This was one of those times when I could really have got caught up in wondering who or what Jesus was addressing when he calmed the storm. It would have been easy to got into all kinds of theology, but instead I thought it might be worth while simply being honest with the text, and with ourselves...
One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’
Where do your monsters come from? We all have them, the fears that sneak up on us in the middle of the night and find us tossing and turning as, half asleep and half awake, we try and figure out how best to fight with our troubling internal demons. In our semi-comatose state, even with the best of our intentions we find that our common sense has fled and is replaced by sweat; by our sodden nightwear clinging to us. However together we may seem to the outside world, and whatever facade we put on in order to function, pretty much every person I know has episodes like these and for some they are less ‘episodes’ and more a mode of current existence. They usually come when we are under a significant and prolonged period of stress since those are the times which make us look deeply at our faults and failings, trying hard to comprehend what happened to get us into this predicament. But whatever it is, the result is the same: we feel abandoned to a fate we are no longer in charge of. This, in fact, is the key for when these night ‘visitors’ are likely to come; when we feel no longer in charge of our destiny, perhaps because the responsibilities are more than we feel able to cope with, or because someone is taking our freedom, and with that comes the loss of the sense of any degree of control over our lives that every person needs.
These feelings tell a story that is akin to being adrift on a boat where, despite your skills as a fisherman, the boat is no longer in your control because the storm has become too much to cope with, exactly as per the position the disciples found themselves in. The seas were higher than their boat was designed for, and so, in fear of being completely overwhelmed, they cried out that they were in mortal danger to Jesus, who was exhausted and hence fast asleep. Jesus awakes and rebukes the forces of the elements and calm returns.
Now we can do two things with this story. At face value it reveals to us Jesus as someone who was so in touch with the spiritual forces of the natural world around him that he was quite at ease telling them to sit down and shut up, which is my paraphrase of the Greek used. Luke’s version of the story doesn’t give us Jesus’s actual words, but in the parallel story in Mark’s Gospel we read that Jesus commanded, ‘Peace! Be still!’ and the wind and waves obeyed. The intriguing thing behind that is that it seems to be a personal address meaning something like, ‘Be muzzled!’ or ‘Be gagged’, almost as an address to a puppy or a dog. It suggests to me a command to something behind the storm, or that the storm was itself being addressed. Now to much of the modern church this seems a rather unusual idea, but amongst those who feel an affinity for the personality of our natural world it is not remotely so. For many there is the strong belief that nature spirits are a part of the weave of life in this world. For others they take a different view that the waves and the storms can be addressed directly; that the waves are a god. For Christians either possibility is intriguing, maybe disturbing, because they fall outside our world-view, and I think we should allow ourselves to be challenged by the possibilities. What is interesting is the personal way that Jesus responds to the danger and the instant response. In other words Jesus, quite simply, tells the storm and the waves to be calm, to stop making such a racket... and they do. We can interpret that as Jesus speaking to spirits behind the elements, or to the elements themselves, or if you prefer a scientific worldview, Jesus was simply telling the physical world to do his bidding. Whichever you prefer, the result is the same, the natural world responds to the voice of its creator.
So that’s the face value look at what happens. But what about if we treat the story as a myth, a fable which is trying to teach us something. (I should add that treating something as a myth doesn’t mean you don’t believe it happened, it is simply another way of reading.) What you will find in the commentaries over and over again is that the story is teaching us that Jesus can calm the storms in our lives. We only need to have faith in him and he will still the worrying and the fretting.
Isn’t that wonderfully simple.
But it also inadvertently suggests that if you cried out for help and it didn’t come, then that’s your fault for not having enough faith. I have to say, in general, that my experience is one of tending towards the sleepless nights whilst trying to figure out a solution to an issue that has arisen, and wishing I had a little more faith than I currently do. You will find people whose testimony is that when they trust the Lord they find he will take away their fears. And I also know that this is the witness of the more popular parts of scripture, that if we trust God, then it will all be ok and we will be stilled. Perfect love drives out all fear and all that. But my love is not perfect, and as an occasional insomniac I can tell you, it is not as easy as that. I alos know that there were some unlikely character, like Moses, who simply stoof up to God and said pretty much, 'No, I'm too scared'. Sometimes God compromises to help us in those times when we're really going to struggle. (Exodus 4 tells the story of God compromising to Moses.)
You simply cannot turn trust on like a tap. Look at it reasonably and you see that the disciples were in this boat with Jesus asleep and the waves about to swamp them. They don’t tap Jesus gently on the shoulder and say, ‘Pardon us Jesus, but could you just have a quiet word with the sea as it’s getting a little choppy.’
No, they scream at him, ‘Help, help, we’re all gonna die!!!!!!’ That’s the kind of biblical reality we need to recognise. It is only when we’re honest with the story that we can be honest with ourselves. If the disciples, in the real physical presence of Christ, were terrified, since we have only his spiritual presence to work with, I think it’s ok to let ourselves off the hook just a little.
But only a little, because now I am going to refer to his rebuke, ‘Where is your faith?’ We can’t quite get off the hook here, because if we’re honest with ourselves, when it is all going wrong, where is our faith? Personally I think that this is about actively developing trust, and forgiving ourselves when we’re not capable of biblical faithful heroics, and not beating ourselves up for not having faith in the first place. It’s also about learning to hear the voice of God in the dark places. I remember a former student colleague who, when things were bad got quite low, but when things were going well she would say, ‘Isn’t God wonderful.’ Somehow we need to transcend our feelings. So when I talk about developing trust, the key word is ‘developing’. A picture develops as the painter transfers her creativity to the canvas. Growing in trust of God is like painting a picture.
So I think it’s meant to be rather like the creative process. First of all you need to see inside you what it is you wish to have, i.e. trust in God. A painter, unless working entirely from the unconscious, begins at least with an idea, even if it’s only a word they wish to transform into an image. But the next thing they have to do is pick up a paintbrush, and then they must dip it into the paint, or the picture will be stillborn within them. So it is for us. If we wish to develop trust, we need first to imagine what that trust might look like. Then we need to pick up the metaphorical brush, which is to paint the first step, a step which I think is the simple act of believing that it is possible to trust God, whatever the circumstances. And then we have to trust God for something small. I make no promises that the small thing we’re trusting God for will come right in the end, but the very act of trying to actively trust takes us one step along that path.
The word disciple comes from the same root as discipline. Growing doesn’t come easy, and sometimes we have to work hard at it. But then I remember how a parent rejoices over their child’s every act of development and realise that God feels the same way about us. One wave at a time I believe it’s possible to grow and trust.
One wave at a time...