Sermon for May 20, 2018
Under stress, we begin to revert to our most ingrained, practiced, behavior. I was very aware of this when I was a police officer because you see so many different extremes of human experience. I watched myself, other officers, and suspects/victims prove this over and over. For example, an officer in a mildly stressful situation might easily employ his training. He stays above the emotion of the particular situation and relies on his training and experience to deal with things calmly. However, put that same officer in a situation that overwhelms him, is different than what he has experienced and trained for in the past, and you will see some more deeply ingrained behaviors appear. You will see more elements of the officer’s personal tendencies, and less of his training. He will appear more like a person and less like an ‘officer’. Police departments try to train officers for varied situations, but the reality is that you can’t train for everything. At some point, you accept you can’t train for every specific situation and you focus on the underlying commitment to certain basic principles that underlie most behavior.
This applies to dealing with a potential suspect, as an officer, also. If you are aware that putting a person in a totally new, extremely stressful, situation may trigger unpredictable behavior that has been ingrained in them for a very long time, you can use this to keep the situation calm. Allow them to perceive the situation as non-threatening and more casual. How? Talk to them in a calm voice, use normal language instead of police slang or trigger words, use non-threatening body language and facial expressions etc. Obviously all this depends on each individual situation(you don't smile and wave to an active shooter), but the general idea remains the same- attempt to keep the person in a situation they feel they can deal with so they don’t slip into a fight or flight reaction.
Said directly, the more stressful the situation, the more we rely on the simple, subconscious habits we’ve developed rather than more complicated conscious habits we choose to develop. Another aspect of this is that the more stressful the situation, the more basic the things we rely on. At a very basic level, ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ are our go to options. A reaction to a severe threat reduces our reactions to some extremely basic choices.
So, what does this mean for our spiritual life? What is the point?
Let me, again, use a reference to my prior career to go beyond just some words in a sermon to how these ideas play out in real life. I won’t provide much in the way of detail out of respect for the privacy of those involved. I will only say that this particular 911 call involved an infant that was just murdered by its father- and I caught the father hiding in the home. I don’t think it takes much imagination to relate to the feelings I had- as a human being, a father, a police officer - whatever category, this type of experience hits you to your core and you never forget it. In the moment I found this ‘person’, there were so many emotions and thoughts. In a split second, I felt a flood of every kind of conflicting emotion. I won’t lie to you and tell you I was just the professional officer in that moment. Part of me was, of course, but there was also the part of me that wanted to end this person just as he had done to his own child. This was someone who had just murdered his own child and was now hiding, like a coward, expecting a mercy and fairness from me that he had failed to give to an infant. You have to be really honest with yourself in these moments and acknowledge what you go through. If you don’t do this, experiences like this will eat you alive and change you in a very bad way (depression, PTSD etc). It’s healthy to acknowledge our less than holy sides so that we can understand them.
What was it that made me arrest this person instead of doing something disastrous? It wasn’t lack of ability because it was just us, in his hiding place, and anything could have happened. It also isn’t that I’m somehow better than other officers, or people in general- I’m not. I’m just like anyone else, with the same potential for weakness and bad decisions. What I did do, long before this moment, is decide something for myself. I decided what I would rely on in this type of situation so that I didn’t have to choose in the heat of the moment.
Long before I ever met this child murderer, I decided that I would not be the one to play God. I would not worship at the altar of my own desires and pretend that was somehow “justice”. The key here is that I decided this before I was put in an overwhelmingly stressful situation, where I could have made a very bad decision, based on all kinds of complicated details. I made the decision at a time when I was calm, focused on simple principles I hold to be true, so that when the complicated and stressful moment came, I was prepared.
People often turn to God, suddenly, in times of great suffering. In those times, it is easy to get mired in the complicated interpretations of scripture, sermons that may not seem immediately helpful or applicable to the harsh realities of life, the never ending details and emotions of what you’re going through. Just as in the example above, you can either get lost in the emotion and confusion of the moment, or rely on the more basic understanding that is available. I can tell you that throwing fancy religious concepts at someone who is in pain will not be helpful.
To get through an immediate crisis, rely on the most basic elements of Christ’s teaching rather than getting involved in complicated doctrines, philosophies, and interpretations. When you’re just trying to survive in the desert, you’re not looking for cake, but water. The spiritual equivalent to water is love. Without love, our spirit is dead. So, in our deepest moments of crisis, don’t concern yourself with the why’s and what if’s of all kinds of different teachings, but focus on increasing your ability to both give and receive love. Have you ever noticed that giving love to others, even when you’re feeling very isolated, increases your own availability to feel loved also? Other, very basic things, like silence, stillness, listening and watching your thoughts rather than doing something with them, can all be very simple ways to handle crisis moments.
I’m not telling you this is always easy. I’m telling you it works. Many times, the most simple solution can be the most difficult to practice. We want to run around an act on something so that we can forget the pain and confusion and pretend we’re ‘doing something’. Have you ever seen someone who wants to learn boxing, can't wait to throw some fancy combinations, but has the luck to get a good teacher who won't even let him throw a punch until his footwork is solid? Working on the basics can be very hard, but they are the doorway to everything else.
Once you are able to get through the immediate crisis, then you can begin to work on making the things that helped you survive available for future problems. Just as in the example from police work, when you practice, and decide on, what you will rely on while you’re in a more safe and calm environment, when the moment of extreme stress comes, there is no decision to be made. If you accept Christ’s Grace when the sun is shining, it will be more easily available to you in the dark of night also.
Apply some of these things to your daily life, and to some current events which seem complicated. One topic this can be applied to is the school shootings that have become a sad part of our lives. Is the solution complicated, or so incredibly basic and simple that it is nearly impossible to implement? Are these shooters doing this because of complicated issues unique to their character, or simply a lack of care, love, help etc?
If you look at the causes of suffering in your life, and the lives of others, I think you’ll find the complicated answers we come up with are merely excuses for not practicing the simple things that reveal who we really are. Finding the Grace of God isn’t a matter of intelligence, or talent, in seeking but in realizing, through the simple ways given to us, that we already have it- and always have. When your moment comes, in whatever form it may come, will you realize Grace is already with you, or will you go looking for it in the confusion of whatever situation you find yourself in?