A Grateful Response to the Essays on Resilience

When I was a young boy, my paternal grandfather owned a small hardware store in Middle Georgia. I loved him and I loved the magical richness of his store. From an early age, I delighted in padding along behind him as he assisted his customers, creating a hospitality which to this day I seek to creatively emulate. Among the farm implements he sold in that deeply agricultural time and place was a “disk harrow,” of which, truth told, I was a bit afraid. Most of us know the culturally familiar, pejorative meaning of the term “harrowing”—meaning to “vex; to cause distress.” And yet in the agricultural sense of the term, harrowing the soil means to turn over the detritus of last year’s crop by digging into and breaking it open in anticipation of planting, new growth, and eventual harvest. Indeed, the etymology of the word “harrow” is telling: from the Latin harve, from which we get our word harvest. This delightful etymological connection is telling, and it is in this sense that the essays and curriculum from my colleagues are harrowing in both senses of the term. Their reflections break into and turn over the soil out of which resilience may emerge with clear, compelling realism and with hope for eventual harvest. For this, I am filled with gratitude. They have given us much to consider. I am deeply grateful for the evocative, compelling responses of Wendy Farley, David Casson, and Martha Moore-Keish in this issue of @thispoint, and for the thoughtful example of practical theology exhibited by Katelyn Gordon. What a joy it is to be in dialogue with colleagues, including a former classmate (Wendy), current colleague (Martha), colleague in ministry (David) and a former student of whom we are very proud (Katelyn).

Writing in conversation with Simone Weil, Dr. Farley reminds us that affliction is a particular form of suffering, calling forth a particular response of deeply compassionate awareness of “suffering with,” seeing in the face of the other the face of Christ:
          Because affliction is usually invisible, it is not enough 
          to find a good word to speak to someone obviously
          suffering. It is necessary to speak at every moment
          as if we were speaking to the afflicted. We do not know
          when the blow will fall in our own lives or in the life of someone we love.
          We do not know to whom we are speaking, except, as people of faith,
          we know we are always speaking to Christ. It is necessary for us to
          school ourselves, every moment, in the awareness that in God there
          is nothing but love. Resilience does not mean that we do not suffer
          or that suffering does not take its toll.

As I write, on this day after the Feast of the Epiphany, I am reminded that we are only a few weeks beyond the unspeakable horror of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The horror of events such as these places in deeply disturbing context Wendy Farley’s cautionary reminder that the soil out of which resilience emerges is necessarily harrowed by suffering. In this season, we often forget that the holy birth occurred in Bethlehem because of an act of oppression and amidst threats of violence, and that the holy family traveled from Nazareth to their ancestral home by the decree of an occupying army in the final days of Mary's pregnancy. And, although we tend to be only vaguely aware of it, the massacre of innocents—not at all unlike the one in Newtown—is woven inextricably into the story. Moreover, only three days after Christmas Day, on December 28, the Church's calendar remembers the other children of Bethlehem, the ones left behind when Joseph fled with Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety following an angelic warning, the ones slaughtered by King Herod in a fearful rage. Farley’s deeply evocative images of the resilience embodiment in each of us of the Beloved Divine are powerful, hopeful, and compelling. In such contexts, resilience is a great grace through which love, among us and within us, abides.

W.H. Auden’s poem “For the Time Being,” suggests that Epiphany has more to do with the confrontation of the emptiness in late winter than with holiday festivities in December. Auden invites us to take that journey with an imagination inspired by the light of Emmanuel, God with us. Even Auden’s title, "For the Time Being," evokes the period in which we all live: "the flat stretches of our lives: Our time; Home; The day-to-day world which never quite measures up to the Christian ideals or Hollywood portrayals.”1
         "As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
          To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
          Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
          Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
          …In the meantime,
          There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
          Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
          From insignificance.”2
As we move from the Christmas season into Epiphany this seems a cautionary—and deeply honest—reading. Christ meets us where we live most of our lives. He meets us as we go back home by a different road. And he invites us to take that journey with an imagination inspired by the light of Emmanuel.

As Matthew reminds us, the journey of the Magi was filled with both harrowing distress and a hoped-for harvest. Was it all folly, this rough and long journey, or was there something to all this talk of a light and a King? I don’t know about you, but I find myself connecting with the very human side of their journey. Harrowing, indeed, and Professor Martha Moore-Keish’s lovely essay reminds us that resilience is born of interpretive frameworks that allow meaning-making, and embodied practices that nurture communal bonds and personal well-being. This seems spot on to me, and Auden provides imaginative narratives in response to the core stories of this season—narratives that are constitutive of “exodus” journeys more Abrahamic than Odyssean, leading “back home” to a place one does not recognize and to which one has never been. Moore-Keish gives us one such poignant and deeply moving narrative in the story of her grandfather, Walter Moore, Sr., and his daughter Sunny. It is a harrowingly imaginative resurrection narrative, a “way out of no way.” I am grateful for the gift of their story, and of my colleague’s faithful witness to it here.

