Cultivating Resilience by Pastor Leah Rosso

Habakkuk 1:1-5; Mark 8:22-26

This past fall we, as a church, been learning more about ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences, as we continue working on our goal to support stressed out parents and kids. And as we’ve learned about trauma, we’ve also been learning more about resilience— that remarkable thing that makes it possible for people to find healing, hope, and a future even though they’ve been through extremely difficult things in life. In Physics, the definition of resilience is the ability of a material to absorb energy and then release that same energy, springing back to its original shape— you might think of a rubber band, for example, after it has been shot across a room— it still comes back to its original shape. (1)

This is true of the little things that happen to us in life— we get a flat tire, or we catch strep throat, or some of life’s annoyances get us down, but our life goes back to some kind of normal afterwards. When trauma happens in our lives (someone close to us dies; someone we love and count on has an addiction; someone abuses us either emotionally or physically) particularly if it happens while we are a child, our life doesn’t go back to what it was like before. There is no going back, even when the world around us pretends that all we need to do is go back; even when we ourselves talk ourselves into thinking that’s what “should” happen.

Emily McDowell was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 23, and while going through the treatments and the chaos of doctors and the exhaustion of trying to deal with her young life and her own mortality at the same time, she didn’t know how to deal with it all. She went into remission a year later, so she jumped into getting a job, finding her adult self, and pretending she’d never had cancer. But ten years later, when a good friend of hers got cancer and died, Emily realized she had numbed herself to the reality of her life. She spent time recognizing her pain that she was still carrying around. And that’s when she decided to quit her job and start a business writing and illustrating greeting cards. She remembered the horrible reactions people had to her when she was dealing with her cancer, and she want to make cards that actually reflect what people are going through. One of the ones I love, is this one where she recognizes that there’s no going back: “I know there’s no normal to go back to. But I’m here to help you build a new one. And I’ll bring snacks.” (2)

Resilience, for people, isn’t about going back to what we considered normal before. What resilience means for people, for all of us in the things we face in our daily lives, is being able to find a new normal— to integrate our experiences with our daily lives. But this is something we rarely talk about. All of our movies end with the evil being destroyed— not many movies focus on the hard work for those who are still living to find a way to make that life enjoyable, healthy, and whole again.

Carvell Wallace, a successful writer today, remembers when, at the age of seven, he and his Mom became homeless. He remembers the snow falling silently outside of the car, how the cold of the night and the cold of realizing they had no place to go, split himself into two selves. There was a seven year old child who knew love and safety, and a seven year old child who knew isolation and death. That’s what trauma does, he writes, it splits whole things, whole people, into pieces. (3)

Sometimes, as people of faith, we are quick to jump to life as the solution for death; we are quick to jump to platitudes like “If you only have enough faith” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” And what we are really saying is that we’re scared when we don’t have the answers; we are uncomfortable when people can’t seem to find the healing they need; we don’t know what to do when resurrection doesn’t look shiny and perfect and what we consider normal. But Jesus wasn’t uncomfortable with it; God knows there is plenty of death even in life. (1)

This morning in the book of Mark, we have this funny little healing story. Unlike most of the stories of Jesus in Mark, which can be found in Matthew and Luke, this one is only in Mark’s Gospel. Which makes me wonder if the authors of Matthew and Luke were uncomfortable with it. I also wondered if the church fathers were uncomfortable with it, because the Lectionary Cycle, a three year cycle of scripture readings that take you through the Bible, also left this beautiful story out in the cold.

In this healing story this morning, we have a man who was brought to Jesus by his friends because he is blind. Jesus spits on the man’s eyes and puts his hands on him, then asks him if he can see. But the man can’t see. He says that he can see trees walking around. So Jesus puts his hands on his eyes again until the healing happens fully this time. And if we’re looking for healing to be easy and quick and complete, than this story makes us uncomfortable. If we think that the trauma of being blind can be fixed in a matter of moments, than we may wonder what happened here and we may be tempted, like Matthew and Luke, not to mention this story— this story that is messy and unclear and complicated. But if we’re willing to admit that our own healing doesn’t often happen in a lightning bolt moment; that more often than not our own healing takes time and intention and can lead to more pain before we get to the healing part, than perhaps this story can give us a bit of room to breathe. Because more often than not, the healing in my life has looked like this blind man’s healing— where it doesn’t come easy, and it takes more time than I am hoping it will, and sometimes in the middle of it, it seems worse than when I started. (4)

But the good news, is that healing is possible, even when its messy; even when it doesn’t mean going back to an old normal. Resilience, we have learned in the last fifty years, is not something you’re born with, it’s something you can practice; it’s something you can learn.

Brene Brown in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, talks about the characteristics of resilient people, which include 1) being able to problem-solve and use the resources around them 2) asking for help 3) holding the belief that they can do something to manage their feelings and cope 4) having social support available to them 5) being connected to other people. (5)

And if you are now worried because none of those describe you, don’t be afraid. It is never too late to begin! We can learn these things together.

Scholars think that one of the reasons Mark chose to tell this story, is because it furthers his understanding that the disciples were metaphorically blind. You see after this story, where the healing doesn’t really take the first time, come three moments where Jesus is trying to explain to the disciples that he will have to suffer and die, and each time the disciples don’t know what he’s talking about; they refuse to listen to him; they choose instead to believe that everything’s going to be just fine now that they’ve found the Messiah. They argue about who’s greatest. They ask Jesus if they can sit at his right hand when he comes into his glory. Mark is trying to tell us that even those closest to Jesus had to change their understanding of him, had to relearn all of their expectations; had to set aside their vision of the future and learn how to be resilient so that they could keep following Jesus. For even though Jesus was resurrected after his death, life was not the same. They could not bounce back to the way things were before. They had to find a new normal, they had to take time to heal and to tell their story; they had to grieve what they had lost so they could also learn what they had gained. So they found themselves using the resources around them; asking each other and God for help; trusting that Jesus hadn’t left them without coping skills; and they had to rely on their connectedness with God and with each other. (6)

In the next few weeks we are going to be exploring some practices— being in nature, resting, singing, asking for help; that are available to all of us to help build our resiliency muscles, and along with those practices, we will be hearing from people who have found healing in those practices. It won’t be comprehensive. We won’t be done by the end of February, but hopefully it is a beginning, a deepening of what it means to be a Trauma Responsive Church— as we learn how to be attentive to what we need to be resilient with our own trauma and to be able to be there for people who are dear to us.

All through this week of -30 degree temps, I kept watching the river in my backyard. And I kept thinking that even though no one would ever believe there was life under all of that ice and snow, I know that there is— there are fish that will resume swimming when it gets warmer; there are frogs huddling in the mud; I even got to see a family of foxes that came out when it was only zero to celebrate the warmth. Life is always present, even in the midst of death; and death is often present, even in the midst of life. Even when things look hopeless, even when it is -32 and life seems impossible— the earth is not void of life, it is there. It is slow, yes; but it is there, just waiting for an environment that is favorable to help life grow. We, here at First UMC, with God’s enduring love, can put love first and create an environment for all of us to flourish; for all of us to find what we need for healing; for all of us to live as resilient people.

Resources Consulted/Cited: (1) Rambo, Shelly. Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining. (2) Bowler, Kate. “Everything Happens for a Reason” podcast with Emily McDowell (3) Wallace, Carvell. “Trauma is the Word of the Year” at medium.com (4) Lose, David at DavidLose.net (5) Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection. (6) Williamson, Lamar Jr., Interpretation Commentary Series, Mark.