The Sleeper and the Storm god
I’m one of those really blessed people who grew up in a two parent family, always aware that both my mother and father loved me and wanted the best for me. Many people cannot say that, so I feel blessed to be one that can. On this father’s day I have been reflecting on the role my father played as I was growing up, and how it was different from my mother’s role.
Fathers and pain
Mothers typically want to protect their children from harm. Father’s want to make sure their children know how to deal with harm when it comes. Good fathers do not want their children to get hurt badly, but they understand that a little pain is a unavoidable – in everything from learning to ride a bicycle to yard work. In fact, there is truth to the “no pain-no gain” saying – even though it can be exaggerated and cause harm. Nevertheless, fathers are willing to let their children get pushed past their comfort zones in order to prepare them for life.
I believe that God, in his role of heavenly Father is similar; I have never known anyone who has been shielded from experiencing pain in their lives; I do not believe that God our Father causes our pain – often times we cause our own, and often we are victims of pain-causing external events, from diseases to other people – but God, as a wise Father, helps us learn to handle pain rather than keeping us in pain-free bubbles.
Perhaps there is pain in your life today that you are struggling with – physical or emotional – perhaps relational or even spiritual. If so, this is an important text for us to reflect on, on fathers’ day. For whatever reason, your Heavenly Father has not shielded you from this pain – so what is going on? How do we understand it?
Last week we asked the question: what in the world is God doing, when it is not obvious that anything is happening. Is God, the gardner, careless with his garden, or the seeds? Is he asleep instead of out there fighting off the weeds and tending the plants? Is there a plan at work – something going on beneath the surface, down in the soil? Jesus used some humor last week, with his parables of the careless gardner and of the weed-planting mustard seed farmer. This week it’s not funny at all. The emotional tone is tense and fearful. This is a storm-at-sea story.
Pain, ancient and modern
I believe that when there is significant pain going on in your life, you do indeed feel like you are in a battered boat in a storm at sea; even if you do not believe that the wind and sea are dangerous nature-gods, nor that there is a chaos monster lurking below, as the ancients imagined, nevertheless, the panic we feel when “going down” seems like an imminent possibility is just as palpable. Pain is not just painful, it’s also scary: it hurts now, in the present, and it puts the future in doubt as well. The reaction of the disciples to the sleeping Jesus is not at all unimaginable today. We can sometimes hear ourselves asking:
“Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
– Ah, now we are at the heart of the issue. Pain in our lives brings up the one essential, crucial question: “What in the world is God doing? Does he know how I feel? Does he care?”
No simple question; no easy answer
If this were a simple question, no one would ask it – or would keep on asking it. But we do keep on asking it. And the answer is not something saccharine and shallow such as, “Don’t worry; be happy. Jesus is in your boat and he will calm every storm.” Why not? Because we all experience what those disciples did: first, he sometimes appears to be asleep, and second, we wonder why are we here in a storm in the first place? It’s not just a question of ending well on a calm sea; it’s a question of surviving the panic in the mean time.
Besides, there must be more to it than a guaranteed happy ending. This is not a Mother-Goose tale and we do not live in a Mother Goose world. I have known stories that ended badly; so do you. Some stories end in untimely death. Some stories include other endings – like the way abuse stories do, or stories of relationship failure, of family dysfunction, or economic disaster, addiction, depression, grief – there are many painful stories out there – maybe everybody has at least one.
So what are we to do with this text of Jesus in the boat in the storm at sea; how does it help us?
No pleasure cruise
Let’s look at this story a bit more carefully: first, this story does not happen on a random day, like the day Gilligan’s ship was on his ill-fated 3 hour tour. They are in that boat because Jesus asked them to get into the boat. Whatever is happening, it’s his cruise, not theirs. They are not running away from God’s mission, as Jonah did on his ill-fated cruise, they are there under the direction of the Lord himself. Like the wise earthly father, he is not keeping them on shore in complete safety – he is getting them out of their comfort zone for a reason.
We are not living random lives. We are disciples. God has a mission for each of us, and he is not content to let us sit on the shoreline and sunbathe. He has us out on the boat, even if it means getting away from mom’s apron strings on land.
Crossing to the “other side”
Notice that Jesus asked them to get into the boat to go to the “other side.” They are going from good safe Jewish land to the “other side” where the gentiles live – the folks who are not safe, not good, not like us, and not nice. Of course it will be hard to cross over to the “other side” and bring the kingdom of God and his love and mercy over there – you might even end up in a graveyard dealing with a crazy man – and maybe that’s why you were told to get into the boat in the first place.
Isn’t it true that it has often been the painful parts of our life-experience that have led us to be able to be loving and kind to people we otherwise would have probably avoided? In fact, isn’t pain itself – the storms themselves – the great leveler? We do not all think alike, or look alike, or vote the same, or have the same outlook on the economy – but we all suffer the same. We all go through the same grief when we loose the ones we love. We all find intimate relationships challenging – sometimes to the breaking point. Raising children is hard – often painful – whether you are rich or poor, Hispanic or Caucasian, Jewish or Muslim. On the level of pain, we cross over to the other side where people different from us are just like us in their panic at the storm. But we are sent to them, to in fact bring Jesus to them. In this way, the pain of the storm itself is being redeemed, even before it ends with final peace and calm.
In that boat that day, during the storm, the disciples asked Jesus a question he did not answer:
“Do you not care that we are perishing?” (v. 38)
Probably they meant “we – the ones here in this boat – do you not care about us?” It would be a natural question – albeit a selfish one. Yes, he cared – he was in the boat with them. But he had them in that boat, on that trip to the other side, because he cares about the people perishing on that other shore as well. The whole point of the crossing is to get to people he cares about and to rescue them from perishing as well.
Not alone, not for ourselves alone
There are two things we need to know from this text: that we are not in our boats alone, and we are not in them for ourselves. Our Heavenly Father is not shielding us from storms – we do not live in a bubble, out of reach of the pain that everyone else has to deal with. We do not get a pass. But the presence of the storm does not imply the absence of the savior. He is there, and he cares. And he has us out there so that we can be part of his mission to bring that care to the folks on the other side. The folks in pain, the folks, perishing, like us – but whose story is not over.
Ultimately, we do believe in the happy ending – but in a complex way. We do believe that since it’s God’s cruise and because he is along for the ride with us, that he will indeed ultimately control the storms. Eventually, we will know the calm that he will bring; though we will go through that storm before we get there. We end with his question to us:
He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” v. 40
I don’t know about you: I respond like that father in the gospel with the troubled son who said,
“I do believe; help my unbelief.” Mark 9:24