The calm in the storm

Mark 4:35-41

            I am deeply appreciative of the work done by Megan Elizabeth Sutton with our PowerPoint displays during worship. Even though my view of the screen is not as good as yours, I have the privilege of making a weekly ritual of looking through the PowerPoint twice. Why twice, you may wonder. The first time through, I look for an errors or corrections to suggest. The second time through, I spend time marveling at the art she has chosen, reflecting on its creator’s intent, and soaking in the meaning and the purpose I can divine from the art. It’s a momentary prayer practice for me, one that I appreciate, especially on an intensely full week like this past one.

            Art has a way of connecting us to the world around us. The crafting of Michaelangelo’s David or Monet’s water lilies or Van Gogh’s sunflowers helps us to look at the ordinary and witness the extraordinary. We see life through the creativity of another person…and in the process, we learn more about ourselves. What do we notice – in the big picture or the small detail? What did the artist see that we have never noticed? And since there is a fair amount of art devoted to images of God and stories of the Bible, what does art teach us about God and the role God plays in our lives?

            A few months ago, my spouse Kimberly and I participated in a continuing education event hosted by Timbercrest Retirement Community. Bethany Seminary president Jeff Carter was the guest presenter. The audience was clergy from the two Indiana Districts of the Church of the Brethren. The topic focused on the symbolic storms of our lives and where we find calm, reflecting the scripture that Kimberly read for us a few moments ago.

            However, this was not a traditional Bible study. Jeff used an image of this piece of art as a focal point for our discussion. The piece is “Jesus in the storm on the Sea of Galilee” by Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn. I’ve seen this painting before – it’s a fantastic piece of art. It captures a snapshot of the pinnacle moment of this text – the point where the storm is at its peak, the disciples are freaking out because the boat is about to capsize, and frantically wake Jesus, who somehow was able to sleep in the midst of this chaos.

            Let’s look closer at the painting. You’ve got this boat, which I can tell you is nothing like the one that Jesus and the disciples were likely in. This one actually looks seaworthy. The actual one? Probably nowhere near as sturdy. You’ve got one guy at the bow, trying to hold one sail in place, while another just below him holds another part of the sail. I can’t tell what the two disciples near the mast are up to, and the one in front of them looks to be loosening the rope on a pulley.

            At least those guys are active. Look at the seven in the back of the boat with Jesus. There’s one disciple struggling with the rudder, three more trying to wake and explain to Jesus what is happening, two others – the one in the blue and in the beige, sitting back to back, seemingly doing nothing, and the last leaning over the side, perhaps seasick. Then there’s Jesus. Rembrandt paints Jesus, not with the medieval golden halo or even an all-knowing expression. No, Jesus looks like any of us would look if we had just been suddenly awakened. He looks groggy, confused, and coming to an awareness of what was happening.

            That’s the moment I see. What do you see? What is Rembrandt saying about Jesus and the disciples? And what symbolic ‘storm’ comes to your mind for our lives and world as you reflect on this image? Take five minutes, turn to several people nearby to you, and talk among yourselves about what you notice about this classic, scriptural piece of art.

            Return from conversation – Even though the event that focused on this work of art was intended for clergy, the text and painting has broader application, because we all experience storm times in our lives, whether a small gale or a hurricane sized catastrophe. Just as the disciples, the storms in our lives may catch us unawares. Just as the disciples, we may not know the best ways to respond to the storms we encounter. Just as the disciples, we are often in desperate need for calm in the midst of life’s storms.

            Our storms take many names - Cancer, heart disease, relationship heartache, job loss, an ‘ism’, school bullying, family dysfunction, and many, many others. Persevering through the storms in our lives is one of the most common and simultaneously most difficult parts of what it means to be human. We never fully know when the storms of life will hit us. And because they will hit us, like Rembrandt’s storm, we are often tempted to ask a very understandable question when they do – where is God in the midst of all of this?

            When the disciples suddenly show a lack of trust in God’s power working through Jesus as he sleeps in the stern of the boat, and even accuse him of not caring, we may find ourselves smacking our foreheads at first at their response, then nodding along with the disciples a moment later. The irony in this moment, of course, is that Jesus has to care. He’s in the boat with the disciples. They are all in this together.

            That’s an overlooked point from this story. It’s also a reminder of what Jesus represents. Jesus does not represent God from a distance. He is in the boat with the disciples. He is the calm in the storm with them. He is the calm in the storms we face, as well. That does not mean he will calm all of our storms. It does mean that Jesus offers us calm, an inner peace that surpasses all understanding, which helps us during life’s storms.

            In her book, ‘For the time being,’ author and photographer Annie Dillard writes, ‘God is no more blinding people with glaucoma, or testing them with diabetes, or purifying them with spinal pain, or choreographing the seeding of tumor cells through lymph, or fiddling with chromosomes, than he is jimmying floodwaters or pitching tornadoes at towns. God is no more cogitating which among us he plans to place here as bird-headed dwarfs or elephant men -- or to kill by AIDS or kidney failure, heart disease, childhood leukemia, or sudden infant death syndrome -- than he is pitching lightning bolts at pedestrians, triggering rock slides or setting fires. The very least likely things for which God might be responsible are what insurers call "acts of God."

            The miracle story of Jesus' calming the storm at sea testifies to two truths. First, there is nothing Jesus cannot do to keep us from ultimate harm. Second, as Jesus' disciples living in an imperfect world, we are in for some rough times. This gospel story confirms that the boat in which Jesus and his disciples found themselves went through a real storm, a real threat.

            The storm doesn't blow around their boat just because Jesus is on board. It hits them full force. Nowhere does Jesus promise his followers anything different. A peaceful voyage is not the journey we embark upon. But a peace-filled journey is available to us, even in life’s storms. Jesus' promise is not to sail us around our storms but is to be with us in the midst of all storms -- still in one peace. Amen.