I saw a “Peanuts” cartoon recently that seemed especially timely. The kids are playing baseball and little Linus, in full catcher’s gear walks out to the pitcher’s mound and announces to Charlie Brown, “The bases are loaded again, and there’s still nobody out.” “So what do you think?” asks Charlie Brown.
After a pause for reflection, Linus declares simply, “We live in difficult times,” as he turns around and heads back to home plate.
After surveying the landscape all around us, would anyone deny that we’re living in difficult times? The headlines tell the story. The unemployment rate is rising, costs are soaring, people are losing their homes, and banks are failing. We’re engaged in two long and costly wars, yet the threat of terrorism persists. We’re in the midst of a rancorous and sometimes silly presidential campaign that’s long on finger-pointing but short on real solutions.
The local scene isn’t any better; perhaps even worse. Our State has enormous financial problems, a crisis affecting the funding of transportation, education, public pensions and health care. We’re unable (or unwilling) to provide even the most basic of social assistance for families and children in need. Political leaders are often gridlocked by partisan wrangling. We’re mired in an ugly, angry debate about immigration. And the quality of our language, our civil discourse, is at an all-time low.
As Linus said to Charlie Brown, “We live in difficult times.”
In these circumstances it’s only natural that we turn to our faith seeking wisdom and solace. Several questions quickly arise, however. What do these troubled times say to the Christian? Do Christians live differently in the midst of crisis? Can we find any meaning in the distress of our time? And while the questions are obvious, a few lessons emerge as well.
The first lesson is the reminder of how foolish it is to accumulate and then depend on material possessions. Remember the parable Jesus told about the rich man who built up huge barns to store his bountiful harvest? The complacent man said to himself, “You have so many things stored up for many years; rest, eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool, this very night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” Jesus concludes by teaching that we should try to grow rich “in what matters to God.” (Luke 12:16-21)
If Jesus were telling the parable today he’d probably refer to mutual funds, retirement plans and vacation homes, rather than harvests and barns.
Nonetheless, the point is this: while it’s good to be prosperous, to save and plan for the future, the relentless pursuit of material things shouldn’t consume us. They won’t make us happy. It’s not the purpose of our life on earth. Maybe the current economic downturn, the “pruning process,” is good for us. Maybe we should live more simply. Maybe it’ll help us to focus more on spiritual values and less on material things. We should seek the equanimity found in the Proverb: “Lord, give me neither poverty nor riches; lest being full I deny you, or being in want, I steal.” (Prov 30: 8-9)
The second lesson is related to the first and put quite simply is the need to trust more in God and less on ourselves.
Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus urged His disciples to be less anxious and more trusting. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear . . . Your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all . . . Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” (Mt 6: 25-34)
Would that we could really achieve such peacefulness in our lives. It’s so difficult though when we’re besieged by problems from every side. I suspect that this sense of peace, this freedom from fear, comes from prayer – frequent, intimate, personal prayer. Only when we pray can we experience God’s presence and understand His plan for our lives. Only when we pray can we really trust that the Lord will never abandon us.
The third thing our faith teaches us during troubled times is the value of hope. Hope points us to the future. It assures us that tomorrow can be better than today. In his Encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict wrote: “The one who has hope lives differently. [Christians] know that they have a future. It is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know that their life will not end in emptiness.” (#2)
Note that the Pope said we “don’t know the details of what awaits them” in the future. Never are we guaranteed a life free of problems. In fact, Christians are assured that they will certainly suffer someday, and even more, we’re told that we should find meaning, even joy, in our suffering. Therefore, in the face of suffering and problems we live in hope, confident that “all things work for good for those who love God.” (Rom 8:28) Hope is a wonderful gift the Christian community can give to our troubled land.
So, dear friends, in these challenging times, “do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (Jn 14:27) Welcome the moment as an opportunity for renewed faith and trust in the Lord; as a time to foster hope, pointing to a better tomorrow; and even as a call to charity, a time to reach out to those whose lives are even more troubled than yours.
This article was previously published in The Rhode Island Catholic