Mark 4:35-40 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat in to the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
I have found myself starving for quiet lately. And I don’t mean just “peace and quiet,” like turning the television down or tuning out the kids; I actually find the peace I seek when I’m WITH my kids. What I mean is a deeper sense of quiet; The quiet center; a place of deep and dreamy peace, away from the cries of injustice and political posturing. A moment away from the realities of pain and sadness and sickness and death. A respite from the change we must persist in, the doctrines we must resist, the prejudices we must confront. I seek the quiet of resting easy from the worries of the world and simply being free, even if it’s just for a quick cat-nap in the back of a boat.
There have been times where I’ve wish I could shake Jesus awake and plead with him to have mercy on my soul and pass his magic hands of peace over my heart, and the heart of the world. I’ve wondered aloud if he still has mercy for the people of this world who feel as if their boats are being swamped, as if they are at risk for perishing amidst the storms that are looming on the horizons of our hearts. I wish I could have that kind of control over our world—to peace the waves into stillness—but I can’t. It’s a beautiful image, and a compelling narrative, but its not true. In fact it is a conceited contrast, a dangerous savior mentality to think one has the power alone to still the waves of tumult for a world in need. God, maybe. Me, no. And I find myself uncomfortable with the idea of even asking God to still the storms, because I fear it would perform a more dangerous disservice to a world in need, and cut us off from what I believe to be one of the truest blessings of our shared humanity. We’re in this boat together, and together, not only must brave the storms that will come, but we may.
Fortunately there is a compelling little key to help us unlock this story of Jesus and the Stormy Sea from today’s gospel that I think can help us navigate the tumultuous waters.
It comes in the response of the groggy Jesus, irritated that his moment of peace has been quashed. He asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
On one hand, this is good because it’s the narrative revelation that drives this story of Jesus in the book of Mark. The whole book is intentionally designed to encourage the reader to understand in our heart of hearts that Jesus is the son of God and we shouldn’t need miracles to know that to be true. That’s why he is continually perturbed with the disciples for not understanding what he’s talking about with the parables, why he gets so irritated with the people who keep wanting him to perform these great miracles for them. It was probably this very same dilemma that drove Paul to offer his definition of faith in his letter to the Hebrews which Sandy quoted last week. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” And that sounds great! But the assurances I seek and the unseen convictions I am looking for to fire my souls furnace are being watered down by #alternative facts and I’m just not so sure about my fellow man anymore. So this week I’ve been considering what might be the more compelling question that Jesus asks the disciples in his drowsy annoyance. “Why are you afraid?” That’s the human element, coming into direct contact with the potential for the divine.
I can come up with about a million reasons to be afraid. But I’m going to spare you my laundry list of fears. But it’s those fears that wake me up at night, that eat at my conscious thoughts and restrain me from achieving the peace I’m deeply seeking. It’s all those what-if’s and if-onlys and they did WHATs? It’s right there on the front page news and the facebook feed and the panel discussion on NPR. It’s everywhere; this fear that is trying to swamp the boat of my hope, trying to make me sacrifice my conviction and blessed assurance of things hoped for, yet unseen. It is fear that is compelling me to quarantine myself from the woeful world. But why? Why are we afraid?
Last week, on our high school work tour in New Orleans, I was snooping around the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, or “CELSJR” for short, the facility that was housing us for the week. I found this pretty little poem taped to the door of their work space. Confession time. I am fascinated by the things people put around their work spaces. If I’ve ever visited you at work, chances are good you’ve caught me peeping through your memories and treasures, my eyebrow giving testimony to the things I find intriguing or interesting. And I know I’m not the only one who does this. When you come into my office, I see you doing the same things.
On the Brink, by Leslie Takahashi Morris
All that we have ever loved
And all that we have ever been
Stands with us on the brink
Of all that we aspire to create:
A deeper peace,
A larger love,
A more embracing hope,
A deeper joy in this life we share.
I like this positive take on the image of “standing on the brink.” Standing on the brink of creation, of aspiration, of new things and new joys; standing on the brink of something good and hopeful, and meaningful. Standing on the brink of possibility; not despair. Not fear. Not mistrust or hatred or doubt or war; standing on the brink of something that gives life—not death. That gives peace—not conflict. Love, not spite. Standing on the brink with all that we have ever been, preparing to step into a new reality that will continue to affirm life its richness and deep meaning.
