Along Came a Blizzard
Humans are far less vulnerable to the weather than they used to be. But we still haven’t figured out how to control it. We can tell when a hurricane is coming, but we can’t prevent the millions of dollars of damage that it will cause as a result of flooding and high-speed winds. Likewise, when there’s a blizzard, we know to stay inside, but the stuff we leave outside will get buried, and there’s often not much (or anything) we can do about it.
And there has been a blizzard. Snow accumulation in Central Park was up to 26.8 inches at midnight, making Winter Storm Jonas the second biggest snowstorm New York has had since 1869 by a mere one-tenth of an inch, according to the National Weather Service. At 2:30 p.m. yesterday, the roads were closed to all vehicles except emergency ones, and a substantial portion of the city’s subway system shut down at 4 p.m. Even in New York, where we expect things to keep running 24/7 even in the worst of conditions, we are at the mercy of the storm. Inclement weather, if it doesn’t keep us home, at least keeps us from going very far.
For months, I’ve been planning a school-wide service event for The King’s College, a small liberal arts college in New York of which I am a student. Significant stretches of this time were quite stressful for me, as I am not an event planner. As a perfectionist, I have trouble making decisions based on incomplete information. I second-guess my choices, or I just do nothing and hope that something new comes to light that makes the call easier to make.
Over the past two weeks, however, I felt like I had things mostly under control. I knew when we were going to have people at the different locations where we would be serving, I knew how many people to expect to show up, and I knew what I needed to communicate to the volunteers. I felt good about the event, perhaps for the first time since it became my responsibility.
But then there was a blizzard, and I suddenly knew almost none of the things that I had wanted to know about what was going on. People weren’t coming in for their shifts; a lot of them assumed (quite reasonably) that the event was cancelled. But it wasn’t, and there were hungry people lining up at the Bowery Mission, waiting to be fed. I no longer knew who to expect to show up, nor when to expect them. The only means of communication I had was my old phone, which sometimes turns off for no reason and occasionally refuses to render text, which makes messaging impossible. Fortunately, phone glitches were minimal, and I was able to communicate with people via Facebook, but it was nerve-wracking to think of all the information that I had to relay to such a large group of people with such a finicky phone.
The event took place in two locations, and I had to help run it at one of them, which was stressful by itself. But I also got several calls from a volunteer helping to run the event in the other location, saying that there were not enough volunteers (usually around ten were expected to be there, but there were sometimes as few as three actually present). Somehow, I had to figure out who was missing and whether they would even make it, and then if people couldn’t make it, I had to somehow find people to replace them. This was not an easy task. Fortunately, enough people showed up that I didn’t have to send people to places on the fly, especially since that would have meant sending them out into a blizzard to locations that are sometimes hard to access by subway.
You may think, as many volunteers thought yesterday, that the blizzard made the event especially stressful for me, the perfectionist event planner, because it reduced the amount of information available, making it harder to make the right choices. Funnily enough, this was not the case. In a sense, I felt that the blizzard absolved me of ultimate responsibility, because it wrested control of the outcome of the event from my tightly-clenched fists, leaving me with open hands, ready to take whatever I could get. It allowed me to view every task we completed as an accomplishment, instead of seeing everything we left undone as a failure. When matters were taken out of my hands, I became far more grateful for the things that went well.
An important thing to remember, I think, is that I was never really in control, so I never really had final responsibility. That feeling I had in the weeks leading up to the Day of Service was somewhat misguided. At any point, all kinds of things could have gone wrong in ways less predictable than a giant snowstorm visible from space. It could have been and probably would have been something else, if not Jonas, that messed up my plans, although perhaps not to the same degree. No matter how firm your grip, there’s something out there stronger than you waiting to pry your fingers open and take the power you thought you had away from you, and with it the comfort and security that comes with being in control. It’s going to happen.
But if I’m not in control (and never truly was), then who is? How we answer this question is of the utmost importance. And when I say “how we answer,” I don’t mean what we actually say when asked the question, I mean what we really and truly believe to be the case. I can say that God is in control while still believing that the vast majority of events that occur in my life are meaningless and random, whether they are good or bad. For many years, I did this, pretending to trust in God’s providence when I was really just being vaguely and unjustifiably optimistic, at least when things were going well. In tougher times, my vague and unjustified optimism became a vague and unjustified pessimism — a constant fear that good things will be taken from me for no reason. But how does this comport with Jesus’ observation in Matthew 7 that “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (v. 11)?
What often motivates our frantic grasping at control is our (often implicit) belief that, if we aren’t in control, then no one is, and that if we don’t assume final responsibility, then no one will. If we can’t fend for ourselves, the thinking goes, then we’re doomed, because we’re alone. We don’t trust our God to save us; we don’t trust him to give us good things. We reject his promises and the security they afford, substituting a cheap, man-made imitation. And if there is no God who loves us and is concerned with our affairs, then we are right to live in constant fear, because there is nothing to save us from the inevitable cataclysms that accompany prolonged existence.
But there is a God who loves us. We do not bear final responsibility, because he has taken this final responsibility upon himself. We need not and ought not have absolute control, because God governs all things according to his good will. We shall fear no evil, because we are not alone; God is with us.
Yesterday, around a hundred people came to our two locations to serve, trudging through several blocks of snow piled high and braving winds that hurled snowflakes against unguarded flesh, hurled them hard enough to sting like BBs. Because of this, people in need were fed, served and loved. Important work was done. All this in spite of the many unknowns introduced when Jonas dumped first one foot, then another, of snow onto the city. God was good, as he always is and always will be.
In a certain sense, I am responsible for what happened on our Day of Service. But in a much more meaningful sense, I cannot take the credit, nor could I take the blame were the event quashed by the weather. I am formally, but not metaphysically responsible. It is my duty to act within my limited and imperfect power to make the event fruitful, but my being is not justified by the successful venture, nor is it called into question by the failed one.
As we go through life, we will inevitably bear great responsibilities which elicit significant stress and fear of failure. But when this happens, we need to remember three things:
1. That there are many things which we do not control.
2. That God is in control.
3. That God loves us.
Because of these three truths, we can focus on giving our best instead of slavishly trying to beat out of ourselves something better. We can accept success with joy even when it comes in spite of our shortcomings, and not because of our competent exercise of control. And we can learn to see how the work we’re doing fits into the greater work that God and the rest of his people are doing, how one sows, another waters, yet another reaps, and yet only God provides the growth.
I anticipate that coming to grips with my relative powerlessness will be a long and arduous process that spans many decades and includes numerous occasions on which I will slavishly cling to illusions of control. But I also believe that this process will be filled with days like yesterday, during which I get to see firsthand how God’s grace can more than make up for my mistakes and inabilities, not to mention external conditions that are far from ideal. As I prepare to graduate from King’s in May, entering into a time of excitement and uncertainty, I look forward to being pleasantly surprised, even amazed, at the workings of God’s grace in my life, even (and perhaps especially) when it seems like everything is going wrong.