Sunday, July 1, 2012

Resilience: Embracing Challenges

“Resilience: Embracing Challenge”
Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 121; John 21:1-19
A sermon preached by Carla Pratt Keyes
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
July 1, 2012

So, this is the last sermon in my small series about resilience – the skill that enables people to manage the stress of life and bounce back from trouble when it strikes. Studies show that people who manage stress and adversity best have “3 Cs” in common. We’ve talked about two already. Commitment was the first. That’s an active engagement in pursuits that give meaning to life. Control was the second. That’s a belief in one’s ability to take charge of the controllable aspects of a situation to influence a more positive outcome. The third “C” is challenge. Resilient people have, in short, come to terms with the challenges of life. They view mistakes as opportunities for new learning and change as a chance for growth. Underlying these approaches to mistakes and change is often a belief that life is essentially difficult - that we aren’t entitled to an easy life.

When we talked about this in my coaching program, Laurie Ferguson, who was leading the conversation, noted that life used to be more challenging in very basic ways. Folks had to drag water from the stream or well. They had to walk to school (uphill both ways to hear my grandpa tell it). Laurie said that when our lives are relatively easy (with drinking water handy from faucets all over the house, and school buses that stop close to home) our resilience suffers.

That was a funny thing to remember this week, when so many of us lost electricity. Living a couple of days without electricity reminded me how many conveniences I take for granted.  I kept reaching for the light switch anytime I entered a dark room. Kept opening my computer expecting to have wifi. Kept wanting to open the freezer we’d taped shut . . . . I know my family was among the fortunate. We lost power at the start of the week, when it was cool. We didn’t lose many groceries, and it wouldn’t have wrecked our food budget if we had. No trees fell into our house or yard. I know not everyone here can say the same! For me living a couple days without electricity wasn’t especially hard. But if we’d had to do without power much longer than that, I would have gotten grumpy. The washing machine, the coffee-maker, the stove: these are some of the conveniences I take for granted – things I want to be easy.

            That is why I so deeply admire the woman I saw last January, in a video the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Program posted then. She was a Haitian woman, and she was talking about her experience of the earthquake that had occurred in Haiti two years earlier. She described the earthquake, the shaking of her house, the cracking noises that came, the terror of it all. She told how she and her children had slept in an open field after their house had crumbled. They made a shelter of leaves and clothes, but were still soaked by the rain; they had to throw out almost everything they had. This woman raised her children and grandchild on her own. She took in another child, too, who had lost her mother in the quake. After describing all of that, the woman said, “The hard things that happened aren’t ‘difficulties.’ It’s just life as I see it . . . I did everything I could to raise these children. I hope someone would do the same for me, if something happened to me, and my kids needed help . . . . [I am scared sometimes, she went on . . . . It is hard. Still, the Haitian people] are strong. Haiti will be rebuilt because we are not afraid to work.” [1] This woman does not assume that anything in her life will be easy or convenient. She assumes there will be difficulty, sweat, and effort. I think that those assumptions have helped to make her resilient.

            I also think that Abraham’s willingness to set out for a new land (what we read about in Genesis today) resembles this woman’s courage, as she confronted disaster in her homeland. Abraham had more material resources, certainly – animals, tents and servants. But like the woman, Abraham faced significant challenge and momentous change, and he did so without a lot of drama or any complaining. He left for a land “God would show him,” and he must have been aware that establishing himself in that new place would not be easy. Abraham would have to work hard and be brave.

Many biblical stories begin this way, with someone who is willing to do what’s difficult, even risky, in response to God’s call. Abraham and Sarah. Moses and the Israelites. Elijah and David. Daniel and Esther. Mary, Peter and the other disciples – all of them came to terms with a challenging path. They rose to face an uncertain and difficult future in response to God’s call.

There’s a line that recurs in these stories. Time and again, people are told to “Fear not.” Fear not. They need to hear this, because they are facing scary situations – experiences where fear would be the natural thing to feel. Some of us can identify. Some of us are facing danger in our lives. Illness, maybe. Or surgery. Or death. Addiction or poverty or violence in our home or neighborhood. These things can do us harm. Others of us are facing a different kind of fear – a better kind of fear, though still . . . fear. It’s what must have stirred in Abraham and Sarah as they left to follow God’s call – the kind of fear you feel when you’re doing something new and different. Something challenging. A stepping-out-onto-the-high-dive kind of fear. We feel this fear, often, when we are trying to embrace a new thing, when we’re facing significant change.

