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The Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell The Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell

The Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, GA.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

First Baptist Church Decatur


A Word for the Wind and the Waves

Mark 4:35-41

September 14, 2008

A few years ago at our house our family was going through the typical school morning routine, you know, packing lunches, making breakfast, getting clothes on and hair combed. Our daughter Lucy, who was 7, asked if she might light a candle on the dining room table, just to make breakfast more special. And so my husband Tim supervised the lighting and then went to check something on his computer while I continued stirring the eggs on the stove. A few minutes later our son Taylor, who was 11, and a little neighbor girl, whom we drove to school every morning, burst into the kitchen, crying and hollering: "Lucy's on fire!"

Well, it was one of those surreal moments--both Tim and I flew into the dining room and, sure enough, Lucy was running around in circles with the top of her head blazing like a tiki-torch. She'd leaned a little too close to the candle, her hair had ignited, and apparently it didn't occur to her to stop, drop and roll. I got there first and immediately smothered her head with my robe. I made sure the fire was out, did a quick examination and saw that her skin hadn't been burned, only her hair, and so I relaxed a little and held Lucy who by that time was shaking like a leaf. Tim and I breathed a big sigh of relief. She was all right and that was the main thing.

But as you may know, there are few smells in the world more revolting than that of burning hair; and Taylor, who's always had a keenly sensitive nose, became...well...sick right then and there...which of course served as an invitation to our two Labrador Retrievers--who bolted into the room cheerfully to clean up the mess--the sight of which immediately prompted the little neighbor girl to become sick. It was this chain reaction nightmare! So there I stood at 6:45 in the morning in my scorched bathrobe, on that very messy floor, picking ash out of my daughter's hair, thinking to myself, "How did things go completely NUCLEAR before seven a.m?"

But I have a feeling that whole scene is not too far removed from the way many of us feel these days on a regular basis as we ricochet through the pressure-filled, multi-tasking, media-saturated, time-crunched pinball machine that has become life in 21st -century America. Many of us, I think, feel as though our hair is on fire a good deal of the time. In our text today the disciples are experiencing a kind of "hair on fire" moment of their own as they cower in the bottom of a little boat on the Sea of Galilee. Mark tells us a great windstorm appears. The waves are breaking over the bow, the boat's taking on water and they're in real danger of going down. I don't know which picture you prefer to describe your life these days--a child running around the room with your hair ablaze, or a swamped little boat in the middle of a raging sea.

Now it's entirely possible that neither image describes your life at the moment. Maybe you're thinking to yourself, "I'm in a pretty fine place right now. My family is in good shape. My health. My job. These are actually pretty good days for me!" And if that's true of your life right now, how wonderful! Cherish these days! But these words today from Mark's Gospel do offer a particular kind of hope for folks who are feeling rather seasick and overwhelmed and even a little bit afraid.

I certainly can relate. You know, for as long as I can remember, anxiety has sort of hovered right at my elbow. One of my earliest memories is of a day when I was 6 years old. I was in first grade and every morning I rode my bicycle to school. I had a red bike with a little wire basket attached to the handle bars. And every morning my mother would kiss me good-bye and then stand in the driveway, waving until I was out of sight. And always, always, she would put a little package of peanut butter crackers in my basket for a snack. Well, on this particular day I was riding along, when all of a sudden my bicycle hit a bump and the crackers fell through the wires of the basket, and I ran over them and they were crushed.

Now any other kid--my kids in fact--probably would have shrugged and said, "Oh well," and kept riding, but for some reason this incident triggered a feeling pretty close to panic inside of me! I just stood there beside my bicycle, staring at the ground, completely horrified. And then, of course, I began to wail. I cried and cried and finally a neighbor heard me and came out and tried to calm me down, even gave me another package of crackers; but, of course, they weren't my mother's crackers. My anxiety just spiraled out of control. I had to go home! I was too over-wrought that day to go to school! It's embarrassing now to think about it, but this has been part of my story. I was an anxious kid and sometimes I'm still an anxious adult. And maybe you're anxious sometimes, too.

