February 04, 2019
I first learned about resilience from my father, a South Texas farmer. When I was about six or seven years old, one of my favorite activities was to be invited by my dad to go out late in the afternoon to check the cows. We were in the worst of the 1950s drought. Everything was dry and brown. Wide cracks revealed deep fissures in the earth. It was as hot as the blue blazes.
At that time, Dad rented some land across the road from where we lived. Perhaps as much as a hundred acres were in cultivation. The rest was in brush – thorny, scraggly, parched brush. Probably no more than 30 skinny old cows roamed that pasture looking for anything green; Dad burned prickly pear for them to eat.
The rule for going with Dad was, “Be still and be quiet.” If you didn’t follow the rule, you didn’t get asked again. Of course, the pickup wasn’t air-conditioned, so the windows were rolled down to catch the afternoon gulf breezes.
One afternoon we were there in the pasture – sitting and looking. Dad asked me, “Janice, what do you see?” It seemed obvious. I said I saw brush – black brush, bee brush, cat claw, mesquite, huisache. I knew each variety by its common name. There was silence from my dad. Then I said I saw a jack rabbit – I had seen one as we drove in. Again there was silence from my dad. It wasn’t hard to figure out that none of those answers satisfied the response he was seeking. Finally, I blurted out that I saw a rattlesnake. Even though I hadn’t seen one, I knew they were out there. When I cautiously looked over toward Dad, I saw two little furrows between his eyes, and I knew it wasn’t just because I said I saw a rattlesnake when I didn’t actually see one. The air was still and quiet.
To this day, I don’t know what came over me; but, finally I asked him, “Dad, what do you see?” He looked out over that thorny brush, skinny cows, and scorched earth. “One day, Janice,” he said, “this will all be green grass. The grass will be so tall that it will reach the cow’s bellies. We will put a tank in over there.” He pointed to a little depression in the land “so the cows and wildlife can have water. We will leave brush in the fence lines for quail habitat. One day, Janice, you’ll see. You’ll see.”
Change came slowly, and many years passed before Dad’s purposes fully became a reality. Sometime after the drought subsided, Dad cleared the brush – except for wildlife habitat and burned it in big piles. Then he sprigged the soil with Coastal Bermuda, an improved grass for our area. He drilled a well, built a windmill, and dug a tank to provide year-round water for cattle and wildlife. Several times he tried to farm grain sorghum and corn on parts of the property, but it never seemed to work out, so he expanded the grass and added cattle.
Nearly 40 years after our conversation in the pickup, Dad was finally able to buy the land that he had worked a lifetime to restore. Today, cattle graze on green grass. The tank is full of water. Deer, wild turkey and quail have returned. The story is told and re-told to the next generation.
From my Dad, I learned about clarity of purpose and courage. I learned about taking risks, failing, and trying again. In a tough season of life, I saw resilience face to face.
For some years now, The United Methodist Church, too, has experienced a tough season characterized by uncertainty, rapid change and disturbance. Distrust of institutions, polarization, and volatile discourse have become the “new normal” in the culture. Declining congregations, clashes over human sexuality, and threats of division inhabit our religious conversation alongside an exciting surge in missional innovation, especially among the millennial generation. All these realities are part of the “new normal” in the UMC. Some leaders respond to this season with discouragement and stress; others greet it as a fresh opportunity for learning and a renewed focus on the mission of God. Father Richard Rohr writes, “Transformation more often happens not when something new begins, but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart – disruption and chaos – invites the soul to a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to a new place because the old place is not working.”
I believe that we are experiencing just such a time in The United Methodist Church. The reality of diminishing congregations and the possibility of division within the denomination disturbs and grieves both pastors and laity. We do not want to be here. Yet, this experience of loss and uncertainty may force us to listen more carefully to God’s desire for the world and to respond to Christ’s call with fresh forms of faithfulness and vitality. The Apostle Paul describes our unwelcome situation this way: “It is when I am weak that I am strong.”
I invite us all into a conversation around resilience. Along with purpose and courage, it is one of the leverage issues on which institutions and congregations will live or die into the future. What is needed to enlarge the capacity of United Methodist pastors, congregations, annual conferences and the denomination to become more resilient? What do we need to learn? Why? What is the relationship between purpose and resilience, humility and resilience, courage and resilience? In what ways does our current absorption with uniformity and control diminish our resilience? Why is it important to face the losses that come with change? Why is it so important for United Methodists to lean forward, act courageously and reclaim our creative DNA? What are practices that expand our capacity for curiosity, imagination, innovation, and risk-taking in the hope that God will make all things new? I hope you will join me in engaging that conversation.
Read her complete monograph, Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land: A Call for Resilience in Uncertain Times.
About the Author
Janice Riggle Huie, retired Bishop of the UMC, currently guides leadership formation for TMF Leadership Ministry. In connection with her Episcopal assignment, she also served on the TMF board of directors and on the board of trustees of The Methodist Hospital, Southwestern University, and Wiley College. She was president of the Council of Bishops from May 2006 to May 2008; president of the UMCOR Board of Directors in 2012 and president of the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops in 2013. Janice holds a bachelor’s degree from The University of Texas in Austin; a Master of Theology from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and a Doctor of Ministry from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, where she focused on homiletics and liturgy.