Not being in control is truly terrifying. I can vividly recall the time the brakes failed in a car I was driving. I was going down hill (toward the ocean, no less) when I realized what was happening. I mashed my foot into the pedal so hard that my butt was off the seat. Still going faster, I yanked on the parking break and could feel that it was having an effect, but the only way I survived was by taking a sharp, tire-squealing turn past a bewildered pedestrian and into a level alleyway. The next day I donated that junker to the Red Cross. I had dreams about being out of control in a car for months after that.
The terror of being in a small boat in big water whipped up by a storm is more rare. Our culture has become as divorced from the ocean as it has from the land. Fishing as a vocation is now dominated by huge steel ships that use methods perfected by industrial science at the cost of a way of life. Fishing is an industry, now, not a trade, and far less dangerous than it used to be. All big diesels and GPS with coast guard choppers ready to rescue any crew in peril.
Nothing could have been further from the truth for the poor disciples working hard against a contrary wind all night while Jesus meditated in apparent tranquility on top of a nearby mountain. They did not go out by choice that night, quite the opposite.
In the Gospel reading this week, Jesus indeed calls to his disciples in the midst of the wild and restless sea, but he is not beckoning them away from the storm. Instead, his voice calls them into the tumult.The text says that Jesus made the disciples get into the boat (14:22). A better translation of this main verb would be “to force” or “to compel.” Jesus did not give the disciples a choice. He compelled them to get into the boat and to leave him alone with the crowds. (Carla Works)
What was more terrifying as they pulled the oars? The sense that the sea would kill them all in an instant or the helplessness they must have felt to their cold, shivering bones?
This relationship between control and fear is particularly poignant in our age. We idolize individual choice. We are told that we are our identity, and that identity is constructed by the moment-to-moment choices that we make (particularly choices that require consumption of some sort), so not having choices is paramount to not having self. Cogito ergo sum has become Elegi ergo sum (I choose, therefore I am). One of the pillars of modern retail is creating the perception of choice, even when the products in question are actually indistinguishable. It is important that consumers feel like they are control of the exchange.
In what sense do we feel like we are in control when we follow Jesus? We say we want to obey him. Does that mean that, like the disciples, we will be forced away from shore, into the chaos? Pulling on an oar in a desperate attempt to keep the boat moving forward, barely under control, lest we go sideways and broach? I can identify with how following the path of Jesus can lead to some frightening and anxious places, when I’ve worried that the slightest misstep would lead to disaster, when there seemed to be no choice but to claw forward day by day in the hope the weather would change.
Where this Gospel story goes sideways for me is when Jesus shows up. This is even more terrifying to the disciples than the storm! The truth is that for many of us the hard labor in the storm is actually a more comfortable reality than encountering the awesome power of Jesus to master those forces. We prefer to think of Jesus as some kind of regional sales manager. He sent out on a mission and we intend to do that mission and return with the results. The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25.14-30) makes sense to us. The notion that Jesus would show up right in the middle of our work and blow our minds with his power is problematic because it seems to undermine our efforts. Why would I bother rowing if
I knew Jesus was going to save me in the end?
Put in practical terms, just how hard should I be working? At what point am I being a faithful and dutiful servant doing the Lord’s work and at one point should I “Let go and let God”? It’s a puzzle that eludes me, and this Gospel story has helped much.
Here is the other problem. Suppose that I am able to see Jesus in the storm and experience something of his faith. I see the power Jesus has and feel that I participate in it. Walking in faith, I step over the gunwale and onto the water. For a few precious seconds I have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus… but then I see the waves and my confidence sinks at the same time I do.
Practical example: I go off on a retreat or have an exceptionally good time of prayer or enjoy an inspiring conversation that convinces me of the Holy Spirit’s activity in my work. I come back to work and set to the task joyfully aware that God is working alongside me to bring about his purposes. But, again, this faith is difficult to sustain as soon as a few setbacks roll in.
Jesus response to all this, the disciples, me, our culture’s fetish for control, is a certain heavy sigh. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
“I don’t know, Lord.” But at least in my doubt I am able, with the disciples, to affirm, “Truly you are the Son of God.”