Sunday, June 25, 2006

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Besting the Storms that Beset Us

Readings: Job 38:1,8-11; 2 Cor 5:14-17; Mark 4:35-41

Dear sisters and brothers, in this age of jet engines and budget airlines, unless we’re sailors or fishermen, not many of us will have first-hand experience of a storm at sea. No, even if we do live on an island, most of the storms we encounter are of a different sort. They may come in different ways: a sudden serious illness, a job retrenchment, a stock-market crash, a problematic spouse, or a difficult child... In whatever form they take, these storms have the effect of unsettling us, of upsetting the peaceful routine of our daily lives. They may even make us question the very meaning of our own existence or doubt God’s love and care for us. If we think of life as a voyage towards happiness, then these storms are frightening disruptions that seem to sabotage all our hopes and dreams.

How do we react when storms beset us? Responses may vary.

Sometimes we may choose the route of despair. We may give up trying to get to our intended destination and instead allow ourselves to be swallowed up by the surging waters. “There is no such thing as true happiness,” we tell ourselves, “so stop dreaming.”

At other times we may practice the way, or the spirituality of escape. When our plans are disrupted by storms, we spend our time dreaming about being in another boat, or even on another sea. “Things would be better,” we tell ourselves, “the voyage would be calmer, if only I had a different car, or a different neighbor, a different job, or a different spouse.” And so, we try our best to change our situation, or to change the people around us. To achieve this, we may even resort to prayer. But often it’s a prayer of manipulation. We try to twist the divine arm to get whatever we think we need.

Then there are times when we may practice the way of the gritted teeth. We try not to think too much about the storm, and act as if it’s business as usual. Outwardly, we may doggedly continue on our voyage, looking as if everything is fine, even as the wind howls and the waves crash. But inside, we nurse broken hearts, or worse still, we harden our hearts to protect them from further disappointment. These efforts of ours may indeed get us somewhere. But every now and then we cannot help wondering if we have actually found true happiness and fullness of life. However comfortable we may be, we can’t help feeling as though something’s missing, because we cannot completely numb the pain of our broken or hardened hearts.

In contrast to these reactions, our readings today invite us to reflect upon what might be another way of responding to storms. They offer us at least three lessons or insights. I’ll call them “the three ‘buts.’” You’ll see why in a moment.

The first lesson has to do with God and storms.

On the one hand, we are told in no uncertain terms that God is more powerful than the storm, that God is in fact the Lord of the storm. We see this in the rhetorical question that God asks Job: “Who pent up the sea behind closed doors?” Indeed, God is the One who created the wind and the waves. And, as the responsorial psalm (107:29) tells us, God has the power to still “the storm to a whisper.” This is the same power wielded by Jesus. “Quiet now! Be calm!” he commands. And it is so.

Yes, God is indeed the Lord of the storm – and here comes the first “but” – BUT powerful as God is, not only does God allow us to encounter storms but God also sometimes seems to keep very quiet just when we need Him most. In the book of Job, Job’s suffering is somehow permitted by God. And in spite of Job’s many protests, God only gives Job an answer towards the end of the book. Notice also how, in the gospel, the disciples encounter the storm only because they obeyed Jesus’ instruction to “cross over to the other side.” And when the storm hits, when it seems like they’re about to capsize, Jesus is actually fast asleep at the back of the boat.

What then are we to do?

On the one hand, it seems clear that God wants us to not be afraid, but to have faith, to trust in Him. So Jesus seems to rebuke his disciples when they wake him: “Why are you so frightened?” he says, “How is it that you have no faith?” Yes, we should have faith. We should not be afraid BUT – and this is the second “but” – neither should we pretend that we are not afraid – or angry, or disappointed, or confused – when we actually are.

Notice how, in spite of Jesus’ apparent rebuke of the disciples when the wake him, it is only in response to their cry of distress that he calms the storm. Similarly, despite the delay, God’s words to Job are a response to his repeated protests that he doesn’t deserve the misfortunes that have befallen him. In fact, in the book of Job, Job’s friends try to convince him to stop protesting. They try to persuade him simply to accept the commonly held theory that people only suffer because of their sins. So if Job is suffering he must have sinned. But in the end, God chides these friends for giving bad advice. Not only does God answer Job to his satisfaction, but God also rewards him for his persistence in bringing his problems to God even when, for a long time, God had seemed to be silent.

The third “but” has to do God’s response to our cries.

As we heard in the gospel, Jesus rebukes the raging wind and calms the surging sea. BUT does this mean then that God will always take away whatever is troubling us? When we pray, does God always heal our illness, or find us a new job, or cause our unfaithful spouse to have a change of heart? Sometimes these things happen, but sometimes not. Isn’t this also the experience of Jesus when He prayed that His cup of suffering be taken away?

How then does God calm our storms? When we humbly bring our deepest feelings – our disappointment and fear, our anger and confusion – before God, God responds to us first by accompanying us in our suffering. Notice how, even though he is fast asleep, Jesus is in the boat with the disciples when the storm hits. God responds to our pain first by sharing it with us – even to the extent of giving His life for us. As Paul reminds us in the second reading “one man (Christ) has died for all.” To realize this, is to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the love of God in Christ. And when that happens, the storms that beset our troubled hearts are miraculously calmed. The external problems may persist, but the heart is stilled.

And in this stillness, we find ourselves gradually being led to the other shore. Or, in Paul’s words, “there is a new creation.” We find ourselves beginning, however imperceptibly, to “live no longer for (ourselves), but for him who died and was raised to life for (us).” We find our lives being re-focused. No longer are we only concerned with our own selfish wants, but we begin to consider the will of God and the well-being of others, and in so doing, to find true happiness.

Sisters and brothers, what are the storms in your life? How do you respond to them? And how are you being invited today to become a new creation?