There is an old seafarer’s tale about a merchant sailing vessel half way between Galway and New York. A violent gale ensued and bolts of lightning snapped at the ship as it lurched to and fro on 50-foot swells.
Experienced sailors retched on the deck as the winds intensified and there was the sound of wood splintering from stem to stern as the ship struggled to stay upright.
One of the sailors pleaded with the captain, “We have to do something, we’re breaking up!”
“What do you expect me to do?” said the captain, who had seen his share of storms.
“Pray!” the sailor said. “Pray like Jesus did in the storm on Galilee!”
The captain was skeptical, but the crew had passed the point of panic and he figured it couldn’t hurt. So he shouted into the wind:
“Lord, the winds are strong and we are being tossed about. We pray for you to awaken and intervene so we will not be torn asunder.”
Every member of the crew stared wide-eyed at the captain and nodded at him, encouraging him to say more.
The mainsail ripped and slapped violently against the mast.
“Help us!” the captain shouted. “But remember, Lord. This is not the Sea of Galilee. This is the North Atlantic Ocean!”
Jesus must hear that kind of skepticism in many prayers that reach his ears. He certainly heard it as he awoke on the boat on Galilee:
“Jesus, don’t you care we’re gonna die?”
There is anger in that question, and fear.
There is also the unspoken insinuation that if Jesus hadn’t been asleep at the switch, they wouldn’t be in this predicament.
The story has a happy ending. Jesus awoke and, according to Mark, didn’t even shout to be heard above the storm. He said, “Peace, be still.” The boat abruptly dropped from an evaporating swell onto a glassy sea and sat motionless in the water.
Straining to hold on amid the pitch and yaw of the churning water, the disciples were caught off balance by the unexpected calm. It was like being on a small airplane ascending through turbulent clouds, rising and dropping so violently your seatbelt digs welts into your lap; and then the plane tops the clouds and sails into smooth, blue skies. The sudden smoothness makes you lightheaded, you still feel the press of the seatbelt, and your heart won’t stop pounding.
But soon you realize: you’re safe. Just when you thought all was lost, you’re safe because Jesus was there on the vessel with you.
When Mark (or an earlier source) wrote about the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he knew most of his Christian readers were living undercover in Rome. They would understand how the peril on the boat would have challenged anyone’s faith. In Rome the Emperor Nero was engaged in the wholesale torture and murder of Christian martyrs, famously using ravenous beasts as his weapons. Christians kept a low profile if they could, but no one was safe. Mom could be feeding you matzos for lunch and providing food for lions at dinner.
Nero reportedly began his reign in 54 when his mother, Agrippina, poisoned the Emperor Claudius. Depending on the source, Claudius was either a gentle scholar or a dissolute old debaucher. He would be entirely lost to history were he not sandwiched between the mad Emperor Caligula the mad Emperor Nero. We remember Claudius because Robert Graves wrote two novels about him (I, Claudius and Claudius the God) and because of the sympathetic portrayal of the emperor by Sir Derek Jacobi in the delightfully licentious BBC television series of the seventies.
Sadly for historians, no contemporary records survive from Nero’s reign and it’s hard to tell if what we know about him is true or made up by his many enemies. I can, therefore, claim without fear of documentary contradiction that he started the great fire of July 64 by inadvertently igniting his panties at a wiener roast and hastily disrobing in a public hay barn. (No reputable scholar believes he played the violin as Rome burned, but neither do they have evidence to deny the panty hypothesis.)
Even in the absence of written records, there is ample forensic evidence that the fire took place. It burned most of July 64 and leveled most of the Eternal City. Some say the emperor started it and some say he didn’t, but all agree he rounded up thousands of scapegoats to blame it on. In an early example of interfaith cooperation, he chose Christians and Jews.
Details of Nero’s atrocities are speculative but church tradition holds that he worked hard to purge the city of Christians and that he was personally responsible for the executions of Saints Peter and Paul. Christians soon came to identify Nero as the antichrist and many scholars believe the book of Revelation is full of coded messages about the emperor, including the number 666. The vastly unpopular Nero was eventually besieged by insurgencies on all sides. He died in March 68 when, lacking the courage to take his own life, he ordered his private secretary to do it for him. Most traditions say his last words were “Qualis artifex pereo,” [What an artist dies in me!] Just as likely, he said, “Life sucks,” and his secretary wrote it down wrong.
