Surfing the Divine Will


Off and running, reading Mark 6 at Mass…

The Lord Jesus has grown up in a hurry. He has chosen His Apostles. They had already accomplished enough together that the Lord had in mind for them to make a quiet retreat and get some rest.

But the confused and hungry multitude followed them across the sea. Christ’s heart, of course, brimmed over with compassion, and He taught the people many things.

The sun began to set. Supper time arrived. 5,000 men and their families found themselves in a desolate place with nothing to eat.

mothertheresaWe learn that the Apostles had already started thinking ahead. They considered the well-being of the people and tried to exercise practical judgment.

‘Master, we have got to send these people on their way, so they can get back to town and order a falafel sandwich or something. Otherwise, we will have a humanitarian crisis on our hands.’

Okay. Good point. The people must eat. But, the Lord appeared to think: We have a golden opportunity here. This is no time for fretting. We can’t send them away. We came here to pray and commune with each other. We will do that, indeed. And these people, too, will join us. We will bless God and break bread together! Give them something to eat yourselves.

I think we can safely say that this was the moment when the Apostles showed their hardness of heart. If they really knew their Master; if they really knew what He can do, they would have smiled and started handing out bread. But, hard-hearted, they resisted. They feared that their Master did not know what He was doing.

Now, let’s analyze. Let’s consider the various approaches to be taken in trying to fulfill the will of Jesus Christ.

dont-worry-be-happy-bobby-mcferrin-cd-cover-artOn the one hand, we have the glib Bobby-McFerrin-Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy approach. This approach does not befit a reasonable human being. The Lord gave us minds to use, to observe and to confront problems. We cannot jigger-jagger blindly through life, without contingency plans for worst-case scenarios. If we do, unforeseen disaster will of course befall us, and we will have only ourselves to blame.

On the other hand, Blessed Mother Theresa built an enormous and successful international health-care enterprise. She never worried for ten seconds about rubber gloves, professional certifications, or universal precautions. She considered the hospital regulators of the world to be God’s problem, not hers. And she was right: He—God, the Lord, Jesus—He did have it all under control.

But then there’s also the famous story about the shipwrecked man waiting for God to rescue him, who refused a lifeboat and a helicopter. God will rescue me! At the pearly gates, he asks, Why didn’t You rescue me? And Lord says, What do you mean? I sent you a lifeboat and a helicopter.

January 2013, and things are different than they were in January 2012—though the differences may not be exactly what we might have imagined a year ago. God has done His work. But nothing has changed for good without its being someone’s idea and generous initiative, and nothing has changed for the worse without its being someone’s blameworthy neglect or bad decision.

Another year will see more change, very little of which we can distinctly anticipate now. May it all be for the good! We cannot know the plan of God ahead of time. But may He give us eyes to see and ears to hear, so that we can do our part with confidence, make good decisions, and leave in His hands the things that only He can control.

You want to know my favorite metaphor? Doing God’s will is like surfing. The surfer has to stay in shape, take care of the board, and listen faithfully to the weather radio. God provides the ocean and controls how it moves.

Staff in an Old Man’s Hand

“Father, You have revealed the great mystery to the simple-hearted,” exults the Lord Jesus.

As we gather from reading part of the tenth chapter of the prophet Isaiah, the Lord does not take kindly to our self-aggrandizing pride. “Shall the axe boast against him who hews with it?” Or, as the prophet puts it in the 45th chapter: “Woe to anyone who contends with his Maker…Shall the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’”

The tool in the hand of the one who wields it: A perennial analogy in the sayings of prophets and saints. St. Ignatius Loyola, captain of the most successful international organization of the 16th century, wrote that he wanted only to be a “staff in an old man’s hand”—the ‘old man’ being God, of course. Blessed Mother Theresa, captain of one of the most successful international organizations of the 20th century, wrote that she lived solely as “a little bit of pencil with which God wrote.”

Seems to me that this analogy has two salient aspects. One: The task cannot be accomplished without the tool. Every grade-schooler knows that you cannot pass a test without a pencil. You might know all the answers in your mind. But if you can’t write them down? F. Or, as my sixth-grade teacher liked to threaten us: F-. “I will give you an F minus if you don’t find a pencil in 15 seconds!”

So the tool must operate in order for success to be achieved. But: The second salient aspect of the perennial analogy. The one who wields the tool conceives the overall plan and executes it according to his design.

Pencils don’t pass tests. Lumps of clay do not make bowls with their own hands. Walking sticks do not climb mountains. Axes do not build houses. And individual human beings do not control the unfolding of divine Providence.

The great mystery that gladdens the hearts of the child-like: God is God, and I am not. I have a task, which God has given me to do. But it is not my job to run the world.

Or, to put it another famous way: Lord, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change for the better the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Accepting the Back Nine

“There is one among you whom you do not recognize.” John 1:26

St. John the Baptist spoke these terrifying words to some Pharisees—some Pharisees who did not acknowledge that the Messiah was then walking the earth. God had become man, but these Pharisees did not recognize it.

Perhaps we can understand the Pharisees’ confusion. They saw Jesus’ miracles. But they also saw a man with a former prostitute and a former tax collector among His closest friends. The Pharisees heard His noble teachings about prayer, penance, and purity in God’s sight. But they also heard Him presume to forgive sins, and they heard Him promise to rebuild the Temple in three days after it was destroyed.

The Nazarene carpenter had them quite confused: An amazingly powerful and noble guttersnipe, beautiful and out of His mind. He fed multitudes, slept on rocks in the wilderness, caused trouble in Jerusalem, and captivated everyone with His words. He talked like God, acted like God, and walked like a rustic Galilean.

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