Breaking the Catch-22

The concept of “Catch-22” came alive following the Second World War, particularly in the classic American novel of the same title by Joseph Heller. I suspect, if you need a reference point in the popular culture of the day, this book, I think, lay the groundwork for the successful TV sit-com “M.A.S.H.”

“Catch-22”, like “M.A.S.H.”, reads like a parody on war. Being serious in some ways but at the same time using humour, Heller un-masks the pretence of war, exposing the often absurd logic of warfare.

For example, he describes the irrational rut in which pilots got themselves trapped — a classic ‘catch-22’. The rule was that you had to be deemed ‘crazy’ in order to be grounded from flying combat missions, which obviously posed a real and immediate danger to one’s safety.

The ‘catch’ was, as soon as you, as the pilot, asked to be grounded because you believed you were crazy, you proved by doing this that you were indeed not crazy but of sound, rational mind. And therefore, because you were of sound mind to ask to be grounded from flying into extreme danger, you were ordered to return to flying those combat missions. Catch-22.

Catch-22 describes much of how we do things, but becomes particularly alarming and anxiety-provoking when we realize how we are stuck. When, all of a sudden, we see it for what it is — that what we have been doing for such a long time just isn’t doing any good any more. But, for whatever reason, we feel we need to continue doing it. Indeed, by continuing patterns that no longer are healthy, productive and good, we sow the seeds of our eventual self-destruction. This can be a habit or some compulsive, reactive even addictive behaviour.

But it can also relate to the way organizations function, like the church: We continue to do things today, that may have made a whole lot sense fifty years ago; but no longer serve the purpose for which that action originally was created.

For example, when we assume all our activity in the church is aimed at getting people into our pews; when, all along the purpose of the church from the beginning has been to get those of us in the pews out there in the world where God is. Instead of shifting our attention and action in a different direction, we continue to fret about “what we’ve always done” for ourselves in the church to save face and stay proud. And how is that working for us?

Or, on an individual basis, we continue to be trapped in our addiction because it makes us feel good. When someone suggests we ought stop doing it, we find all manner of reasons to justify continuing to do it. And how is that working for us?

At this point of recognizing our ‘catch-22’ and feel the onrush of anxiety, we have a choice: We can fall back into default-mode. And, I believe, for most of us, that means diving straight on into what some call: ‘action-itis’. That is, the solution to anxiety and fear is get lost in more doing, more talking, more of the same action. “Just do it!” the famous catch-phrase. But is that not merely intensifying the catch-22?

Peter is one of the most sympathetic characters in the New Testament — one of Jesus’ disciples — who embodies this compulsion to act. And act, often without thinking, without contemplation. It’s the unreflected need to ‘just do it’ — anything, in order to avoid the real work.

When Jesus poses a difficult question about death and suffering, he is first to jump up and clear the air, set things right, show that he’s got it all together. “I will not deny you, Lord!” “You will not die!” (Matthew 16:21-23; 26:35). His action and words are often premature, as he thinks he understands what it means to follow Jesus. And then the cock crows, and Peter is humbled to the point of tears when he realizes how he had indeed denied the Lord for the sake of his own self-preservation in the night of Jesus’ arrest. He comes face-to-face with his own failure (Matthew 26:75).

At the conference I attended on the west coast this summer I met many people from around the world. Many of them no longer associate with the church. Perhaps you know someone in your own families who no longer see the point of being part of the church. But they admitted to me they were — being at the mid-point of their lives — searching now for something more meaningful. But wondering how to leave their current troublesome circumstances of life, in order to move forward. They seemed to be stuck in a bit of a catch-22.

For example, I met a 44-year-old mechanical engineer who owns a successful, Italian aerospace company inherited to him from his father who founded it; and, a ‘successful’ 50-year-old Toronto Bay-Street corporate consultant. Because of various, recent life events both were realizing they needed something more in life; all the toiling and achieving and working hard and managing life’s course — all these things were not bringing a deeper satisfaction about life, anymore.

It’s as if both these folks, in the words of the keynote speaker, Richard Rohr, ‘climbed to the top of the ladder of life and suddenly realized they had been climbing the wrong wall’. A catch-22.

It’s a scary place to be, when suddenly we see how stuck we are. We will probably despair at the futility of all the work we’ve done to create the structures of our lives — whether our business, in our families, and even the church. It’s not to say it’s all bad, what we’ve done, to create the patterns of our lives. They served, at one point, an important purpose, to be sure.

But there comes a point, dear friends, where another path needs to be taken. Something deep within us, if we pay attention to it, nudges us forward out of the boat. But we also know that whatever the new thing is, won’t come easily.

