How to Get Out of a Hot, Hot Spot (Seventh in Sermon Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Life-Changing Truths”)

I.
How do you get out of a hot spot when you find yourself quite surprisingly in one?  Most of us end up in hot spots a few times in our lives–sometimes because of bad decisions we make and sometimes, perhaps more frequently for people trying to live life well, sometimes due to circumstances completely beyond our control.
Broadly, there are three possible ways to get out of hot spot.  1) We rely on ourselves to think our way out of the mess.  2) Like it or not, we have to rely on others to help us out of the hot spot in which we find ourselves.  3) We rely on divine intervention.
I bring up divine intervention knowing many here don’t believe in that kind of thing and that options one and two are the only options you’ll entertain.  Respecting your well thought through perspectives, not everyone here agrees with you, and they believe that maybe, just maybe, God or the Universe or the Powers of Goodness do on some occasions get us out of a mess.
In the case of divine deliverance the way out will have to be communicated to us in order for us to take the proper action.  I don’t think any divine force is going to come along and scoop us up and get us out of our mess while we wait passively by for divine deliverance.  For example, I’ve heard of people who parachute for sport, jumping out the plane and finding much to their surprise and dismay that none of the strings they pull release the parachute as they fall toward solid ground below; I’ve heard of people, more than a few, living to tell about it, but I’ve never heard of a single instance where the person with the parachute was scooped back into the plane by the forces of a powerful wind, an astounding updraft, from where they were able to come in for a landing aboard a plane out of which they had jumped.
OK, so what if you’re in a jam, and you need to get out of it?  Without overanalyzing the situation initially or becoming paralyzed at the prospects of the risks it will take to get out of that hot spot, there’s a process that a group of Australian helping professionals described, compiled by Dr. Paul Valent, so that we needn’t waste energy thinking our angst in the hot spot is abnormal.  Here’s the process:
Shock and disbelief.  This can’t be happening to me.  How in the world did I end up in this mess?  I don’t deserve to be in this hot spot.  Will I be able to pull out of this with my emotional well-being in tact and my head held high?
Numbness.  After mentally wrestling with the situation and contemplating the possible outcomes, potentially positive and negative, you find yourself, we find ourselves, numb.  We discover that we really feel nothing.  We’re kind of holding out breath and bracing to be hit with the worst of what it is that can happen.
Fear.  Thinking about the worst outcomes leaves us afraid and asking if those eventuate how badly will we fall apart and how critical will others be of us.
Helplessness.  That may be the phase through which we move, however slowly or quickly, when fear has us in its clutches.  We are overcome that we can do nothing to help ourselves, and we can’t imagine how anyone else can help us.
Euphoria.  I don’t know about this, but theses Australians who have studied in great detail coping with crisis say it’s possible after feeling helpless to feel euphoric, to be suddenly overcome with the sense that I can win out over the powers of the dilemma that have me in their grip at the moment.
Sadness.  Losing ground, perhaps.  We think of what this complication has stolen from us–our career, our home, one or more important relationships, the respect of people from whom we most wanted it.
Longing.  Longing for what we had idealized as our future.  We know that even if we come out of this hot spot, that can never happen exactly as we’d hoped and dreamed and planned.  Good things can still happen of course, but what we’d dreamed of can’t.
Guilt.  We feel, or may feel, guilty at this point for not having taken more precautions against what has happened to us.  If we’d only done this.  If we’d only done that.  The world of iffery stokes the fires of guilt.
Shame. For some people prone to it, shame always follows guilt, and finding ourselves cornered as we are at the moment is no exception.
Anger and frustration.  After guilt or guilt with shame, we likely become angry at ourselves and others who were involved in any way in getting us to the place we now detest.
Disappointment alternating with hope.  This is where we end up.  Even if we escape the worst that the situation might have brought, we may still have moments here and there of deep disappointment that we ever found ourselves in this hotspot in the first place.
We independent types warm up to the idea that we have the smarts to get ourselves out of any situation, pretty much on our own though we face the reality of what it may cost us emotionally, financially, and so on.  We wouldn’t be looking for or wanting help from anyone else unless we’d exhausted all of our own ideas and energies trying to get out of whatever mess in which we find ourselves.  We would only be open to letting others help us if all of our own resources somehow failed us.
In that case, having a great friend who happens to be resourceful and courageous is a wonderful thing.  This had to have been the kind of friend Cole Porter had in mind when he wrote the words and the music to his song, “Friendship,” first recorded, I believe, by Judy Garland.