Dr. David Casson’s trenchant observation that we need a synthesis of old and new responses for our core narratives revealed an aspect of resilience I had not considered—indeed, a detail of the forest to which I had not paid attention. I am grateful for this reminder of the importance of both the “already” and the “not yet”—and of paying attention to what is—and of the redemptive ways these marry in forces mysterious and life-giving. His evocative image of second-order change arising from first-order materials is inspired, insightful, and moves the conversation to a lively and fruitful place for further consideration. And his belief that specific habits and practices are essential to this journey is essential to any conversation about the cultivation of resilience and imagination. His imagery of resilience as the DNA of the canon, along with the wonderful examples he provides, give us an inspired and evocative case for Yahweh’s imaginative, creative faithfulness. In my Episcopal tradition we seek to live out the phrase, Lex orandi, lex credendi, which, loosely translated, means that how we pray shapes what we believe—and by extension, shapes how we live. Just recently, at my liturgical home at the Cathedral of St. Philip, we conducted a “longest night/blue Christmas” service in which we combined prayer, worship ritual, music, and silence to create space for naming loss and grief in this season of light. It is finally a hope-full service, designed and engaged in the belief that, as Isaiah said, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it. Dr. Casson reminds us that ours is the task of engaging in similarly imaginative responses in the form of habits and practices of faithful responses, and that in so doing, we engage in the ongoing cultivation of a resilience found at the heart of the narratives we share.

In a delightful fashion, and with a keen eye toward practical theology, Katelyn Gordon takes up the challenging task of exploring each essay on resilience and how it can be understood and practiced in our faith communities. Participants are asked to apply the essays to an experience of adversity within their own congregation; consider what resilience means to them; and summarize the findings and apply the relationship between resilience and hope and their own experiences of this relationship in their church. In particular, Gordon’s reflection on Moore-Keish’s response, and the invitation to “nourish our imaginations regularly, through reading and wrestling, prayer and proclamation, singing and meditation, on the varied scripture narratives that attest to God’s activity in the midst of change, turmoil, even destruction and death,” is given a faithful response in both the curriculum, and this prayer:
          Faithful and steadfast God, we give you thanks for your Word in Scripture
          and especially for stories of resilience and hope. We thank you for your abiding
          presence with your people in the midst of exile and despair, and we pray that
          you will help us to turn to you and to your Word for encouragement when we are
          feeling helpless and hopeless. In the name of your Son Jesus Christ, we pray.
In her suggested curriculum Gordon has given us a remarkably practical, theologically astute response to this conversation. I am grateful for this, and for her faithful ministry.

Finally, perhaps my favorite Christmas hymn is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” based on a poem by Christine Rossetti and with settings by Gustav Holst and, more recently, Harold Darke. In the final verse, Rossetti invokes a wholehearted imaginative response to the Incarnation:
           What can I give Him, poor as I am?
           If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
           If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
           Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.3

Brene Brown, in her recent text “Desiring Greatly,” writes about wholehearted vulnerability leading, paradoxically, to resilience. She writes:
          I think it points to maybe one of the deepest paradoxes about vulnerability,
          which is when I meet you, vulnerability is a very first thing I try to find in you
          and it's the very last thing I want to show you in me because it's the glue that
          holds connection together. It's all about our community humanity and, when
          we own our stories and we share our stories with one another and we see
          ourselves reflected back in the stories of people in our lives, we know we're
          not alone. And to me, that's the heart of wholeheartedness, it's the center of
          spirituality. To me, that's the nature of connection, to be able to see myself
          and hear myself and learn more about myself in the stories you tell about
          your experiences.4

The poems of Auden, the hymn by Rossetti, and the essays and curriculum generously offered by these thoughtful respondents each bear testimony to imaginative resilience in the midst of the “harrowing” narratives of a Christmas marked, especially this year, by both tragedy and hope. As we lean into Epiphany, perhaps our true joy is the assurance that in this particular child, Jesus, God has entered the world in a profoundly, humanly real, incarnational way. And that in this particular child, light has come into the world and the darkness did not, and will not, overcome it. This is a vision of resilience which calls us forward, in our common human affliction and vulnerability, to faithful practices and imaginative, resilient responses.

 

1 William F. French, “Auden’s Moral Comedy: A Late-Winter Reading," The Christian Century, February 24, 1982, 205.
2 W. H. Auden, "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," ed. Alan Jacobs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).
3 Christina G. Rosetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter” (# 36) in The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990).
4 Brown, Brene, “Daring Greatly, New York: Gotham, 2013. See also Krista Tippett with Brene Brown “On Vulnerability”: http://www.onbeing.org/program/transcript/4932#main_content

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