Sunday, June 21, 2009

Across to the Other Side

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder
June 21, 2009

Mark 4:35-41

During my first year in graduate school at Princeton Theological Seminary, having just moved to New Jersey from undergraduate life in Texas, I found myself going through several difficult life adjustments. I was encountering one trial common to all professional programs: learning a new language. I don’t mean biblical Hebrew or Greek, although we had to learn those too. I mean the specialized language that is required of any professional to enable peers to talk with each other at more depth than in common English usage. Medical people, engineers, legal professionals, people in accounting practice, and many others have their own special languages. Learning that jargon can be a thankless task. Also during that time, I was attending regular classes each day, the first of which was devoted to the study of Biblical Greek and occupied two hours per day, five days per week. I was working in a church on weekends in which I was more or less thrown into the role of seminary authority and junior high fellowship leader with no particular training or experience. My supervising pastor in that church was an inner-directed sort of fellow who had great difficulty empathizing with the common trials and tribulations of seminarians.

That Fall I learned of a sudden death in the family, 1500 miles away. It seemed as though I was at least a million miles away from anything familiar, experiencing less and less direction for the arduous tasks I was pursuing at the seminary. I felt lonesome and cut off. What on earth did God have in mind for me? Should I even be there? I needed a break.

So I visited my New Jersey aunt and uncle for a weekend. On my second day there, I was coming down with a bug and went upstairs to rest on a bed that afternoon at my aunt and uncle’s home, sporting a slight fever. The weight of all my anxious misgivings was very much on my mind as I dozed off to sleep. When I awoke, I was exceptionally aware of the silence of the room, the silence of the outside world at that moment. Everything in the house seemed hushed and quiet. It was still daylight. Then an awareness washed over me. It was a sensation that I will never forget. I was granted a sense of deep assurance — from somewhere quite outside myself — that everything was going to be alright.

In spite of my worries and wondering, I now knew in a way that I had not known before, that no matter what happened, things were going to be OK. I was able to let go of some of the anxiety, to settle into the truly blessed assurance that God had plans for me far beyond my imaginings. Today I believe I was in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Or, rather, that my guard was sufficiently down, my neediness so exposed, that the Holy Spirit — always present and ready to bring life — was able break through my customary human defenses and minister to me.

My story, while unique to me, is not unique in type. Every person here has faced trials, has carried anxieties, has lived through times when life, lacking purpose or direction, seemed set adrift on an ocean of empty loneliness. Odd as it may seem, those are so often the very times when we are most vulnerable, most open to the work of the spirit.

Mark tells us that following several healings and the teaching by the lakeside, the disciples and Jesus were moving “across to the other side” of the Sea of Galilee. This was a movement in both a physical and a spiritual sense. Before the journey on the water, they were a loose-knit collection of people who had benefitted from the teaching of a rabbi. Following the crossing, they might still have been a loose knit collection of people, they might still have recognized the benefit of this man’s teaching, but something new had changed everything. They had begun asking each other, “Who is this man?” because they no longer were sure they knew. ‘Rabbi’ was certainly not a big enough title for a person who could calm the wind and the waves on the open sea.

Throughout the history of the Jews, stories of water crossings signified more than logistical accomplishments. The major water crossings of the Bible involve the movement of God’s Spirit with the people. Genesis tells us that the Spirit of God moved across the face of the waters at Creation; runaway slaves crossed the water when they escaped the fury of Pharoah’s chariots; 40 years later, the people of Israel moved across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Now, Jesus moved with his disciples across water toward a new understanding of who he was.

In the middle of the storm, with the waves crashing into the boat, the disciples looked at Jesus, slumbering in the stern, and cried out, as I cried out to God in my prayers during that first year of seminary, “Do you not care?!” These are the sort of words any of us might address to God when we are in distress. It is natural, when we are in the midst of danger or suffering to wonder two things. [1] Is there a God somewhere beyond the fearsome realities that I see? And [2] if so, is this God even aware of my particular problem? Is God there, and does God care?

