Sunday, October 16, 2016

How to Survive

I love survival books. Not the ones about living in a bunker and fighting off the hordes of looters that will come when the government either collapses or reveals itself to be SPECTRE only worse. I mean the ones that give you tips on what to do if you are ever in a flood or in a fire or trapped in rubble after an earthquake or lost in the wilderness, stuff that, however infrequent, could actually happen to you. I do have one of the Worst Case Scenario books that does deal with improbable events like avoiding a stampede such as the running of the bulls or how to escape from a plummeting helicopter, but that's just for fun. I've also got the Disaster Preparedness Handbook, a very practical tome that gives common sense advice on dealing with disasters you are likely to encounter, such as hurricanes for those of us living in southern Florida.

I also like reading true stories of people surviving extreme events, such as Lost on a Mountain in Maine, in which Donn Fendler tells how, when 12 years old, he got separated from his scout troop and spent nearly 2 weeks surviving the cold, hunger, encounters with bears and hallucinations. He credits his scout training and faith in God with helping him make it. I devoured Unbroken, the story of how Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who was part of a bomber crew in World War 2, survived a crash in the Pacific ocean, spent 3 months in a life raft and finally endured being captured and tormented by a Japanese officer while a POW. Again faith ultimately saves him.

What I get from these books is (1) practical advice on, say, what to do if a dog attacks, which did happen to me, (2) vicarious thrills from the adventures, of course, and (3) encouragement. I figure if someone can survive being mauled by a bear, or being trapped in a mine, or being in a concentration camp, I can surely deal with the less-than-dire problems I am currently facing.

The Bible is not exactly a survival book. It is actually a library of books but they do comprise a treasure trove of spiritual as well as practical wisdom that for thousands of years has helped people survive anything life throws at them. And that's because it has elements that you also find in survival books.

In U.S. Military Survival Manual FM 21-76, the word “survival” is used as a mnemonic device for those in a crisis situation. So “S” stands for “Size up the situation.” In other words, take note of your surroundings, what your physical condition is and what equipment you have. I would add that you also ought to take into account what your emotional or psychological condition is and, because we are talking about the Bible, your spiritual state. The psalms often tell us a lot about the condition of the individuals who wrote each. Some were composed in times of turmoil and stress. The person may be physically ill, socially isolated, psychologically stressed and at a spiritual low point.

The frankness of the psalms is why I think folks prize them so much. Psalm 42:9-11 says, “I say to God, my Rock, 'Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? My bones suffer mortal agony as foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'” When things are going badly for us, especially when we are suffering, we do get tormented by doubts. Is God punishing us? Ignoring us? Is he even there? The Bible lets us know that it is not a sin to feel that way. And indeed people have done spiritual damage to themselves because they felt that as a Christian, they had to always be upbeat and pretend that everything was well with them. Expressing doubts are especially forbidden. And the cognitive dissonance of denying reality defeats them.

But the Bible values honesty, even when we reveal unpleasant or even ugly things about ourselves. Psalm 37, written during the Jews' Babylonian exile, concludes with “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” It's understandable for a oppressed people to feel this way but it is one of the grislier passages in the Bible. Mind you, the psalmist doesn't say God should do this. It is a descriptive passage, revealing his mood, not a prescriptive passage for us to follow.

The equipment check is obviously important for the person likely to encounter physical danger. Someone about to hike into the wilderness should see if his equipment is working properly. When you are in a spiritual crisis, what you need to do is tally up your assets. That would include your talents and strengths but also your weaknesses. Again the hiker should check that, say, his canteen doesn't leak. Other major assets to consider are your family, your friends, your church, your pastor and God. Believe me, I needed them all to get through my medical ordeal psychologically and spiritually intact.

U' stands for “Use all your senses, Undue haste makes waste.” The first line of the paragraph that follows reads, “You may make a wrong move when you react quickly without thinking or planning.” Contrary to what its critics say, the Bible is big on thinking things through. Jesus told us to “count the cost” before following him. He began many of his parables by saying, “What do you think?” And indeed Jesus often asked disconcertingly difficult-to-answer questions which left the crowds with lots to think about.

It helps to be thinking about the right things. Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) Since my accident, I have had to change my viewing habits. I like dark documentaries and dramas. But for my mental and spiritual health I have to restrict my consumption of them, especially at night before bed, because otherwise negative thoughts and images dominate my dreams. I need time focusing on more uplifting and encouraging matters. We all need to look up from the grind of daily life at regular intervals and take in the vista and the bigger picture. And we need to use both our senses and our good sense to lay out what we should do next.

R” is for “Remember where you are.” The manual suggests using a map and a compass to figure out where you are, especially in relation to enemy units and enemy controlled areas, friendly units and areas they control, local water sources and places to conceal yourself. Spiritually, if you are in a crisis, you need to get your bearings. Consider whether you are in a place, either physically or psychologically, that is hostile to you and your continued spiritual health and growth. If you have a problem with, say, alcohol, bars and liquor stores are not where you should be. If you have problems with self-esteem or anger management or depression, you may need to stay away from places and people that are consistent sources of drama or trauma. A battered spouse, for instance, may need to find another place to live, somewhere that is friendly and controlled by those with her welfare in mind.

And look for places of refreshment and places where you can lie low for a while. Again, these can be mental spaces where you can relax and recuperate, aided by a book or music or an activity that revives you. Use centering prayer. Let God's Spirit guide you to the place where you need to be. Psalm 43 says, “Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.”

