When I was a kid, I lived in a neighborhood that had woods on one end. As our house was at the end of the block, these woods were effectively my back yard. And I spent hours exploring the woods and walking along the creek that went its way through them.

About this Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
December 5, 2018
Philippians 3:7–14; 4:10–13; Qur’an 3:159; 42:38; 2:185

There was one part of the woods that I called “the crooked forest” because it had some of the strangest trees in it. One was shaped like a lowercase ‘h’, bent in a horseshoe shape nearly entirely over before reaching back up to the sky. Another jutted out sideways for a bit and then sharply angled back up. Still others had strange twists and turns in their paths toward the sunlight in the forest canopy above.

I long wondered: what happened to those trees? Was it a snowstorm that bent them? Did another tree fall onto a sapling bending it before it sprang up again? And how did this happen to more than one tree? I never knew what it was and never figured it out. But it was clear: something had happened to those trees. Something had bent them into very un-tree-like shapes. But whatever that something was, it had not prevailed; the trees now reached for the light.

For good reason, I guess, whenever I think of the concept of resilience, it is trees such as those that come to mind. A symbol of bounding back toward one’s goal after some intervening force has sought to deter it altogether.


But we are not trees, are we? Trees are likely never possessed of self-doubt or anxiety as to whether they can bounce back or not. They aren’t likely to view setbacks as saying something about their self-worth, their ability, or whether they deserved what happened to them. They just spring back up without any thought.

For us, our thoughts are what can get in the way. For us, we can construct narratives that allow us to stay bent over, to imagine that we can never be upright, that we can never again reach for the sunlight.

For us, resilience requires a little work. And a lot of practice.

A. The Practices

Now there are the usual slate of practices that are recommended for fostering resilience: being willing to be vulnerable, seeing setbacks not as failures but as experiences and opportunities for learning. [1] Framing events with positive emotions rather than negative ones. Being authentic about ourselves, flexible in our thinking, maintaining hopefulness, reaching out, and relying on what strengths you have. [2]

There are a lot of little things that we can do, a lot of practices that we can engage in that can foster resilience. My purpose here is not to teach them all to you, but to remind you that such resources exist, many of which can be found on this campus in our Counseling Center, HPAC, or here in Kay.

B. Practice

Now the reality is, we actually have a fair amount of practice with resilience. In a conversation I had with Dr. Traci Callandrillo, our Assistant Vice President for Campus Life for Student Services, she reminded me that we practice resilience all the time.

When it rains, we don’t hide in our homes, we grab our umbrellas. When it snows, we put on our heavy coats and good shoes (and if you’re from DC,you also grab your umbrella for some reason) and go out. In the cold depths of winter, we bundle ourselves up with scarves, gloves, and extra layers.

And when the sun comes out, we take a moment to bask in its warmth. We sit outside at our lunch hour and enjoy the warm rays on our skin, the gentle spring or summer breezes, we revel in the sunshine and cherish it for the gift that it is. But we don’t throw out our umbrellas, jackets, coats, gloves, and mittens. We keep them at hand for when the weather gets bad or when the seasons turn once again.

In very real ways, we have resilience deep in our being, no less than the trees. It’s our minds that keep telling us otherwise.


And that’s why it’s helpful to have other stories to tell. Stories that come from our sacred traditions that remind us not only of the concept of resilience but provide us with examples of those who have been examples of resilience.

A. The Unconquered Sun

Now, we talk about resilience at this time of year not just because the short days, long nights, and final exams necessitate it, but because this time of year has something to offer by way of metaphor.

In some ancient pagan traditions, the wintertime was the Festival of the Unconquered Sun—a reminder that it is in the very heart of winter, that the days start to get longer, that the darkness has not conquered the light, that the light resurges once again.

B. The candle in the darkness— Hanukkah

Today is the Third Day of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival that celebrates the rededication of the Temple after its recapture from the Seleucid Greeks who had, among other things, profaned the Temple by sacrificing a pig on its altar.

When they found the menorah in the Temple, they discovered that there was only enough oil for one day. As the tradition tells us, the oil lasted for eight days.

Now, as I reflect on this story, the miracle isn’t just that one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days. This story isn’t a story about the resilience of olive oil. It’s a story of the resilience of the people who lit the lamps knowing that there was only one day’s worth of oil.

There is a kind of resilience in the leap of faith seen by those who understood that they didn’t have enough, but who kindled their lamps anyway. There is a hopefulness, a refusal to allow circumstances and limits to bend you forever. There is a resilience that reaches toward the light.

C. Paul

In the Christian tradition, we encounter Paul’s writings to the Philippians, in two passages Christians know well.

In the first passage, Paul reflects on the losses he has incurred for the sake of his ministry, but he does so in light of his reflection on the suffering and death of Jesus, and of his resurrection from the dead. In this, he sees his present suffering not as an end, but as a passage through which he travels in hope, relying on God’s grace and his own eventual resurrection. “Straining forward, I press on toward the goal,” he writes.

In the second passage, he notes:

…for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

In these lessons, Paul gives to the reader object lessons in resilience.It is not that he hasn’t suffered his fair share of defeats and setbacks, it’s that he sees them in a broader context of eventual victory, through his hope. And reminds us, as many resources on resilience do, of the importance of hope.

