I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough rain to last me for awhile. The clouds, drizzle, and fierce downpours keep rolling in week after week, and plenty of summertime events have been rained out or cut back because of the weather. Often if I’m around one of those gatherings, and especially if I have my clergy collar on, someone will say, “Hey, aren’t you the minister? You’re supposed to have connections. Can’t you do anything about this lousy weather?” And I always answer with the old line, “Sorry, that’s above my pay grade. I’m in sales, not management.”
Of course, that’s a way of saying that weather is driven by natural forces and conditions that are beyond anyone’s power to control. And when the weather gets really rowdy we human beings can feel like small players being tossed around by terrible forces that can seem terrifying.
I remember some time ago seeing on the news the story of a sport fishing boat that capsized just outside the Seattle harbor. Within a few minutes of the crew’s heading out, the churning seas overwhelmed them, and before they knew it a crashing wave had thrown all thirty-two men on board into the sea. Nearly half of them perished. What had started as a relaxed day of fishing had spun completely out of control.
You probably remember the harrowing book and movie from several years ago, The Perfect Storm, about the encounter of the New England fishing fleet with the storm of the century. In 1991 a rare combination of forces came together quickly and without warning to create the worst of all possible storms, with hurricane force winds and 100-foot waves. The story plunges you into the lives of the fishing crews, tells of some boats that survived and some that didn’t, and of the heroic Coast Guard rescue workers.
I have to admit, I’ve never been a sailor, but even if I were I would think twice about launching out onto the sea after reading that book. The sense it gave of being in the grip of forces out of my control was terrifying.
But of course feeling out of control doesn’t just happen when you’re out on the churning ocean. Sometimes the powers that are tossing you about right in the middle of your days can seem just as overpowering.
The economic crisis has felt like another perfect storm. So many things went wrong at once and have left just about everyone feeling as if the winds are blasting, and every ship large or small is struggling just to stay afloat. Banks have been taking on water fast, as have investment companies, auto makers, and homeowners. Millions have lost their jobs and have found their own tiny boats pitching as the waves beat over the bow.
This massive storm has hit just about every business, non-profit, and church. All of a sudden everyone seems to be scrambling to stay afloat and ride the wild waves.
And of course storms of different kinds come up so fast it catches you completely off guard. A husband in his forties making a good living and helping to raise two beautiful kids discovers he has colon cancer, and life feels like nothing but an unending storm. A parent living hundreds of miles away has to be hospitalized, and you’re the only one who can take responsibility—along with everything else in your life. Your company is bought out, and away goes your pension and your health care. The seas toss. The winds blast.
In our Gospel lesson this morning Jesus and his disciples have gotten in a boat to go across the Sea of Galilee, and when they do a storm strikes. The Gospels tell several stories like this, presumably because so often the life of Jesus and the disciples felt like a boat in a storm.
But did you notice what Jesus is doing in the boat? He’s sleeping soundly as the winds thrash and the water roars. He and his friends are in the middle of a raging storm and, tough as these hard-working blue-collar guys are, they are scared to death—rowing frantically and bailing water as fast as the sea crashes into the boat. They must be wondering if they will ever see land and their families again.
The disciples have to shake Jesus to rouse him: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Can you imagine being able to get a good night’s sleep in the middle of a storm at sea? And Jesus wakes up and rebukes the wind, saying, “Peace! Be still!” and all of a sudden the wind ceases, and there is calm—peace in the midst of a storm.
For the ancient Hebrews the sea represented the primeval chaos that could at any moment overwhelm them. It embodied their deepest fears that uncontrollable forces in the world could overwhelm them. It’s hard to know what actually occurred that made the disciples tell this story, but something happened that night, or in the life of the disciples, that made them keep telling about how the wildest winds in the world somehow didn’t overly disturb Jesus, and that as long as they were with him, they knew they could survive anything.
The early church seemed to love this story because they too kept running into storms. Their little Christian communities, tiny minorities in every city, suffered constant persecution. Fear was a part of their daily lives. They were being arrested, tortured, and sometimes crucified, and their lives seemed like pathetically small boats in a terrifying sea.
