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?