How do you like your water? Do like it rough? Or do you like it calm?
In the Bible one of the most popular images of water is from Psalm 23: “He leads me beside still waters.” We say that still waters run deep; and indeed, it is true. In baptism, we sprinkle a few, tiny drops of water; or, we pour a small, shell-full of lukewarm water on the infant.
And so we sometimes and naturally receive these images and rituals as prescriptive of a rosy, comfortable, and easy existence with God and the Church.
Therefore, we may come to expect and even crave an easy life, saying it is the will of God. Conversely, when bad things happen or life challenges us to the core, is it because God has abandoned us, or is punishing us? Has our faith been lacking?
In reality our lives our often marked by a rushing torrent of roiling, turbulent, frothing white-water. Being faithful to the baptismal life in Christ is often descriptive more of being in a full-blown hurricane on the ocean.
I love the image of Jesus sleeping in the back of the boat while the disciples get anxious and fearful (Mark 4:35-41). To me, Jesus’ response suggests that in all the storms of our lives, Jesus does not diminish in any way the normalcy of the stormy life as part and parcel of faithful living.
The implication of this is counter-intuitive: It is precisely when life gets unnerving that faith makes any sense at all. Faith isn’t faith until it’s all you’re hanging on to, when the storms of life rage close by.
So when everything is calm, enjoy the moment because there will be more white water soon to come (if we are being faithful, that is). Because when we know God to be near, what we think is reliable and safe is shaken up. Whatever we presume is unchanging, constant, safe …. Beware! If Jesus comes close to that, you may be in for a ride! Because in Jesus’ presence we realize we really cannot control or fix those seemingly stable, controllable things on our own. And this is admitedly a scary prospect.
I’m not a white-water kayaker. But I do enjoy paddling in our canoe or kayak on relatively calm waters. Last weekend I got out on the river for the first time this season. And I was reminded again of the “Rules for White-water Rafting” described by Bishop Pryse at the last Synod Assembly in Toronto a couple of years ago.
He had eight rules for white-water. But I just want to highlight a couple. One rule, which is actually a combination of two of them, is: Never stop paddling, even when it seems hopeless, even when the boat doesn’t go where you want it to go. Never stop paddling.
This is so very important! One of the biggest challenges we face today is that of not giving in to cynicism which Martin Luther reminds us should be counted among, “doubt, despair and other shameful sins.” We need to keep paddling. We need to keep believing. We can never give up.
What did the disciples lack? If anything, they didn’t believe Jesus could do anything, that Jesus could actually provide a way through the storm.
But just as much as we need to keep paddling even when things aren’t going our way, at another level and in other circumstances we also need to be able to let go and stop trying too hard.
I’ve discovered that when docking or pulling away from the dock, all efforts to overcome wind and current by simply trying harder generally do not work. Far better than fighting wind and current is to position myself so that those natural forces will in their own natural way aid rather than frustrate my intent (p.229, Edwin Friedman A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 2006).
I know this especially to be true when solo-canoeing. Even when heading out onto the river, if I don’t have my canoe aligned at the right angle vis-à-vis the direction of the wind, no amount of paddling on my part will achieve anything except frustration.
Alignment. Positioning. This has everything to do with the relationships in which we find ourselves. When we discover a need to realign ourselves vis-à-vis others, ourselves and God, the first step is to “take off the tires” that need re-alignment. For a complete re-alignment job, all tires have to be detached from the vehicle, rotated and then re-attached and balanced. In other words, letting go of our emotional grip on things is the first step.
Another one of Bishop Pryse’s rules for white-water paddling is: If you go under – which is a normal occurrence when white-water paddling – let go of everything; eventually you will come back up. An essential quality of faith is the willingness to let go of anything that we’re holding onto tightly. What are you holding onto so tightly? Resentment? Impatience? The need to be right? The need to be needed? The need to be in control?
Golfers, table-tennis, baseball and hockey players can attest to the one indicator that they are in a slump – what are they doing? They’re holding onto their club, racket, paddle, stick or bat too tightly.
If you want to get out of your slump, one thing to consider is “loosening up”. This is risky and scary. The stress of doing that can be sharp, but short-lived. Because once you have the courage to let go we discover an amazing truth, one that David I believe experienced on the battle field (1Samuel 17).
David could have gone home. David could have used the armor Saul was intent on giving him to fight Goliath, the giant Philistine. Yet, David did neither “safe” option. He was determined to trust in God by trusting in his own gifts of a sling and pebble – even when the facts appeared to suggest he was doomed.
We already have everything we need. We have enough; we don’t need to toil and strive to be something we are not. God has already given to us what we need. All we need to do is trust that God will not let go of us, and that ‘resurrection’, so to speak, will take care of itself.
For me it puts things in right perspective knowing that, regardless of what happens, we will most certainly come back up when we let go.
It’s interesting Jesus, after stilling the storm and bringing peace and calm to the situation asks his disciples, “Why are you afraid?” (Mark 4: 40-41) His question doesn’t refer to their fear during the storm, but after it was over: Verse 41, where the NRSV translates that the disciples were filled with “great awe”, is literally translated they were “fearful with a great fear” for what Jesus did. Why were the disciples as afraid – if not more afraid – of what Jesus accomplished to bring calm to the water than when the storm was at its peak?
Was it because they knew now there was no longer an excuse for not acting in bold, nervy, trusting, faithful ways DESPITE their fear? Truth be told, sometimes people want to remain stuck, holding on too tightly to that which they know is not good. Better the devil you know, right? The unfortunate result, however, is remaining stuck, cowering in despair and using fear as an excuse not to do the right thing.
But it’s not about us. While Jesus doesn’t diminish the reality of the storm, Jesus also demonstrates an everlasting, unshakable commitment to his disciples. Despite their unbelief and fear, Jesus is faithful. Jesus’ faithfulness is NOT conditional on the strength of our faith. This is good news. Jesus doesn’t abandon us in the storm. Jesus is not punishing us on account of the storm – whatever the storm you face. Jesus believes in us, even when we don’t have the courage to believe in ourselves.
One of the most honest, authentic prayers and confessions in Christianity is from the Gospel of Mark: “Lord, I believe; Help my unbelief” (9:24). And so our prayer today may echo the great prayer of the father whose son was healed by Jesus: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” For your homework this week, I invite you to read that 9th chapter of Mark leading up to that father’s statement. And read Martin Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed in Luther’s Small Catechism, where he writes: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ … or come to him ….. but by the Holy Spirit.”
Reflect on those words and examine your capacity to trust and wait for God’s Spirit. And examine your capacity to be decisive; to be decisive with honest awareness of your limitations and despite your fears. And in all that reflection, remember the most important thing – God is faithful!