I vividly remember standing as a teenager at the edge of a raging flood and seeing this awesome, frightening demonstration of pure, raw, unstoppable power. I imagined myself in it and the total helplessness and panic I would experience in its clutch. But I recall also thinking that, if I could safely reach the water with a long stick and extract a cupful, it would be as mild and harmless as what came out of our faucets at home.
That contrast has always fascinated me: I mean that destructive forces are generally made up of large quantities of benign substances. The fire that consumes a forest or a building is, after all, essentially the same as the fire that cooks our food or heats our houses.
Think, too, of this: if we had absolutely no fear in us, if we saw nothing as threatening in any way to our health and safety, we would not survive. We’d jump into the flood waters or grab the white hot poker or consume the poisonous mushroom, and so on. We are alive today because all our lives we have been appropriately afraid – something we began learning in infancy.
But, as we all know from multiple personal experiences, fear can become excessive and consume us. What we used to call “nervous breakdowns” (Is that term still in use?) were often the result of fear gone out of control. My mother – strong, resourceful, religious, and independent in so many ways – was a woman whose fears and worries would at times totally consume her and lead to long bouts of nervous breakdown. I saw up close and for long periods of time what unbridled fear can do to a human being.
The topic of fear stands out clearly in the famous Gospel story we just heard again of Jesus and his apostles in a boat when a violent storm came up. The terrified apostles wake the sleeping Jesus and, in an unmistakably accusatory tone of voice, demand that he rescue them.
Once again we have to say that we can’t be sure how much, if any, of the story is factual and how much of it comes from the creative imagination of the first Christian community of believers and followers. So, what happens next is open to debate and difference of opinion.
Did Jesus actually lift his arms over the angry waves, did he point to the black clouds above, did he shout a chilling command of supreme authority that all should be quiet and calm? And did the storm then obediently disappear? Or is this graphic description instead the Gospel writers’ colorful way of saying that whenever we find ourselves tossed about and terrified by the storms of our lives he is there, without fail, totally silent, but there to lead and reassure us? I choose the latter.
I feel strongly that there is a fine line between an underlying, overriding trust in the presence of a provident God on the one hand and, on the other, the misguided belief that God makes good things happen in our lives, often in response to our prayers for intervention. I suspect we do not yet have the language to express that difference adequately; but I believe we must work at it, understanding it better and articulating it more clearly and convincingly. It may have something to do with recognizing that God’s way of acting is not the same as ours and that the divine presence and divine love are more like an energy, an ultimate power source, that somehow fuels our actions, giving them strength and efficiency beyond our natural ability.
The God Connection!