D. Fasting

And the passage from the Qur’an speaksto the holy month of Ramadan and the fasting endured therein, and notes: “God desires to show leniency to you and does not desire to show any hardship.” It is a reminder that the hardship of fasting is not an end in and of itself. It is part of the spiritual disciplines that one engages in for one’s spiritual formation. Here, too, is a reminder of the importance of framing our setbacks and challenges not as defeats, but as opportunities for learning and growth.Indeed, when the fasting becomes more burdensome than instructive—such as when ill or traveling—the Qur’an allows you to forego fasting and make it up at a later time.

E. The Evergreen

And of course, given the time of year, there is one more lesson our traditions give us. A combination of the Christian and the pagan: the evergreen tree. The evergreen is a powerful symbol because it is not a tree that avoids the cold and the dark, it is a tree that remains green in spite of the cold and dark. In fact, evergreen trees are rarely as beautiful as they are when they are covered with snow.

Through all of this, we find that resilience is not in avoiding trials and setbacks, it is about finding hope, looking to inspiration, seeking lessons, and kindling that lamp. Resilienceisn’t the avoiding the darkness by hiding in the light, it is carrying the light with us in times of darkness and kindling that light.


These traditions are meaningful helps as we strive to build and foster resilience. But they’re not meaningful solely because they provide us with illustrative examples. They’re helpful because they come from communities.

One of the practices that are recommended for building resilience is the practice of “reaching out”—that is, in not remaining alone with whatever burdens you’re bearing. For in reaching out in community, we find inspiration, we find comfort, models, stories, guides. We find others willing to share our burdens, willing to share their own experiences, willing to stand beside us in hopeful expectation that the sun will come out again.

There is much that is weighing us down. And this time of year only seems to compound that. But at the same time, our traditions give us insight as to how we might work to build resilience—together—for ourselves and for our communities. For it is in community that we find that no matter how bent over we are, we can still turn and reach for the light.




Let My Voice be a Hammer

Mattathias was just a man,
A man who saw that if he did not stand up, no one else would
Judith was just a woman,
Who saw that if she did nothing, her people would be destroyed.
Both refused to give up, both used what little they had, attacked by using cunning, guerrilla warfare.
And so it was that one woman was able to save her town, and one family was able to save our people –
From loss of life –
From loss of spirit –
From forgetting what it means to be Israel

Being Israel means to struggle and fight
Being Israel means standing up when others would push us down
Being Israel means hope in the darkest of times – like a menorah in the window
Being Israel means speaking out against tyranny, against prejudice,
It means letting your voice be the mouth piece of God
Rising above fear

So, God, let my voice be a hammer
Let it break down walls,
Build homes and community,
Strike out against injustice
Let it be a comforting tool for my sisters and those who are weak
Let it smash indifference
Let it ring the eardrums of those who would silence us
Because I am Israel.
I struggle with the divine,
I will not be kept quiet
Let my voice be a hammer
Like Mattathias and Hertzl, like Judith, and Nofrat

By Rabbi Rachel Greengrass

Philippians 3:7–14 NRSV

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christand be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

4:10–13 • I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Qur’an (3:159)

It was thanks to Allah’s mercy that you were gentle to them. Had you been rough, hard-hearted, they would surely have scattered away from you. So pardon them, and pray for their forgiveness, and take counsel from them in matters of importance. And when you are resolved on a course of action place your trust in Allah; surely Allah loves those who put their trust (in Him).

 (42:38) …who obey their Lord  and establish Prayer; who conduct their affairs by consultation, and spend out of what We have bestowed upon them; 

 (2:185) Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an was sent down : this Book is a perfect guidance for mankind and consists of clear teachings which show the right way and are a criterion of Truth and falsehood. Therefore from now on whoever witnesses it, it is obligatory on hire to fast the whole month, but if one be ill or on a journey, he should make up for the same number by fasting on other days. Allah desires to show leniency to you and does not desire to show any hardship. “therefore this method is being shown to you so that you may complete the number of Fast days and glorify Allah for the Guidance He has shown to you and be grateful to Him. 

Excerpt from Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh

“Take heed lest the deeds wrought by the embodiments of idle fancy sadden you or the acts committed by every wayward oppressor grieve you. Seize ye the chalice of constancy through the power of His Name, quaff then therefrom by virtue of the sovereignty of God, the Powerful, the Omnipotent. Thus hath the Daystar of My tender compassion and loving-kindness shone forth above the horizon of this Tablet that ye may render thanks unto your Lord, the Almighty, the All-Bountiful.

The glory that hath dawned resplendent from the heaven of Mine utterance rest upon thee and upon them that have directed themselves towards thee and inclined their ears to the words which thy mouth hath uttered concerning this glorious, this august Revelation.

Excerpt from a talk by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

“The more difficulties one sees in the world the more perfect one becomes. The more you plough and dig the ground the more fertile it becomes. The more you cut the branches of a tree the higher and stronger it grows. The more you put the gold in the fire the purer it becomes. The more you sharpen the steel by grinding the better it cuts. Therefore, the more sorrows one sees the more perfect one becomes . . .  The more often the captain of a ship is in the tempest and difficult sailing the greater his knowledge becomes. Therefore I am happy that you have had great tribulations and difficulties… Strange it is that I love you and still I am happy that you have sorrows.”

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