Change is inherently unsettling. Why is that? Any change begins with an ending. We have to let go of something – maybe something or someone we care deeply about, at least a situation we knew, something familiar to us. We face some kind of ending, and then, often, a time of feeling disoriented and confused – maybe a little, maybe a lot. We’re unsettled, anyway, before we start the new thing . . . before we make the new beginning. These changes in our lives aren’t necessarily dramatic (signaled by a burning bush or an angel announcing news). Sometimes we are just moving to a new city, beginning a new job or retiring from one, starting a marriage or ending one, welcoming a child into the family or waving goodbye as her car backs out of the driveway. Something in our life ends . . . something else begins. We live faithfully when we attend to God in the midst of such changes.

Sometimes we know God is calling us to push the boundaries, and that can be scary, too: reaching out to a stranger, when it doesn’t come naturally to us; telling the truth, when it would be easier to keep quiet; sharing what we have, when we aren’t sure there’ll be enough for everyone. Following Christ requires a certain willingness to reach out and to risk. It’s not as easy as I’d like it to be.

Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, spoke in a TED talk recently about obstacles to reaching out and risking, a primary obstacle being the fear of failure and the shame so often associated with failure. Brené spoke candidly about the failures she’s experienced in her own work, and the great insecurity she’s felt as her work has become well known. Brené said that one of the things that’s kept her going (despite her fear!) is Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote. Do you know it? Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best he wins, and at worst he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.”

[Brené said,] That’s what life is about, about daring greatly, about being in the arena. [Then she spoke again about shame, which keeps so many of us out of the arena. She said,] When you walk up to that arena and you put your hand on the door, and you think, “I’m going in and I’m going to try this,” shame is the gremlin who says, “Uh, uh. You’re not good enough. You never finished that MBA. Your wife left you . . . . I know those things that happened to you growing up. I know you don’t think that you’re pretty enough or smart enough or talented enough or powerful enough . . . .” Shame is that thing.

. . . Shame drives two big tapes – “never good enough” and, if you can talk it out of that one, “who do you think you are?” The thing to understand about shame [Brené says, is that] it’s not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.”[2]

            I don’t know which was affecting Peter – guilt or shame – as we read about him in the gospel according to John. He’d been through a lot at this point in the story, especially in recent days. He had seen Jesus arrested, crucified and buried. During that time, Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times. He had heard about Christ’s resurrection, had visited the empty tomb, had seen Jesus at least twice, and had received the Spirit Christ breathed upon the disciples. That must have been amazing and encouraging for Peter and his friends. And yet . . . everything was different than it had been. The risen Jesus was different; the disciples both knew him and did not know him. He came to them, but left as mysteriously. They couldn’t follow in his footsteps – not literally – as they once had done. Life as the disciples had known it was past. All the disciples were feeling disoriented by the change. They must also have been afraid that the people who had come for Jesus would come for them, too. On top of it all, Peter was haunted by his betrayal of Jesus. For so many reasons, he was unready to return to the arena.

So he and his friends went fishing instead. And Christ came to them there at the lake, seeking them out before they could get too comfortable, reminding them he brought good gifts into their lives. The catch, the breakfast, the conversation . . . all were hints of a Eucharistic feast, and they reminded the disciples about the resources God would always give them when they rose to follow Christ’s call: an abundance of love and power and nourishment.

I am especially drawn to Christ’s conversation with Peter. Three times Peter had denied Jesus outside the courtyard of the high priest, while the high priest was questioning Jesus at the start of his Passion. Three times, when challenged and asked about his relationship to Jesus, Peter had given into fear. Not wanting to suffer, as he had known Jesus would suffer, Peter had claimed not to know Jesus. Christ had seen it coming, had known Peter would deny him . . . and as Jesus faced Peter now, both of them remembered Peter’s failure.

Do you love me?

Jesus asked Peter three times, giving Peter the chance to say what he had wanted to say before. I love you. I love you. I love you. And three times, Jesus called Peter back into the arena, to try again . . . to risk again . . . to do what Christ made him able to do: Feed my sheep. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. It would be difficult work, even dangerous work; it would lead someday to Peter’s death. But Jesus showed Peter he was known, forgiven, called, and equipped to do it. And, as we all know, Peter rose to face the challenge.

