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I grew up on the Ohio River. My dad and uncle built a houseboat for the amusement of us cousins and their own fishing trips. The licensing bureau called it a cabin cruiser. I think that was because the fee for cabin cruisers was higher. It was simply a big old houseboat that could hold all of us, especially on long, lazy summer afternoons of sitting in the channel, the deep water where the best fishing was. Now, my father was very safety conscious, and we would have life preserver drills. We had to jump or be pushed over the side so that we would have practice in keeping our heads if we ever found ourselves over our heads in the deep water.
I remember our one family vacation to Florida, and I wished for the life preserver, even though I was only standing on the shore. There were big waves coming in; they were taller than I was, and I was fearful that they would swallow me up. I'd be in over my head. Even as a small child, I knew in my head that water was my friend. It quenched my thirst. It cleaned me up. Mr. Wizard on TV had told me that most of my body was water; but when that big wave rolled in, I wanted my life preserver, and most of all, I wanted my dad. He was a great swimmer; he always held me up in the water.
From the very beginning, we've known that water is the source of life--but too much of it is very threatening. Even our story of creation says that God's Spirit brooded over the chaos of the water and formed order and dry land. Throughout the centuries, the sea has been a symbol of chaos.
Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean--roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man makes the earth with ruin--his control
Stops with the shore.
So wrote Lord Byron in "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage".
The sea--this truth must be confessed--has no generosity.
No display of many qualities
Courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness--
Has never been known to touch its irresponsible
Consciousness of power.
That's from "The Mirror of the Sea" by Joseph Conrad.
The sea speaks a language polite people never repeat.
It is a colossal scavenger with no respect.
Carl Sandburg from "Two Nocturnes."
We've always known the great power of the sea. One of God's creative tasks was to hover over the sea so that the waters would part and the dry land would appear. The constant threat to those who dared travel along the water's surface was the power of the deep might roll up and overtake them. Those who lived by the water knew that flooding was always a possibility. Storms and squalls kept landed creatures from being secure. And having lived in Florida at the time of Hurricane Andrew, I know that even sea creatures can be killed by a raging ocean, thrown out of their watery habitat onto dry land.
But water is also the source of life. It is from the sea that life first came. It's been called the heart's blood of the earth. Is it any wonder that the sea provides the geographic location of the Gospel story? From the fourth chapter of Mark's Gospel when Jesus gets into a boat to teach until the eighth chapter when Peter recognizes him as the Messiah, the sea is always nearby. Mark is speaking to people who know the sea well. They are people of water and wind and wave. They know water to be the substance of life. They know wind to be the energy of life and wave to be the nature of life. Sometimes the nature of life--those waves of life--are overpowering.
Certainly that is the case in the story for today. The disciples and Jesus have found it a hard day, but it's almost over. Jesus is finished teaching, and they're ready for rest. They set out for the other side of the sea, but a great wind storm arises and the waves beat into the boat so that it's almost swamped. The disciples panic. It's been suggested that they have the same fear that Noah had when he realized he was on a wooden ark with at least two termites. That's funny, but the disciples weren't laughing. They were afraid. They were afraid they would go down. They were afraid they would be over their heads. And where is their Lord? In the stern on a cushion, asleep.
The disciples accuse Jesus of indifference. "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" Well, how could he not care? He was in the boat with them. He, too, would perish. But the disciples need to know that he cares. They do not wake him with an appeal to do something. They waken him with an accusation and the fear that he is apathetic. "Teacher, do you not care?"
The appealing part of the image of God's Spirit brooding over the chaos of creation is the notion that God cares enough to brood. When we are in the midst of chaos and despair, we want to know that someone is concerned. The concern of the disciples is whether Jesus cares. We all want to know that someone cares. It helps us when life is difficult.
Doug was a 15-year old resident of a suburb next to mine. He had been feeling badly for several days. His temperature ranged between 103 and 105. He was suffering flu-like symptoms, and so his mother took him to the hospital, and there he was diagnosed with leukemia.