V” is for “Vanquish fear and panic.” The manual says that if fear and panic are uncontrolled, “they can destroy your ability to make an intelligent decision. They may cause you to react to your feelings and imagination rather than to your situation. These emotions can drain your energy...” Remember what we just read a few weeks ago in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of self-control.” Hold onto the fact that God is powerful, that he loves us and that he will help us keep control of ourselves. When you sense feelings of fear and anxiety come, say, “Not now.” Psalm 55:22 says, “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you.” I have asked God to take my anxiety upon himself so I can think clearly and act decisively. I cannot serve him or anyone else if I am plagued by worries that fog up my thinking and leave me too exhausted to do anything. In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The antidote to fear is faith—trust in God and in his promises.

I” is for “Improvise.” Stephen Colbert explains the secret to doing improv comedy is to say, “Yes! And....” In other words you must say “Yes” to whatever the premise or your improv partner says. If you are doing a Harlequin romance scene and your partner says, “Godzilla just rose from the sea," you can't reject that. You say, “Yes! And he's dancing the cha-cha!”

We need to accept whatever reality God has presented to us and then go with it, willing to improvise in the same spirit he has given us. And Jesus liked to flip the script. “When someone strikes you on the right cheek...” the expected response is to hit him back. But Jesus says, “...turn to him the other also.” (Matt 5:39) Jesus wants us to zig where others zag. For instance, there are way too many animals in shelters that do not get adopted. One Uber driver puts puppies in his back seat. His customers often fall in love with them during their ride and end up adopting them. That is a creative solution to a persistent problem. Then there is the woman who has designed coats that become sleeping bags for homeless people. And she hires homeless people to make them. Some companies are making edible packaging for food so that we don't make more waste when we eat. I really wish that Christians were more creative in doing good and show people that we don't have to follow the world's script. We can improvise good things rather than just fall into the rut of doing the same old thing over and over and not making the world better.

V” is for “Value life.” Odd how the most important things get forgotten in our busy and cluttered lives. We get distracted and while away the most basic gift from God, looking at screens and playing games and being spectators rather than actors in our lives. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) We may not be in danger of losing our physical life, as the manual clearly means, but we are in danger of losing a meaningful life. It is not just acute crises that threaten us spiritually. The slow and steady deadening of our response to life is a subtler threat to our spiritual vitality.

That's one reason that volunteering is so important. People who regularly volunteer, who dedicate their time and talents to something outside themselves, tend to experience less loneliness, have lower blood pressure, stay mentally sharp and live longer. But it only works if they are truly altruistic, doing it for others and not for themselves. Jesus was right again; it is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:35)

A” is for “Act like the natives.” The manual means if you are in an unfamiliar land, watch what people eat and drink and even the animals. (Although animals, especially birds, sometimes eat things that are toxic to humans.) If the natives are friendly, show interest in them and respect them and you will learn how to live in that environment.

How does this apply to us spiritually? Well, you can read and study the field notes and meditations and lives of those in the Bible, of course. But you can't directly ask questions of them. So befriend and observe those who seem the most at home in the kingdom of God. When you encounter someone who really seems in sync with Jesus and his Spirit, get to know them and how they deal with life's problems. Adopt what they do and adapt it to your own circumstances.

Jesus drew his parables and teachings from the people and plants and animals and occupations around him. I have learned important spiritual lessons from the elderly, from the sick, from children and even from jail inmates. I learn from their different experiences and diverse perspectives, just as I have a different view of healthcare from being a patient for several months rather than a nurse. I see helpful parallels between spiritual and physical health, which I am addressing in my book.

L” is for “Live by your wits, but for now, Learn basic skills.” The ability to improvise is important but before you do that you need to learn the basics. Even improv actors learn the basics of acting. They don't go on stage unprepared. The basics provide the foundation which your contributions build on.

One real danger is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named for two psychologists. Basically, it describes how people who don't know much about something overestimate how much they know. In other words, people are ignorant of exactly how ignorant they are. “How hard can it be?” says the overconfident but incompetent person. And that can be fatal in a survival situation. You need to learn the basics of survival at least.

In the same way Christians who don't know the basics are spiritually dangerous to themselves and to others. They mindlessly mouth platitudes to sufferers when they should be quiet and listen. They assure newly born-again Christians of things that aren't actually in the Bible, like “God won't give you more than you can handle.” And if they believe that themselves, when a major disaster totally upends their life, they will be bewildered as to why they are suffering so much.

Doctors, nurses, clergy and most professions require continuing education. So should Christians. We need to learn more about the Bible, about theology, about church history and about current events. And we must always be learning more about Jesus, not just by reading but by following him as well. We need to learn to trust him. We need to learn to love one another as he loves us. We need to learn how to be the body of Christ on earth.

In our New Testament reading, Paul says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16, 17) Usually I would preach on this verse but today I wanted to look at what many people have testified to for millennia: that at times when they were at their wits' end, they found the Bible and in it, found how not only to survive but also to thrive. That's the reason why this 3000 year old Middle Eastern anthology has itself survived this long when many other ancient tomes have not, or are only of interest to scholars. That's the reason why as of 2016, the Bible has been translated into 554 languages and portions of it into 2,932 languages. That is the reason we are talking about it today. This book changes lives. Because the written word of God introduces us to the living Word of God, Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life and who gives life in all its abundance.   

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