There's plenty to be anxious about, isn't there? Maybe you're facing a big change in your life, and you're not sure how it's going to turn out, and you're nervous about that. Or maybe you're waiting for some kind of news and there's anxiety in the waiting. Or maybe you're just feeling overwhelmed by your life and you're not even sure you know why. You just are. And maybe you wish you could wave a magic wand over your circumstances to make everything all right and to help you feel more at ease. Well, as it happens, you and I have something better than a wand: we've got a word. And not just any word. God's very own word for our very own lives.

Jesus and his disciples are in the boat, and it looks like that boat is going down. And there is Jesus in the back, sound asleep, with his head on a pillow.

You know, I love how relentlessly honest the Bible is about us, how truthful Scripture is about how it feels to live a real human life. For one thing, it tells the truth about how sometimes when you and I are scared and we actually do manage to call on Jesus for help, it doesn't always feel as though he responds, does it? At least not when we'd like, in the way that we'd like. Sometimes in the middle of our fear we feel like those disciples did, that maybe Jesus just doesn't care enough. "Hey, we're dying here! Don't you care?" You might think that having Jesus in your boat would guarantee some smoother sailing. But, no, with Christ in your boat you meet the same scary wind and waves as everybody else.

Or at very least, 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 apparently not always. During parts of some storms it may seem for all the world as though Jesus is sound asleep. "Lord, don't you care?" And it really is all right to ask that question. Every day, and throughout history, men and women of amazing faith have cried that question from the darkest places: "Where ARE you, God? Lord, why don't you answer? Where's the help? I'm dying here!" Even Jesus cried this prayer from the cross. "My God, why? Why have you pulled out on me?" Sometimes in your most desperate moments, maybe it feels to you as though God is asleep.

But oh, that's not the end of the story. Not by a long shot. Mark tells us that Jesus gets up, reprimands the wind and says to the waves: "Peace...Be still." The wind dies down and the peace does come. His friends cry to him and he hears them and he moves and speaks to the storm and says: "Be still." And as one pastor says, it makes you wonder. Was it only the waves and the wind Jesus was commanding, or was it maybe also their anxious hearts he had in mind when he said, "Peace...be still"?

Several years ago my family and I found ourselves on a particularly difficult stretch of road. It was a terribly painful time and, consistent with my history, waterfalls of anxiety were just cascading down on me. I couldn't find any handles. Couldn't see my way out. But one morning I was praying with a group of friends. It so happens that we were reading together this story from Mark about Jesus asleep in the boat in the storm. And, boy, was I into it. This was my story! The waves were crashing, the wind was howling. My boat was going down. And somehow in that moment I let my heart cry out this desperate question: "Jesus, don't you care? I'm DYING here. My family's in peril! Won't you please HELP?" And here's what happened next:

Suddenly, in my mind I was whisked away, far from that room, far from that storm. I found myself hovering over a very familiar scene, a scene I've carried inside of me for 40 years, of a little girl crying beside her bicycle, a little package of crushed peanut butter crackers lying on the ground. And it was painful to watch, even after so many years.

But, all of a sudden, I see Jesus standing beside this little girl with the kindest, warmest, most welcoming look in his eyes and the biggest smile on his face. And he wipes away her tears, puts an arm around her shoulder, and what do you know, even pulls out a fresh package of crackers. Jesus' robes have deep pockets, you know. And then he says to the little girl, "Let's go together." And instead of running for home as I'd done so many years before, I let Jesus walk with me all the way to my destination.

I don't know what to say about that experience except that I think I found some healing that day and some freedom. And now, whenever I'm anxious about something, I think of the One who's picking up my crackers and walking me forward when I'd much rather run away. I think about Jesus walking beside my bicycle and I'm not alone, and I'm not so afraid.

Show him the storm at the center of your life. Ask him if he cares. And hear him say to you, "Peace...be still." And if you can receive the peace he comes to give, then you know what? Something in you can go join him there in the back of the boat in the middle of your storm. And though the tempest itself may not yet be over, you will know that the power isn't out there, the power is with you and in you. And you can lay your head down with Christ on that pillow and sleep like a baby and be at rest.

Let us pray:

And so Jesus, please come now. We invite you right into our boat. Will you please give us your very own peace? It's so much stronger than the storms of this world and the storms of our hearts. Please come to every anxious mind and make us still. Through every scary experience, through every hard challenge, keep us with you till the night is over and the storms have passed and your morning comes again. In your name we ask it. Amen.


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