When disaster comes, where do we find resilience? We watch with awe and wonder as people pick themselves back up after a disaster. We wonder how we would respond. Haitians already caught up in poverty endure a horrible earthquake, and now a cholera epidemic. The Gulf Coast, barely recovering from Katrina, is experienced the slowly unfolding disaster of the BP oil spill. Some disasters are natural--acts of God, we call them--while others are man-made. Many disasters, both natural and man-made, affect large populations. Others, rooted in betrayal and deceit, are intensely personal in nature, and affect only one person, a family, a business, a church or other small group. Sometimes the disaster comes with a phone call from the doctor's office. A pastor friend told me, when I was mired in challenge and conflict, "Gregg, at least you have your health. I know many, many people who lost their health with a single phone call from the doctor."
I had lunch yesterday with a friend I haven't seen in a while. She is scheduled for major surgery in a few days. This woman is a strong leader who left the business world a couple of years ago to pursue a calling doing kingdom work. When I asked her how she found the resiliency to bounce back from such events, she said it came from successfully navigating deep challenges she has faced before. Each challenge she has endured has made her stronger, helped her prepare for the next challenge. She also deeply understands the blessing of prayer in these times. She has experienced spiritual warfare and is experiencing it now as this setback deters her from her work and calling for a time. Her spirit is strong, and she's putting up a very good front, despite the anxiety that comes from waiting for surgery. I admire her courage and strength of character.
I have another friend, a German Lutheran doctor named Olaf Forster. He created a medical mission in rural Kenya. Genie and I visited his clinic when we went to Kenya in 2006. When we met, he was finishing up his second research PhD, while completing his residency at a hospital in Soweto. He ran his mission remotely for several years, and about 18 months ago he moved to Kenya full-time. He is living with no power or running water in very primitive conditions. When he moved to Kenya, he discovered that his local partners were not trustworthy, and he had to start over in many ways. His is a life filled with challenge, day in and day out, month after month, year after year. How does he do it? By the grace of God, and the power of the Spirit he is sustained and renewed. Occasionally we talk via Skype, and we exchange emails occasionally. Read more about Olaf here.
In following this calling, Olaf has turned from a life of privilege, deferring modern conveniences and the possibility of wife and family, for the sake of his work and ministry. First, he established the medical clinic. Then, with the help of Lutheran friends in the U.S. and Germany, he funded and built a solar well with a large storage tank, since the women were walking six miles a day to haul water in the dry season. Now, he is helping them learn subsistence farming on a plot of land the community shares and irrigates from the well. He is also launching a church in an area that is overwhelmingly Muslim.
I could never do what he is doing. I remember a meditation I saw awhile back entitled "God, please don't send me to Africa." These were my sentiments exactly. I think many people shrink back from fully exploring the life God is calling them to, fearful that it will lead to such an outcome. Olaf is truly an inspiration to me, a servant of God who is drinking deeply from the well of the water of life. He is living abundantly, even in these meager circumstances. The strength to live out this calling is rooted in his deep faith, a faith that he is nurturing constantly. Therein resides his resilience.
I discovered the betrayal of my trust by a friend of 25 years, someone who was in small group with me for several years. His betrayal nearly derailed my work and calling, deeply wounding me. I was stunned and devastated to discover the deception. Once again, I experienced the importance of seeing reality clearly, if we are to achieve the goals we set. Once again, I was reminded how difficult it is for any of us to fully comprehend the reality we face. Resilience is what gets us through these challenges.
I have a deep well of perseverance and resiliency, born of my 15 years working with my father, who could be a very difficult man. I have had to draw on this well many times since I left the business world to pursue a calling equipping Christian leaders for the kingdom. Since last fall, I have encountered multiple health issues that have set me back and drained my energy. Now, as I am slowly gathering my energy and moving towards health, I encountered this betrayal.
