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Singing in the Strain

(An online sermon for August 30, 2020, based on Mark 4:35-41)

I think you’ll agree with me when I say that oftentimes in life, the reality of a particular experience is far removed from our perception of how it ought to have been!

As I’m sure many of you know, for many years our family served a church nestled along the coast of Maine; and consequently, every summer our family had the blessed opportunity to spend a fair amount of time on the beach, digging in the sand and playing on the waves of the ocean.  Well, there was this one particular summer when the surf happened to be quite high and rather intense; the result, as I recall, of a series of tropical storms that had been churning in the Caribbean.  And in the midst of all this, I had gotten the bright idea in my head that I needed to go surfing; specifically, I wanted to experience what it was to be “riding the waves,” and to have one of those waves curl over the top of me.  Never mind the fact that I’d never, ever surfed before, and that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing (all I can say is that I’d been listening to way too many Beach Boy songs!); undaunted, I grabbed the kids’ little “boogie board” and off I headed to the ocean, figuring that the worst that could happen here is that I’d get wet.

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!” complete with the maniacal laughter!).  And as I was overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of that wave of… water hitting me full force, 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, these days I am now content to spend my days floating calmly and serenely out on our lake!

Like I say, oftentimes 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. 

Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about this all throughout this strange and uncertain summer of pandemic, and I’m guessing you have, too.  I mean, it’s bad enough that we’ve all been having to cope with Covid-19 fears, to say nothing of all the challenges of masks and social distancing and the ever shifting theories regarding remote versus in-person learning at school and elsewhere; but then, when you layer on top of  that all the rest of life’s concerns, problems and stresses, it’s a wonder that we don’t break under the strain!  To put it another way, 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 a great windstorm on the Sea of Galilee while the disciples, 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. 

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; but even though the storms we face would threaten to overwhelm us by their destructive power we need not 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. And that, writes Barbara Brown Taylor, is why “we need Jesus.  It’s why we wouldn’t be caught dead on the water without him… we need a Savior.”  Our doubts and fears amidst the stormy seas serve to “remind us of who and whose we are and whom we need in our lives to save us.”  

 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!

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!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2020 in Current Events, Faith, Jesus, Life, Sermon

 

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Sailing, Part Two: Tacking

sailing3

a stormy day “on the pond”

As was made abundantly clear in an earlier blogpost, sailing has long been one of my favorite things to do, and has always served as something of a spiritual endeavor as well. For me, a summer afternoon in a sailboat, with sun and blue sky above me and clear, cool water beneath me, is not only time well spent but also a means of greater closeness with God, and I never tire of the experience.

I hasten to add here that I am no expert at sailing; as I’ve said before, my skill is pretty much limited to that required for crisscrossing the lake in our family’s little 13-foot runabout with a mainsail and jib to do the job.  That having been said, however, I can also tell you that I’ve learned a lot from sailing over the years!  I’ve learned, for instance, to read the skies and to pay attention to the direction of the wind and the size of the waves on the water.  I’ve learned to be patient when it gets so calm that you’re hardly moving; but not to get too complacent because the wind can come up quickly, so you have to pay attention!

And I’ve learned that the very nature of sailing is that try as you might, you can’t always get to the place you want in the way that you’re planning and in the time frame that you expect. The thing about wind is that you and I cannot control it, neither its strength nor direction.  Oh, we might be able to manage it somewhat, but ultimately, we follow the wind  and not the other way around; the trick (and, might I add, the joy and the fun) of sailing is how you do the following.

In fact, there’s a term in sailing called “tacking;” tacking is the alignment of your sailboat in respect to the direction of the wind.  You see, you can never sail directly into the wind: your sails just flap and “luff” all over the place and you get nowhere.  Also, while you technically can sail directly downwind, it can be tricky, especially in smaller boats: the slightest change in wind direction and you’re off course; moreover, the boom swings across the stern and right “up side” of your head (and I’ve got the lumps to prove it)!

