Advent Reflection 9: Control

[After it was announced to Joseph that his life was spinning out of control: that his soon-to-be bride was about to have a Baby that wasn’t his, that he would have a Name he didn’t give, and that this sort-of-Son-of-his would ultimately die for sins he did not commit]:

“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Mt. 1:24-25).

I hate airports.

[At this juncture, to avoid an altogether unnecessary rant please skip to the next paragraph.] It’s not even a love-hate relationship, like “I love the benefit flying affords the modern-day traveller but hate this or that aspect of airports.” It’s a pure hate-hate thing. I know it’s unreasonable, I know I’m a hypocrite because, yes, I will continue to travel long distances by plane rather than car or covered wagon, but still, I hate it all: the busyness, the restlessness, the confusion of constantly rushing and waiting all at once, taking my shoes off and laptop out, stickin’em up for that virtual strip search machine, the not-reclining until it’s somehow magically safe to recline upon reaching 30,000′, the speech about using the seat as a flotation device in the event that the plane nosedives 30,000′ into the earth, people in front of me reclining, the people in first class (it’s not you, it’s me), the in-flight smells, my borderline-claustrophobia-compounding-the-in-flight-smells, the blow-the-speakers loud *ding* followed by some redundant announcement and sometimes followed by nothing at all (especially on overnight flights—why?) other than thoughts better kept to self, the dried up snot, the ear issue, the $4.00-bottled-water-that-I-will-never-buy-but-over-which-I-insist-on-being-disgusted, the fact that somehow my departure gate is literally always at the absolute farthest end of wherever I happen to be at any given time in any given airport (and, for that matter, the fact that my invariably delayed flight(s) leave me (and my almost invariably pregnant-or-nursing wife and however many children I happen to have at the time) approximately 20 minutes to make it to the next departure gate (after taxying on the Tarmac for half an hour, waiting at least 10 minutes for the you-can-all-stand-up-now-and-wrestle-reach-for-your-carry-on-luggage-in-the-overhead-bin-at-the-exact-same-time-and-then-stand-there (touching…everyone is touching)-and-breath-down-the-back-of-the-person’s-neck-in-front-of-you-who-leaned-back-on-your-lap-all-flight-as-you-deplane *ding* to go off, waiting another 10-20-30 minutes for everyone else to deplane because I have too many kids to make hurrying a reasonable option)–I could go on, but I don’t want to belabor the point. 

More than anything, though, the reason I hate airports so much is that I love control so much. And most of that unnamable airport angst that I blame on any number of things (see rant above) is really caused by having lost all sense of control. People who love control hate losing their sense of control. This becomes most evident to me as I’ve noticed that something so banal as driving suddenly becomes the most satisfying experience of my life when I’m driving home from an airport—the feel of the (over-gripped) steering wheel, the feel of the (over-depressed) gas pedal, the cracking sound of whatever song I choose to blast through my (now blown) treble-heavy minivan speakers, the sense of immediacy between cause and effect, the sense of agency, the satisfaction of speeding and unnecessarily changing lanes and turning corners like Richard Petty in a stolen Honda Odyssey. Control.

[Just one more rant #sorrynotsorry: twice in one year I actually ended up renting a car and driving home to Kentucky from Chicago O’Hell, despite the added expenses and despite it (perhaps) taking longer to get home than waiting would have (although I’m not entirely convinced I wouldn’t still be there at this very moment had I not taken matters into my own very capable hands), because of delays, cancellations, delays that end in cancellations at 1:00 AM after needlessly sitting on the Tarmac for two and a half hours with erratic, restless, kicking, achy, moaning, crying kids, and a completely unreasonable flight attendant who threatened to report me to authorities for not forcing my children to remain seated for that two and a half hours, because it was unsafe, because it was raining outside (👈🏻 that actually happened), etc. I digress.]

Actually, I should say that I love the illusion of control and that commercial flying is always an active exercise in disillusionment. There’s typically no one you can blame and nothing you can do to actually change your circumstances in an airport. You are just a cog in a system of ever churning wheels: small, out of control. 

And that’s truer of everyday life than we’d like to admit. In everyday life where we drive cars and keep day-timers and make appointments–-and sometimes delay appointments and cancel appointments and live as godlessly as your everyday airport antics–-we find all sorts of people to blame and all sorts of things to do to bolster our illusion of control. But blaming a person can never change a person and the things we do rarely change what we most need to change, which happens to be the only thing we have any real power to change, namely ourselves. I can’t change, for example, flight delays and my flight attendant can’t either, but I can change my attitude toward her. I can treat her like a human being stuck in the same complex set of circumstances outside any- and everyone’s control. 

And perhaps that’s just the point. Perhaps God uses all the stuff we wish we could change but mostly can’t to reveal what he wants to change in us but often won’t–-because we won’t let him, because that would mean giving up what little control we actually have.

Consider marriage, for example. Hypothetically speaking, of course, there are at times all kinds of inner violence and turmoil and shame and discontent in my soul for reasons known and unknown. At the end of the day, most of that inner stuff is there because, directly or indirectly, I put it there and I store it there for safekeeping. Now, there are plenty of things within my power I can do change myself. I can, in the first place, confess out loud my sins to Jesus, who alone has the power to change me, and confess to my brothers and sisters in Christ, who can hold me accountable and hold my feet to the fire from time to time. I can humble myself and confess to my wife all that inner stuff that all too often comes out as irritability or coldness or withdrawing and almost always comes out as some form of blaming or projecting. I can recognize that she is 97% light and when I insist on seeing her 3% darkness what I’m really seeing is a mirror image of most of myself. What I’m really seeing is not something in her soul but something in my eye, not her speck but my log (Mt. 7:3-5). And perhaps the reason I insist on seeing that is because as long as the problem is located in her I don’t have to deal with the problem located in me. But that’s the only problem I really can deal with. I am out of control of everything else. 

In fact, it has only recently dawned on me that while I’ve spent most of my life trying to transform my circumstances, God has spent most of my life using my circumstances to transform me. I’m the circumstance that needs to change. I’m the bad attitude that needs to change the circumstance of the flight attendant having to deal with with an ungrateful patron. I’m the judgmental eye that needs to change the circumstance of my wife having to deal with her hard-hearted husband. I’m the short temper that needs to change the circumstance of my kids having to listen to a father who yells. I’m the greedy hands that needs to change the circumstance of a world who needs more open-handedness. I’m the problem. And If everyone on earth would take responsibility for that problem and focus on the changes needed to address it, perhaps the world truly would be changed. Perhaps airports wouldn’t be so miserable (they probably still would). 

But ultimately we can’t fix even that problem. We can’t really, fundamentally, change ourselves. We can, however, go boldly to the only One who by the power of his Spirit can and will change us, if we will be honest about our need for change and stop projecting it on the world in need of change. But to do that we must confess that we are broken, that we need changed, that we are the problem. 

And so that is my confession this morning. I am broken, I do need changed, and I am the problem. 

So what did Joseph do about his circumstances? He didn’t complain. He didn’t demand his money back. He didn’t become an embittered passive-aggressive husband who treats his wife as a conjugal object of his gratification. “He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Mt. 1:24-25). 

“Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

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