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,

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Resilience: Living with Purpose

“Resilience: Living with Purpose”
Exodus 1:8-10, 15-21; Psalm 111; Matthew 13:44-46
A sermon preached by Carla Pratt Keyes
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
June 17, 2012

So, I maybe should confess to you (or you may have noticed) I tend to preach on things I personally want to think about. Even when I’m working with the lectionary I gravitate toward the texts I find interesting, or problematic, or inspiring. It’s only natural, I suppose. This sermon mini-series is no exception. When I began to be coached last winter, one of the program’s introductory seminars was about resilience. The more the speaker said about resilience, the more I thought: I need to get me some of that. As I continued to think about it, I began to see resilience as something congregations also need, and something we see in many of our biblical forebears.

Most of my life, I have thought about resilience as a quality only the bravest and most remarkable people have. A paraplegic bouncing back from the accident that caused his injury. Children who grow up “in the system” but find their way to college and careers. Soldiers rebounding from war. (In fact, Grace Yeuell wrote me from Italy when she heard about this series to say that resilience is something they think and talk about a lot with military families at the base in Vicenza.) Resilience does help people to navigate through the fallout of various crises. But that isn’t all that it does. Resilience also helps people to cope with more mundane and daily hassles: the work dumped on your desk at 4:45 in the afternoon, children who need to be in different places at the same time, disagreements with your significant other.[1] Resilience keeps people from getting rattled or depressed by such things. It helps folks to stay on track – not just enduring the difficulties of life, but thriving in the midst of them. And all of us could do with some more of that.

The work of Salvatore Maddi, a professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at UC Irvine, will provide the framework for this series. In his research on hardiness, Maddi identified three attitudes that together help people to thrive in the face of trouble. The first relates to commitment and meaningful living. The second involves feeling that one is in control and able to manage things. The third calls for understanding change and challenge as normal – even good – parts of life. We’ll explore these three attitudes one Sunday at a time.

            So, first of all, Dr. Maddi and others who have researched resilience have said that one thing resilient people believe is that their lives have purpose. These people have detected their missions in life, and they do their best to live into those missions. They are able to stay involved with what they’re doing, even when confronted with setbacks and challenges, because they believe that what they’re doing is valuable.

Consider the man who found a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great value, who then sold all he had to buy that treasure, that pearl.[2] It became his mission in life – one that required focus and determination. Imagine everything such an effort might involve today. Putting your house on the market or your stuff onto eBay – that’s just the beginning. What about the shock of your family and friends? What about the concerns they would raise . . . their opposition to such a plan? “What in the world will you do with that pearl?” they’d say. It makes me think of Noah and his work on that giant ark – his purposeful action, which must have been incomprehensible to everyone around him. Like the men in today’s lesson, Noah pursued his work with conviction that it mattered and was what God needed him to do.

            As part of our seminar on resilience, Laurie Ferguson, one of the leaders of Auburn Seminary’s Coaching Institute, asked us some of the questions I’ve compiled for you (what you’ll see on the last page of the bulletin). What is your purpose in life? Why do you pursue it as you do? What are your top five commitments? – the values you hold that give your life meaning? I’m afraid Laurie wasn’t sure we could figure that out. “Google ‘Values List,’” she said. So I did. (I appreciate a place to start, even if it’s random or alphabetical.) There are hundreds of values to weigh: abundance, acceptance, accessibility, accomplishment, accuracy . . . .“Whittle the list down,” Laurie said. “Choose your top five values.” Acknowledge these as the stars that guide you . . . the treasure for which you’ll give up everything else.

            “The kingdom of God” can be hard to get your hands around, as commitments go. (It’s not much like a pearl in that respect!) For a handy summary of the values associated with God’s reign, I checked the Presbyterian Study Catechism (from which we’ll read when we affirm our faith). When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, it says, “we are asking God to come and rule among us through faith, love and justice . . . We pray for both the church and the world, that God will rule in our hearts through faith, in our personal relationships through love, and in our institutional affairs through justice . . .
[we pray for the day when crying and pain will be no more, and we will live forever with God in perfect peace.]”[3]

            Faith and love, justice and peace. Such values have been cherished by God’s people through the centuries. Even in the most difficult circumstances, our ancestors have kept these commitments. Shiphrah and Puah are heroes in that regard. They were midwives, responsible for helping Hebrew women through labor and childbirth. Then Pharaoh ordered them to kill all the newborn boys. Can you imagine? . . . how terrifying it must have been to receive such an order . . . how horrifying it would have been to contemplate – on the one hand, murder . . . on the other hand, Pharaoh’s wrath. I think they must have spent some sleepless nights, and without the benefit of Ambien or Zoloft. But Shiphrah and Puah knew their purpose. They feared God – with a combination of reverence and awe. God was first on their list of commitments. And they knew what God wanted from them: faith and justice and love. When faced with their impossible situation, those values gave direction to their actions and meaning to their lives.

