Sunday, June 6, 2010

Survival Mentality

Some stories become New York Times best sellers,
but we forget them two years later.
Some stories become blockbuster movies,
but 2 years later we cannot remember the plot.
Then there are stories like Elijah and the widow of Zarephath
that were being told hundreds of years before Jesus
– and here we are, thousands of year later
on the other side of the world, listening to it again today.

Some stories keep our attention through the ages because
they are deep and universal.
They say something about important about us.

The widow had no earthly means of support.
Even in a good economy, she would have been poor.
But a terrible drought had stricken the land; so things were even worse.

She had just enough food left
to make one last paltry meal for herself and her child.
She planned to make that meal, then die.

If you asked the widow what she was trying to do,
it was just to survive.
All she could think of keeping body and soul together another day.

That may not sound like it applies to most of us.
But for reasons having to do with how our brains work,
it actually does.
Whenever we feel devalued by others,
it indirectly triggers the same survival anxiety
in our brain stem as a threat to our life.
It goes back to the way our brains got wired
when we were still in the crib.
We need to know we are loved, valued, and respected.

Stretching our paycheck to make ends meet is not enough.
We need to know we are well thought of,
that people want us here.
If they want us here on condition that we measure up to their standards,
well, we aren’t all that secure, are we?
What if we slip? What if we fail to measure up someday?
Or what if they change the standards?

Great psychologists like Otto Rank, Ernst Becker, and Roberto Asagioli
all agreed that fear of rejection is a kind of death fear.
Our lives get trapped in trying to fit in so we will survive
– not just physically, but emotionally.
We all get caught in that trap either because
other people don’t value us
or they value us on condition that we measure up
to their standards.
So we are all a bit like the widow of Zarephath, trying to survive.

The problem is that isn’t much of a life.
It isn’t our real self that people value
because they never see it.
We live a false life, a constricted life, watching our steps.

I don’t read the men’s magazines like GQ and Esquire anymore
but from what I see on the covers,
they are still about how to get women to love you
and men to admire you.
The covers of the women’s magazines look the same.
It’s all a list of desperate strategies for emotional survival.

There is only one cure for that, only one way out.
It is the unconditional love of God.
It’s God who created us as we are because he loves us this way.
When the Bible says God is loves
or that God loves the world,
the word it uses for love doesn’t mean our kind of affection.

It doesn’t mean the warm feeling we have for someone
who meets our needs or conforms to our standards of lovability.
It means delight in someone for being their own unique self.

God’s love is absolute and unlimited.
If we didn’t measure up to God’s standard of lovability,
we wouldn’t be here, because it’s God’s love
that keeps us here.
Without the love of God, we’d blink out of existence
like dying fireflies.

God’s love keeps us here.
Faith in God’s love sets us free.
But it’s hard to have faith in that kind of love
unless we have caught a little glimpse of it.

That’s where the Church comes in.
We are agents of divine love, ambassadors of divine love,
conduits of God’s grace.
We are here to be the place that doesn’t judge,
the family that takes people in
whether they are the pillar of the community
or the derelict off the street.

We are here to look at people with God’s eyes
delighting in them, caring for them,
valuing their presence on this earth.
That’s what Elijah did for the widow of Zarephath.
He told her she didn’t need her survival strategies.
She didn’t even need the makings of her last meal.
Just trust God because God loves you.
It was a radical message – a crazy message.
But she believed it and she lived.

That’s what the Church is here to do for people.
But there’s a problem, isn’t there?

You take a lot of people with survival mentality,
put ‘em together and what have you got?
A church with survival mentality.

Sometimes when I talk with congregation’s about their mission,
they say straight out, it’s “survival.”
We are just trying to keep the doors open.
It’s easy to understand that feeling.
It’s a natural response to the world we are in.

But there are some downsides to a survivalist mission.
The first is that the survivalist mission is the proven fastest way
to extinction.
Jesus said it plain and simple,
“Whoever tries to save his live will lose it.”
That applies to churches too.

But the real problem with a survivalist mentality
for either a church or an individual
is that it makes us look at people in a bad way.
We are here to see people through God’s eyes.
But if we are fretting over getting our own needs met,
then we look at people in terms of how they can help us
with our agenda.

Instead of seeing a beloved child of God broken and in pain,
we see a potential Sunday School teacher,
a potential junior warden,
or worst of all a potential pledge unit.
Once we look at someone that way,
we fail in our mission to be a channel of blessing,
agents of God’s unconditional love.
That pushes the people we look at even deeper
Into their own survival mentalities.

So what are we to do?
We all have a streak of survivalist personality in us.
It comes with the way our brain stem is shaped.
It comes with the world having failed to love us
with God’s kind of love.
We are all broken this way.

The only way out, brothers and sisters, is faith.
The only way out is to practice trust in God’s boundless mercy
and the unbelievably good news that God loves us,
right now, as we are -- even with our survival personalities.

God loves us whether we believe it or not,
but to the extent we truly believe it, truly trust it,
we are free to be our authentic selves.
And we are free to enjoy other people for who they are.

In our burial rite, we recite St. Paul’s words that set us free from the trap.
“If we live, we live unto the Lord.
If we die, we die unto the Lord.
Whether we live, therefore, or whether we die,
we are the Lord’s.”
That’s what matters. It means we are alright already.