Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious; and it does not cease to bear fruit…
As we near the end of the first month of 2021, the year we hope to emerge from the pandemic, I’m thinking about resilience, that mysterious spiritual and physical capacity that enables us to persevere and become stronger through adversity.
Countless biblical passages speak of resilience, and coming upon one of them when you need it most is one of the great benefits of a daily practice of reading scripture. For me, the biblical image of a tree planted by water is particularly compelling these days. Jeremiah describes such a tree as not afraid of heat or anxious in drought.
How I want to be like that tree.
In a pastoral counseling course I once took on how to be present with people experiencing hardship, the instructor held up a cross section of a tree trunk with concentric rings revealing the tree’s age. Each ring, as you know, represents one year. Tree rings also show the impact of weather on the life of a tree–thin rings are the result of drought; wider ones of abundant water. A knot represents some sort of trauma to the tree’s system. Taken as a whole, tree rings reveal the capacity of a given tree to integrate such experiences, adjust, and go on.
We then drew our own cross section of a trunk, using concentric rings to tell the story of our lives. We drew wide rings to depict years of abundance, thin ones for years of drought, and knots for the events that marked us. Our teacher then asked what we learned from our struggles that might help us when hardships come again or when we seek to be present with someone else. Being present with another in pain, without rushing to fix, requires faith in resilience, the capacity to make it through hardship and grow stronger as a result.
Someday we’ll look back on 2020 and 2021 and speak of what these years were like. Like trees that have endured trauma, surely this time will leave its mark. But what can we do and what are we doing now to tap into our God-given resilience?
Scripture’s answer is always some version of, “Stay close to God.” Words like “trust” “abide,” “wait,” “remember,” all point us to the power of a relationship that rarely rescues, but always sustains us.
A mentor priest of mine used to say: “God never promises us an easy world in which to live, but rather how to be joyful in the world as it is.” God does not spare us suffering, but gives us what we need to find purpose and strength in suffering. God doesn’t promise us perfect relationships, but instead offers the capacity to accept and love others as God loves us. The Christian life is one of paradox: to live in this world is to suffer, yet in Christ we are given joy. To live in this world is to be subject to the forces of anxiety and uncertainty, yet in Christ, we can know glimpses of peace that surpasses human understanding.
God has placed this amazing, mysterious power of resilience into the very fabric of the created order–in nature and in us. Resilience, one of my teachers in systems theory would say, is nature’s imaginative response to challenge. Resilience enables us to rebound and evolve in the face of external forces that would otherwise threaten our survival. Resilience broadens our repertoire, so that we have options with which to respond to changing circumstances.
When we feel anxious or overwhelmed, it’s easy to forget that God has equipped us with the capacity to withstand and become stronger through trauma. I do not mean to minimize feelings of exhaustion or deny the fact that we are sometimes overcome by forces stronger than we are. But we are often stronger than we realize in our weaker moments. Our tree rings are evidence of that.
There are 11 months left in this pivotal year. As best you can, take care of yourselves and tend to the practices that give your strength. Take time each day, through prayer and dwelling in scripture, to draw from the deep well of divine strength that will see you through. Become the tree planted by water that does not cease to bear fruit. Resilience is God’s gift to you, and yours to the world.