What challenge do you face? What arena is God asking you to enter? What does God need you to dare? And what holds you back as you stand there with your hand on the door? Only you can say. I will simply remind you: Christ comes to you, as Christ came to Peter. His hands are full of gifts. His voice is heavy with compassion. He sees and forgives and challenges you, too. And he calls you – one way or another – to follow him.



How do you respond to change and challenge? Is life best for you when it’s predictable and known? Or do you enjoy pursuing new experiences?
How often (and how easily) do you step out of your “comfort zone”? Where in your life are you taking a risk?
How do you respond to the notion that people do well to accept that life is difficult – that we aren’t entitled to an easy life?

Every transition in life begins with an ending. Letting go of something that’s been important to us is, at best, an ambiguous situation, as we come to realize what’s been good and bad about the part of our life that’s ending. Think back over the endings in your own life. Some may have been big and terrible (like a death in the family); others may have been insignificant to everyone but you (like the end to a kind of innocence or trust). Try to recall the feelings and thoughts you had at those endings. Do you have a “style” for dealing with endings? In what ways is that style good or bad for you?

What events have brought change to your life in the last year? How are you responding to those changes? (e.g. losses of relationships, changes in home life, personal changes, work & financial changes, inner changes)

Consider your recreational activities. There’s a difference between what’s pleasurable and what’s enjoyable. Pleasurable activities are the ones we slide into easily – TV, puzzles, eating, easy reading. They’re our go-to activities. Enjoyable activities are things that (to some extent) we have to make ourselves do. They take some effort, but it’s worth it; we feel different after engaging in these kinds of activities. What’s the ratio of pleasure to enjoyment in your life?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Resilience: Taking Responsibility

“Resilience: Taking Responsibility”
Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Psalm 16; Romans 12:1-8
A Sermon by Carla Pratt Keyes
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
June 24, 2012

It was not the first time the people of Israel had needed encouragement – the time about which we read in Deuteronomy today. They had spent some forty years in the wilderness of Sinai – part lost, part trapped, often tired and frustrated, wondering out loud if they should have listened to Moses, or should have stayed with the life they’d known in Egypt, hard though it was. The people had needed encouragement before, but never more so, perhaps, than as they stood at the edge of the Promised Land. They were, finally, face-to-face with the Jordan River, chilly and cold. Face-to-face with the hopes and fears of all those years they’d spent waiting to cross it. Face-to-face with the fact that their ancestors had stood in this place once before and had chickened out, basically! They’d lost confidence in God and themselves and had returned to the wilderness because of it. Now these Israelites faced significant questions about God: like, whether God had the power to restore their fortunes? Whether God cared enough to do so? They faced big questions about themselves, too: whether they were capable of loyalty to God? Whether they believed in the destiny of Israel? Whether they would dare to taste the milk and honey of a new land, or play it safe, with manna in the wilderness. The people to whom Moses spoke were demoralized and unsure; they needed a path of hope. Moses pointed toward that path and, as passionately as he could, he urged them to take it. “Choose life,” he said. “Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.”

In his reflections on this text, Old Testament scholar Ronald Clements says that the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land had something in common with their predecessors (who had messed things up before) and their descendants, who read Moses’ speech years later (and once again in exile from the land). What they had in common was that they felt more despair than hope. “Despair of the future is a kind of social disease,” Clements says.

Whether that social sickness is a consequence of the turmoil and ruination caused by warfare, as [the author of Deuteronomy had] witnessed, or whether it is caused by deprivation, unemployment, and social alienation, [as so many in this country have experienced recently] the effects are very similar. Hopelessness generates despondency. It deenergizes and dehumanizes persons so that they no longer reach to grasp the possibilities that life brings. It generates impulses of self-pity and self-condemnation. It begins to regard death as a welcome release instead of the closure of the period of opportunity.

So the appeal to faith and hope [offered in Deuteronomy – the exhortation to “Choose life”] is not merely a religious appeal to generate support for religious enterprise, [Clements goes on. It is the antidote to despair about the future.] It is an appeal to seek out the deep [and positive] wellsprings of human ambition and to expect the future to be open and desirable. It is an appeal to discover afresh what it truly means to be a human being.[1]

            If you were here last week (or have read the note in the bulletin) you know that I’m exploring aspects of human resilience in this brief sermon series. How is it that some people, when encountering challenges and adversity, cross into the Promised Land with confidence? What helps people – even struggling people – avoid the pitfalls of despair and see the future as open and desirable? What enables humans to embrace hope? In part, it is the notion that life puts certain possibilities in front of us, and we have the ability – the power – to grasp them. Resilient people believe they can “take control” of their lives by taking responsibility for their thoughts and actions, by choosing what they will think and do. As Moses might say, God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses . . . and God invites us to choose life. Resilient people know it’s within their power to make that choice.