It is revealing that it was Jesus who first brought up the matter of fear in Mark’s story. Just think of the terror of towering waves on the open sea. I recall a member of a Bible study I once taught describing an experience of a terrible ocean crossing during which trips onto the deck provided views of waves as big as mountains rolling on either side as the ship ambled up and down — now in the valley between them, now towering on top of one, gazing across at another. Jesus asked the disciples, “Why are you afraid?” Like the disciples we almost want to shout back, “Who wouldn’t be afraid?” Yet this is the centerpiece of the story, not only for those storm-tossed disciples, but for the tiny persecution-tossed church of Mark’s day, for the anxious fever-tossed seminary student of my day, and for the trouble-tossed among us this very day. Jesus recognizes fear for what it is and asks us to put a name on it. What are you afraid of? Until we name our fear, faith cannot overcome it.

Even more revealing, it is only after having been asked the question that the Bible actually describes the disciples as fearful. The NRSV says, “And they were filled with great awe.” That hardly puts it strongly enough. The Greek could be more literally translated, “They feared a tremendous fear,” a superlative fear, a fear that, awful as it was, addressed their accustomed world of anxiety and suffering by the Spirit of God and they knew life would never be the same again.

The “It will be alright” spoken to disciples, to the early church, to me as seminary student, changes the world. It is no longer as much a fearsome place as it is a God-filled place. That is truly a crossing to the other side.

The human side, the worldly side is filled with the fearsome realities of daily living. Most of us spend the vast majority of our lives living in that world. Fearsome as it may be, we are used to it in a way. For some reason we are all too anxious to embrace our fear-filled world — at least it’s familiar. Worried about the economic situation in our nation and world? Who wouldn’t be? Our investments used to seem safe enough, but what might this world-wide recession do to all we have worked and saved for? Do you feel quite safe in your home? Only fools would say that they never entertain any anxiety about their own physical safety or that of their family. It’s a fearsome thought. Sure, some world leaders may negotiate to reduce nuclear weapons a bit, but isn’t it true that more than enough are still stockpiled to blow us up twenty or thirty times over? I might have made decent grades this term, but what about next year, when the courses may be harder? Fear is easily introduced into any conversation, it doesn’t take any special knack at all to do it. We are at home with it, even though we may not like having to set an extra place at the table for it. Only rarely may we be given a glimpse of another reality, that this is a God-filled world as well, a world filled not only with the realities of the physical laws of creation, but with the benevolent intentions of the Creator.

In the face of our listing of 1001 things to fear about the world, Jesus turns to us as he did to his disciples, and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And we are just as likely to shout back, “Who wouldn’t be afraid, just look at what we have to live with every day!” But then we wonder... Who is he? What is he saying with his questions?

A few years ago, the brilliant English physicist, Stephen Hawking, was the subject of a cover story in Newsweek magazine. Though crippled by Lou Gehrig’s disease, through the assistance of a voice-synthesizing computer he continues to amaze the scientific world with his brilliant mathematical postulates on the beginnings of the universe. He has peered into the stuff of creation, has understood much about the origin of our universe, and has returned declaring many things about it, even that there may be some greater intelligence at the root of it all. But one declaration he cannot bring himself to make: that such a universe, filled with such mega-forces as black holes, could possibly be governed by a deity that actually cares about the creatures that populate this small corner of the cosmos. He has not made the crossing to the other side. It is a fearsome world we inhabit. He knows it is, and so do we. We have all been there. Yet, so many have testified to another reality, another realm, not so easily accessed by mathematical equation.

This is one reason Mark wrote down this story for us. It was addressed to his church, but they saved it so that we might benefit from it too. It is just as surely addressed to Stephen Hawking as it is to us. It is a story to help make disciples brave when we feel least like it. It is a story that takes seriously all the stress, anxiety, persecution, suffering and disability that humanity could possibly face — doesn’t discount it, takes it seriously. But having done that, says there is more to life than fear, declares something supernatural still rules and cares for the world, as the psalmist testified,

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the Lord,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men,
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to the sons of men!
Let them extol him in the congregation of the people,
and praise him in the assembly of the elders.
(Psalm 107:23-32, NRSV)

The story of Jesus on the stormy lake is also the story of God’s lordship over the storms of our lives, even the most desperate ones. When we find ourselves at the very brink of fear, we may look beside us and discover that his presence is there to bring calm in the face of a chaotic world. Praise be to God!

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved