Monday, February 3, 2014

Are You Experienced?

My wife and I saw one episode of “Naked and Afraid” and decided it wasn't really for us. This is one of those “reality” shows where they put people in a highly unrealistic situation, film them and edit it to make the whole thing much more dramatic than reality generally gets. I will say that it doesn't seem like they had to tweak the action much here. They take a man and a woman and put them into the wilderness with no clothes but one item each which they select: a knife or a skillet or something of the sort. It's not really porn because not only do they blur out the so-called “naughty bits” but there is nothing sexy about people doing the hard work of getting food, finding water, building fires, making shelters and getting increasingly dirty and disheveled over 21 days. The people chosen are either survival experts or wilderness campers or ex-military. And a panel of experts rates the victims--excuse me, “contestants”--according not only to their knowledge but also their experience. Because it doesn't matter how much you've read about living off the land if you haven't actually done so. The show naturally has a film crew and doctors on hand should anyone get seriously hurt or ill but otherwise they are not to intervene. And afterward the experts revisit their original ratings of the contestants and raise or lower them in relation to how well they did over the 3 week ordeal.

I'm a big fan of book knowledge. Forewarned is definitely forearmed. I would rather go into a situation knowing what to expect or look for. That said, as a nurse I have seen how experience in the real world reveals huge gaps between what the books says you will find and the reality of what you actually encounter, between what the proper procedure is and how the real world will allow you to do things. How do you do a dressing change where the patient is writhing in pain? What do you do when the tape won't stick or won't let go? What about if the patient is actively fighting you? They never list those problems among the steps in the texts or show them in the instructional videos. And they certainly don't tell you how to do it when you have 40 patients and nowhere near the amount of time to do things properly, not if you are going to get to all your other patients.

Theory only goes so far. Even Sherlock Holmes got things wrong. If you don't believe so, read The Adventure of the Yellow Face. Holmes is so far off that he even gives Watson permission to mention the case should the great detective ever get too full of himself.

Experience is what makes the 12 Step programs so effective. You are meeting with people who have gone through what you have. They know firsthand what you're dealing with. They can empathize in a way that those who don't have an addiction can't. They can also call you on your B.S., such as when you are trying to pin the blame on others or minimize the dangers drugs or alcohol hold for you. They've been there, done that.

God at first would seem to be the ultimate theorist. He created the world and laid down the rules of how it operates. He made us and knows our limits. So why is the world such a mess? Some people blame God. If he is perfect, why isn't his creation? Most atheists' arguments against the existence of God boils down to the lack of perfection in creation. Like fundamentalists, atheists tend to think of everything in terms of black and white. They see God, theology and morality as static, not dynamic. Everything is either/or, never both/and, never in the process of becoming. They do not ask themselves how a perfect God would deal with a world no longer perfect. Whereas that is precisely what the Bible is all about.

Let's do some thought experiments. What would you do if your creatures, which you endowed with reason and skill and the ability to make choices, were making bad ones? How would you go about rectifying the situation?

You could tell them what the rules are. In fact, make it one rule, actually, so simple so that it could not be misunderstood. Limit the creatures involved to the smallest number and tell them the rule before they had a chance to even make a mistake. You can see how well the Eden experiment went in Genesis 2-3.

You could start over. Eliminate the creatures that are making things worse, that are violent and disruptive. Take the best specimens and make a new start. And make the rules more explicit, especially about violence. Make an agreement with a big promise of unconditional goodwill on your part. That delete and reboot strategy, featuring Noah, is seen in Genesis 6-9.

You could take one creature, who is most responsive to you, who trusts and obeys you, and decide to work through that creature and its descendants to give them a much fuller understanding of who you are and what you are trying to accomplish through them. The Abraham approach begins in Genesis 12.

If the creatures you've selected get into a very bad situation, you could get them out of it. You could do it in the most obvious way possible. You could then make an agreement with your grateful creatures and include all the rules now necessary for a growing and complex society. Make the consequences of breaking the agreement explicit. Indeed, make the whole thing a bootcamp experience to get the fittest and most responsive creatures you can. This enterprise starts in Exodus 1.

You could also continue to give feedback on the progress of your creatures, passing your message to the creatures most in tune with you so they could pass it on to the others. The prophetic perspective begins in Isaiah and goes to the end of the Old Testament.

But what if your intelligent creatures still make very bad choices, after all you've done to tell them the rules by which your moral universe works? Well, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Let's say you could become one of your creatures. Then you could not only tell them what they are doing wrong but also show them how to do it right. You could step in and heal them mentally and physically and change their viewpoint on everything. And it would be best if you didn't protect yourself from the most adverse effects of their reality so you can show them how to triumph even in the worst of circumstances. And you could even offer to instill some of yourself into those creatures who willingly let you to help them become what you designed them to be. The course correction in Christ encompasses the whole New Testament.

In our passage from Hebrews 2:14-18, the author is teasing out the implications of the incarnation of Christ. For one thing, being flesh and blood, Jesus has experienced all that we have. He knows what it's like to be tired, hungry, thirsty, and in pain. He knows what it's like to work hard, support a widowed parent, endure the mocking of your siblings, and face the disapproval of your hometown. He knows what it is like to have people praise you, vilify you, doubt you, betray you, and kill you. And Hebrews says, “because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

How can Jesus help us? Well, one advantage that a person who has successfully come through an experience has is that they can tell you what pitfalls to avoid. I used to do this as Production Director when orienting people to the radio station. Especially when it came to the software that we used for running the station and recording ads, weather, promos and the like. You could tell that, unlike our previous software, it was not developed by radio professionals but rather computer programmers who asked what the software was supposed to do and then went about accomplishing that in what, to radio people, seemed like the most perverse way possible. So I had to teach new deejays workarounds that would allow them to get the system to do what they wanted it to do without getting dead air, missing start or kill dates or committing any one of a number of radio faux pas that the software was prone to.