If you’re ever in a jam, here I am
If you’re ever in a mess, S.O.S.
If you ever feel so happy you land in jail, I’m your bail
It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship
When other friendships have been forgot
Ours will still be hot

If you’re ever down a well, ring my bell
And if you’re ever up a tree just phone to me
A-yes-sir-ee
If you ever lose your teeth and you’re out to dine, borrow mine
It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship
When other friendships have been forgate
Gate?
Ours will still be great

If they ever black your eyes, put me wise
If they ever cook your goose, turn me loose

It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship
When other friendships have been forgit
Ours will still be it

If you ever lose your mind, I’ll be kind
And if you ever lose your shirt, I’ll be hurt
If you’re ever in a mill and get sawed in half, I won’t laugh
It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship
When other friendships are up the crick
Ours will still be slick.

II.
Even after the Brothers Grimm softened the original tale of Hansel and Gretel, which is what they did with original peasant lore for adults that they happened upon, it still never became a heart warming tale.  Instead of blaming all their kids’ problems on video games, which deserve plenty of blame, parents might want to think further back to the stories they read to the children before they could read for themselves.  If someone gave you a grand collection of the tales collected and adapted by the Grimm Brothers, and you read all of those tales to your children, well you should at least have gotten them a therapist to go along with the tales the Grimms were supposedly children-izing.
In the most well known version of the Hansel and Gretel tale, we meet two little children who become lost in the forest after their parents, their father and their stepmother, leave them there because there isn’t enough food for four in the house.  Immediately, we are in touch with a time not so very long ago when children were not valued the way most of us value our children today.
So, Hansel and Gretel, left to their own devices, eventually find their way to a nifty gingerbread house, which unbeknownst to them of course belongs to a wicked witch. The children end up enslaved for a time as the witch prepares to eat them. Thankfully, they figure their way out and escape, which doesn’t take away the trauma of what they suffered on their way to freedom–no thanks to their father and stepmother who nagged at her husband until he did with the children what she demanded.  A nagging spouse is something no one wants, but if you do something wrong blaming your nagging spouse is a waste of breath.  You made your choices to do what you did.
There’s an older French version of this tale that was adapted by the Germans, something the Brothers Grimm likely didn’t know.  The French story had the title, “The Lost Children,” and instead of a wicked witch as their foil, they had to contend with a demon, an old demon if that matters.  In the German version, the kids trick the witch by playing so dumb she falls for their ploy, and they get out of the there relatively unscathed–physically at least.  In the French version of the story, which might have been the original, the kids play dumb, but the demon alone is not tricked; instead, he and his wife together are tricked so that Hansel and Gretel escaped after an act of violence, namely slitting the throat of the demon’s wife.
Someone needs to write a modern version of “Hansel and Gretel” titled Mommy and Daddy Dearest in which they let the world know how their parents treated them.  Sadly, parents in their day likely would have thought the parents of Hansel and Gretel made a wise, necessary decision.  Today some of us would be up in arms, but our culture has almost nothing to do with the culture or cultures in which this wonder story was conceived.   Children were work bearers and sharers, not the gifts most of us think them to be in our time and place.
The whole reason the children were left out in the forest at all was because there wasn’t enough food to go around.  In other words, the parents would have less to eat and be hungry if there were four mouths to feed instead of two.  Certainly not all parents today, but many parents in our present culture would, without giving it a second thought, do without food for themselves to make sure the children were fed.
The story isn’t about that, though it’s an issue we can’t overlook.  The story is about an ingenious couple of kids, Hansel and Gretel, a brother/sister team who because of their smarts got themselves out of a hot, hot spot literally.  In the German version, which most of us know because of the Brothers Grimm, the witch has Hansel in a pen of some sort fattening him up to be the main course at a feast for one she will soon celebrate.
When the day came for her to have roasted Hansel, she told Gretel to see if the oven were hot enough to roast her brother.  Gretel showed that she was brainy by pretending that she had no idea how to check the level of heat in an oven.  The witch told her she was stupid so the witch goes over to check the heat level in the oven.  When she opens the oven door to see how much heat she could feel, Gretel pushed the old witch right into the oven and let her roast.  I’m not sure why the oven was equipped with a latch, but it was; and to make certain the witch couldn’t escape Gretel and Hansel padlocked the oven.
This is how the story ended:

