In 2001, I co -led a group of 16 people on a mission trip to Kenya where, through the help of the Newbold College community, we financed and helped to build a church/ community centre. We finally arrived in Imbo, a village quite near to lake Victoria, after a tumultuous fourteen-hour drive. My first impressions of Kenya were idyllic. Zebras crossed the streets, beautifully made mud huts were asymmetrically situated and the sun beat down on the dusty roads. However, the reality of the situation was more complex than my first romantic musings.
Hardship and death were never far away. AIDS, the disease that no one really talked about, had claimed many lives; unemployment and poverty were the uninvited gate-keepers of the community. With multiple family deaths and hardship on every side, one might wonder what the people had to be grateful for. Yet, I found exuberance in the local church community; joy in their worship and a hospitable and strong people. I remember thinking that if I faced the calamities that these people had, I would understandably be in counselling, perhaps on anti-depressants and those around me might sympathise with my constant coasting on the edge of a mental breakdown. The Kenyan people showed resilience that made me question to the core, my own Westernised ability to deal with great trials.
So is it wrong to be in visible agony and distress due to the struggles and grief of life? Well, no. Resilience is defined as ‘the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed or stretched; elasticity.’(www.dictionary.com) Life has a way of bending, compressing and stretching us in more painful ways that we could ever imagine. Elijah had suicidal thoughts (1Kings 19:4); David’s musings in the Psalms, as highlighted by last week’s lesson, are evidence of a perturbed mind (Ps 55:4-5); Job cursed the day he was born (Job 3:1); whilst Jesus was sorrowful to the point of death (Matt 26: 38). Our Christian leaders suffered tremendous lows, which have been left as a witness for all who go through hardship.
We purposely introduce our youth to the study of hardship through our education systems, retelling to them the stories of holocausts, slavery and wars. I taught secondary school History for several years and was astounded when I learnt that although 58,000 Americans soldiers died in the Vietnam War, more American veterans committed suicide, than were actually killed in the war. Veterans were also ‘far more likely than the rest of the population to suffer panic attacks, depression, drug addiction and to be divorced or unemployed’ (Steve Wraugh and John Wright, Superpower Relations and Vietnam, 1945-1990). The horrors of war were too much to bear and the physical and emotional scars too deep for these individuals.
Yet our Bible characters reacted differently to their trials. Elijah communed with God on Mount Horeb and returned to his duties (1 Kings 19:11-18); David affirmed that God would sustain him (Psalms 55: 22); Job attested that even if he were slain he would still trust God (Job 13:11-15); and Jesus surrendered His will to that of His Father (Matt 26:39). All had hope beyond themselves and their situations, believing that God ultimately was in control. Faith and hope in God have the power to bring the elasticity back into stretched, worn lives.
A cousin of mine, who is non-Christian, once made a statement that I will never forget. She said, ‘you Christians get upset and almost lose your faith when something bad happens to you. Yet, there were bad things happening to other people around you before. It’s just when it becomes your personal problem that it becomes an issue. If I were a Christian, I would just know that bad things happen and if it happened to me, it would not affect my faith.’ (Paraphrase) Although not true of us all, I think she does have a point. Philip Yancey wrote a book for Christians called, Disappointed with God, in which, ‘he looks at faith through the eyes of those who doubt.’ (Philip Yancey, Disappointed with God, (Zondervan, 1988), foreward.) Yet in every crisis, there is always the possibility that we can give up or give in or just turn around and blame God. If this were not the case we would not be in the process of being stretched.
The apostle Paul is undoubtedly a poster boy for resilience. He catalogues the hardship that he has gone undergone for the sake of Christ: floggings, imprisonment, shipwreck, (2 Cor 11:23-28) as well as his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:2-10). Yet his rally cry is a clearly one of victory over circumstances:
‘We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed’. 2 Cor 4:8-9
Indeed, life is difficult, as M Scott Peck wrote in his book The Road Less Travelled, a book I read avidly until the end section where it ventured into spirituality. I take personal assurance from knowing that however difficult life may be come I am not forsaken due to the abiding presence of God.
The hymn ‘Abide With Me’ is one that has become so associated with funerals that only the brave will sing it in any other church service, yet the words written by Henry France Lyte as he lay dying of tuberculosis are a beautiful and concise answer to why we should remain resilient as Christians:
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
All of us, at some point, are liable to walk in the valley of the shadow of death with all the rich and foreboding metaphysical meaning that this verse holds. For the Christian, resilience is being able to ‘fear no evil’, simply because Christ is with us. It is the ability to acknowledge that there are myriad ways that nature and twisted humanity may try to oppress, depress and suppress us, yet trust God and, despite great distress, be at peace.