Saturday, August 9, 2014

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

A dear friend of mine, a woman of great faith, has truly endured a “hard knock life.” When compared with most people, she’s had far more than her fair share of marital, parental, financial, physical, and psychological woes. Yet when living through her many challenges and difficulties, she’s learned to keep sight of the fact that Jesus is always with her- even during her darkest, most difficult days.

My friend speaks of faith in terms of her relationship with her dad, with whom she was very close. For instance, when he was teaching her to ride a bike, he would say: “Keep looking at me! Keep your eyes on me! If you look down, you’re going to wobble and fall!” And when he taught her to swim, he would open wide his arms and say: “Don’t be afraid and don’t look around- just swim to me!”

These fond memories remind my friend that faith involves keeping one’s eyes on Jesus, especially when one is anxious, afraid, or when the going gets rough. She explains that so often, when we find ourselves in trouble, we think we need to cry out to God and bring our distress to his attention. But in reality, Jesus is always there with us. We just need to be able to see him, with eyes of faith.

Perhaps this is a lesson we can take away from today’s gospel. As we heard, the disciples were sailing on the Sea of Galilee when they found themselves in the midst of a furious storm. Then all of a sudden Jesus appeared to them, walking on the water. But they thought that Jesus was a ghost, and they became even more afraid. Jesus saw this, and he tried to calm their fears. “Take courage, it is I;” he said, “do not be afraid.”

Peter, however, still had his doubts. So he asked Jesus if he himself could walk on the water. And he found that he could- as long as he kept his eyes on the Lord. But as soon as he looked at the wind and the waves around him, he began to sink, and he cried out for help. Jesus caught him by the arm and said: “Where is your faith? Why did you doubt me?”

One significant thing about this story is that when Jesus first approached the disciples’ boat, he didn’t stop the wind and calm the storm right away. Instead, he told his friends to be courageous. If you think about it, this is how Jesus so often deals with us. He doesn’t always, nor does he often, bring about an immediate and happy resolution to our crises. Miracles do happen, but miracles, by definition, are pretty rare. Instead, Jesus comes to us and invites us to keep our eyes fixed on him, so that we can find the hope and the strength and the meaning we need to move beyond our anger and fear. As St. Augustine once wrote, “Those who keep faith in Jesus, can walk upon the waves of the storms of life.”

Consider the story of a young man named Rick. For months Rick had suffered from severe intestinal pain, and he eagerly looked forward to an operation he was sure would cure him. But it didn’t- at least at first- and he was filled with frustration and grief. When a priest friend came to visit him, Rick kept saying: “I can’t handle this! This is ridiculous!” So his friend gently stopped him and pointed out that what Rick was saying only served to fan the flames of his anger.

Then the priest invited him to try to find some meaning in his ordeal. In other words, what could this disappointment, this illness, and this pain mean for him? After reflecting for awhile, Rick said, “Maybe God is asking me to grow up through this. Maybe he’s saying: ‘Hey Rick, stop whining.’ And my family has really been there for me too. My mom’s been great. My sister’s really been helping me. Maybe I’ve taken them for granted.” This insight didn’t change Rick’s physical condition. However, by being able to look at his situation through the lens of his faith in Jesus, he was able to find meaning and gratitude, which in turn gave him the strength he needed to carry on. (1)

How God operates is so often a mystery to us. Why he does what he does, and why he allows certain things to happen- especially the bad things- can confuse us and challenge our faith. To help us understand God’s actions, a priest friend of mine gives a helpful example. He says, “When our car gets stuck in a snow bank, sometimes God sends a tow truck to pull us out, but sometimes he just sits down next to us at the side of the road, and cries with us.” He explains that God always acts in such a way that, at the end of the day, will make us more loving people. We also need to keep in mind that sometimes God tests us so that we can learn to depend on him more than we do. As God explained to St. Catherine of Siena, “I sometimes bring (my servants) to the brink, so that they will better see and know that I can and will provide for them.”

Rick Warren, in his best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life, says that when we find ourselves in difficult situations, we shouldn’t say, “O Lord, why me?” Instead, we should ask, “O Lord, what do you want me to learn?” Which is excellent advice indeed! However, the possibility that God may be teaching us or testing us can be very far from our minds when we find ourselves in the midst of a storm and the waves are closing over us. At times like this, all we can do is echo the words of St. Peter: “Lord, save me!” And indeed, save us he does. To again quote our Lord’s words to St. Catherine of Siena: “I never fail my servants, so long as they put their trust in me.”

(My new book of daily Advent devotions for 2014, the latest installment in The Living Gospel series by Ave Maria Press, is now available: )

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