Okay, I’ll admit it; sometimes – not always, but sometimes – we preachers tend to romanticize things… just a little bit!
Take last week’s message, for instance; in which I spoke about surfing and the thrilling experience of “riding the curl” as a metaphor for the Christian life. Now, I know that a lot of you were quite taken with that illustration; some of you shared with me afterward that it made you want to go try surfing for yourself, and at least a couple of you even greeted me with, “Cowabunga, Dude!” And this for someone who is in no way, shape or form any kind of “surfer dude!” But I’ll say it again: this image of being out there surfing the big waves is one that has always resonated with me spiritually; it continues to describe for me what a life steeped in faith ought to be!
But like I say, we preachers do tend to romanticize these kind of things, and the truth is there’s another side to this that can’t be ignored. I actually did try surfing once; well, sort of. We were living on the coast of Maine at the time, and that particular summer the surf was quite high and rather intense; the result, believe it or not, of a series of storms in the Caribbean. And I got it into my head that I wanted to ride those waves (this the result of having listened to way too many Beach Boy songs!); and maybe have at least a small experience of what “riding the curl” must be like.
So out I go with our little “boogie board,” and I’m figuring that the worst that could happen here is that I’d get wet; but I was wrong. What I wasn’t expecting was the sheer force with which that wave slammed against my body, or how it literally picked me up and threw me across the water! Let me tell you something, friends; it hurt! It completely knocked the wind out of me and just about every muscle in body felt the effect of it (and, by the way, the music in my head immediately shifted from “Surfin’ Safari” to “Wipeout!”). I was alright; mostly, I was overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of that wave of… water hitting me full force, and I remember thinking, how can anybody do this? I mean, if it’s this hard on Scarborough Beach in Maine, think how it must be out in California or Hawaii? It’s a wonder anyone survives!
Suffice to say, as I alluded to you last Sunday, I am now content to spend my days floating calmly and serenely out on our lake!
Sometimes, you see, the reality of the experience is far removed from our perception of how it ought to be; and therein lies a good parable for all of life! For whereas most of us would never assume that life as we know it should be utterly carefree and without turbulence of any kind, nonetheless many of us are surprised to find ourselves in the midst of times and situations where we feel battered, beaten and thoroughly overwhelmed by all the stormy turbulence that this life has to offer.
I think a lot about this as we share our prayer concerns in our worship here each week; how so often it’s not simply one prayer request that someone lifts up, but several; each one representing concerns, problems and stresses that have layered atop one another to the point where I think we’re all wondering how that person, that family can possibly cope with it all! I mean, it’s one thing for the currents of our lives to become a little bit rough; that’s just part of the natural course of things, and I dare say that most of us feel equipped to handle that kind of turbulence. But what about when the real storms hit us? What about when the waves of life’s own chaos, its injustice and tragedy start to come at us with such overwhelming intensity that it would knock us down; emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes literally?
You see, the reality is that our lives will not always be lived on seas that are ever calm; storms do come in this life, they will often rage with great intensity, and often at the times we least expect. And they will test our courage and our faith: as a wonderful preacher named Kirbyjohn Caldwell has said, “Storms don’t define you, but storms will bring whatever is in you out of you.” Storms are inevitable; so the question becomes, then, how do we react? What is it inside of us that will come out as the storm is raging; will it be crying out in anguish, or when that time comes, will we be found “singing in the strain?”
That’s the question that’s posed in our gospel reading for this morning, in which Mark tells of yet another great windstorm on the Sea of Galilee while the disciples, this time with Jesus aboard, are crossing from one side to the other in their tiny fishing boat. To put this in a geographical context, sudden storms are common on the Sea of Galilee; although it’s a fairly small body of water (it’s actually, in terms of square miles, slightly smaller than Lake Winnipesauke!), it’s surrounded by a series of hills, valleys and ravines which lend themselves to abrupt changes in the weather and severe storms that seem to come out of nowhere; so severe, in fact, that it was not uncommon in Jesus’ day for fisherman to lose their lives in the midst of such storms.
And so it was with this storm; quite literally, one moment the disciples are lazily drifting across the water seeking a place to put ashore for the evening, and the next wind is howling, waves are breaking over the bow, the boat’s taking on water, and now these disciples are in real danger of losing their very lives. Understand that these men, most of whom were fishermen, were not ignorant as to the ways of proper seamanship, and usually they knew how to handle themselves on the water; but they weren’t prepared for this! And so now here they were, cowering in fear in a nearly swamped boat on the middle of a raging sea!
I don’t know about you, but that’s an image I can relate to!
It’s what we’ve been talking about here: one day things are going along smoothly and by most accounts, we’re in a good place. But then the storm hits: suddenly we’re facing a difficult change in our lives, and we’re not sure how to handle it. We’re waiting on news that could make or break us; the verdict on a medical test or the word on being laid off from work. Or maybe it’s nothing that monumental; just the cumulative effect of every little concern and stress and “thing” we have to deal with, and it’s all coming at us all at once. Whatever it is, one moment we’re on calm seas, the next we’re in the midst of a “perfect storm” that threatens to undo us; and all we feel like we can do is to cry out with every bit of strength we have left. Surely, there’s some way out of this; someone, somewhere who can save us from this mess. But even as we’re crying out the storm keeps on raging, and that’s the hardest part of all.
