ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 24, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
OUT OF CONTROL
Job 38: 1 – 11; Psalm 46; Mark 4: 35 – 41
A young man’s car breaks down near a monastery. He knocks on the door and asks if he can spend the night. The monks graciously accept him, feed him, fix his car and give him a bed. As the man is falling asleep, he hears a breathtaking sound, unlike anything he’s ever heard before. The angels of heaven couldn’t sound so beautiful. Awakened by the glorious noise, he tosses and turns trying to figure out the source of such divine music. The next morning, he asks the monks what the sound was, but they say, “We can’t tell you. You’re not a monk.” The man leaves but he can’t forget the sound. It haunts him for years, so on his 40th birthday he returns to the monastery and pleads for the monks to reveal the source of the music. The monks reply, “We can’t tell you. You’re not a monk.” The man says, “If the only way I can discover what makes that sound is to become a monk, then please, make me a monk.” The monks reply, “You must travel the earth, counting every blade of grass. When you finish, we’ll make you a monk.” The man sets about his task and faithfully pursues it for decades. Finally, in his 80’s, he returns to the monastery and tells the monks “In my quest to find what makes the magnificent sound, I traveled the earth and this is what I discovered: By design, the world is in a state of perpetual change. Only God knows what you ask. All one can do is trust.” The monks reply, “Congratulations. You are now a monk. We shall show you the way to the mystery of the sacred sound.” The man’s heart is pounding with anticipation. A monk leads him to a wooden door, gives him a key and says, “The sound is beyond that door.” The man opens the door. Behind the door is another door made of stone. With another key, he opens that door, only to find another made of ruby. So it goes that he’s given keys to doors of emerald, pearl and diamond and with each door, the sound becomes even more pure and splendid. Finally, they come to a door of solid gold. The sound has become almost painful in it’s clarity and exquisiteness. The man holds the last key to the last door. He is beyond elation. His life’s desire is behind that door! Trembling, he unlocks the door, turns the knob, and slowly enters the room. Falling to his knees, he is utterly amazed to discover that the source of the haunting and seductive sound is… Well, I can’t tell you that! You’re not monks!
This is a story that draws us into one man’s obsession, an obsession which drives him until it takes over his life. An obsession to know something he wasn’t meant to know and to control a situation beyond his power. To some degree we all share this obsession. We want to eat of The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We want to know what God knows; things beyond us. We want control. Control gives us comfort. We’re all a little like Job. We expect things will go well in life and we’ll experience God’s blessings. Often, we link this with our sense of self-righteousness; somewhere we’ve gotten the idea that good things should happened to good people and we see ourselves as good. When trials come, or things go sideways, or we’re called to “take up our cross” and follow Christ, we’re confused. This isn’t the way life is supposed to go. It’s not fair. We begin to wonder why God is allowing this. Anxiety arises within us. Anger emerges. Faith falters. We feel God is unreliable. Instead of surrendering in trust and falling into the arms of God, we try to control our circumstances.
A common experience of being out of control is when we go to the doctor for a routine test and discover we have a serious illness. We get fretful and fearful. Like the disciples in the boat, we’re battered about by something we can’t control. We’re sure we’re going to die. God seems to have deserted us. We pray for Jesus to wake up and do something. We start taking vitamins or doing internal cleanses to gain control. We can’t wait to see the doctor to hear the treatment plan because even if the odds are against us, the plan gives us a sense of influence. Then we’re eager to start the treatment or have the surgery; this too gives us a feeling of control. We hitch our hope and trust to the wagon of our own power.
Our lack of control in life likes to jump up unexpectedly and taunt us. One minute we’re sailing down the 401, the next we’re stuck in traffic – waiting. We start a house improvement and before we know it, there are so many things we need to fix we’re into a major renovation. We sit down at the computer and it wants to do updates. We lose a job. Our spouse announces they want a divorce. We have a family member we love who is bent on self-destruction and we can’t get through to them. A loved one dies and suddenly we’re completely lost and dis-oriented. Even as a Church we run into many things beyond our control. We can’t control who dies or moves. We can’t control people’s anxiety or misplaced anger. We can’t control worship attendance. We make a budget and then the roof leaks and the pension board notifies us they want another 6 months worth of payments. We start building plans based on the information of one group, only to discover a contrary government regulation. Being out of control raises our stress levels like nothing else. What to do?
