In 1906 Charles Albert Tindley wrote the words to the hymn "Stand By Me". It is a hymn with which all of us can identify some of the time, and with which some can identify all the time.
"When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me.
When the Storms of life are raging,
Stand by me.
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea,
Thou who rulest wind and water,
Stand by me."
The hymn continues with four more moving stanzas, each of which picks up some painful human experience, and echoes the prayer we have all said at some critical moment in our lives: "Stand By Me". Most of us could add a stanza or two to cover our own specific life experiences. It could become a life-long hymn with continuing contributions from our own storms of life. We have all been there! And, for those of us who have survived, we know we did not do it alone.
The Gospel of Saint Mark was written to people who were living in stormy times. It is written in short, powerful sentences. The form as well as the content suggests that divine help is not only "coming", it is already here. Mark strings together four miracles, each of which demonstrate the power of Jesus over forces that make people most afraid: untamed nature, the spirit world, death and disease. (Mark 4:35 - 5:43)
The setting of the first miracle is a frightening boat-ride across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat. He has been exhausted by the crowds of needy people. He trusts the seamanship of the disciples who are veterans of the Sea of Galilee. But, there arose a violent storm that threatened to sink the boat. The disciples were so frightened that they woke Jesus and said: "Master do you not care that we are about to perish?" Jesus spoke sternly to the wind and said: "Be still". The winds subsided and there was a great calm as decisive as the wind had been violent. He then turned to the disciples and asked, "Why were you afraid? Have you still no faith?" Their fear turned to awe and they kept saying to each other: "What manner of man is this? Even the winds and the sea obey him!"
This is a wonderful story, but unless we look beyond its literal content and see the symbolic significance, we miss the meaning Mark intended for subsequent generations. It is an event that happened once upon a time. This is a story of a storm quite removed from the storms in which we find ourselves. But, what a difference it makes when we see the symbolic meaning that lies beyond the actual event; that divine help is only a prayer away, and that Jesus still calms the internal storms in the lives of any who turn to him.
The storms in our lives are not always what is happening right now. Storms can be the cumulative result of what has happened in the past, which cast a violent and stormy shadow over our lives. More than a few of us have had some seemingly insignificant sight, sound, or event to suddenly open a trap door to the basement of our souls, and all the dragons we thought we had slain, and all the ghosts we thought we had chained, and all the sin and pain we thought we had dealt with come floating back into to our consciousness to engulf and enrage and undo us. And, it is too much for us. We cannot handle it alone. If you have not had this experience, get ready. It will happen.
The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus has the power to deal with the storms in which we find ourselves whether they come from the past or whether they are happening right now, or whether they are made up of our fears about the unknown future.
One of the most common mythologies of our time is that we will finally get our lives into such a favorable situation that we will not have any problems. Many of us have an idealized model for how life ought to be when it is normal. That model usually excludes serious troubles of any sort. There are no storms. There are no surprises. The sun shines every day and the flowers bloom all year long. In our more lucid moments we know life is not like that. It never has been, and never will be, not in this world. Life is difficult and uncertain. There are storms that nearly wipe us out. If our mythologies about life were true, we would not need any power beyond ourselves to help us make it. We could handle life without any help from God or anyone. However, we do not get very far in our journey before we find ourselves in some situation that is beyond our power to handle.
In his book "The meaning of Suffering" Dr. Ralph Sockman, erstwhile pastor of Christ Church in New York, tells of a student at Oberlin who wrote in a paper that she did not feel any need to believe in God because she was engaged to be married, and her life revolved quite adequately around the man she loved. Her professor said he trembled for her because he knew the man she loved, and "whilst he was a nice enough fellow, he lacked several important qualifications for the role of deity". We are not rich nor learned nor powerful enough to cope with the inevitable exigencies of life alone.
No matter how strong we may be, we cannot survive the storms of life alone. There are other people whose strength and courage flow into our lives like a transfusion. No person ever saves himself by himself, or herself. We are ultimately saved by others. When Jesus hung dying on the cross, old enemies came by to gloat and taunt him. They wagged their heads and mocked him saying: "He saved others (but) he cannot save himself." (Matthew 27:42a) Did they not know that anyone who thinks he can save himself never really saves anyone, not even himself?! Only God can save us, and God does that through the kind words, encouragement, and heroic deeds of others.
In the ebb and flow of life we are drawn into the deep water and strong currents. There are times, though shaken by life, we stilll believe we will make it on our own. There are also times in which the waters are deeper and the currents stronger than we anticipated. We get nervous and very much want to believe that God loves us and is nearby, but we can bearly keep our heads above water. But there finally comes a time in which we cannot touch bottom, the currents are much stronger than we are and the waves are swamping us Then we realize we have reached the edge of life where what is happening to us lies beyond our strength and knowledge Some of you have been there. All of us will be there some day. Our only hope is that the great God of the universe knows as much and cares as much about each of us as Jesus said.
When we believe that God is there, standing by us, the storm may continue to rage and events on the outside remain unchanged; yet in the mysteries of God we know a peace. We know that God is there, an "ever present help in trouble".
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me!