One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A gale swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, ‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’ — Luke 8:22-25
There are those who say the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a human being. I’d say there’s something to be said for sitting in a boat on a clear, beautiful morning, fishing line in the water and waiting patiently for a nibble on the bait. Not the active and constant motion of fly fishing, this is simple salt-water fishing the way we did it back home when I was a kid — bait hook, throw line in water, sit back and wait. I could watch the gulls fly overhead, be lulled by the usually gentle waves, hear them lapping against the side of the boat. It was, in my mind, heavenly.
But heaven can turn hellish, storms can blow up and the calm waters can become chaotic and threatening. Being out in a storm in a small boat can certainly put the fear of God into a person. It brings to mind all the ship disaster movies anyone has ever seen or even the documentaries of ships crippled or sunk by high seas or rogue waves many times higher even than the ones that threaten the boat. Of course, a small river or even a bay probably will never experience a rogue wave, but when you’re out in a small boat and a storm comes up, it is never wise to get too complacent that you can control things. Maybe that’s God’s way of reminding us that we aren’t in control — we may just think we are.
Reading this part of the morning text, my mind started playing a familiar hymn from the church of my childhood:
(1) Master, the tempest is raging!
The billows are tossing high!
The sky is o’ershadowed with blackness,
No shelter or help is nigh;
Carest Thou not that we perish?
How canst Thou lie asleep,
When each moment so madly is threat’ning
A grave in the angry deep?
“The winds and the waves shall obey My will,
Peace, be still!
Whether the wrath of the storm tossed sea,
Or demons, or men, or whatever it be,
No water can swallow the ship where lies
The Master of ocean and earth and skies;
They all shall sweetly obey My will,
Peace, be still! Peace, be still!
They all shall sweetly obey My will,
Peace, be still!”*
I can see the terror on the disciples’ faces although, being fishermen, they had probably been in a lot of storms on the Sea of Galilee. What made this storm so much worse than any other? Could it be because Jesus was lying in the bottom of the boat sound asleep while they were fighting to keep the boat from capsizing? It takes skill and hard work to keep a boat meeting waves head-on rather than broadside, yet here was another pair of hands that could have helped man the oars and tiller cutting Zs while everybody else worked. I imagine the disciples reacted partly out of fear and partly out of anger that often comes from fear. Of course, Jesus does wake up and stills the wind and the waves and everybody makes it to land safely.
It doesn’t take much of a stretch to see the boat and the storm as a metaphor for life, especially when things are chaotic, out of control and frightening. Even though I may be standing on terra firma, I can still feel that there’s a really thin piece of wood or two between me and fathoms of watery death. When everything is going well it’s easy to see myself in control of my life but when it starts turning dark and blustery, that illusion is pounded like waves on a seawall. It’s so easy to call on Jesus to still the waves when I’m being swamped, but perilously hard to remember who is REALLY in control when the sun’s out and everything is just rosy.
There is a prayer attributed to the fishermen of Breton, “Lord, the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” It’s certainly an acknowledgement the disciples would have understood, and even I understand it when I think of life and how small I am compared to the world I live in and the things that can go wrong in it that affects me. I think probably everybody can understand it because I don’t think any life is totally free of storms, fear and chaos. It’s easy to have faith when things are good, but like the saying about “No atheists in foxholes,” it’s when things get messed up and there’s real trouble that some suddenly discover that they need a prayer or some demonstration of faith to hang on to in order to keep putting one foot in front of another.
In times of trouble I remember Jesus in the boat. Oh, I don’t expect him to be sleeping while I sink, but sometimes it’s hard for me to picture him holding out his hand to calm the waters and still the winds. Sometimes I have to ride out the storm — but then I remember I’m never really alone in that boat. Maybe the storm doesn’t immediately dissipate, but having that insight makes things easier and I don’t feel I have to fight so hard.
(3) Master, the terror is over,
The elements sweetly rest;
Earth’s sun in the calm lake is mirrored,
And heaven’s within my breast;
Linger, O blessèd Redeemer!
Leave me alone no more;
And with joy I shall make the blest harbor,
And rest on the blissful shore.
* Lyrics, vss. 1,3 by Mary A. Baker, 1874, from Cyberhymnal.org