One of the remarkable things about the wonderful Olympics 2012 is how the humble champions speak of the journey to the podium. It is easy to hear them speak of “twelve years of training and preparation for this event” without realising that those twelve years were made up of over 4380 days. In some cases every single day involved rigorous dieting and training – come rain, snow or sunshine.
This is not the job of wusses. If many words could be used to describe what is involved in such athletic commitment, one of them might be ‘resilience’. And it is a word deserving of wider reference and application.
In a culture of what I have called elsewhere ‘consumerist narcissism’ (or ‘narcissistic consumerism’?) – in which self-fulfilment justifies any cost – resilience is not needed. And in a Christian church that looks for instant healings and panaceas for every bit of conflict or challenge, resilience is often underplayed. For resilience implies continued struggle, acceptance of adversity, re-direction into altruism.
So, it is timely that Justine Allain-Chapman has just published a book that addresses (far more intelligently than I could) the ‘role of adversity in healing and growth’: Resilient Pastors. In it she shines a helpfully critical light not only on the superficial ‘make it better’ default of many of us, but also on theologies of liberation that focus on the liberation at the expense of the adversity that cries out for it. There are both personal and pastoral implications for individuals and for those who exercise pastoral care unwisely or uncritically.
In a book that is realistic and compassionate, we also find helpful recapitulation. Although I had to fight the temptation to underline every use of the word ‘resilient’ in almost every sentence of the first chapter, the author recapitulates at every stage the argument and rationale thus far. Each chapter ends with a highlighted summary of what has gone before. Bigger brains might find this unnecessary, but I found it helpful.
Clearly, as anybody closely involved with pastors/clergy will recognise, we need resilient pastors in today’s church. Allain-Chapman rightly questions whether the contemporary “emphasis on the wounded healer motif is that it emphasises woundedness rather than healing”. (p.106) Surveying literature on ‘resilience theory’, she shines fresh and challenging light not only on our understanding of pastoral need, but also of pastoral practice. Moving from a look at the desert as a place of tough encounter, she takes a brief illustrative perspective from the Bible… and then from the Desert Fathers:
To go through the desert experience involuntarily can be both overwhelming and crushing. To embrace it can prove both constructive and liberating. (p.54)
Identifying three stages of the desert metaphor which promote resilience – embracing the desert; encountering God and the self; altruistic living and pastoral responsibility – she then explores how these work out when we choose to face up to the struggle and not simply look for a quick resolution to it. She invokes the theology of Rowan Williams in seeking a contemporary application of the early Christian experience of these things.
So, this is an excellent book for those who want to think seriously about real humanity, genuine Christian struggle, authentic pastoral engagement, and the dangers of what Bonhoeffer famously called ‘cheap grace’. The style isn’t always easy, but it is a book worth persevering with.
A bit like life and adversity, I guess. And, while we are at it, it reminded me of the disconnect between hugely admiring the commitment of the Jessica Ennises of this world while sitting in a comfortable chair drinking another beer…