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,

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