Calm in the Storms of Life 

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                         June 24, 2018

Mark 4:35-41; I Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16

Storms can blow in at a moment’s notice. Prior to the days of cellphones, those of us who are old canoe trippers could only forecast the weather by reading the clouds. This has led to many a surprised, storm-stayed change of plans. Waves can build up quickly.  My partner and I have learned how to paddle through 2 ½ foot waves and negotiate 90° turns right at the millisecond when the canoe is balancing on the peak of a wave. We’ve had more practice at that than we would have liked.

Being in a little boat in big waves can be terrifying. When I read of the disciples’ terror, I’m right with them in their boat, casting an accusing eye at a serenely-sleeping Jesus. “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

The storms of life are just as terrifying. Life can spin out of control in the flash of a moment—the loss of a job, a doctor’s pronouncement, an accident. Sometimes storm clouds gather on the horizon, giving us a bit more notice of what’s to come, but when those storms eventually arrive they are no less terrifying. In the midst of these storms, we may feel abandoned by God. “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

Jesus’ response is less than reassuring. As the waves tower behind him, he asks: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Ouch. Let me try to defend Jesus’ questions (you can tell me how successful I am!). Last week we talked about how anxiety pushes out faith. Well, the root of anxiety is fear.  In Jesus’ questions, he is suggesting that the disciples’ fear is blocking out their faith. Jesus didn’t say that there was nothing to be afraid of. Clearly, they were in danger. Jesus’ comments weren’t a dismissive platitude of, “There, there my child. Nothing’s the matter.” Instead, he was trying to help his disciples not be afraid even in the midst of the storm. When the storm was over, their fear was not diminished. If anything, it was heightened after observing Jesus’ power over nature. The Greek reads that the disciples then had a “phobon megan”—a mega fear. Jesus correctly identified that their biggest challenge wasn’t the storm—it was their own fear.

A fear of “what if” can be paralyzing. It can muddle our thinking, cloud our judgements, block our ability to listen, to be attentive, to attend to the now. Fear actually inhibits the very abilities that we need to calm it. When I most need the British motto of “keep calm and carry on” is when it’s most difficult to do. I have learned some meditation techniques specifically designed to reduce the adrenalin flow that fear pumps out. If (and it’s a big if) I can force myself to focus and stay with this particular energy routine and meditative prayer, I can usually feel that fear or anxiety or even sleeplessness begin to subside.  Then, even if the storm-tossed waves haven’t subsided, my little canoe of faith has a better chance of riding them without capsizing. But if that thunder starts rumbling, I just need to get off the lake. There are times when we need to listen to fear.

The novelist Emily Brontë lived through tumultuous times with her mentally ill father and alcoholic brother. In spite of this, she wrote,

No coward soul is mine,

no trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere.

I see Heaven’s glories shine,

and faith shines equal, arming me from fear.”[1]

There was an additional source of fear for the disciples in this story that most of us miss. Not only did Jesus invite the disciples to set out in the evening as a storm was brewing, but he also asked them to “go across to the other side.” What was on the other side of the Sea of Galilee? It was where the Gentile Gerasenes lived, who were considered foreigners, even enemies of the house of Israel. By crossing over to the other side, Jesus was making it clear that his message was not only for his own people, but also for strangers and those considered dangerous. As soon as they arrived on the other side, they encountered yet more challenges when they were met by a Gerasene who was also tormented by mental illness and self-harm. The storms continued in a different form.

The familiar story of David and Goliath is framed by a larger story of stormy relationships, boundary-crossing love, fear and mental illness.  Young David has just killed the giant Philistine and King Saul inquired as to his identity. While David was introducing himself to Saul, Saul’s son Jonathan was present and the souls of David and Jonathan bonded together. Saul sent out David to lead the army and David’s success and popularity caused King Saul envy and jealousy. Saul then began to be tormented by mental illness. Sometimes he was soothed by David’s music on the lyre and other times he became outraged, trying to kill David. Jonathan was torn between his love of David and his allegiance to his father.

There are so many storms we encounter in our lives. The most difficult involve unstable relationships. It is then that we most need the blessing of Jesus, “Peace. Be still, even in the midst of the storm.” You’ll notice that I titled this sermon “Calm in the Storms of Life” not “Calming the Storms of Life”. Sometimes the storms themselves can’t be calmed. Relief can only be found through inner peace that can carry us through the storms.

There are times when we don’t know if we can continue; when we can no longer risk going to the other side. We long for safe harbour and glassy seas. We do need those retreat days, but we can’t stay in that safe harbour forever. Jesus continues to point to the other side. As Frederick Buechner once preached, “Go…Go for God’s sake, and for your own sake, too, and for the world’s sake. Climb into your little tub of a boat and keep going…[because] Christ sleeps in the deepest selves of all of us, and…in whatever way we can call on him, as the [fishers] did in their boat, to come awake within us and to give us courage, to give us hope, to show us, each one, our way. May he be with us especially when the winds go mad and the waves run wild, as they will for all of us before we’re done, so that even in their midst we may find peace, find him.”[2]

Near the end of John Bunyan’s novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian has to cross a great, fearsome river and he is terrified. He begins to wade into the waters with his companion, Hopeful when he cries out, “I sink in deep Waters; the Billows go over my head, all His waves go over me.” Hopeful replies, “Be of good cheer, my Brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good…”[3] Sometimes the water is not as deep as we fear.

There is a photograph that was taken of New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina struck. It shows the devastation of a cemetery with trees toppled, debris strewn and several burial vaults smashed open. But in the midst of the destruction stands a statue of Christ, untouched by the storm, with his hands extended in a benediction of calm amidst the chaos.

When the storms hit us, Christ stands with open arms and says to us, “Be not afraid. You do not walk alone, for I am with you.” Peace be with you Amen.

 

[1] Emily Brontë, “No Coward Soul Is Mine,” January 2, 1846.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons.

[3] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), p. 1, sec. x.