That’s what happened with the disciples. I love what Julie Pennington-Russell says about this. She writes that the Bible has this way of being relentlessly honest about us, and “how it feels to live a real human life.” For instance, the disciples are terrified at the storm around them, it looks like the boat might be sinking (and them along with it), and as they’re literally screaming for their lives, they discover that Jesus is back in the stern of the boat, his head upon a pillow and sound asleep! Now, you’d think that having Jesus in the boat might count for something, but no, he’s back there taking a nap! And so the disciples do what we might do under the circumstances: they lash out. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” In other words, hey, we’re dying here… don’t you even care?
And we also know about that, don’t we? Pennington-Russell goes on to say that “sometimes in the middle of our fear we feel like those disciples did, that maybe Jesus just doesn’t’ care enough … [that] when the hard weather comes you’d think you could count on feeling him work on your behalf, fighting for you, working the oars, bailing the water, but …during parts of some storms,” in our most desperate moments of life, “it may seem for all the world to us as though Jesus is sound asleep.” So we react much like the disciples did: Where are you, Lord? Where’s the help? What about that “green pastures and still waters” thing we keep hearing about? I’m still waiting here, and, Lord, the water is rising fast!
Of course, that’s not the end of the story, not at all. Mark goes on to tell us that Jesus gets up from his slumber, literally reprimands the wind and says to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And just as suddenly as it had begun, the wind dies down, the sea is dead calm, and the storm is over. And there’s this silence on the Galilean Sea that had to have been deafening; what the Bible refers to elsewhere as a “crushing silence.”
Actually I have to imagine that what followed was a long moment of realization for these disciples, hearts still beating wildly, water dripping off their hair and skin, their robes soaked with rain, their hands still desperately clutching to whatever they could hang on to in this boat; realizing now that they weren’t dead, that the storm was over, and that Jesus… Jesus (!) was the one who’d stopped it! And here’s when Jesus says, both to the disciples and by extension, to you and me, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
So often we read this story and jump to the conclusion that Jesus offering up a second reprimand – the first directed at the storm, the second at the disciples – but it seems to me that it’s actually more of a teachable moment than it is a rebuke. It’s a reminder to them and to us that life is indeed full of storms, both from within and without; as the Psalmist himself proclaimed, there are times that we do “walk through the darkest valley.” (23:4) But here is the thing; even though the storms we face would threaten to overwhelm us by their destructive power we don’t need to be afraid, for whatever else is raging all around us, we have the presence and power of the Lord to sustain us, and that will be more than enough:
The power of the Lord that keeps us calm and focused when everything else in this life is seemingly spinning out of control; the power of the Lord who helps us find avenues of change and reconciliation when that is possible, and patience and forgiveness when it is not; the power of the Lord who instills within us the kind of strength and unending hope we need to understand that storms never last and that soon enough we will be led to the place of quiet and calm and restoration; but also the power of the Lord that in the meantime leads us from crying out in utter anguish and pain to truly “singing in the strain” even as the storm is still raging. Jesus had already shown the disciples that all of this was true; and that’s why he says, quite specifically, “Have you still no faith?” Because you were already in the worst that the storms of life can dish out, but now it’s still: and peace – my peace – has prevailed. Once they realized this, you see, the only response the disciples could possibly have is one of awe: “Who then is this,” they ask aloud, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Beloved, there are times in each of our lives when the difficult realities of our lives seem far removed from what we believe it ought to be; times when the storms we’re facing just seem too much to bear. But by the same token, the reality of our Lord’s presence and power far exceeds the terror of the storms we encounter. To affirm that presence as our storms of life keep on raging; to embrace that power to give us the strength, the patience, the hope to hold on… friends, that is faith.
And it’s what keeps us singing, no matter what the strain!
In one of the churches I served as pastor, there was this woman whose name was Pat, and who was not only very active in the life of our congregation, but also very well-loved; and Pat had been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. To say she’d fought the good fight with this disease was to put it mildly; she’d gone to every doctor she could find, looked at every possible course of treatment, medically, holistically and prayerfully, and even sought out avenues of care outside of this country. However, the storm that was her disease continued to rage, and eventually it became clear that she was nearing the end of her life.
On the last night of her life, I was asked if I might join with Pat’s family and friends in a circle of love, care and prayer; so that, as they put it, “we could sing her out… and could you bring over some hymnals?” And so, from about 9:00 at night to the wee hours of the morning, we surrounded Pat and sang every hymn that we knew (and a whole lot of them that we didn’t know at all!); and when we ran out of those, we started singing Christmas Carols, which was something because this was May! “Joy to the World! The Lord Is Come… Let Earth receive her King…” what was interesting was that was had begun as a gathering of profound grief and sadness was somehow, miraculously, becoming one of real and abiding… joy!
Very early that next morning, Pat passed away peacefully and beautifully surrounded by songs sung by the people who loved her, and enveloped by the power and presence of the Lord who had brought Pat home to be with him. And what I’ll never forget is that afterward, I left to go home and stepped outside into the utter silence of a perfect dawn and a brand new day.
The storm was over.
For the many ways that our Lord Jesus calms the sea of our lives now and for all eternity, thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c, 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry