The world is in a time of peculiarly intense and widespread chaos and violence. My grandmother, whose language sometimes could be inelegant, had a saying that comes back to me now. “This world is going to hell in a handbasket,” she’d say. But when she said it the world was in a very much better place than it appears to be now and her words were an exaggeration. No longer. I haven’t been able to write a word lately because the only thing running around in my mind is a long list of disasters and a pervasive sense of unfolding dangers we all face.
Sometimes it feels like we’re descending into hell on a slippery road that soon we won’t be able to stop. We’re decades into another global war — the war of terror — that is erupting and expanding in new conflagrations with alarming speed and intensity. Our capacity for violence as a species has increased, it seems, beyond our capacity to control it. The planet itself is in a global crisis of excessive warming, changing climate and rising seas, potentially irreversible pollution, and massive extinction of species at a rate not seen before, for which we are largely responsible, upsetting the balance of nature. These spare statements cover a swarm of symptoms of deeply troubling conditions.
More than that, I’m not the first to feel the fear we scarcely dare to name: that World War III is lurking on the horizon, a monster wave threatening to break over us. The morning news feels more and more like watching the rise of a “perfect storm.” These are dangerous times.
So I look for a lighthouse in the midst of it all: the standing-tall, still and solid presence of a guiding Light to show us the way to go, that we might avoid shipwreck. But I also go to another picture, the one below, which shows that rare experience: to see all at the same time the calm waters and the roiling clouds, lightning and rainbow. It reminds me that where there are shadows there is also a light to cast them, and where there is storm there is energy and power, but also beauty and promise.
We usually can’t see these disparate things all at once — storm clouds and calm sea, lightning and rainbow together — and it’s easy to let the sense of danger, which is real, overwhelm us. It’s a matter of focus. So I look at this remarkable picture and remember to seek the presence of the Holy in the world no matter how stormy the sky, or how frightening the deadly power that threatens us. Our own incapacity as a species for containing our excesses of hate, rage, greed, lust for power, and sheer human arrogance may be carving out a path to hell, but it isn’t the only force at work, nor even the strongest, and we are not without a reason to hope.
Over the years I’ve often asked people to tell me how they’ve been experiencing the presence of God in their life and in the life of the world. In times like this it’s more important to explore that question than ever. As I said, it’s a matter of focus, and of contemplative awareness. I need to strengthen my heart with a clear vision of God’s power, to restore my hope. And I need to stay constant in the kind of faith that is willing to work for the good, even sacrificially.
We can’t afford to be passive about what’s happening. Neither can we afford to despair and give up. On the contrary. War seems to lie in the hearts and minds of Hamas, of Putin, of the Islamic fanatics who call themselves ISIS, and of many others, too many to name, if we even know their names. They seem to be hard at work indulging a lust for power that if unchecked will push us toward the abyss. All the more reason that we who can see need to see clearly and act boldly for justice and peace. We need to be prepared to sacrifice and suffer, laboring to do whatever lies in our power that will help to steer us away from disaster.
That’s why when things seem to be “going to hell in a handbasket” (as my grandmother would say), we need to look for the signs of the hidden heaven pushing through the chaos, and add our part to that flow of power.
Praying today for just that, for myself, for all of you, and for the world we share.
The lighthouse in storm photo is courtesy of National Geographic. The “rainbow over ocean” photo is © photowings – Fotolia.com