Stop me if you’ve heard this joke…
A fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help.
Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”
The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.”
So the rowboat went on.
Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.”
To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the motorboat went on.
Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”
To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the helicopter reluctantly flew away.
Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”
To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
Thank you for not stopping me! It’s an old joke, not so much funny as it is…in my opinion…theologically astute. It confronts the presupposition that all you need is enough faith and God will take care of you. That would seem to be the message from the gospel today, as if the disciples were faithless because they got a bit scarred by rough seas and an apparently somnambulate Jesus! There certainly are many places in the gospels where we are enjoined to have more faith, and are even told that faith makes all things possible. I just have trouble accepting the idea of faith as a rather passive state that doesn’t also motivate action. Faith is not an end in itself, but is an opening to a realm of possibility beyond our own power.
I have a friend who, just a few years ago, became passionately engaged in both research and advocacy regarding climate change. Although somewhat contrary to his previously held political beliefs, he has become almost fanatical in his efforts to make some kind of difference in the face of what he recognizes as a coming catastrophe. He spends a good deal of his time educating himself about the problem, posting information to his website, and joining with a variety of organizations devoted to the issue. Even he will admit that he tips toward a bit of paranoia and hysteria, and when I hear him go on about the matter, I find myself reflexively slipping back into my own comfortable place of denial. My friend is in his mid-seventies and is quite aware that he won’t be around long enough to personally experience the worst consequences of climate shifts, but he worries about his children and grandchildren, as well as all children and the future generations. Even when I try to calm is worst fears, I realize that I have no idea of what we may be in for.
I have yet to work out a coherent position on climate change, often swinging from my comfortable state of denial to one of dread. I would guess that many of us are somewhere along that continuum. What is to me is that politicians and religious leaders who continue to deny the scientific evidence of the matter are complicit in a kind of evil. And I feel convicted when I hear activists like the young Swede Greta Thunberg call us out on what we have collectively done to our planet. I know how much I have taken for granted the resources of the world and have remained collectively ignorant about how my lifestyle contributes to the growing crisis. Sure, I’m all in when it comes to energy saving light bulbs, but would hardly consider giving up my car or refraining from flying on a plane. So I am in no position to throw stones at anyone else. But like so many matters involving the attempt to live a faithful life, I know there are no easy answers. And I also know that the alternative isn’t to simply do nothing and expect that God will figure something out in the 11th hour. And I do feel called to hope.
In 1877, poet Gerard Manley Hopkins penned God’s Grandeur, a poem affirming a world “infused by God with a beauty and power” in spite of the ravishes of the industrial revolution and other forms of human commerce.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
We might have greater difficulty sustaining the confidence in God’s abiding triumph in all of creation knowing what we know about the full consequences of the industrialization of the world.
Still, it may be good to know that Jesus rebuked the disciples not simply because they were afraid, but because they were blind to the one who was in the boat with them. As I have said many times in various ways, Christianity does not guarantee an easy life, but it does allow us to join together as a Church—a movement—which seeks to change the world—continuously. And we love, and we seek to grow our faith, and we have hope. I do find Paul’s words to the Romans somewhat consoling here: Creation has been groaning, as in the pains of childbirth, right up to the present time. And, It is by hope that we are saved. But like faith and love, hope is not a passive state, rather it begs for action. In the words of the late priest and activist, Daniel Berrigan, if you want hope, do things that are hopeful. Our climate change will not be resolved unless we join in the movement to take this challenge as a holy task, just as was the past and future call to civil rights and social responsibility. In my view of Christian faith, we are not called to live in the world in some kind of naïve, “numbed out” state. Rather, we are called to be fully awake. This leaves us with little choice but to engage the struggle, to recognize the full catastrophe (as written in Zorba the Greek). In these tasks, may we not only be sheltered in the bright wings of the Holy Spirit, but be lifted up by those same wings. Because we are in partnership with the transcendent holiness of God. We work together to create a way forward.
We work together to find the ways to rescue ourselves from the stormy seas, knowing that we are not alone in the boat; that it is not all up to us. God inspires us in a way forward. God offers help. God joins us with one another in the act of courage to face reality and embrace an active future with faith, hope and love.