The season of Lent is my favorite of the Christian year for just that reason. These 40 days begin with a macabre reminder that we march ever onward towards death. “From ashes you have come and to ashes you shall return,” we say as a blessing on Ash Wednesday, as we smudge each pilgrim with soot and oil. I love Lent because we’re given permission to take the hard edges of life and hold them up to the light, to examine them this way and that; knowing full well that this journey doesn’t end well—until it does. Lent is a time where we are even encouraged to take our doubts and our fears and failures and “growing edges” and hold them out to God like a broken vase and say, “Here…fix this. Please.” Lent is also a time where the quiet is not only acceptable; it is invited, and encouraged.
The woman at the DMV had the well-known slogan, “Too blessed to be stressed” taped to the divider behind her computer; along with pictures of what I assumed to be her children- one young man in his cap and gown, two young ladies dressed sharp and smiling warmly. Now, I could have kept my big mouth shut. I could have simply gone about my business, shielded from any real interaction by our Plexiglas barrier…but I didn’t. One simple question about the kids on the wall turned an otherwise tedious, potentially stressful transaction into a moment of gladness where she confirmed my assumptions that yes, these were her children, and yes, she was very proud of them.
Many of the nick knacks that adorn my working space are helpful reminders of who I am away from the office (mainly in the form of pictures of my family). Many are mementos of things I’ve done that I feel is important character shaping components to who I am (a map of the Camino, pictures from my foreign travels, a faded old copy of our camp motto, “I’m Third”). And I also have little tokens, reminders of some of the important work we’ve done through UCG. Buttons from different causes we have supported, like a living wage and black lives matter and marriage equality sit in hand thrown bowls gifted in appreciation of Food 4 Kids. Good reminders of the good things and good work in my life. In many ways, the trinkets, photographs and knick-knacks in my work space are symbols of my Credo- straight from the Latin word meaning, “I believe.” These are the things that give me comfort and peace, these are the reasons why I fight the good fight, these are the proofs of my belief foundations that guide me in my life and totems from my life of faith. And these are the quiet reassurances I keep to remind myself of my hoped for convictions and dreams for things unseen.
Another great workplace motto I saw recently said, “Fear builds walls.” I want to get t-shirts made of that one. Last week in New Orleans, we were assigned to put siding on a house in the lower 9th Ward. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. I knew I had. I knew the lower 9th was notorious for gangs, drugs and death. I knew it was one of the areas of highest poverty in the city of New Orleans, which meant it was probably one of the places of highest crime. But I also knew that it was absolutely decimated by hurricane Katrina, so I hoped our worksite wouldn’t be too dangerous. Boy was I wrong.
The homeowner, Mr. Theo Watson came out to tell us how much he appreciated all we were doing to help get him back into his home; a home that had been owned by his parents before him, a home in which he was raised with his 5 brothers. And over the course of time with him, I asked him if he could tell us about the neighborhood, and about the street he grew up on. He proceeded to name every family that lived on the entire block. He told us about how his mother would pass out biscuits to the people on their way to work in the morning. He shared how he knew he could never get away with anything wrong because there were neighbors watching out for everyone else on the street. He painted a very different picture of life in the lower 9th for us than the one I had been taught to believe.
We have been taught that it’s not polite to share too much of ourselves in public. We are not supposed to ask people too much about their personal lives. We know the political climate of the day seems to make people extra sensitive around conversing with strangers, and suspicious when people do try to engage us. Why? What are we afraid of? By subscribing to the beliefs that other people force upon us, we isolate ourselves from the true gifts of community. And the cost is too high. Poet David Whyte tells us to, “put down your aloneness and ease into the conversation.” The quiet that I have been seeking is a quieting of my worrisome mind that wants me to believe that the world is out of control; that the tide has come in too far, the waves are too strong and there is nothing to do but to despair. And I have found that the best way to keep those worries quiet is to find ways to simply be engaged, and present with my community. To ask the woman at the DMV about her pictures on the wall, or to ask our neighbor what life was like growing up on this street. There is a cost involved in that level of involvement, too; it requires us to fork over our preconceived biases, to cash in our assumptions about one another and to pay the cost of personal engagement through time and trust invested with one another. But that is a cost I’m willing to pay. Parker Palmer once said, “the human soul…simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of another person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.”
Lent is a time to consider what we can do to help the sufferers make it though (ourselves included). In a time where the world is deeply suspicious and civil discourse is uncharacteristically absent, I’m willing to bet that we can dispel some of the fears that have taken up residence in our hearts by simply asking a good question and keeping quiet to listen to the answer.