Jesus gives us instructions on how to avoid the pitfalls that a human being following him might fall into. The whole Sermon on the Mount is a series of instructions that say in essence “don't do this; do this instead.” A lot of this has to do with seeing things from God's perspective. For instance, loving your enemy makes no earthly sense except when you look at people as God sees them: created in his image but lost, targets of his redeeming love. The change in perspective is just like that found in an recovering alcoholic or drug addict who has to stop focusing on his urges and start thinking of the normal and better life he can have instead, one that is predicated on not giving in to the craving for his drug of choice. As a matter of fact the AA mantra of “One day at a time” pretty much comes from Jesus' teaching not to worry about tomorrow for each day has its own troubles to which you don't need to add more. (Actually most of the 12 steps come from Christianity.)

Another way a person who has undergone adversity can help someone who is going through it now is by giving them hope that they can survive and come out of it a better person. Michael J. Fox's memoir, “Lucky Man,” does that by chronicling his life with particular focus on his development of Parkinson's disease quite early in his career as well as his alcoholism and his recovery. I love biographies of people who overcome great odds. Jesus did. He was the son of a poor craftsman in an obscure corner of a huge empire. We should no more know his name than we do the names of his next door neighbors. He went up against the powers that be, armed only with words. And they killed him. Yet in 3 ½ brief years he started a movement that would conquer that same empire in 3 centuries, without resorting to violence but using only words and acts of righteousness, mercy and courage.

And of course Jesus achieves the ultimate triumph over adversity by rising from the dead. As the author of Hebrews says, in this way Jesus can “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” How true that is! How often have people not resisted evil or not done the right thing because of the fear of death? The Nazis were not the majority party when Hitler came to power through a coalition. How was he able to become a dictator? Through fear of death. Hitler learned from Mussolini to send his brownshirts to kill his political opponents. He cowed most Germans into obedience. Only a few, like Dietrich Bonhoffer, had to the courage to stand up to the Reich and tell the truth. They were no longer slaves to the fear of death.

Love is also a strong motive for overcoming the fear of death. That's what makes a hero out of someone like 8 year old Tyler Doohan, who managed to save 6 members of his family from a fire, only to die when he went back into his burning home to try to save his disabled grandfather. Most adults would not have acted so bravely. But he loved his grandfather enough to ignore his instincts and go back into the inferno.

Love for Jesus should lead us also to live lives unhampered by the fear of death. I'm not talking about becoming daredevils or reckless folk but people who will not compromise our love of the truth out of fear for our physical safety.

Finally, one way a person who has triumphed can help others attempting the same is by directly transmitting his experience to them. Today you can skydive despite lacking the hours of experience one would normally need to do so safely. It's called a tandem jump. You are strapped to an experienced skydiver. He watches the altimeter. He stabilizes your free fall. He pulls the ripcord. You just enjoy, if that's the right word, plummeting from a height of more than 2 miles above the earth at more than 100 miles an hour. It's scary but it's a lot safer than jumping solo.

Jesus can do that, go with us through whatever befalls us, not by being tied to us but by being in us. To me the guidance of his Spirit is not so much like being talked through an experience as being nudged in certain directions and having things pointed out to you and ideas popping into your head that turn out to be the right things to do, despite the fact that you're scared and clueless. Afterward you think, “Where did all that come from? That certainly didn't come from me!”

In Hebrews 4:15, the author writes, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” All the temptations, pains and sufferings we experience Jesus has as well but he did not succumb. Some may grumble that he would be more useful to us if he had sinned and knew what it was like to fall. Really? Being in a car wreck doesn't necessarily make you a better driver. Nearly drowning doesn't make you a lifeguard.

Gavin de Becker's mother was an unstable heroin addict. She shot his step-father in front of Gavin and his little sister. When he tells his story in prison, the inmates recognize that his family was as dysfunctional as theirs. Then they ask him why they ended up where they are while de Becker heads a private security firm that provides threat assessments to companies, celebrities and the U.S. government. People who undergo the same experiences can learn quite different lessons from them. De Becker says it was what he chose to do with his experience of abuse and the threat of violence. Instead of becoming an abuser or a victim, the usual outcome of such a childhood, he has become a leading expert on the prediction and management of violence. 

I can tell you from experience that inmates don't always have the best insight into themselves. The need to justify themselves can cloud objective assessment of why they do what they do. Often the best judge of what should be done in difficult conditions is one who is close to the situation but not embroiled in it.

Because we have a sympathetic but uncompromised savior, the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” It is the grace of God in Christ that allows us not just to survive but to thrive in times that threaten to break us. God's grace, his unreserved, undeserved goodness toward us, enables us to see the temporary setbacks of this world as trivial compared to the spiritual gains we make. After all, it is only by that perspective that we can see the cross not as a symbol of the direst defeat but as an unfathomable victory over degradation, despair and death. Jesus should have stayed in the tomb...but he didn't. Because of that, the disciples who should have stayed hidden and silent about Jesus came out into the world proclaiming his resurrection and his Lordship over all. And with their fear of death disarmed, the world could not shut them up. They fearlessly faced the sword, the club, the spear, the arrows, the flames and even the cross, knowing that Jesus would help them through it, that he would never leave them or forsake them, and that, in the words of Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is to gain.” 

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