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 franklincovey.com/msb/

[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. http://gamc.pcusa.org/catechism/all/
[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.

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