Hey PCUSA, Stare Death in the Face!

Originally post on 2 Friars and a Fool on June 20, 2012 . . .

In 1982, Steven Callahan set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean in his boat, Napoleon Solo. As he planned his trek, there was a 2 percent chance of a gale at that time of year. Callahan was mentally and physically prepared. He had designed a boat that was prepared for anything and had secured a survival bag for those “just in case” moments. That moment came sooner than he thought. One night, he awoke to a loud noise and the realization that the boat was sinking fast. Before he knew it, he was lost at sea on a raft. The first few moments of a crisis are crucial. Seventy-five percent in a catastrophe either freeze or simply wander in a daze.

There are five general stages a person goes through when lost: 1) denial of the gravity of the situation; 2) once reality sets in, one becomes frantic; 3) energy is expended and a strategy is executed according to what they feel is logical; 4) deterioration as strategy fails; and 5) energy and options are depleted. Interestingly, the stages one goes through when lost is the same as when someone is dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Depending on who you talk to, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. denomination is dying, declining, lost its vision, or lost its relevancy. Recently, I have heard many of my colleagues sad, upset, and discouraged by the “decline” and “death” of our denomination – whether it is caused by more and more shrinking congregations, churches graciously separating, less people attending church, or whatever one considers the reason for the moral decline of our society, culture, and theology. But I have to be honest. I’m not sad. I’m not discouraged. And I am surely not giving up. I am wondering if we are confusing what seem to be symptoms of death with simply what is symptomatic of being lost.

Lately, I’ve been reading “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales. Using science and storytelling, he tackles the mysteries of survival – why do some have what it takes to survive while others don’t. It seems an odd choice of reading to correlate with the challenges of our denomination today, but you would be amazed how useful simple survival skills may give us the tools we need to survive. Gonzales says, “In a true survival situation, you are by definition looking death in the face, and if you can’t find something droll and even something wondrous and inspiring in it, you are already in a world of hurt.” As Christians and Presbyterians, we have a real opportunity here to recalibrate and look “death” in the face and see something wondrous and inspiring. I wonder if that is what Jesus saw when he entered the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. What Boy Scout survival skills did Jesus whip out in the depths of temptation. I imagine he didn’t only experience a sense of being physically lost, but emotionally and spiritually as well.

In “Deep Survival,” Gonzales says that as we experience life, we create emotional bookmarks. When we have a strong reaction or feeling during an experience, our bodies bookmark it to remember it for the next step. I assume that is why my body is compelled to do the happy dance every time I have a piece of chocolate. It immediately takes me back to when I was a kid taste testing my grandfather’s homemade chocolate-covered caramels. Our brains also create mental models as we experience life, like knowing what to do when you cross the street. Our brains have learned that it is important to look both ways before stepping off the curb. These two psychological concepts are important because it helps our bodies and minds adjust and learn as we take in life.

The problem is that emotional bookmarks and mental models can also be our downfall when faced with a situation of survival. They can lead us into a false sense of security because as the world changes, most often our emotional bookmarks and mental models stay the same. Take my presbytery for example. For years, we have relied on Robert’s Rules of Order as a reliable decision-making process to get through votes and communicate our opinions on different matters. Then as conflicts began to increase, we found that even Robert’s Rules of Order couldn’t save us. We instead perfect our use of it; therefore increasing our conflict with amendments and substitute motions. Or take any church that is past its hey dey. Parishioners that remember the good ol’ days when the church was thriving with 900 members emotionally bookmark that time so that as the church declined they continue to compare themselves to that moment. Their survival strategy is recreating the programs that they used to have, hoping it would bring them back to those glory days. But the reality is that times have changed, the neighborhoods have changed, and people’s needs have changed.

Survival, death, and decline all depends on how you face reality, which is the first rule of survival. The commonality that Gonzalez found when interviewing survivors is that they had an understanding and expectation that the world keeps changing and therefore they must always keep their sense tuned to “what’s up?” People who tend to be rule followers or perhaps in need of always being decent and in order don’t do as well as those who are of independent mind and spirit. If we were to follow a survivor’s rules of life then the rules are: 1) Be here now; and 2) Everything takes eight times as long as it’s supposed to.

Survival is a transformational process. Being lost is not a location. It is a transformation. We as a denomination, as a presbytery, and as a church need to recalibrate our reality. We can not be doing the same ol’ thing as if we knew where we are and where we are going by where we have been. If we continue to do that then we are dying. Transformation requires fresh eyes, fresh ideas, but mostly requires acceptance that things are different.

Steve Callahan stayed alive lost at sea for seventy-six days. “The more Callahan accepted his new world as normal, the more he embraced it with the willing, thinking part of his mind. The trick is to own the world and to let it own you. To come, quite literally, to terms. . . part of accepting the world is retaining selfhood, knowing your own inner needs.” We need to stop wasting anymore time on tending to our symptoms and take a step back to look at the bigger picture in order to hopefully catch a glimpse of how God is calling us to interact with the world in this particular time, place, and moment. We are lost not because we don’t know where we are. We are lost because we don’t know who and whose we are. If our identity is caught up in our own emotional bookmarks of who we used to be or if we continue to use mental models based on what used to be then we truly will die.

In the end, Callahan was rescued by a boat of fishermen off the Caribbean Islands. When they offered to take him to land, Callahan responded, “No, I’m O.K. I have plenty of water. I can wait. You fish. Fish!” And he continued to wait, watching their joy in fishing huge dorados. “The true survivor isn’t someone with nothing to lose. He has something precious to lose. But at the same time, he’s willing to bet it all on himself. And it makes what he has that much richer. Days stolen are always sweeter than days given.” Let’s not let one more day be stolen that can be spent on moving towards transformation. Let us embrace what’s next with curiosity, acceptance, and openness to the amazing possibilities that God has before us.

5 thoughts on “Hey PCUSA, Stare Death in the Face!

  1. This is the best description of faith in the midst of chaos that I have read. It describes my deep sense that most folks are letting fear and nostalgia replace the Living Christ. Here’s to solidarity in survival mode – all to the Glory of God!

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