As I talked with Mark, I told him I was surprised that I didn't hold any deep personal resentment or anger, no desire to retaliate or hope for my friend to be punished. I really believe I have forgiven him already. I realize these feelings are not natural; that I, in my own strength, am not capable of such a response. This is not how I would have responded 10 years ago to such a situation. I realize that God has been working on me, and the resilience I need comes not from me but from the Spirit.
Where do we get such energy? It comes from our roots. In a previous essay (Are you windfirm), I wrote about the resilience of the Aspen grove. Genie and I spend half our life at a cabin in the Front Range Mountains of Colorado. Since we finished our cabin, we have become very aware of the danger of wildfire. We have seen several devastating fires on the ridges near our property, and had one lightning strike cause a fire on our property. Lodgepole and Ponderosa pines share our mountainside with the Aspens. Each copes differently with the same environment. Unlike the stands of pine, an Aspen grove is actually one organism. Its roots spread out and send up shoots to become new trees, replicating its DNA across the hillside. The power of the Aspen is in its root system.
Ponderosa Pines grow sparsely on the slopes, with deep roots and very thick bark. They can survive all but the worst fires. We have seen some on our property with scars from fires in the distant past. Lodgepoles grow in very dense stands, which are usually completely wiped out by a fire in a stand-clearing event. They cope by producing seeds that open at 800 degrees. So when the fire comes and opens up the canopy, killing the existing stand, the pine cones open, and a new stand emerges from the old, with abundant water and sun to regenerate the stand.
While the pines each have a mechanism to deal with fire, the Aspen trumps them all. The root system of the Aspen grove has so much energy stored up that a fire that burns the trees to the ground will just spark new shoots coming up from the roots. The stand survives. When clearing a ski trail on our property, I cut down some six foot Aspen saplings. Within three years, there were six-foot saplings again standing where I had cut them down. The power is in the roots.
I just finished Richard Foster's new book, Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation. It is an inspiring book, with wonderful insights about learning to live a faith-filled life. In the middle of the book, Foster tells us that he embarked on a year of meditating on the story of Lazarus. Now wrap your head around that one--a whole year meditating about that one story. Four months in, Foster embarks on a trip to Korea to learn more of how God is using the Korean church to teach the world something about prayer. He tells of his hosts presenting him with two dozen roses.
The next morning, in his time of meditation, he looks up to see the roses lying on a table, starting to wilt. In typical man fashion, he hadn't put them in water, just left them lying on the table. In that moment, Foster heard a word from the Lord. "My church in America is like those flowers. There is still some beauty in the bloom, but they have been cut off from their roots." Foster says he began to weep, because he knew this to be true. Then he heard a further word, "I will rebuild my church, but first, we have to regrow the roots. And the roots are prayer." Foster explains that prayer is the vehicle through which the power of God comes to us as humans.
Just as the Aspens store the energy to survive disaster in their roots, so we tap into the energy to survive through our roots. It is the spiritual disciplines that God uses to grow our roots deep and strong. God's presence is all around us, but without rooting ourselves in prayer and meditation, Bible reading and reflection, worship, serving and sharing our gifts with the world, we will have shallow roots incapable of sustaining us in turbulent times. The water of life is freely available, but we have to choose to tap into it by developing our root system. I am only as strong as my roots. I thank God for sustaining me through challenges, storms, gale force winds, and the betrayal of friends. I take time to nurture those roots every day, and it is the best investment of time I could possibly make.
Are your roots deep enough to keep you from toppling over in a storm? From being burned? From the destruction of an earthquake? Worried about the future? The present? Your job? Your marriage? Your kids? Your retirement? If you know how to worry, you know how to meditate. It is just a matter of redirecting your focus from the problem to God. Remember, Peter was walking on the water until he took his focus off Jesus and looked at the waves around him. Then he started to sink. The faith to sustain us is itself sustained by our intentional time of growing roots. May you be rooted in the Word, and feel God's presence in the storms of your life.