The doctors told him in frank terms about his disease. They said that for the next three years he would have to undergo chemotherapy. They didn't sugarcoat the side effects. They told him he would be bald and that his body would become bloated. He heard all of us this, and Doug went into a deep depression.
He aunt called a florist and sent him some flowers. She told the clerk that they were for her teenage nephew who had leukemia. When the flowers arrived, they were beautiful. Doug read the card from his aunt, and then he saw a second card. It said, "Douglas, I took your order. I work at the florist shop. I had leukemia when I was seven years old. I'm 22 now. Good luck. My heart goes out to you. Sincerely, Laura."
Doug's face lit up. "Oh!" he said.
There he was in one of the best hospitals in the nation, filled with millions of dollars of sophisticated medical equipment. He was being treated by expert doctors and nurses with medical training totaling hundreds of years. But it was a sales clerk in a flower shop--someone who made a few hundred dollars a week--who took the time to care, who identified with him, who did what her heart told her to do who gave Doug the hope and the will to carry on.
The disciples wanted to know that Jesus cared, that he brooded over them. And he did. The story took his caring one step further. After Jesus woke, he spoke to the winds and the waves. "Peace! Be still!" And they were. That was the ancient way of saying that Jesus was stronger than the chaos of life. It was the early church's way of claiming his lordship over the natural world as well as the human one. Jesus both cares and does something about his caring. The wind ceases and there is a dead calm. "Peace! Be still!"
The British Navy has strange custom. If there is a sudden disaster aboard ship, the "still" is blown. Now this particular still is not a place where whiskey is made, but it's a whistle that calls the crew to a moment of silence in a time of crisis. When the still is blown, people aboard know that it means, "Prepare to do the wise thing." Observers of this system note that the moment of calm has helped avert many a catastrophe. It has prevented many scatterbrained actions.
It is amazing what you can do when you have power and claim it, when you know the value of stillness and practice it, when you do not give into panic but hear the words of Jesus spoken with authority, "Peace! Be still," when you not only hear those words but apply them to your own life.
Frederick Buechner, a great contemporary Christian and author and novelist, says, "We have within us, each one of us, so much more power than we ever spend, such misers of miracles are we, such pinch-penny guardians of grace."
Now, I don't know about you, but too often I don't practice stillness. In a bad situation, I more often think that something needs to be done and done now. Well, what if we practiced stillness? What if we claimed the power and authority to slow the response? What if we took stock of our situation a bit more before we acted? With the disciples, we might recognize that our situation is not as desperate as it seems; and if, saints forbid, it is that desperate--it can still be handled better by a calm, reasoned approach.
The story focuses on the power of Jesus but even more on the disciples' recognition and trust of that power. The story line quickly shifts from the calmness of the sea to the relationship with the disciples. "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?" Jesus knew that his relationship and theirs had to be based on trust or it was no relationship at all. Trust is the foundation of a relationship that survives.
A father was observed holding his little child in his arms and standing in a swimming pool. As the father waded deeper into the pool, the child began to struggle more and more. The child feared what might happen if the father let go. Had the child been able to analyze the situation, he would have realized that the water was already over his head, no matter where in the pool the father stood.
So it is for us, when times seem chaotic and the waters and winds and waves of life threaten and we know we are in over our heads, we like the disciples are tempted to pull back, to distance ourselves, "Jesus, don't you care?"
But Jesus knows that we are held in the Father's arms, no matter what the depth of the water. We are already in over our heads, but if we are still for a moment, we'll realize that Jesus trusts the Father to hold him up and so can we. And that's good news to share! Thanks be to God.
I invite you to pray with me.
Gracious God, when the waves of life threaten to overwhelm us, you hold us securely in your arms. When the chaos of contemporary life causes confusion, your voice soothes us: "Peace, be still." Help us to trust the promise of our faith that you care for us. Help us to act on that promise by caring for others, for when we do, our heads will always be above water. We pray through the calm and confidence of the Christ and in the strength and stillness of your Spirit. Amen.
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