Insanity amid madness

June 15, 2009

This week's texts tell the story of deliverance from our many troubles.
They deliver us from the oppression of self-consciousness. They deliver
us from that sinking feeling, that sense that the boat is going down and
that we are beyond the reach of peace. Jesus all but scoffs at fear and
faithlessness: "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?"

God
deliver us from sin, from self-consciousness, from restlessness. If we
hear these texts right, we rearrange our position in the universe. We
are not our own strength; God is our stronghold. In times of trouble we
are to trust. In the psalm, strength follows trust. The boat doesn't
sink.

When I heard that my dearest friend's 94-year-old mother
was breathing her last, I rushed to the hospital. There I found a fully
intubated woman who was moving her head back and forth in nervous
distress. The doctor offered her a pad of paper, on which she weakly
scrawled, "Water."

"Anita, do you want something to drink?" he
asked her. (We think that hearing is the last function to go.) "Are you
thirsty?" Instead of a pathetic but certain yes, we got an angry shake
of the head: no.

I returned the paper to her, and she wrote, with even greater effort, "Water the plants."

Anita
was not ready to die. She was still caring about something outside
herself. And here we were having the turn-off-the-intubator
conversation! How wrong we would have been. My point isn't that each of
us should water the plants, but that we should receive the water. Jesus
told us to have faith in him. Our boats are not sinking.

We are
often an island of insanity in a sea of madness. (Phrase stolen from
Thomas Friedman regarding a hotel in Beirut.) We are neither perfect nor
complete. We are one little finger on the great body of Christ. The
world and its problems are enormous, but God is even bigger. And God's
power to free us from our part in the mess is prodigious. It is nice
that we want to water the plants even while dying, but we would be
better off caring about something larger. Better we learn the source of
our strength: our trust in God.

One of the first international
climate catastrophes happened in Borneo in the late 1990s. A haze came
and did not leave. When the pollution levels were off the charts, beyond
dangerous, the government stopped even counting them. Instead, it
delivered this line, over and over: "We can't be responsible for an act
of God." The government issued surgical masks, which offered absolutely
no protection against the haze but made people think they were doing something.
One scholar concluded that the masks, like tribal religious masks,
created a phony faith in a phony kind of god: the political authority
that whitewashed the situation. The government ended up asking that
people pray for rain, as Allah's wrath was the cause. In fact, the haze
was caused by government deforestation, which continues.

To God
we are large and small, significant and not so significant. We are not
nothing to God; we just are not as big as we think we are. When we get
ourselves in right relationship to the universe, we are delivered and
the storms in us will quiet.