In his book Letter to a Man in a Fire, cancer survivor Reynolds Price responds to a letter from a young medical student named Jim, who has developed a life-threatening cancer. In his letter to Reynolds Price, Jim writes, "I want to believe in a God who cares...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 God cares about me." [Reynolds Price, Letter to a Man in a Fire (New York: Scribner, 1999), 25.]
In his struggle with the raging storm of cancer, this young man could have taken the words right out of the mouths of the disciples when they cried out to Jesus, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" (Mk. 4:38) It is evening and the disciples are in the boat with Jesus. They are crossing the Sea of Galilee when a great storm arises. The boat is beaten by the wind and the waves; it is filling with water and ready to sink. All the while, Jesus is asleep in the stern untroubled by the storm, indifferent to their peril and unperturbed by their fear. These words are our words too: "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
When we consider the personal tragedies that people face every day and the global crises that plague our world, we may wonder if Jesus is asleep on the job. On Easter weekend a shooting spree in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killed three people and wounded two others. Apparently, the violence by two white men against these five randomly chosen black victims was racially motivated. It's been a particularly intense year for tornados in the Midwest where I live. People of all ages have died and a tremendous number of homes, schools, businesses and churches have been destroyed. A four year old shoots a three year old with a loaded gun; a stroke leaves a young father paralyzed; a child develops a brain tumor; a woman, after one too many beatings, flees an abusive spouse. These are the kinds of things that beat against our hopes and dreams and swamp our lives. "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
In the face of all these things, the Christian faith declares that God does care for each one of us. The Creator of the heavens and the earth knows us by name and loves us. We are a part of the created world. When we consider this vast universe and our small place in it, it is an astonishing claim to say that God knows our needs and provides for us like a loving father or mother. In his book Theology for a Troubled Believer, Diogenes Allen notes that understanding that we are not the center of all things helps us gain perspective about our lives. We are material beings: a part of a larger world in which we are subject to physical laws and, as he puts it, "vulnerable to injury, illness, decay and death" [Diogenes Allen, Theology for a Troubled Believer (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 77]. Such awareness leads us to humility in the face of the wonder of the universe and the greatness of our Creator.
We are also spiritual beings. When confronted by his Creator, Job, in spite of everything that has happened to him, grasps the greatness, the mystery and the goodness of God. In the midst of his suffering, Job declares, "I know that my Redeemer lives and at the last he will stand upon the earth...then from my flesh I shall see God." (Job 19:25) As Allen puts it, "Job has found his way home the hard way--through the path of being reduced to nothing but his bare skin and bones...he is raised by God's spirit to the soaring conviction that no matter what happens to him, he belongs to God, and God will bring him to the divine presence in glory." (Ibid., 63)
In addition to discovering our place in God's universe, Allen describes a second step: trusting in God's loving care enables us "to experience God in the midst of suffering" (Ibid., 79). This is the struggle the disciples face in the boat. They feel alone and abandoned by the one in whom they have put their trust. When the early church told this story of the storm at sea, they, like us, lived on this side of the resurrection. Yet, they, like us, they wondered--where is Jesus when the little boat of the early church is buffeted, rocked, beaten, and almost destroyed in the stormy seas of the Roman Empire? In part, the story is told to reassure the church that Jesus is with us in our suffering even when we cannot immediately see him or recognize him.
Reynolds Price tells of an 87-year-old woman who wrote to him about one of those moments in which the clouds scatter, the darkness lifts, and we see Jesus. She was facing her own time of difficulty as she was going through exhausting medical tests in preparation for surgery. One day she had a kind of vision. "I went out along the Galilee hills and came to a crowd gathered around a man, and I stood on the outskirts intending to listen. But he looked over the crowd at me and then said, 'What do you want?' And I said, 'Could you send someone to come with me and help me stand up after the tests because I can't manage alone?' He [Jesus] thought for a moment and then said, 'How would it be if I came?'" (Letter to a Man in a Fire, 30-31)
"How would it be if I came?" This is precisely what God has done in Jesus Christ. God has come to us in our suffering and pain, in our struggle to be human, in our fear and anxiety, and in our doubt and uncertainty. Jesus put off deity and put on humanity. He became one of us--one with us--one for us.
As the psalmist said, "O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up...You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways...Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast" (Psalm 139:1-3, 7-10). So that even when it seems like we are in a living hell, even there, God is with us.
When the terrified disciples call out to Jesus, he answers them by calming the wind and stilling the sea. They do not yet understand that the one who loves them is Lord, not only of their lives, but of even the wind and the waves. Jesus will teach them how to live and how to die in faith. He will teach them by example. He does not refuse the cross, but accepts it in faith. He knows betrayal, disappointment, grief, torture and death. Yet he commits his life to God and finds perfect peace suspended on a cross between heaven and earth. The resurrection is the sign we have that everything Jesus said and did is true.
Yes, Jesus cares, but it does not mean we will not go through times of danger, suffering, or even death. The French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil was born to agnostic parents. She suffered all of her short life from health problems. She fought in the Spanish Civil War and participated in the French Resistance in World War II. Along the way, she came to embrace Christianity. In the midst of a particularly difficult time of suffering, Weil had an experience of Christ's presence. She has been reciting the George Herbert poem "Love" as she often did in the midst of violent headaches. Weil writes: It was during one of these recitations that...Christ himself came down and took possession of me...I had never foreseen the possibility...of a real contact, person-to-person, here below, between a human being and God.... Moreover, in this sudden possession of me by Christ, neither my senses nor my imagination had any part; I only felt in the midst of my suffering the presence of a love" [Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1951), 69].
Through the storm, we are held by the love of the one whom even the wind and the waves obey.
Let us pray. Holy Jesus, sometimes it seems that you are so far from us when we are hurting, troubled, or in pain. In those moments still the rough and restless seas of our hearts so that we may see and hear you, a Holy One who is with us leading us safely through all the storms of life. Amen.