            How do we, as Christians, understand that God has given us the gift of being in charge of our life and behavior? It’s an interesting question. As we were choosing hymns this week, Doug Brown observed that there are a lot more hymns about how God is in control than there are hymns about the human power to shape things. Why is that? We know, for one thing, that we are limited, sinful, and fallible creatures, working alongside other limited, sinful and fallible creatures; our ability to choose and manage things exists within this context of limits, sin, and error. What’s more, we, like the Israelites, stand at the border of a land we can inherit, but for sure didn’t earn. Salvation is ours by grace, not because we are brave or capable or good. As Professor Clements says about the Israelites as they stood on the verge of Jordan: only one thing remained for them to do; all else lay in the power of God. Nevertheless, this one act was the key; it would enable the Israelites to pass through the doorway God opened for them – the doorway of hope. They had to choose life.[2] And so do we.

            God frees us from the wilderness for the Promised Land. Frees us from sin for obedience. Frees us from despair for hope. The key is to choose it – to choose life. And we pray God will help us to do so. I’m reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s old prayer, best known as the prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

            The courage to change the things we can . . . to choose life when we can. Years ago, a woman named Catherine Royce wrote about her determination to choose life in the face of the illness that would cause her death.

I have spent my life typing on a keyboard [she said], but now I can no longer use my hands. Every day I sit at my computer speaking words into a microphone instead of typing. [Three years ago] I was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's Disease. Over time, this disease will weaken and finally destroy every significant muscle in my body. Ultimately, I will be unable to move, to speak and, finally, to breathe. Already, I am largely dependent upon others. So every day I review my choices.

Living with ALS seems a bit like going into the witness protection program. Everything I have ever known about myself — how I look, how I act, how I interact with the world — is rapidly and radically changing. And yet, with each change, I still have choice.

When I could no longer type with my hands, I knew I could give up writing entirely or I could go through the arduous process of learning to use voice recognition software. I'm not a young woman. This took real work. Interestingly, I write more now than ever.

Every day I choose not only how I will live, but if I will live. I have no particular religious mandate that forbids contemplating a shorter life, an action that would deny this disease its ultimate expression. But this is where my belief in choice truly finds its power. I can choose to see ALS as nothing more than a death sentence, or I can choose to see it as an invitation — an opportunity to learn who I truly am.

. . . So far I have discovered many unique things [about myself], but one stands out above the rest. I have discovered in myself an ability to recognize, give and receive caring in a way far deeper than anything in my life before. I have always been an intensely private and independent person. But now I have allowed a wide circle of family and friends into the most intimate parts of my life.
Previously, I would have found such a prospect appalling. I would have assumed that living with ALS meant a life of hardship and isolation. Instead, because I believe that I always have a choice, I opened myself to other possibilities. And now the very thing that at first seemed so abhorrent has graced my life with unaccustomed sweetness. It was always there. Only now I have chosen to see it.[3]

She’s chosen to see and seize life’s possibilities.

            Usually, our choices are more mundane than Catherine’s (though perhaps no less important). Peter Bregman got me thinking about my daily choices in an article he wrote for the Harvard Business Review. The world moves so fast, he said. There is so much to understand, to think about, to react to.

So [many of us try] to speed up to match the pace of the action around us . . . .But that's a mistake [Bregman says]. The speed with which information hurtles towards us is unavoidable . . . . But trying to catch it all is counterproductive. The faster the waves come, the more deliberately we need to navigate. Otherwise we'll get tossed around like so many particles of sand, scattered to oblivion. [Thrown back to the wilderness, you might say.]

Never before has it been so important to be grounded and intentional and to know what's important [and what’s not important.]

[As an example, Bregman cites a study of car accidents [and what happens in a car right before an accident. It was found (no surprise)] that in 80% of crashes the driver was distracted during the three seconds preceding the incident. [It wasn’t always the cell phone. Some people changed the radio station, others took a bite of a sandwich. The point is, they lost focus.] Then they crashed . . . .

[Bregman suggests we make two lists to help us focus. I’ll describe them as Bregman does and as Moses might.]

List 1 is Your Focus List (the road ahead)
What are you trying to achieve? What makes you happy? What's important to you? [What has God written on your heart? What leads to life for you and the people around you?] Design your time around those things. [Choose them in whatever way you can.]