So what you do is “tack,” which basically means that you zigzag at an angle back and forth relative to the wind, adjusting your course on the basis of how you can best harness the wind in your sails for good speed and “smooth sailing.”  You might be able to make a fairly direct passage to the end of the lake, say; but it’ll take you a while to get back, because you have to be tacking back and forth, back and forth, following the wind so it can take you to the place where you want and need to go.

Which, as far as this particular sailor is concerned, is pretty much what a life of faith is all about.

Scripture, of course, is full of stories of “sailing ships upon the sea” with the sea depicted as a place of utter chaos and terror.  From the Psalms that speak of God stirring up “a tempest that lifted high the waves” (107:25) to the gospel stories of Jesus calming storms on the Galilean Sea, the biblical image of going “down to the sea in ships” often ends serves as an allegory for fear and faithfulness, with the nature true faith revealed in the midst of stormy seas.

It’s still an apt comparison.  I think most of us understand that life isn’t always about calm seas and smooth sailing; indeed, our days are filled with storms, many that seemingly come out of nowhere, that are both intense and devastating.  Those who have sailed for any length of time, or lived the same, know that there will always be the random gusts of wind that threaten to blow us off course. The trick is, in faith, to know how to navigate in the midst of them; how to follow the wind when it seems to be blowing out of our control!  In truth, faithful living is in large part the life-long process of learning the art of tacking!

And, trust me, it is a life-long process. Too many of us, myself included, will seek to handle the storms of life and living by trying to run directly and headlong into them. And to some extent that’s understandable: after all, as we’ve said, there are always going be storms, and we figure we’re strong and resilient enough to face them.  We reason that however we’re battered, it can’t last forever and if we “keep on keeping on” the storm will pass.  The trouble is, a lot of times in “keeping on” we get nowhere and emerge all the more battered and broken; or else the fatigue of continually facing down the tempest takes its toll, and in the end we’re left shipwrecked and scarred on the rocks.

The truth is that none of us can control the storms that come, but the good news is that those storms do not have to control us.  The harsh winds and driving rain of human life might batter us and perhaps even injure us at times; but they do not have to define us.  By faith, we can in fact navigate the storms and be made strong in the sailing, finding our way tacking back and forth – calmly, patiently, determinedly – until we’re led safely home.  And we can be assured of this because all along the journey, we’re never sailing alone, but with the Lord himself at our side and at the wheel.

Emerson Andrews was a well-known Baptist revival preacher from New England during the 19th century; he was renowned for his fiery sermons, and he beautifully addressed this whole matter of sailing faithfully through stormy seas:  “Remember, dear friends,” he said, “you are on the rolling sea of time, sailing on to the eternal world… do you follow the gospel chart, the cognitions of conscience, [and] the guidance of the Spirit?  Is religion your compass, Christ your polar star, and your Sun of Righteousness? …is he your Pilot and Captain of salvation, your physician, friend and Savior.  If so, your life-voyage is prosperous, your soul insured, your haven of rest and glory contain[ed].”

I love that.  Granted, tacking up and down Pleasant Lake on a summer afternoon as storm clouds gather in the western sky is not the same as navigating a three-masted schooner on treacherous seas; but those storms you and I face are no less tumultuous, and the tools we require for a prosperous “life-voyage” are just the same.

It’s true: when the course of our lives brings smooth sailing, it is a glorious thing indeed, and a time and journey to be cherished and greatly enjoyed; but even when the inevitable storms do come to pass, we can still set out from harbor into the open seas with confidence and in joy, knowing that while we can’t stop the storms from coming, we know how to respond to them.  We can continue the voyage, assuredly tacking our way in faith even as the wind rages and the rain pelts down…

…and just maybe, after the storm passes, be able to say, “Whoa. What a sail that was!”

c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2013 in Faith, Life, Maine, Reflections

 

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