In early February, I was invited to lead a conversation for a group of clergy regarding how to stay resilient over the long haul – especially with regard to surviving the Covid-19 pandemic. The spark for the conversation was generated by an article the clergy had been given to read that encouraged religious leaders to use this pandemic time to act boldly, to plan and to take new initiatives. Somehow the wisdom of the article rang hollow. In and of itself, the advice was not bad. It just didn’t seem to match the energy of the current moment. The vast majority of clergy with whom I speak these days are bone tired. And so are their congregations. While this is not true for every church, it is true of enough that the word of wisdom we seem to need is not about how to do more but about how to be in this time. Or, said differently, what we need it wisdom on how to be present to this current moment without being swallowed by it.
Perhaps it is the gloomy months of January and February that are doing us in. Perhaps it is political upheaval and environmental fear. Perhaps it is a sense of discouragement regarding the long history of injustice related to racism. Indeed, our exhaustion can be related to all of these things – and it is also related to the long haul of the pandemic. With new Covid variants on the horizon and questions about when a vaccine will arrive (or whether about how well it will work against the new variants), we do not know how long various degrees of lockdown will be in effect. Will we be able to sit side-by-side or shake hands in the summer? Will we be able to sing in Fall? Will we be able to go to a concert, take a holiday, invite friends over? We are told to seize the moment, retool, reimagine how to be the church for a post-Covid world but the adrenaline for that kind of energy has passed. Now it appears that all we have is sheer grit that is getting us through. Can we deepen the strength of our grit? Can we ground it in a fashion that it does more than get us through?
As I prepared for the February clergy event, I was reminded of the Stockdale paradox, a story that is retold in the book From Good to Great by Jim Collins. James Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 7.5 years. He observed that the optimists tended not to survive their time in the prison camps. They kept hoping – no expecting – that they would be released by Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving. Eventually they died of a broken heart. Stockdale took a different approach. While he “never lost faith in the end of the story” feeling sure that at some point he would not only make it out of the camps but that he would prevail, he also committed to living day-by-day. He was rooted in the “now” of his life rather than seeing the “now” as a barrier to overcome in order to get to the “then.”
Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, offers similar guidance in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning – taking the idea of the living in the now one step further. In his own experience, he observed that – after accounting for the random nature of the Nazi’s selection of prisoners for the death chambers – whether a prisoner survived or not was deeply impacted by their ability to find meaning in their very trying circumstances. For some this meaning was very tangible, such as keeping a parent or friend alive; for others, this meaning was more philosophical – seeking to understand the experience they were living. Frankl writes: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
I would like to put Frankl’s “why” together with Stockdale’s advice to live “day-to-day.” What does it mean to live day-to-day and what type of why helps us to do that well? Several years ago, I read the book Mystical Hope by Cynthia Bourgeault. In her book, Bourgeault contrasts mystical hope with outcome hope. Like Stockdale, she warns against outcome hope that is based on the expectation that something must occur for us to be satisfied. Instead, she proposes mystical hope, hope that grounds itself in God’s undying presence, that recognises the hand of God in the glorious and the mundane, in the beauty and the broken, in the isolation and the struggle. Mystical hope involves breathing in God’s grace and by some miracle, breathing out this same grace for the world. It is when we are tethered to this grace, when we are rooted in the conviction that the “kingdom of heaven is here among you right now,” that we can allow our spirits to rest, to be renewed and yes, to be resilient in the day-to-day while infused with the meaning found in being vessels of God’s presence in the world.
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