In the aftermath of the recent and horrendous bushfires here in Victoria, Australia, people have been calling for a system of 'early warning'. They want some scheme, perhaps based on mobile telephones, by which the authorities can warn people who live in fire-prone areas that a fire is coming and they should leave their homes … This despite many years of promotion of a scheme that has educated people about preparation for such events. People have the choice to 'leave early' or 'stay and fight'—having prepared their properties for that situation.But the sad reality is that many of us do not heed warnings, no matter how early they might be. We just don't think it will affect us.
Early warning has become a bit of a theme in a number of areas. Since the great tsunami which cost so many lives around the Pacific and Indian Oceans, on December 26th, 2004, there have been concerted efforts to develop an 'early warning system' for such events. The same is the case with cyclones.
This last week, Finance Ministers from some 20 European nations met to explore new directions for regulation and re-construction of their banking and credit systems, in light of the economic crisis which has enveloped us all. They called for new 'early warning systems', to detect and address bank failures.
These examples reflect a really fundamental dimension of our collective approach to life: we want to know what is going on, as early as possible, so that we can maximize our control of events and outcomes.
Our culture is based on the presumption that we can and should control what we call 'our environment'. One of the things that is so confronting to us, in the events of the bushfires, is the sheer randomness of it all. Many homes were lost, and others, in the same streets or districts, were left intact. Embers fly across long distances, and the fires jumped as much as twenty kilometres, in seering temperatures (it was 46 degrees here that day) and with enormous winds: and in the face of all that, no amount of fire-fighters and trucks and aircraft could stop it. Many died, and others remained and wonder, 'Why them? Why not me?' There is a randomness in such natural events which we find so confronting, because of our presumption that we can, and perhaps should, control. We imagine that if we just get the technology right, if we just have enough resources, we can control it all. And then, when the 'random' comes along, we will have early warning and we can control that too!
In reality, it may well be a lot of our technology that is driving some things out of control!
Another extraordinary expression of this drive for control is the move for 'designer' babies. It is just too much for us to accept, that in fact our very birth is an amazing phenomenon, way beyond our control.
Thousands of those little tadpoles (sperm) exist in one delivery of seminal fluid into a woman's body. As they all swim around instinctively, one of them will win 'the race' to reach that egg and to permeate the cell wall, to fertilize the egg. All the others will die. And so the genetic make-up of a person-to-be is determined. There is something astonishingly 'random' in that. It is what the ancient latins called an 'accidens', by which they did not mean an accident, a mis-hap, but a 'happening', an event, which stands in its own right. Our birth is not something we control: it is a given, something to be received, and with gratitude—because it might have been otherwise. That particular tadpole might not have won the race!
We cannot have early warning of everything, nor can we control everything. We have to learn to live with the givenness, including the randomness, of much of life. This is scary: because for some of us it means untimely contraction of disease. For some it means accepting the cruel realities of 'natural disasters'. For others, life is so comfortable that we are lulled into imagining that in fact we control it all and have even achieved that comfortable state. How we are fooled!
Jesus reminded his followers that no one can make themselves live longer, by worrying about it. He spoke about the ways we worry about what we will wear, or eat or drink: and we might add so many more things we stress about! 'Look at the birds of the air; (he said) 'they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than them?' (Matthew 6. 26). In this passage, Jesus challenges his hearers to consider that at the heart of all things is a provident God: one who values us and provides for us all, from the simple, unself-conscious sparrows to the deeply pre-occupied and complicated lives of humans like us. God provides, and if we seek God's way, we will be provided for.
Nothing in all this suggests that we should not try to work hard, to develop technologies for the improvement of life. I love my computer! Nor does it imply that in some way God wills whatever happens, and 'sends' the fire and tsunamis and earthquakes. No, it is not so simple. There is so much more mystery in life, both in the painful disasters and in the sheer beauty of life and the miracle of our very being. It's not about early warning. It's about receiving and living what we are given now: living with our environment, and in that way living with our God.