard for attention to detail, and later impressed me on the ward when I discovered that his idea of continuity of care for his patients included writing a letter to the referring physician, not on the day of the patient’s discharge, but on the night of their admission. When I look back and remember people such as these, I hear them say, “Let us hold fast,” and I see them modeling what it means.
“Let us go on” (6:1)
The full statement says, “Let us go on toward completion” (6:1, translation mine). Hebrews comes to us as a journey in progress. It is not a journey completed, and, more to the point, it is a journey in danger of not being completed. Perhaps nothing fills the speaker with greater anxiety than the thought of in-completion—the anxiety of arrested development, loss of forward movement, and failure to appreciate the difference between what has been done and what remains to be done.
Our centennial celebration finds us in a similar situation. When we look at the journey of the School of Medicine from where it began in 1909—with no resources and little faith in the project—the story is one of astounding success. When, on the other hand, we try to envision what completion might look like, we realize that we can only say, “Let us go on.” We do not know what completion will be like, of course, but we know that it must be more than this, whether measured in depth of commitment, quality of trainees, and influence in the world. The call to “go on toward completion,” moreover, reminds us that the things that remain in a state of incompletion are broad, ranging all the way from theology, to people, to money, and to mission.
“Let us . . . go to him” (13:13)
The final “let us” in Hebrews, and the most important one, is therefore to the point. Hebrews’ chief point of attraction centers on a person; it does not envision that we will “hold on” or “go on toward completion” except by the means that makes both ?an attainable goal. “So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach,” we hear the speaker say (13:13, NASB).†
Attention to detail is important in medicine, and it is no less important when listening to Hebrews. The Seventh-day Adventist Church took a risk when it committed to building a medical school in Loma Linda. By training physicians, the church offered its young people a unique privilege of service and mission in the world. A group of believers that by most ?criteria would have been considered outsiders opened to its youth the prospect of becoming insiders, giving them the means of entry to positions of prestige, upward mobility, wealth, and status. We have not misread our history if we sense that the church’s commitment in this respect was predicated on the premise that we, the privileged graduates of this institution, would not thereby cease to “go out to him,” or forget that Jesus “suffered outside the city gate,” or that it would be lost on us that the location of His suffering is a hugely important detail in the story (13:12). For us, now privileged insiders, even more than for the original listeners to the devotional message of Hebrews, it is only by going “out to Him outside the camp” that we will be able to “hold fast” and “go on toward completion.”
* Unless otherwise noted, all Bible texts are taken from the New ?Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the ?Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
† Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
1Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart: Commencement Address ?Delivered at Harvard University June 8, 1978 (trans. Irina Ilovayskaya Alberti; New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 1.
2 Ibid.
Sigve Tonstad, M.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor of religion and an assistant professor of medicine at Loma Linda University. His wife, Serena, is a specialist in preventive medicine and a professor at LLU’s School of Public Health and School of Medicine. The couple has two grown daughters. This article was published April 22, 2010.