Resilience has become a big topic in the last few years. We’re hearing about the importance of helping our children develop resilience in order to weather disappointments and failures in life. Scientists talk about the ways some plants develop resilience to changing climate conditions.1 (Which is not necessarily good news–but you’ll have to read the article to hear that full discussion.) Resilience is a characteristic noted in the discussion of why some people survive horrendous experiences pretty much intact and why others disintegrate under the same circumstances.
There’s even a line of cosmetic lotions called “Resilience Lift.” And I guess that’s because one definition of resilience is the ability to return to the original form–which is what people with sagging middle-aged skin may be seeking. But that’s a different kind of resilience than what gets people and communities through hard times.
This morning I want to think more about resilience as “the capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe [and] to adapt successfully in the face of threats or disaster.”2
Last weekend, I heard an interview with Garrison Keillor about a book of his poetry that’s just been published. He read a poem he wrote for an address to the Harvard University chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. He said the Phi Beta Kappa’s were a little shocked by what he wrote. Here’s an excerpt:
“Without failure we have a poor sense of reality.
One should not be a person whose memoirs consist
of notes from the classes you never missed.
Would the prodigal son’s dad have killed the fatted calf
if the boy had graduated with an average of 3.99-1/2?
No. Nor would Job have grown so wise in the Lord’s ways,
if his only tribulation been one or two Bs
among a whole long string of As.”3
His humorous poem got me thinking about how so much of the bible is written by or for people in distress. The Old Testament has a great deal of material written about being in exile (or the threat of exile or the recovery after exile). The gospels and epistles are set in the context of the oppression of the Roman empire and the cultural rejection of the followers of Jesus.
As we’ve been wending our way through parts of Jeremiah since the end of August, we’ve become acquainted with the troubled, disastrous, chaotic world of Jeremiah. For more than a decade Judah and its capitol city, Jerusalem, had been invaded by the empire of Babylon. While scholars don’t agree on the details of the invasions or the magnitude of the deportation of people as prisoners of war, most of them agree the nation of Judah “experienced a major disaster…and the collapse of the nation brought with it unspeakable suffering. The invasions left major devastation in their wake, vastly interrupted ordinary life, and left the survival of the Judean people in serious doubt.”4
Throughout Jeremiah’s 52 chapters little bits of hope are scattered here and there. Like bread crumbs so you don’t starve but you’re not going to survive very well on them. But, beginning in chapter 30, a new window opens up in the book. God tells Jeremiah to write about the days that are coming when the people will return to the land God gave them; a time when their wounds will be healed and their lives restored. It is in this four-chapter section of Jeremiah, often called “the little book of consolation,” where the Jeremiah reading this morning is lodged.
These are, it seems to me, words of resilience. There will be a future. Those who have been scattered will be gathered together again. A flourishing life will return. Sorrow will be replaced with joy.
Those aren’t pie in the sky words. They aren’t said with no regard to the present circumstances. Most of the book of Jeremiah is about acknowledging the terrible circumstances, the chaos, the disaster, the despair. But those aren’t the only words. And it’s not the end of the story.
Resilience isn’t about jumping up and dusting off and pretending like nothing bad happened. “People feel grief, sadness, and a range of other emotions after adversity and loss. The road to resilience lies in working through the emotions and effects of stress and painful events.”
New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler wrote a piece on strengths in families a few months ago. In research for a book he was writing he discovered “the single most important thing you can do” to cultivate a happy, resilient family is to “develop a strong family narrative.” 5 Researchers have noticed that children who know a lot about their families–who know stories about where their grandparents grew up, how their parents met, a time there was a crisis in the family and how they survived–children who know stories about their family tend to do better when they face challenges than children who don’t know those sorts of things. Children who know these stores are more resilient. Why? Researchers point to the significance of being part of a larger family–“they know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”6 Feiler says “leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative[–a story–]that explains what the group is about.”7
We do that together as a family of faith. One of our sense-making narratives is of course, the stories in the Bible: We were called by God to be God’s people. Our ancestors have gone through good times and bad times. They had everything. They lost everything. They were redeemed and restored, brought back to life. And always, God was with them and always God’s desire for them was for good and not for ill–even when that was hard to see. It’s the story told in Jeremiah, including the part where God says, “Surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”8
It’s the story of the mustard seed–an illustration of what the realm of God if like. You look at a mustard seed and you don’t expect much but its roots grow into the soil and its branches spread up to the sun and invite a whole host of life to flourish in its midst. Tiny little things become a source of life and well-being. That’s the economy of the realm of God.
I’ve taken comfort in these two stories the last couple weeks as the craziness in our country increases. Here’s my list of crazy: the “my way or the highway” attitude of elected leaders; members of Congress who will hurt everyone because they didn’t get their way; the House of Representatives slashing billions of dollars from food stamps–one of the most effective tools against hunger in this country9; increasing poverty in Kentucky10 and our two senators who seem to care nothing about this reality; the continuing deaths of children from guns11 and still we have no moral will to do anything about it; the lies and half-truths and what seems to me to be racism around the lack of implementation of the Affordable Care Act.12
I could go on but that’s enough of a list for one sermon.
Maybe you’ve got a related sort of time as well? Now we have the choice, do we pull the covers over our heads in despair or do we keep living a life as best as we can in concert with the will of God, as best as we know it, even in the face of overwhelming odds?
On this World Communion Sunday when we celebrate our oneness in Christ with sisters and brothers all around the world, I wonder about the kind of world we live in and the kind of world we are creating.
The stories in the Bible and the stories of our own parents and grandparents in faith give us resilience to keep living as God’s people, working with God to create a world of justice and joy; a world of peace and compassion even when it seems so far off.
A friend shared this quote recently: “Prayer is the ability to listen to the music of the future. Faith is the courage to dance to it today.”13 (Prayer is the ability to listen to the music of the future. Faith is the courage to dance to it today.) That reminds me of the kind of resilience we need to keep living as God’s people and working with God to create the realm of God here on earth; to live at the Beloved Community.
On this World Communion Sunday, when we remember people near and far, who are the people whose stories you know who have filled their lives with that kind of prayer and faith? Who are the people who inspire you to fill your life with that kind of prayer and faith?
May the Spirit give us the hope and strength we need to make a world where all are welcome, where love can live and where peace and justice fill every corner of creation.
* * *
1 http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/11/resilience-seen-in-norther-and-tropical-flora-in-a-warming-climate/, accessed 3 October 2013.
2 http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/resilience/what-resilience, accessed 3 October 2013.
3 An excerpt from the “Address to the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Sanders Theatre, June 2008” http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=225380984&m=227121567, accessed 3 October 2013.
4 Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011) 15.
5 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html?pagewanted=all, accessed 5 October 2013.
8 Jeremiah 29.11
9 http://officeofpublicwitness.blogspot.com/2013/09/j-herbert-nelson-writes-congress-oppose.html, accessed 5 October 2013.
10 Chris Kenning, “Poverty is Rising in KY” The Courier-Journal, September 19, 2013, A1.
11 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/us/children-and-guns-the-hidden-toll.html?pagewanted=all, accessed 5 October 2013; not to mention the deaths in Newtown, CT.
12 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/health/millions-of-poor-are-left-uncovered-by-health-law.html?pagewanted=all, accessed 5 October 2013.
13 Thanks for Harry Pickens who posted this quote (author unknown?) on his facebook page.