In Martin Luther’s German translation of the Beatitudes of Jesus in the New Testament, he conveys the sense of: “Blessed are those who bear their suffering …” It is not a question of whether or not we suffer, or whether or not we can deny or avoid the challenging, difficult work that will come to us all. After all, Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live …” (John 11:25-26). We all will die. We all will suffer. Whether we are Christian or not. Life will bring that to each one of us in a unique way.

So, the question of faith is: HOW will we bear that suffering? How will we appreciate the experience of this difficult change in our lives, individually and as a church.

How does Peter bear his suffering, in this Gospel text? How does Peter get to that point of ‘being saved’? When he sees the waves surrounding him, when he recognizes that his compulsion to do it by himself has gotten him into trouble — yet again!, when he is honest about his need for help, and calls out … Jesus saves him.

The text says, “But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened …” (Matthew 14:30). Often, in the scriptures, the wind is associated with the third person of the Holy Trinity — the Spirit of God. And one of the functions of the Holy Spirit, doctrinally, is to call forth the Truth (John 16:13; see also Luther’s explanation of the 3rd Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the “Small Catechism” where he says that the Holy Spirit leads to the “true faith”).

We can say that when Peter recognized the truth about himself, the truth of his deception of relying solely on his own initiative to accomplish God’s mission, he finally and literally came to his senses and confessed his need for God. You will notice that at first, “the wind was against them [the disciples]” (Matthew 14:24) when they first encountered the storm.

The path towards this personal acknowledgement — in the church we call it ‘confession of sin’ — is often a path that is honest with another person about our fears and our anxieties. It is a path that we may otherwise wish to avoid or blame someone else for. It is a path that makes us vulnerable to others because we are truthful about what really motivates us. It is a path that unmasks us, for who we truly are.

In one of Richard Rohr’s keynote addresses he said that “honesty leads to humility”. You can’t be humble unless you are first absolutely and completely honest. You can’t be humble and still pretend to be in charge and know all the answers. In one frightening, ‘letting-go’ moment on the Sea of Galilee, Peter was honest about himself, and humbled to the core when he cried out, “Lord, [YOU] save me!” Because I, honestly, can’t on my own.

But there is a good and wonderful news in this Gospel text; and here it is: There is a great love, and a better world waiting for us on the other side of our fear. This love does not deny who we are — including all our foibles and compulsions. But it is no accident that the single-most message repeated throughout the bible is: Do not fear/ Be not afraid. We can either shy away from what we need to do, or we can constructively engage our fears, focusing on the promise, and trusting in the bigger truth that is God’s presence and God’s grace.

Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived. Weeks passed and the twins developed. As their awareness grew, they laughed for joy: “Isn’t it great that we were conceived? Isn’t it great to be alive?” Together the twins explored their world. When they found their mother’s cord that gave them life, they sang for joy! “How great our mother’s love is, that she shares her own life with us!” As the weeks stretched into months, the twins noticed how much each was changing.

“What does this mean?” one asked.
“It means our stay in this world is drawing to an end,” said the other.
“But I don’t want to go,” said one. “I want to stay here always.”
“We have no choice,” said the other. “But maybe there is life after birth.”
“But how can that be?” responded one. “We will shed our life cord and how can life be possible without it? Besides, we have see evidence that others were here before us, and none of them has returned to tell us there is life after birth. No, this is the end. Maybe there is no mother after all.”
“But there has to be,” protested the other. “How else did we get here? How do we remain alive?”
“Have you seen our mother?” said one. “Maybe she only lives in our minds. Maybe we made her up because the idea made us feel good.”
So the last days in the womb were filled with deep questioning and fear. Finally, the moment of birth arrived. When the twins had passed from their world, they opened their eyes and cried for joy — for what they saw exceeded their fondest dreams. That is brith … and that is death (cited from Kim Nataraja, “Dancing with your Shadow”, Medio-Media 2010, p.163-164).

We are a people on a journey. We are a church on a journey. And on a journey, there is no such thing as the ‘status quo’. Things are changing all the time. In truth, and especially when everything seems so uncertain, and fearful, we are in a great and holy time of transition.

But we need not hold back and be dumbstruck like a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car. We can act boldly in faith. Why? Because in the storms and transitions of life, Jesus is there, calling us out of our ‘boats’ of despair and ‘catch-22’ patterns of self-destruction.

And when the storm strikes and we are so distracted by our own agendas and compulsions we fail to fully recognize what has been true all along: The Spirit of God and the presence of Jesus is still active all around us and in the world. And, what is more, Jesus will save us, too!

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About raspberryman

I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, serving a parish in Ottawa Ontario. I am a husband, father, and admirer of the Ottawa Valley. I enjoy beaches, sunsets and waterways. I like to write, reflect theologically and meditate in the Christian tradition.
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