In fact, one of the earliest symbols of the church was that of a ship heading into a storm. Look up in most churches and the ceiling looks like the inside of boat hull. It’s called the nave, the same word we use for navy. Churches were meant to be boats to take the disciples through the storms. And the only reason they could do that was because Jesus was there, in the boat with them. All they had was Jesus and each other.
The stilling of the storm is a story about the conviction the disciples developed that they could trust Jesus. They could know peace even in any storm. This wasn’t a superstitious belief that somehow following him would save them from the things they were most afraid of. That’s an immature version of faith. It was the trust that even when the worst things possible came their way, Jesus wouldn’t abandon them, he would go with them, and their future, no matter what happened, was safe with him.
One spring day a few years ago novelist Reynolds Price received a letter from a young man, a medical student, who had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and had been given only a few months to live. He had read a book by Price about the writer’s own struggle with cancer, and so now in desperation the young man was writing Price for help. “I want to believe in a God who cares,” the young man said, “because I may meet him sooner than I had expected. I think I am at the point where I can accept the existence of God…but I can’t yet believe he cares about us.”
And so Price sat down to write a little book called Letter to a Man in the Fire addressed to that man. In it he tells the young man of the presence he found at the heart of the storm:
In the years of my own confrontation with cancer, loss, and chronic pain, … I experienced fairly steadily the sense of being witnessed and accompanied almost always by what seemed to be God or a full-fledged messenger of God ([and]…some of those messengers were human beings of extraordinary foresight and practical help). And with that companionship, I was ultimately led back into a new and transformed life and work…
The message of Reynolds Price, of the disciples, of people of faith down through the centuries is that when the storms come, and they will come, Christ will be in the boat with us.
You know, often we clergy encounter people who are being hit by one of life’s storms—illness or death, a financial crisis or crisis—and they seem to have so few resources for facing it. They haven’t seriously thought about their faith since they were in Sunday school, and they have spent no time at all developing an adult awareness of who God is and how God is present in their lives. And so right in the middle of the crisis it can be hard for them to have a sense that they aren’t alone in the boat, that there is a Power, a Love there who will go through it with them.
Cultivating that understanding, that sense, that awareness, takes time. It takes study and worship and prayer, and being with other Christians who know this presence for themselves. Don’t wait for the storm to hit to discover Christ in your boat.
And that can have real consequences for us here and now. I remember hearing Frank Griswold, our Episcopal Church’s former presiding bishop, describing a sleepless night he had early in his time as bishop of Chicago. (I suspect he had a lot of sleepless nights in his years of trying to hold the Episcopal Church together.) He said he kept tossing and turning in the night until his wife finally woke and saw that he was sitting up in bed.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “I can’t sleep,” he said. “I just keep thinking of everything I’m facing and everything I have to do. I can’t do it all. It’s going to kill me.” To which his wife groggily replied, “Of course you can’t do it. I thought that was the point. Only God can.” And Bishop Griswold then replied, “Oh, I guess you’re right,” and he lay his head back on the pillow and went to sleep.
I think of the great heroes of Christian faith in our day. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, resister of the Nazis; Oscar Romero, the Nicaraguan bishop who became the voice for the desperately poor in his country, murdered while saying mass; Dorothy Day, ministering to the homeless in New York. All of them knew God’s power in their stormy struggle for justice. Christ in their boat. Think of the people in Iran as they bravely demonstrate day after day for freedom. As we pray for them we pray that they may know God’s presence in the thick of their storm.
Summer is upon us. What could be more important than growing in this peace over the coming months? Now is the time to develop a sense of peace that can carry you through any storm. Read the Psalms, one or two a day. Read the 23rd Psalm every day. Say the Lord’s Prayer slowly once a day. Open your Prayer Book and read the service called Compline in the evening, which is all about resting with Christ in your boat.
At the end of the story today the disciples are amazed as they find the water calming. “Who then is this,” they say, “that even the wind and sea obey him?”
He is Christ the Lord, and no wind or storm can ever separate us from him. He is in the boat with us, promising us a peace that passes understanding.
I can’t imagine a more important gift to give yourself than knowing this peace. I hope you’ll take this summer to ask for it, to pray for it, to know it.