When I was about 11 years old I went to visit my cousins up in Minnesota. It was summertime and we spent almost every day at the lake. They grew up near the water and swam like fish. Me, not so much. I could swim; but mostly I just floated around and enjoyed the sun and the clouds.
But one afternoon something happened. It was out of the blue. I was floating around as usual when I noticed a boy who seemed to be in trouble. He was flailing, and his head kept going under water. I couldn’t touch bottom; there was no way this child could. We were both in over our heads. Clearly this kid needed help. Nobody else was nearby. I swam to him as fast as I could and he grabbed on to me for dear life – and pulled me under with him. I had no idea how to save someone! In a moment I realized that we were both going under. He had my head under water. I was helpless. I was terrified.
And then, out of nowhere, a man swam to us. He pulled the flailing child off of me and I swam to shore. I shook so hard I was sick. I remember to this day what that felt like. How could you not be afraid when something like that happens?
The water can be a dangerous place. It seems safe enough, doesn’t it? And then in a moment you realize just how vulnerable you are. Even in a placid lake on a beautiful summer’s day.
Jesus and the disciples are out on the water. It’s not exactly foreign territory for them – they all grew up near the Sea of Galilee, which is really just a large inland lake. Some of the disciples were even fishermen by trade – they knew this lake inside and out. They could read the weather like the back of their hand. It is so calm and placid that Jesus is sound asleep.
But even small seas can have big storms. This one seems to come out of nowhere. And when the tempest comes, the disciples protest, “Jesus, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”
Some years ago John Buchanan preached on this passage – a sermon I saved because it meant so much to me. He told of a friend of his, a man named Richard Bode, who wrote a little book about sailing. A former U.S. Navy officer, Bode knew something about the sea. But it was sailing that taught him about “the relationships between myself and the elements over which I had no control. You have to use whatever the weather gives you. You can’t control it.” Any illusions of dominion are quickly abandoned. As Bode writes,
There are so many storms in life, aren’t there?
It’s Father’s Day today, and I’m keenly aware of my own sons losing their father last fall. A terrible storm. And I think of my own dad who was in the hospital again with pneumonia, how he’s working his way back to strength again in rehab. A tempest he didn’t want to face. But I also think of fathers whose fearful storms rage under a carefully cultivated surface of competence.
Fathers, who want so badly to protect their families, who feel like it’s their responsibility; and when bad things happen to their loved ones, they feel helpless, they feel personally responsible, they feel angry.
Fathers, who want to provide, who were raised to believe that’s their job; and when they’re out of work, or don’t make a deal, or miss a promotion, they feel like failures.
Fathers, who feel like they are drowning in the work they feel like they have to do; it’s never ending, it’s relentless, and they feel like if they let up even for a moment everything will fall apart. And they can’t let on to how they feel. Like that would make them cowards.
It’s like you can’t ever say you’re afraid. Like you’re always supposed to be in control. Like it’s your fault there’s a storm. Like you’re supposed to be Jesus, making everything OK, when it isn’t OK, and it can’t be OK, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do.
When what you want to say is, “Where were you when I needed you, Jesus? Couldn’t you see we were drowning?”
There are so many storms. So many storms. They can come out of nowhere.
There was a storm in Charleston, South Carolina this week. A terrible storm. A deadly storm. Right in a church, the safest place you think you could be. There was Jesus, right there with them, in that Bible study, in their circle of prayer, welcoming the stranger. There they were all together, right in that boat we call church. Was Jesus asleep when that shooter attacked them? Why didn’t he still that storm?
But you know what’s striking? That’s not the question the survivors are asking. They’re not asking that question. They’re not saying, “Where were you, Jesus?” They’re not asking, “How could you abandon us?” They’re not accusing God. They’re asking,
Those are the questions they’re asking - in the midst of the worst kind of storm. Are they grieving? Are they shaken? Are they angry? Are they scared? I would think so. Of course. Who wouldn’t be? But they are people of faith. And they believe Jesus is with them, even in this horrible storm.
How do we face storms like that?
You know the passage we heard earlier, from the book of Joshua? It’s one I often think of often when storms come. The Hebrew people are scared; they are facing something they have never had to face before. Forty years before they were set free from slavery in Egypt, led out by Moses, only to wander in the wilderness all this time. Moses has died, and now it’s Joshua who will lead them to the land God promised. But they have to cross the Jordan River to the other side. They don’t know what, or who, they will face. They are terrified.
And over and over God tells them,
You don’t get to pick when the storms come. Nobody does. Sometimes the gale-force winds come out of nowhere. When they do it’s easy to be overwhelmed, to be frightened. It’s natural to turn to God and say, “Don’t you care?” But God does care, and Jesus is right there in the boat with us. He has not abandoned us. He will bring peace. That’s what lets us be strong; that’s the source of our courage. Not our own toughness, not our bravado. His presence.
It seems I’m facing a heck of a storm right now. I thought the rough weather was done for a while and I’d have smooth sailing. And I know this church is facing a kind of storm, too, with me missing in action. It’s sure not what Trip and Janice and Ellen signed up for, carrying so much of the load. It’s not what our elders thought was coming when they said ‘yes’ to the call to lead us. But I also know their faithfulness, and yours. And I know that if and when I have moments of doubt, all that courage is there for me to grab onto, a lifeline when I need it most.
What I know, more than anything, is that Jesus is with us, with me, through it all.
And that will carry us till we get to the other side.