Thursday, February 19, 2015

Beyond Backseat Driving

Chinese New Year

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 89(90) 2-6, 12-14, 26, R: 17(b); James 4:13-15; Matthew 6:31-34
Picture: cc janeyhenning

Sisters and brothers, have you ever been in a car with a backseat driver? You know what a backseat driver is, right? It’s a passenger who insists on telling the actual driver how to drive. Which route to use. How fast to go. Whether or not to overtake… And if the one who is actually driving the car fails to follow the instructions, or is slow to do so, this passenger is likely to scold the poor fellow. See lah! I told you already not to go by this way. But you wouldn’t listen. See, now caught in traffic jam. Next time better let me drive…

And, of course, it’s not just in cars and on the roads that we find backseat drivers. We can find them almost anywhere. In the office or in school. At home or on vacation. Even here in church. We find people who seem to delight in telling other people what to do. People who seem to have a desperate need to arrange every little detail. Not just in their own lives. But also in the lives of everyone else. We have another name for such people, don’t we? We call them control freaks. Actually, sisters and brothers, before you think that I am pointing fingers at others, I must confess that I sometimes find similar tendencies in myself as well. At some level, I too am a backseat driver. I too am a control freak. Which leads me to ask the question why? Why do some of us do this? Why do we feel the need to control everything?

I’m not sure. But I think backseat drivers like me are under a couple of illusions. First, the illusion that we are the ones actually in control of the car. Not the driver. That it is our responsibility to tell the driver what to do. And this first illusion arises from a second, more deeply-rooted, one. The illusion that we must be in control of the car for the journey to go smoothly. Otherwise everything will go haywire. I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I sometimes think that we backseat drivers and control freaks act the way we do, because we are deeply insecure. And we compensate for our insecurity by trying to control everything. By acting as though it were possible for us to control everything.

Which is why I think our Mass readings on this first day of the Lunar New Year are very appropriate. As we look forward to the uncertainties that lie ahead. It is tempting for us to fool ourselves into thinking that we are in control. To act as though we have to be in control. But our readings remind us otherwise. First, they tell us who we are. What it really means to be a human being. Notice the images that are used. In the psalm, we are told the same thing that we were reminded of yesterday. Ash Wednesday. That we are dust. And that the time will come when God will turn all of us back into dust. That we are like a dream. Which dissipates as soon as the sleeper awakes. Or like grass which springs up in the morning. But by evening it withers and fades. The second reading even compares us to the mist that is here for a little while and then disappears. Together, these images remind us not just how short our lives are on this earth. But also that we are not in control. No more than the dust and the dream, or the grass and the mist, are in control.

No, sisters and brothers, we are not in control. And we need to avoid acting as though we are. We need to resist two temptations that spring from the illusion of control. The first is arrogance. The tendency to think and to act as though, just because things are going well for me now, they will continue to do so. As long as I remain in control. In control of my career. Or of my family. Or even of my relationship with God. Pope Francis calls this practical relativism. Acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist (EG, 80). And yet, as the second reading reminds us, you never know what will happen tomorrow. The second temptation is anxiety. The tendency to worry about what is to come. Perhaps because our experiences of the past have shown us just how uncertain, just how fragile, the future is. And yet no amount of worrying on our part can actually make us more secure.

What are we to do then? If we are neither to be anxious nor arrogant? If we have to stop trying to take control? What we have to do is first to accept that our lives are in the hands of God. That it is God who is in the driver’s seat. That it is God’s love and care for us that keeps us in existence. And to trust that God will continue to care for us. Will never abandon us. Which is not to say that we should not work hard. Of course we should. We should work hard with our hands. But we should also keep our hearts fixed, not on ourselves, but on God. Set your hearts on God’s kingdom first, and on his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well.

And it is precisely with our hearts set on God’s kingdom that we then beg for God’s blessing. Not just so that everything will go smoothly for us materially. Of course, we pray that it will. But, even more important, we also pray that, whatever may happen–in good times or in bad, in sickness or in health, in success or in failure, in poverty or in wealth, in life or in death–whatever may happen, God’s kingdom will come. God’s will may be done. In our lives. And in our world. Isn’t this what we mean–what we should mean–when we wish one another a Happy New Year?

Sisters and brothers, in this Year of the Goat, how shall we allow God to take firmer control of our lives? What must we do to stop being backseat drivers today?

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