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Storm Stories

There is nothing more frightening than a storm at sea.

As, once again, we find ourselves tracking a storm working its way across the weather map, I am reminded that there are may storm stories in the Bible. The book of Jonah centers around one of the most dramatic of them.

Then there's Psalm 107:

"Some went down to the sea in ships,doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of God, God's wondrous works in the deep. God 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. They cried to God in their trouble, and God made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad because, God brought them into to a safe harbor."

I suspect that Mark and the other gospel writers had the words of this Psalm in mind when they edited the passage that is the closest we come in the New Testament to encountering the perfect storm. (Mark 4: 35-41) 

Jesus sails with his disciples onto the Sea of Galilee. It's early in the evening; everyone is tired after a long day, but before they know it, the little boat is overwhelmed by one of those seasonal storms famous in that part of the world. The crew is fighting desperately to keep it under control, but the waves grow higher, the wind more intense, at every gust the disciples huddle together saying, "It can blow no harder!" But the gale seems to mock them, driving their words back down their throats.

There is nothing more frightening than a storm at sea in the dark of night. Even when the winds wrench a hole in the clouds and reveal the high moon rushing backwards across the sky, even then, there is nothing but terror. The darkness closes in; the wind howls and screams like a demon. Mark depicts that moment of panic just as the light of dawn reveals the full height of the waves, the very moment when the disciples become fully aware of the danger they are in. They look back at the stern of the ship, where the helmsman is supposed to be, and there is Jesus, asleep!

You can imagine what a shock that discovery would have been. Especially for the disciples. For they are the ones who believe most deeply in his power to heal and save. To them Jesus is the all powerful Messiah; Jesus is the one who can defeat any foe, cure any disease, raise the dead from the grave if necessary. But now, at the very edge of survival, as the ship is about to be swamped, they find him asleep!

We remember that these disciples saw the stormy sea as the very image of chaos. They believed it was only through the continuing watchfulness of God that the creation did not at any moment return to its original state totally without form and void. In the storm, they thought time itself might hurtle backward, taking them back to that creative moment when the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the deep. Or back before that, when there was nothing but chaos. For the disciples, being in that storm was like being at the end of the world. And they cried out to their sleeping Messiah, "Do you not care if we perish?

The Calming of Troubled Waters

Now in conventional interpretations of this passage, the sleep of Jesus is taken as evidence of his faith. Jesus had so much faith in God that he knew there was really no danger in the storm, a simple rebuke would quiet the wind and the waves, just like that. Naturally he could sleep through that night of terror, and so could we, if we only had his faith.

I don't buy that. It's not true to my experience and it's not even true to the Scriptures. For all his faith, Jesus was not carefree before evil's power. His heart was torn apart by the conditions in his country; his feelings were wounded by the suffering of people around him; he knew that the contest between good and evil, truth and falsehood, justice and terror, was not yet decided. If he were asleep at the wheel, it was only the sleep of exhaustion following a long night's watch. Why else would he be found in the place of the helmsman. He stood watch through the darkness of the storm as he would do later in the Garden of Gethsemane, suffering, while it was the disciples who slept. Going to sleep in the midst of a crisis was not his style.

Still, by morning's light he sensed that the back of the storm had been broken, that the ship would survive. And so for a moment, he let himself drift off to sleep, which even he desperately needed. As the early morning sun illuminated the water around the ship, the disciples were increasingly terrified. Now they could see the threatening waves and take a measure of their height. In their fear, they drew the most fateful conclusion. This storm must be a sign that God had turned against them, God had raised up that mighty wind to destroy them. The truly frightening thing here is the thought that God had brought down this storm upon them in his righteous anger.

Just then Jesus stands, faces down the waves, saying: "Peace! Be still! Why are you afraid, O people of little faith?" His words seem to be addressed to the disciples as well as the wind. For he knew that their fear was the true danger, especially their fear of God. They were immobilized by the terror of the deep. They were frozen in fear and self-doubt. They even feared that God had brought this storm upon them.

Jesus knew better. "Why are you afraid, O people of little faith?"

Finding Safe Harbor

Normally this text is grouped in a class with all the other miracle stories. And Jesus is depicted as a miracle worker, a man who has some special power to intercept the normal course of events: He can reverse the laws of gravity and walk on water. He can turn back the progress of disease and heal the sick. He can even stop the inevitable decomposition of the human body after death and bring it back to life.

I don't deny that miracles are possible. Even the laws of nature attract law breakers, and God is the greatest law breaker of them all. The problem is, miracles are by definition exceptional. Our faith cannot hinge upon the hope that God will step in and save us during every moment of crisis. In the teeth of that storm and in the face of the disciples' deepest fears Jesus offered no more that a word -- "Peace, be still!"

The same is needed at many points of crisis in our lives. Our situation may be full of trouble; emotions may be at war within us. One may strike out in anger at a friend who tries to help. One reaches a moment of paralysis or panic, but suddenly the right person says the right word at the right time. And everything falls into place. "Peace, be still!" Suddenly there is a mysterious peace, a peace that comes with healing in its wings, even the peace of God. Such moments do not come often. But when they do, they remind us that beneath the raging tumult of even the perfect storm, there are the still waters of the ocean's depths.

When you think about it, you can see the storms we face are normally of the surface. Even in a time of crisis, if you'll stop what you're doing, let go the thoughts of whatever it is that's troubling you, and center upon God, you can sense that the seas of life are peaceful in their depth. The winds may howl and the waves may crash all around, but in the depths of God's green sea there is a profound quietude. Not far beneath the surface of any storm, the waters are still.

This Jesus knew.So when the wild winds blow; when the storms rage; what we need most of all is the capacity to plunge into the depths of God, to reach down and feel the peace within. And the winds shall cease, and the waves recede, and there shall rise within a peace that comes with healing in its wings. And they were glad for God had brought them into a safe harbor.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.