Resilience

By Jason Moore

Late one summer afternoon when I was still a teenager, I heard a long, low rumble of thunder.  Within minutes, the sky had darkened like a bruise with streaks of lightning dancing over the tobacco fields.  I was standing in my bedroom looking through the blinds with the whole room suddenly flashed a brilliant blue.  The crash of thunder a split second later coupled with the scent of burning wood removed all doubt—lightning had struck a tall cedar tree not twenty yards from my bedroom window.

When the storm passed, I walked outside to survey the damage.  Lightning had pealed the bark all the way down one side of the tree and vaporized the grass around it.  The top was still smoking, and the air smelled like a Christmas candle.  Within a day or two, the tree had lost most of its color.  Soon it was dropping entire limbs, with not a trace of green on them.

That was over twenty years ago now.  Funny thing though—that tree is still there.  It’s still very much alive.  Of course, it bears the scars.  It never looked the same after that.  How could it?  But it continued to grow; it continued to survive.  By some accounts, it may even be thriving, in its own peculiar lop-sided way.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about that tree a lot lately.  Maybe it was the combination of the thunderstorm the other night and those cedar boards I came across when I was cleaning out the garage.  But whatever the source, it seems like a parable for our church during these times.  This has been a–dare I use the word–traumatic experience for many.  There’s really been nothing quite like it in our lifetime.  And after any traumatic experience, there comes the realization that life will never be the same.  Not because life has fundamentally changed, but because we have.  There is a new awareness of our frailty; gone is the illusion that we can control and master the world around us.  For some, this new sense of vulnerability can become crippling.  When this happens, you end up with some version of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).  But that is not the only option.  As retired Marine general James Mattis is quick to point out, there is also such a thing as “post-traumatic growth.”

I do not know why two Marines can experience the same event in combat and one overcomes it and the other does not.  Nor do I know why one tree is reduced to firewood after a lightning strike and the other grows another thirty years.  I am not an expert on any of these things.  Yet I do believe that, as people made in the image of God, we can choose how we will respond to the current crisis.  We can choose to be resilient.

Perhaps that sounds odd, even arrogant.  But hear me out.  What if resilience isn’t some God-given talent but actually a skill that can be cultivated?  What if, through practice, we can become more resilient?

According to author, and former Navy Seal Eric Greitens, resilience is a virtue that can be learned (indeed it cannot happen any other way).  Just as courage is learned by overcoming fear and compassion is learned by offering forgiveness, so resilience is learned as we overcome difficulty and trials.  There is an important difference, however.  Whereas courage and compassion can be displayed in a moment, “the fruits of resilience grow slowly. Because of this, we learn best about resilience not when we focus on dramatic moments, but when we take in the whole arc of our lives…To endure pain and then turn that pain into wisdom, or to endure hardship and grow through that hardship, takes time.”[1]

Yet the resilience we acquire is not simply so that we can endure, as if survival was the goal.  What happens to us becomes a part of who we are.  That means we must find healthy ways to integrate these hard experiences into our lives.[2]  In other words, the goal is to grow–to thrive.

I won’t speak for you, but when this is all said and done, I don’t want things to go back to “normal.”  Yes, I want us to gather in person for worship.  Yes, I want my children to go back to school in the fall.  Yes, I want to watch college football and the World Series and enjoy meals inside our favorite restaurants.  But I want to do all these things with a new perspective.  I want to have a deeper appreciation for what it means to gather as a community of faith.  I want a deeper understanding of the daily contributions made by those in the medical field and service industries.  I want a closer connection with the people who live in my physical neighborhood—many of whom I’ve only recently met.  And most especially, I want a deeper love and adoration for our Sovereign God who sustains us through this and every crisis.

-Jason is the Pastor at Second Presbyterian in Spartanburg, SC.

[1] Eric Greitens, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life (Boston: Mariner Books, 2016), 29.

[2] Ibid., 23.

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