Then they stayed for several days to eat some more of the house, till they discovered amongst the witch’s belongings, a huge chocolate egg. Inside lay a casket of gold coins.

“The witch is now burnt to a cinder,” said Hansel, “so we’ll take this treasure with us.” They filled a large basket with food and set off into the forest to search for the way home. This time, luck was with them, and on the second day, they saw their father come out of the house towards them, weeping.

“Your stepmother is dead. Come home with me now, my dear children!” The two children hugged the woodcutter.

“Promise you’ll never ever desert us again,” said Gretel, throwing her arms round her father’s neck. Hansel opened the casket.

“Look, Father! We’re rich now . . . You’ll never have to chop wood again.”

And they all lived happily together ever after.

Englebert Humperdinck wrote an opera based on the “Hansel and Gretel” wonder story–Englebert of the nineteenth century, not the now-aging pop singer.  An excerpt from one of the songs in the opera, a duet titled “Evening Prayer”:

Sleeping sofly, then it seems
Heaven enters in my dreams;
Angels hover round me,
Whisp’ring they have found me;
Two are sweetly singing,
Two are garlands bringing,
Strewing me with roses
As my soul reposes.
God will not forsake me
When dawn at last will wake me.

III.
So, if I can’t myself out of the hot spot I’m in, and if there’s not someone else to rescue me from between that rock and hard place, some would say there’s a third possibility:  divine deliverance.  Some who hold to this possibility believe it should be number one on the list and that we should rely on God to deliver us from any and all crises.  In this group, there are those who sincerely believe that if you pray correctly, effectively God will deliver you, us, from every threatening situation in which we find ourselves; further, they believe that there’s nothing we should do other than pray and wait on God to snatch us out of the hell hole, which has found us for who knows what reason.
As I indicated at the beginning today, I’m not opposed to the notion of supernatural deliverance, but one thing about it that’s for sure; we can’t depend on it, and we certainly can’t demand it.  God or the Universe or your Higher Power doesn’t work on demand–though, to hear some preachers tell it, if we don’t rely on God to get us safely over the place of threat we’re kind of dumb; and if we ask only to have God say, “Nah,” then we must deserve whatever consequences will do with us since we can’t escape.
Isn’t the divine promise, once it’s refined by Jesus and his experience, that God will never leave us or forsake us; not that God will always get us out of the hot spot?  Jesus prayed to get out of one hot, hot spot, and God said, “Can’t help you, sorry.”  Really?
Let’s push further back to the ancient Hebrew tale that was our reflective reading for today.  During the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, of Babylon, the powerful King had a nine-story golden statue erected on the Plain of Dura, in the general area of what today is called Karbala, Iraq, about 100 kilometers south of Baghdad.  The statue was probably an image of him, Nebuchadnezzar, but there is the possibility that the statue represented the Babylonian god of wisdom, Nabu.  Sounding a bit like a precursor to Roman Emperor Domitian in the book of Revelation, the King established a law that when the music to kneel began to play, everyone anywhere near the statue, Babylonians and their captives such as the Hebrews, were supposed to bow down before what amounted to an idol and worship it, worship either the King or Nabu.  According to the law, those who refused, if any dared, were to be executed by being thrown into a burning furnace.  Smart King; he thought of everything ahead of time.
There were some young Hebrew men who’d been selected by Nebuchadnezzar for special Babylonian educational opportunities.  Had the King not given them this remarkable opportunity they’d still be living in constantly guarded ghettos and treated as prisoners.  Instead, they had by virtue of the privileges provided by King Nebuchadnezzar responsible jobs in his government.  Their Babylonian names were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  When the bow-down music played for the first time, some of the King’s native advisors noticed that the three Hebrews were not bowing down; they naturally reported this to the King who went ballistic.  The consequences for their refusal had already been established in the lawbooks, and we all know that once that happens there’s no way to get things changed.
