A few weeks ago (May 30th) I was on a small boat sailing in a nasty rain storm. It was the Susan Hood race. Ninety-nine sail boats left Port Credit Yacht Club in Ontario for an overnight race in the south-western part of the lake. Initially the wind was quite slow, but on Saturday morning we got to experience an honest-to-God Lake Ontario Line Squall.
Unlike the disciples, we had some warning. We knew about the front coming through thanks to a weather briefing the day before, and were able to track it with our cell phones. As the time came closer we could even see the line of clouds showing the abrupt change in the atmosphere.
Without saying much our crew went to work preparing the boat. Everyone put on foul-weather gear and life jackets. Everything down below in the cabin was secured in place to keep it orderly in case we had an emergency and had to get to something in a hurry. We reviewed the location of the emergency equipment such as the panic button on the radio, the location of the flares, the “ditch bag” that would go overboard with us if the boat sank. We reduced sail, but decided not to turn on the engine (that would disqualify us from the race). The last thing we did, just before the storm line hit, was get to our positions and attach safety lines tethering us to the boat.
The first thing that hits you is the wind. Down-drafts of cold air from the clouds hit the lake and spread out–often changing not only the intensity but the direction of the wind. The storm was heading north and east, so the skipper immediately began heading south, toward the bottom edge of the storm cell, and would continue to ride the edge of the storm until we came up behind it.
The rain was falling in drops so big and hard and that I wondered, for a second, if it was hail. We were hunched in the cockpit of the boat being pelted by the rain as the boat climbed up and then surfed down the waves. The skipper was totally focused on the helm and only occasionally had to shout at us to adjust the mainsail this way or that.
It wasn’t my first storm in a small boat out of sight of land. So I knew pretty quickly that the boat could handle the conditions. What you do worry about, at times like these, is the unexpected: lightening strikes or equipment failure. Both are very real dangers despite all the advances in modern sailing. And when you think about that, on the water in a storm, you realize that there isn’t much between you and death. It’s not a thought we often contemplate, even when driving down the highway at 100 kph or crossing the street, but the truth is that we are often only one broken bolt from an early exit.
The storm in Mark’s Gospel would not have been the first rodeo for these Galilean fisherfolk, either, so when they say they are afraid for their lives we should take them seriously. This is real peril and these men had mere fiber and wood to protect them from a watery death. We should probably also understand that they knew how to handle ordinary storms. No doubt they were exercising every bit of their God-given talents to rescue their lives. In my imagination they worked like we did on our boat, carefully and quietly doing what needed to be done. Whoever was at the helm of that little boat was just as calm and focused as our skipper had been.
And yet, and yet, in this case, it was not enough. This storm was not like others they had weathered. This storm was just a little too much, even for experts. That’s an easy feeling to identify with! Just an hour ago I had that feeling in my gut, “This is bad. You don’t have an answer for this one!”
And yet, and yet, it worked out. God did what God does and it gets better. The storm passes, the situation changes, whatever. And on the other side of these troubles we are all left with the same question as the disciples, “Who is this?”
It’s that person-question that strikes me. The disciples do not wonder at the how of Jesus’s actions. They don’t ask, “How did he calm the wind?” They wonder at the person-hood of the creature with such power that “even the wind and waves obey him.”
In our technical age we have been trained to ask technical questions. “How can I grow my church?” “What am I supposed to do with my life?” “What is the Holy Spirit saying in this situation?” Perhaps we miss the point when we fail to ask about the “who”?
“Who will grow my church?” “Who am I supposed to be?” “Who speaks for the Holy Spirit?”
God is not reducible to the stuff that happens or the things we have. God is primarily revealed to us as three divine persons with whom we relate, and our bias toward a functional, transactional, doing-God moves us away from an abiding, loving, being-God. “Who is this?” should be our go-to existential query.
So preacher friends, I encourage you to pivot quickly in your sermons this week away the marvel of what God did to astonish those foolish disciples (because we’ve all been in that boat) toward the qualities of what kind of person acts like Jesus acts. Draw us a portrait of the person, not the storm.