Calming the stormy waters
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Mark 4:35-41, Job 38:1-11
When troubles come, how do you respond?
Chances are, your first response is to try to do something to improve the situation. We humans are ingenious problem-solvers. It’s a gift from God. As much as we have the ability to mess things up, we also have the power to to make things better.
We are, in this sense, co-creators with God. Whether or not we have the will, we have the ability to solve problems like preventing hunger, curing diseases, and negotiating peace. If we’re sick, we go to a doctor, and if we’re not satisfied there, we get a second opinion, we go online, we try to figure out how to fix the problem. If we have a conflict at the office, we listen, negotiate, and make a decision.
It is natural to start in this place. We’re good at problem-solving, and many times, this is all that is needed. But what happens when this doesn’t work, or it takes a lot longer than we want?
Our next step, if we’re at all reflective, is to try to understand what’s going on. Why is the other acting this way? Why am I acting this way? When we pray, we ask for insight, because we believe that by understanding, we can grow.
This, too, is good, and a gift from God. But what happens when this doesn’t work, when there is no understanding to be found? What do we do when we feel like we’re at a dead-end?
When we come to this point, we are never really at a dead-end. We are at a crossroads. We have simply come to the end of our human capacities, that’s all. This is hard for us to accept easily, to believe there is something beyond our abilities. For even as people of faith, people who should know better, we act as if we have to fix or understand all our problems on our own. We forget that we are not alone in this universe.
If we choose to step forward beyond this crossroads, we enter another world, a world of mystery, grace, transcendence, and healing. This is the world that our readings today invite us into.
The first reading from Job is near the end of this book. For 37 long chapters, Job and his friends have been trying to understand why his life has become so miserable. He has lost his health, his family, his wealth, everything. His friends are convinced that Job has somehow brought this upon himself; they argue with him over and over, trying to get him to fess up to his sin. Job considers himself blameless, and is outraged that God would treat him this way. Both believe in the fallacy that good behavior earns God’s blessings and bad behavior brings punishment. After 37 chapters of talk, their attempt to understand suffering has come to a dead end. They can’t fix it, and they can’t understand it. They feel helpless. Job pleads with God “Where are you? Don’t you care?”
In the gospel, the disciples are also helpless. This story was told in the early church as a parable about their persecutions and conflicts. If Jesus was so great, they asked themselves, if we are his, why then are people excluding and killing us, why are we fighting among ourselves? Why are we, in this boat of the church, about to sink in these stormy waters? They couldn’t fix the situation, and they couldn’t understand it. They plead with Jesus, asleep in the boat “Where are you, Lord? Are you asleep? Don’t you care?”
God’s response to Job and Jesus’ response to the disciples is the same. They slowly rise up and reveal themselves as God. They don’t give an answer; they don’t help them understand. Instead, they pull back the veil and temporarily reveal their beauty and power. For a moment, they blind their questioners with light and divine silence.
God puts Job in his place, asking “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, and answer me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth, when I made the seas and the clouds and the darkness?” God goes on for 4 long chapters, asking Job if he can make or even understand the rain or the light, the foolish ostrich, the great whale, or the soaring eagle. In effect, the Lord says to Job “I am God and you are not.” Job is humbled and falls down in worship. His problems cease to matter.
Jesus is more succinct. He wakes up, stands in the boat, holds out his hands, and commands the wind and the waves “Peace, be still!” There is a dead calm, an eerie silence. He asks his disciples “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The disciples are dumbstruck, and finally wonder “Who are you?”
This is the path that lies beyond the crossroads. When we have come to the end of our ability to solve our problems, when we can’t understand, we too feel abandoned, at a dead-end. It is tempting at this point to stand there like an outraged Job, obsessively asking why this has happened to us, angrily insisting that life should be fair. But we don’t have to remain stuck there. We can step forward, beyond this crossroads, into the mystery of God.
In the midst of our troubles, in the middle of the storm, we can still open wide our hearts, as Paul urges the Corinthians today. We can stand patiently before the veil and wait for God to draw it aside. After all, we will die someday, and in the meantime, this short life is wondrous. No matter what our circumstances, it is wondrous. It is always possible to love, to be grateful.
Even in a crowded airport or in line at the post office, God’s beauty is revealed in the faces of his children all around us. A small yellow finch flitters across the yard, and we can wonder what it is like to fly. In the middle of our prayer for relief or insight, everything can become calm, and our problems can cease to matter. God speaks to us like a mother to a child on her breast: Hush, don’t be afraid. I am God, and you are not. Remember the silly ostrich. Remember the endless sea. Remember your life. Open wide your heart, even now. Peace, be still.
This doesn’t mean that we shall stop all future efforts to fix or understand our situation. It means that in addition to these God-given abilities, we can also develop, through spiritual practice, our capacity to access another dimension.
Are you developing this capacity? It won’t come to you by magic or by simply wishing for it. It comes over time, out of your long experience of worship and prayer, and the active exercise of your faith. And it won’t come if all we do in prayer is plead with God to fix our problems or to help us understand.
Our prayer, our worship, our faith only helps us move beyond this crossroads if it is about more than just us, if it becomes also about God: God’s beauty in nature, the Spirit’s graceful and fluid movement through our lives to work things out, the limitless divine love and brilliance that lies just below the surface of every moment.
Prayer that can help us move beyond ourselves into grace is the prayer of adoration, praise, and gratitude. For a moment every day, forget your concerns, stop asking for God to fix things or to help you understand, and just be with God. In this place, let yourself soak up the goodness of God. This is what Jesus asked of his disciples during that storm, to look within and find the peace of God that passes understanding and circumstance. This is what God asked of Job that day, to stop – even in the miserable state he was in - and open wide his heart.
As we allow our spiritual life to become less self-oriented and more God-oriented, we develop the capacity to access another dimension of life, one that is vastly larger than our problems. It is always free, always true; in it, there is no fear, only love. In this place there is no longer any need for questions, or even for a solution.
Together with Job, together with Jesus’ friends in the boat on that stormy night, we discover that there are no dead-ends. We are always led forward, through our crossroads, into new life.