List 2 is Your Ignore List (the distractions)
What are you willing not to achieve? What doesn't make you happy? What's not important to you? What gets in the way? [Or, as Moses might ask, What calls you away from God? What leads you to lose hope in God’s gracious promises? What diminishes your experience of God’s good gifts?

Review [these two lists] each morning, along with your calendar, and ask: what's the plan for today? Where will I spend my time? [How might I follow God’s path of hope? How can I choose life instead of death?] [4]

            Sometimes we help each other to choose life instead of death. We’re shifting gears here, but I want to tell you a story about Ruth Brown (a member of this church, to whom I will later invite you to write notes of encouragement). Ruth wrote us recently about the struggles of women in Congo to take charge of things most of us take for granted. Ruth described how twice in one month she had visited the homes of women recently widowed and had found each woman sitting in silence and alone on a straw mat in the corner of a room. After a husband’s death, Ruth says, the tradition in Congo dictates that a widow sit on the floor for forty days. During these forty days, the husband’s family can come and claim all her property. They also sometimes humiliate her by forcing her to drink a mixture of ashes and water.[5]

            Ruth has been partnering with churches in Africa to promote gender equality and the education and economic empowerment of women. She applied for, and recently received, a grant to support, among other things, efforts to promote marriage licenses that will protect a woman’s property rights should she become a widow. Why is Ruth doing this? When Ruth set out for Congo, she said that she hoped to support the ministry of churches there in such a way “that more people will recognize that all people, regardless of nationality, sex, age or physical abilities, are blessed creations loved by God who have full citizenship in the Kingdom of God.”[6] All people gifted with life and love and responsibility.

            To recognize people that way (to see ourselves that way!) is one of the most important choices we make. To see how we are citizens of God’s kingdom, beloved by God, brothers and sisters in God’s holy family, members of Christ’s own body, gifted for a purpose. All of that can be essential. As we face life’s challenges, as we stand at significant crossroads, as we wake to days full of choices, we act as God’s people. And God both invites us and empowers us to choose life.


Resilient people tend to believe and act as if they can influence the events taking place around them through their own effort. In other words, they believe and act in ways that show they are “in control” (at least to some extent) and able to manage things. How do we understand that God has given us the gift of responsibility for being in charge of our lives and behavior?

Some things to consider and try:

One very basic thing we can usually control is our breath. When we are stressed, our breathing becomes short and labored. We can begin to relax sometimes just by taking a conscious breath, all the way down to the diaphragm. (If we fail to breathe deeply enough our bodies sometimes compensate. Have you been yawning or sighing these days?  It might be your body saying, “More oxygen, please. Try breathing!”)

Frequently there are things we tolerate – the indecision, the mess of life, small things on your list you haven’t gotten around to doing. These things take up mental and emotional space; they pull at us and leave us feeling fractured. Make a list of 25 things you’re tolerating – garden tools you haven’t put away, the doctor’s appointment you know you should make, your indecision about late-summer plans. Whatever. Tackle three of them by this Saturday, and continue to chip away at the list until it’s gone!

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Consider: how do you tell your story? How do you explain the good and bad things that happen to you? How do you speak of resources and opportunities available to you? What do you say to yourself over and over? Is this what you really believe? Do these stories, patterns, and mantras serve you well? Do they lead to life? - to a closer, better relationship with God? If not, work to change them. (Changing our stories is hard work. There are good books that address it. One I’m reading is The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte.)

Consider making “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning” (this, from Peter Bregman’s article of the same name) and planning your days based on those lists.
List 1: Your Focus List (the road ahead)
What are you trying to achieve? What makes you happy? What's important to you? (I might add: What leads you more fully into the life God offers you? What reflects the designs God has written on your heart?) Design your time around those things. Because time is your one limited resource and no matter how hard you try you can't work 25/8.
List 2: Your Ignore List (the distractions)
To succeed in using your time wisely, you have to ask the equally important but often avoided complementary questions: what are you willing not to achieve? What doesn't make you happy? What's not important to you? What gets in the way? (What leads to death (or diminished life!) for you, and for others around you? What leads you farther from God’s purposes for your life?)

[1] Ronald Clements, “Deuteronomy,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 2, p 514.
[2] Ibid, 512.
[3] “I Always Have a Choice,” by Catherine Royce, December 4, 2006
[4] Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning, by Peter Bregman, May 27, 2009,