In my last week here in Camden, NJ, I have been given an opportunity to offer a reflection on the readings at two of the masses this weekend. My hope is that you will read this for what it is, a short reflection on our readings, and not what it could be, a comprehensive theology of theodicy (For that, please see my posts from two years ago, Why Do We Suffer Pts 1, 2, and 3). There are things that I omit and things that I gloss over because, well, it’s a ten minute reflection. Enjoy!
A couple weeks ago, I helped the Student Leaders here at St. Anthony’s plan a trip to Washington, D.C. The plan was for the students to go to the Capitol building for a tour, go next door to meet their Senator, spend a few hours site-seeing, and then head up to one of the friars’ parishes in Maryland for a presentation. A fool-proof plan with every detail accounted for! What could go wrong? Well, let me tell you: we couldn’t find parking so the students were almost late, one of the volunteers lost the keys to the van on the grass of the Capitol, we got caught in some rain walking down the mall, and then on our way to the parish, we got lost, stuck in traffic because of the power lines down everywhere, and one of our drivers was pulled over by the cops. We eventually showed up to the parish so late that the students had no time to practice before their presentation. So much for our fool-proof plan!
The fact of the matter is that our world is chaotic. No matter how hard we try, there will always be things around us that we cannot control. This is certainly the case in our readings today. For an ancient person, there was nothing more chaotic than nature: crushing winds, fire, earthquakes, and the roaring sea. Not having the scientific knowledge that we have, no smartphone to tell them the weather or where to go, the natural forces of the world were unpredictable, uncontrollable, and completely chaotic. While our chaos may be a little more domestic, it is overwhelming just the same. There are bills to pay, kids to take care of, shopping, cooking and cleaning, things to fix, people to deal with, microphones that don’t work, and emergencies to take care of. And if your life is anything like mine, every single one of these things will happen on the same day. Our lives are chaotic. How could we ever find time for ourselves, let alone prayer?
Our natural tendency is to run away from chaos: we deny anything that we can’t control and try to escape the world of disruption and unpredictability. Do you ever say to yourself, “If only I had more time…if things weren’t so crazy… I’d be able to pray better, I could take care of myself more. There’s just too much in the way right now.” This is how I felt my first year with the friars. Living in Wilmington, DE, I was in a house a block away from the noise of I-95, in a neighborhood that is known for violence, at a church that routinely had quinceañeras that would go until one in the morning. Let’s just say that it was a chaotic experience. You can imagine my excitement, then, when I found out that we would be going on an 8-day silent retreat in the middle of nowhere New York. Silence. Serenity. No chaos at all. I was amazed when I got there that I could hear the wind gently blowing in the trees. How peaceful. Finally, I could pray like I wanted to.
Do you know what I found out almost immediately? There was still chaos around me. I was sitting in the chapel trying to pray one day, and one of the monks upstairs kept slamming the door. BANG! BANG! Another kept walking in and out of the chapel looking for something *STOMP* *STOMP* STOMP*. And one of the lights flickered on and off, on and off, on and off, every few minutes. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I couldn’t believe it. In a place as quiet and peaceful as you can imagine, there were still things out of my control distracting me from God.
I realized in that moment that you can never escape chaos. No matter where you go or how in control you think that you are, there will always be things you cannot change. While at first this depressed me, I realized something quite spectacular: God was there with me experiencing everything I was. I thought to myself, “I bet God is annoyed by that slamming door, the annoying monk, and the flickering light too.” I realized that God was not some manipulative judge causing these distractions to test me or some passive observer watching his creation from a distance, God was right there with me sharing in my chaos.
This is an important distinction we must always remember: While God is always present, God is not the chaos nor does he cause the chaos. When we look at our first reading, we hear Elijah speak of a terrifying situation: wind, fire, earthquake. The passage says, “But the Lord was not in the wind…but the Lord was not in the fire… but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” These things were all happening around Elijah, thing beyond his control, and God was not the one causing them, but God was there. God was in the whisper, the comforting voice. The same is true for the disciples. Out in the middle of the sea during a storm, in the darkness of night, they were absolutely doomed. Was God the storm that was about to crush them or the darkness that gave them fear? No, of course not. But God was still there. Jesus came, not running, not shouting, not calling great attention to himself, but walking calmly on the water to meet his followers. God was their comfort, their calm within the storm.
When we look at our lives and at our world today, it is so easy to only see the storm. With tragedy around every corner we find ourselves asking, “Where is God?” Where is God when violence in our city robs us of our sons and daughters? Where is God when all we hear from Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan is terrible news: houses being demolished, children fleeing from their homes, and Christians being killed? Where is God when our whole world is crashing down around us? In the chaos of our lives, it can be difficult to see him, but he is there.
God is not in the violence, but he is there suffering with us.
God is not in the destruction but he is there fleeing with us.
God is not in the tragedies all around us that make life seem impossible sometimes but he is the one walking with us, comforting us with his love.
For some, this may be difficult to accept. “If God really loved us, why wouldn’t he put a stop to evil in our world. If he were really in control, why wouldn’t he do something.” Many times, we want a powerful God that crushes the bad guys and prevents bad things from happening. But that’s not how our God works. He loves us so much that he gave us free will, he made us co-creators in this world, and is unwilling to take that away from us just to make things perfect. Because of that, Jesus came to earth not as a king or wealthy business person to rule over the world, but as a simple carpenter to be ruled by it. He wanted to experience the pain of sin and invite us to create a better world, one with justice and love. His message was not of a perfect earthly world, and so we should not expect him to makes us rich and powerful or to take away our earthly pain; his message is of the heavenly kingdom, the reign of God through justice and mercy. Jesus was like us in everything but sin, and loved us so much that he endured torture and death to share in in our humanity; He gave up his body and blood so that we could share in his divinity. That, the sharing of this communion meal, is our eternal calm within every storm.
And so, we’re given a choice: we can try to run from the chaos, never venturing out of our comfort zones for fear that something might surprise us or go wrong, or we can embrace the chaos all around us, giving up our fear and our need to be in control, to be where our God is. There’s a chance we might get hurt by the crushing winds; there’s a chance that we might sink in the roaring sea. But if we stay hiding in the safety of the cave or are afraid to have faith to walk out onto the water, how will God ever be given the opportunity to save us from the chaos?