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19th Sunday in ordinary time: Living wisely, creatively

Today’s readings: 1 Kings 19, 9.11-13; Romans 9, 1-5; Matthew 14, 22-33.

Rough patches come our way unexpectedly. They can be time consuming, they drain our energy and joy of living, they can even upset our belief system. In today’s Scriptures we have three powerful experiences of people who knew what a dark night of the soul could be and whose faith experience was made robust precisely because they found the right path to growth.

We as believers can so easily be conditioned today to consider the possibility of experiencing God as anomalous. Unfortunately here we have extremes. There are the holier-than-thou category who reduce the experience of God as something futile, easily achieved and almost permanent. Then there are so many others for whom God cannot be experienced and who label as pathetic all talk about religion.

The Bible is not mythology. It narrates stories of flesh and blood people who all went through their mental anguish and doubts to come to believe in God. Today’s stories of the prophet Elijah, of Paul, and of the disciples battling against the headwind all confirm the need we all have to regularly review what we understand by faith and to refresh our ways of discerning God’s presence in our lives.

Elijah was a great prophet, enthusiastic and energising, strong enough to confront the court prophets of the monarchy of Ahab and Jezebel. His performance was a show of force and he emerged robust and convincing. Yet he went through his dark night and ended up a fugitive, deeply depressed and seeking refuge in a cave, wanting to die and simply to be with himself.

It was in that moment of deep anguish that God called on him and offered alternatives. God’s ways of communicating are not stereotyped, because He is alive and His ways are gentle. God did not rebuke Elijah for despairing and for falling prey to fear and panic. He simply made him feel His embrace and showed him the way out of the cave, literally and metaphorically.

The Church is portrayed movingly in today’s gospel from Matthew. The Church had its dark nights even when Jesus was still present with his disciples, let alone in later times. The dark night of the disciples battling with the heavy seas, dominated by doubt and fear, is only how Matthew is reporting what the first Christian communities were going through in those early times of Christianity.

The highlights of the incident as reported by Matthew are not the heavy seas or the headwind, but rather the words of Jesus: “Man of little faith” and “Why did you doubt?” As long as we humanly live our lives, struggling with daily tribulations, we remain ‘men and women of little faith’. Past are the times when we sounded so apologetic to the extent of judging irrational unbelievers.

The worst about the rough patches that come our way in life is when they find us weak in spirit and humanly unstable. It is then that fear and panic take over and we risk being dull. Faith can be defined in high-sounding concepts and in high-flown theology. But at the end of the day, as Paul shows in his letter to Romans today, faith remains basically a personal drama.

As David Ford writes in his book The Drama of Living, the challenge is to live wisely amid the ups and downs of modern life and to respond creatively to the multiple challenges of the contemporary world.

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