No one can deny the beauty of a Western valley covered in snow with foothills and mountains as a backdrop. We haven’t enjoyed anything like it for nearly a decade. A normal winter, whatever that is, may give us 20 inches over the season, melting in between. Otherwise temperatures are moderate, the land is bare. This year we have around 40 inches to date, and it’s not going away. The storms that have brought it closed highways, snarled local traffic, cancelled flights, and have been rough on farmers with livestock to care for. But they have not caused the devastation we have seen reported elsewhere, just minor inconveniences mainly. In their midst they have recalled for me romantic images of Currier and Ives prints or maybe a Frost poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for instance.
It’s better than a bleak midwinter of barren trees on barren ground under grey skies that inspire deep melancholy bordering on depression, something that has bothered me for my adult life. Thinking about it reminds me other storms that attack one’s emotional and spiritual well being with more brutality than nature can produce. They don’t come on the wind or in the waves. They come through our fellow human beings, and from deep in our own souls. Not long ago I finished reading Down to the Sea, a 2007 book by Bruce Henderson about the ships sunk in 1944 during Typhoon Cobra, not by the typhoon but during it. Poor decisions, poor ship design, poor leadership, that’s what caused them to sink. To be sure, the enemy was the storm, but what wounded the emotional and spiritual health of the survivors were the words and actions of their fellow human beings that made the storm unsurvivable for so many. They were words and deeds that demonstrated a fatal lack of competence and disregard for the well being of others. On the other hand, what prevented the storm and sinking ships from fatally wounding the lives of some survivors were the words and actions of fellow human beings that showed competence and compassion inspiring hope in spite of them. Think about it.
None of us escapes the onslaught of storms. One way or another, they hit us. Some are storms of nature that wreak destruction and death. More are storms of abuse, oppression, and tragedy suffered at the hands of other human beings. The latter are always more dangerous and damning. They are killers in their own right and can make the former unendurable. The former bear no malice, the latter do. Consider the psalmist’s lament that the greatest danger came not from the outside, but from his own friends, and from within the city (Ps. 55). The old advice was to suck it up, and get on with life. It doesn’t work, at least not by itself. By itself it leaves the wounded to fester in ways that may be hidden, but never heal. What does work, what makes storms of human evil, incompetence, and stubbornness, in all their combinations and permutations, survivable are the words and actions of other humans that show competence and compassion inspiring hope.
Competence and compassion. Competence with compassion. It’s what we give to each other that enables us to survive the storms of life and heal from the wounds they inflict. None of us is competent in all things, but we can each be competent in some things, and we can all be compassionate in the sharing of our competencies with those in need. Sadly, we have each experienced persons in roles for which they had little competence which they combined with stubborn insistence on asserting authority over those who were, while displaying disregard for the well being of anyone other than themselves. It is what, more than anything else, makes storms unendurable, inflicting wounds, infecting wounds that will not heal.
Exercising competency with compassion to help each other get through the storms, wounded perhaps, but with wounds that will heal, is a moral obligation, but not necessarily a religious one. It’s what first responders train for every day. It’s what the best teachers exercise every day. It’s what the best bosses demonstrate every day. Nevertheless, as Christians, we are called to engage in it as a holy endeavor in which we each take responsibility for our own burdens while helping others with theirs so that no one is left without help, and each is offering help. Paul put it this way, “Bear one another’s burdens…test your own work…carry your own load” (Gal. 6.1-5). It’s a learning process, one we never complete, but a process from which we are not excused. Failure to engage in it puts the lie to any pretension of believing faith. This is serious stuff. We are called by the one of whom the people said hey had never seen someone speak and act with such authority. Even the demons, wind and water obeyed him.