During my paddle on the Ottawa River last week, I encountered a mink for the first time. Its sleek, oily and—compared to a beaver or otter—rather tiny, narrow body was sunning on a rock, and then scampered into the water to get away from me as I approached. The top of its head bobbed above the water line for a while, keeping an eye on me, before it dove underneath and away from my sight.
I was reminded that during this time of ‘Great Pause—when the engines of a mighty and powerful economy have slowed down causing disruption and anxiety for many—especially the financially vulnerable, the poor and marginalized—the animals of the land and sea have populated areas that have quieted significantly from human activity.
My first-ever encounter with a mink made me think. Have you considered that we humans are one of very few species that can decide not to do something we are capable of doing.That means, we have the innate capacity to change, like no other creature. We have the capacity to choose one way or another, to grow and stretch ourselves in a direction not governed merely by instinct nor compulsion.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus prays a thanksgiving for having shown his disciples the ways of God. And in so doing he draws a distinction between mere knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge, in our world, is power. But that’s not what Jesus is about. Jesus is about teaching us wisdom. Jesus prays, “You have hidden these things [… the ways of God]… from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”
We are on the way to discovering the difference between having all the facts and information about God—and knowing God. Here is the starting point of wisdom. The wisdom writers and poets of the Hebrew scripture say that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
I take that to read that it is receiving a real experience of, and encounter with, God in our daily, simple lives out of which we become wise people. Because this experience of, and encounter with, is not always an easy walk in the park. It isn’t always a euphoric, feel-good, out-of-body experience when we encounter God. In truth, an experience of God is grounded in the struggles of our lives and relationships.
Unfortunately, we often bring too much of ourselves, our egos, our mental fixations and baggage of hurt and past pain into such an encounter. We often get too much of ourselves in the way of God, to block a loving, challenging, healing encounter. That is why Jesus so often in this Gospel mentions the children, the infants, as models for coming to the Lord. The vulnerable. The innocent. Yes, maybe even the naïve—from the point of view of the world.
Yet, at some point on the journey forward, we need to surrender. When Jesus counsels, “Take my yoke upon you”, and “Come to me you who are heavy laden”, he is saying, “put down your load.”
Put down all the things that you think make you great. Put down all the striving, the restless agitations of our souls. There’s a time for everything.And maybe now is the time, even if just for a moment, just to put it all down.
The heart of the story of Jesus in the bible is that a human being fully realized, fully divine, chose not to exercise the power that was his, to circumvent the cross. Jesus chose not to overcome Pilate, and the political and religious powerhouse, with force. Jesus stopped himself, Jesus lay it all down—‘not my will but thy will be done’ he said in his hour of agony.He trusted his abba. Jesus took up God’s yoke in the assurance of God’s love for him in his time of trial.
Today, in this time of disruption, discomfort and upheaval in our world when it is all too easy to fall into despair, we may wonder why God does not exercise intervening power to make things right. Is God not all-powerful?
The power of God nevertheless is the power of love. God created us as an act of God’s love. The act of creating us in love is therefore a kind of divine self-restraint.What does that mean? Why would God exercise self-restraint?
Let’s say as a parent we continue to make choices in place of our children as they grow into adulthood; that is, we understandably want to spare them from suffering the consequences of a choice they might have to regret.
Yet it is a lack of love on our part to do so, since by not permitting them to risk we essentially try to shield ourselves from possible suffering—the pain we will feel each time our children commit themselves to a way different from the one that to us seemed best for them.
Alternatively, when we allow our children to make decisions, and therefore to take risks, we will worry, yes. We suffer the freedom we have given them.
We are God’s children. And God loves us. Therefore, God will suffer with us, as we are given the freedom to act. God sheds tears alongside us when we suffer the consequences of our misdeeds. God rejoices alongside us when we make meaningful steps forward in our lives. Such is the infinite power of love.
And this is the perfect love of God for us, without a trace of self-interest on God’s part. God wants us to be free to build our own lives. And take responsibility for our actions. And exercise a maturity of a creature who can change directions when necessary, who isn’t always a slave to our base impulses, our compulsive reactions.
We, who, can choose to love.
Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (Wildfire: 2019), 255, 256.
Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10
Hans Jonas, “The Concept of God after Auschwitz” in Steven T. Katz, Shlomo Biderman & Gershon Greenberg, eds., Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)