            It is most often the daring choices that make the headlines. Aung San Suu Kyii’s courageous stand for democracy and human rights in Burma. Liu Xiaobo’s nonviolent struggle for fundamental rights in China. The Avengers’ epic battle to save the world from the super-villain Loki. Yet meaning can be found in less dramatic ways, too. In daily work, in friendship, in caring for people in need, we live purposefully. And that sense of purpose provides direction for our actions and meaning for our lives.

            Some years ago, in an essay she wrote for the radio show “This I Believe,” a woman named Deirdre Sullivan explained one of her most basic commitments and the way it had shaped and helped her.[4] She said

I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that.

The first time he said it directly to me, I was 16 and trying to get out of going to calling hours for Miss Emerson, my old fifth grade math teacher. I did not want to go. My father was unequivocal. "Dee," he said, "you're going. Always go to the funeral. Do it for the family."

So my dad waited outside while I went in. It was worse than I thought it would be: I was the only kid there. When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson's shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, "Sorry about all this," and stalked away. But, for that deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered 20 years ago, Miss Emerson's mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes.

That was the first time I went un-chaperoned, but my parents had been taking us kids to funerals and calling hours as a matter of course for years. By the time I was 16, I had been to five or six funerals. I remember two things from the funeral circuit: bottomless dishes of free mints and my father saying on the ride home, "You can't come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral."

Sounds simple — when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that.

"Always go to the funeral" means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don't feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don't really have to and I definitely don't want to. I'm talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex's uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn't been good versus evil. It's hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

In going to funerals, I've come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life's inevitable, occasional calamity.

On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I've ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

So much of life can feel like a battle – a battle that leaves us numb with grief, afraid of dangerous things, or just stressed and scattered by too many things to do, too many choices to make. What gets us out of bed when we’re feeling that way? What assures us that our lives matter? What can keep us on track, moving forward with purpose? Sometimes it’s holding to values such as these. Go to the funeral. Make that small gesture that could mean the world to somebody else. Or, do the brave thing. Protect life amidst the forces of death. Stand for justice in the face of oppression. Have faith, though you cannot see in the dark. And believe: your efforts to keep such commitments are part of something larger than you.

            Years ago the storyteller Robert Fulghum, told a helpful tale about an Italian traveler who came to the French town of Chartres during the days when the town’s great cathedral was being constructed.

Arriving at the end of the day he went to the site just as the workmen were leaving for home. He asked one man, covered with dust, what he did there. The man replied that he was a stonemason. He spent his days carving rocks. Another man, when asked, said he was a glassblower who spent his days making slabs of colored glass. Still another workman replied that he was a blacksmith who pounded iron for a living.

Wandering into the deepening gloom of the unfinished edifice, the traveler came upon an older woman, armed with a broom, sweeping up the stone chips and wood shavings and glass shards from a day’s work. “What are you doing?” he asked.

The woman paused, leaning on her broom, and looking up toward the high arches, replied, “Me? I’m building a cathedral for the Glory of Almighty God.”[5]

            Building a cathedral for Almighty God. Now that is work that matters – a commitment worth pouring oneself into. What if we understood more of our efforts that way – as contributions to God’s great work in the world? What if we saw our pursuit of kingdom values as the pursuit of God’s kingdom itself? Might that give our lives more meaning? I hope it would. I also hope we would take heart in the company we’d find: folks like Noah and Shiphrah and Puah . . . folks like Jesus and Peter and Paul – all who have sought God’s will through the ages. When we “seek the kingdom” we act with them to take up the mission of God, whose power was perfected amidst battles like the ones we face, whose purposes will surely come to pass.


There are many ways to define resilience. One I like points to its root - the Latin verb "salire" which means to jump. Add the prefix "re," and resilience connotes jumping back or rebounding. People who are resilient bounce back when they've been pushed down. They're flexible and energetic, adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, and stress. Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that anyone can learn and develop.

One things resilient people manifest is the belief that life is meaningful, they have a purpose, and their efforts are part of something larger than they are.

Here are a few questions to consider (and yes, some ask the same thing in a variety of ways!) --

Where do you find meaning in your life? 
Does that connect to an experience or person in your history? (What, if anything, about your background makes you care?) 
Does it connect to the use of gifts you have? 
Does it connect to any particular Bible passages or faith claims?
What do you do, not because you're paid to do it, but because you believe in it so deeply?

What are your top five commitments? 
(If you want some help thinking about this, Google "values list" for a long list of values. See what from the lists calls out to you. Whittle your own list down to the things you find most important.)

What is your purpose in life?
What doesn't happen in the world if you don't show up?
What does God want (or even need!) you to do?

Viktor Frankl says we detect rather than invent our missions in life.
Want some help detecting yours? Franklin Covey has a Mission Statement Builder you can try at

[1] These evocative examples are offered on page 1 of The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté, Three Rivers Press, NY, 2002.
[2] The Rev. Dr. Laurie Ferguson offered Auburn’s seminar on Resilience, described Maddi’s categories, and suggested Matthew 13:44-46 as a text for this sermon.
[3] Question & Answer 128.
[4] “Always Go to the Funeral,” by Deirdre Sullivan.
[5] Robert Fulghum, It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It, Villard Books, New York, 1990, 74-75.