He felt close to these young men whom he’d seen grow and develop as Babylonians, even though they were Hebrews.  He, therefore, gave them another chance.  This is how they responded with complete respect for the King and his position:
“Your majesty, we must not attempt to defend ourselves in this situation. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it and will for sure rescue us from the hands of your executioners.  If for some reason, God does not rescue us, though, we will die believing we have done the only honorable thing we could have done before our God.”
Any personally positive connections Nebuchadnezzar had with the young men at that moment went up in smoke, so to speak.  He commanded his executioners to heat up the furnace seven times hotter than usual.  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were bound and cast into the blazing furnace wearing their Friday best.  The executioners who had the responsibility to throw the three Hebrews into the man-made hell died trying to get close enough to the opening of the furnace to toss them in.
By the way, execution by burning was a common practice by more than one Babylonian ruler.  It was obviously Nebuchadnezzar’s method of choice, and burning as the penalty for certain crimes is detailed in the famous Law Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian monarch in the eighteenth century B.C.E.  Though the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego is a brilliant piece of fiction, it would have taken place, if historic, about 595 years before Jesus was born.
The King evidently had a theatre built from which he could watch his enemies burn in the furnace.  When he went to see if Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were toast yet, he saw them unbound, walking around and talking in there as if they were at the spa for a sauna session.  As shockingly, he saw what appeared to be another man in there with them.  Who in the world was that person if his eyes served him well?
Practically everyone who has studied the story has a theory on who the fourth person was.  Most say, he was probably an angel.  Some say it was Jesus making his first appearance on earth; with all due respect for those who believe this, I think it’s the worst suggestion ever and impossible in this literary/theological context.
All we can know is that it was the storyteller’s way of saying God sent God’s messenger to save the courageous men of faith.  God, then, got them out of their hot, hot spot, which is the message and moral of the story.
King Nebuchadnezzar immediately warmed up, no pun intended, to the God of the Hebrews, and he made another law.  That’s what politicos do.  The King acknowledged the remarkable power of the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and had it written into law that any nation even if the Babylonians had nothing else against them who made any kind of slur against the God of the Hebrews would be immediately attacked by the great armies of Babylon.  And, oh yeah, for what it’s worth, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all got job promotions.
So, where shall we pause today?  Since a political election gets nearer and nearer all the time, I’ll say the best approach to getting out of a hot, hot spot is to utilize all three options I’ve presented.  I think we should always try to take charge of our lives and our fate if we possibly can, but if I’m caught between a rock and hard place and a friend is willing to get me out or try, I think it is decidedly unwise on my part to turn down the offer of assistance.  Furthermore, I think that living so that the positive effects of God’s presence and love or that of the Universe or the Great Mystery can get me to where I need to be is the thoughtful way to live.
For what it’s worth, I’m your pastor, and if you’re ever in a jam, here I am.
Amen.

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