First, let’s remove everything that happens to us from the realm of reward and punishment. Life is more fair than we think. Both good and bad things happen to everyone. Life’s blessings and blows don’t consider the recipient. Death, illness and hardship are not reserved for a certain demographic – they’re realities of human life. No one is exempt. To ask “why me?” in the sense of “why is God doing this to me?” is usually not a question of self-examination but of self-pity and blame. It is, in fact, an expression of anger towards God. How dare God not do it my way? Last year a friend of mine, an Anglican priest, died of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. As he sat aided by an oxygen tank and gasping for breath we talked about his spiritual response to his illness. He said, “Life gives things to all of us to deal with. No one dies healthy. We all face something. This is what life has given me and I’ve decided to receive it. I’m not celebrating it, but I’m accepting it.” God had not singled him out of the whole human race for an unusual punishment. Sometimes you’re just one of hundreds sitting in traffic. God hasn’t done that too you; God hasn’t made you late to punish you. God may use the situation to develop your patience; being late may expose you to a situation that develops your people skills. The Spirit uses many things to teach us the grace of acceptance.
Yet, it’s important to ask “why me?” If you’ve caused an accident and live to tell, it’s good to consider your driving skills. The couple on the brink of divorce may be able to change their behaviours. Being fired may result from your work performance or attitude – or not, but it’s important to know. Sifting out what’s ours to own is a sign of maturity, and it’s a path to growth and to making better decisions. That’s what repentance is all about.
Not everything is under our umbrella of influence but some things are. Like the man in our story we need to discern what we do have control over and what we don’t. He may not be a monk, but he can take steps to become one. Two sisters I know had breast cancer at the same time in their 50’s. One went for surgery and radiation. The other ignored it. The first is still alive at 93, the other died at 54. The dying woman told her sister, “Even God likes you best.” God didn’t favour one over the other, but God rarely does for us what we can do for ourselves.
We need to be realistic about what we can’t do. Job had no control over his many hardships and losses. The disciples couldn’t control the weather and although they were experienced fishermen, eventually, they couldn’t control the boat. I can’t control the decisions and behaviours of another person. I can’t control traffic or the bad carpentry of my home’s previous owner or what illness I get or government regulations. It’s interesting that in the story of the beautiful sound, the man travels the world to discover that: God has ordered things in a certain way, things change; God alone knows, yet he is still driven by his desire and can’t accept that like the grass, the beautiful sound may not be his to know. Some things are beyond us. Eventually, we control nothing – our eternal destiny is not in our hands. As we go through life’s ups and downs we need to remember that while we’re not all-powerful, God is. Like Job, we need to be humbled by the reminder of things at play which we can’t understand. God is our creator and that not only means that his potency surpasses ours in unfathomable ways but his love for creation, for us, is also immeasurable. God’s purposes may not be apparent to us, but God is benevolent. He desires what’s best for us. He died for us. While life may not always feel safe and secure, “God is a safe place to hide, ready to help when we need him” (Psalm 46:1).
The solution when we are out of control is not to gain control. We have another option: surrender born of trust. Yielding our wills and our fears to God is part of God’s design for each one of us. At some point, we must let go and allow ourselves to fall into the loving arms of Christ. We need not only to admit that we’re not in control, but like the disciples we need to turn to Christ, not in anger, but in faith and hope. When a tsunami forms in the ocean the safest place to be is, ironically, on a boat far out in the water. The boat doesn’t feel the impact of the wave because it is able to rise and fall on the surface of the sea. We too are safest when we’re floating. In the frigid waters around Greenland are countless icebergs, some little and some gigantic. The small ice floes move in one direction while their massive counterparts flow in another. The explanation is simple. Surface winds drive the little ones, whereas the huge masses of ice are carried along by deep ocean currents. Our lives are subject to two forces–surface winds and ocean currents. The winds represent everything changeable, unpredictable, and distressing. They can seem to be strong and immutable. But operating simultaneously with these gusts and gales is another force that’s even more powerful. It’s the sure movement of God’s wise and sovereign purposes; the strong flow of His unchanging love. We need the deep, hidden undercurrent from the power of the Holy Spirit which flows from a dynamic, personal relationship with Christ. Only then can we float with confidence on the sea of God’s will. There we discover the “Wind and sea at his beck and call!” (Mark 4: 41).