Mark’s story of the boat in the storm describes a very sucky moment in the lives of the passengers, and the idea that Jesus was apparently oblivious to the storm as he slept on a cushion may spawn many sermons about how being pure of heart will reward you with many nights of unworried slumber.
Too, it may give pause to anyone who trusts Jesus to intervene in times of tribulation and doesn’t want him to sleep through the opportunity.
Reading Mark’s account, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Jesus regarded the whole situation with detached amusement. Never mind that the other passengers on the boat were vomiting and voiding their bowels in the face of certain death. Only when they screamed at him to wake up did Jesus stir sleepily on his pillow and, with a yawn, mumble, “peace, be still.” And that was all that was required for the storm to go away.
If Mark had been a dramatist, I could see Jesus stilling the storm, scowling indulgently at the men who woke him, and returning silently to his pillow to resume his nap. That would have been so cool.
But Mark, who is often too succinct to be subtle, reports that Jesus closed the scene with a mildly gratuitous rebuke: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
The disciples were clearly too respectful and certainly too shaken to talk back, but at least one of them must have said to himself, “Right, I shoulda lashed myself to the heaving deck and sacked out, so we could wake up dead!”
And maybe that’s what a person of faith should do. The moral of this episode seems to be this: Keep your faith amid all the storms and travails of life, because in the nick of time Jesus will appear and say, “Peace, be still,” and all the bad will go away.
That is a powerful message. There are just two things wrong with it. One, it is not easy to remain serenely faithful when your life is falling apart. And, two, Jesus doesn’t always rescue us from life’s agonies by waving his hand and saying, “Peace, be still.”
The lore of the sea is rich with anecdotes of wrecks and maritime disasters, most of which are taken as a matter of course. Classic architecture on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod provides second floor balconies facing the sea – widow’s walks – where pacing wives can keep a perpetual eye on the horizon for ships that never return.
Some sea disasters are so big they’ve spawned libraries of books, sermons, and scores of films, as well as headlines suggested in Our Dumb Century by the Onion: WORLD’S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICEBERG.
By “metaphor,” the Onion was suggesting the R.M.S. Titanic was one of the 20th century’s greatest examples of avoidable tragedy and human hubris (in a century packed with both).
As almost everyone knows, the Titanic, declared “unsinkable” by its builders, struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912, and promptly sank. Of the 2,224 souls on board, 1,514 were lost. Most of those who died had been disqualified by their penises from, shall we say, manning the lifeboats. The majority of dead males were either crew (693) or third-class passengers (387), although 118 first-class chaps went down with the ship. Fifty-two of the 53 children who died were in third-class. Of the 106 women who died, 89 were in third-class and 13 were second-class passengers. Second class male fatalities totaled 154.
The Titanic death toll, like life itself, was unfair. No one yelled to Jesus to wake-up and save the ship, although witnesses said musicians played “Nearer, My God To Thee” until they could no longer keep their chairs from sliding off the deck.
The fate of the Titanic makes us think of hundreds of disasters that have elicited shrill calls to Jesus to “wake up, don’t you care we’re dying?” In the last century alone, tens of thousands died in wartime bombing raids on London, Tokyo, Dresden, Berlin and more – including the quarter of a million who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As an ex-airman, I often think of those who died in U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. The B-52s flew so high they could neither be seen nor heard, and untold thousands of unsuspecting villagers – many of them civilians – never saw the conflagration coming.
And none of us will forget September 11, 2001, when 2,996 souls perished: 2,606 in New York City, 125 in the Pentagon, 246 on the four hijacked planes, and 19 hijackers. We know very well that many of these people did cry out to Jesus for help, and we have their voices on 911 calls and answering machines.
These are all heart-breaking tragedies, and their numbers pale beside the millions of everyday heartbreaks all of us experience. No one gets out of this life without experiencing one or more calamities that are too much to bear: the death of a child or loved one, a bad report from a pathology lab, betrayal by a trusted someone you trusted, the burden of physical or mental disability, or the loss of a cherished job or career.
Life sucks. At times, life sucks so badly it’s easy to understand why the disciples on that boat in Galilee – scared they were about to die – were angry at Jesus for sleeping on his cushion while calamity loomed. Don’t you care, Jesus? Don’t you care that we are about to perish?
But Mark’s point is not that Jesus was asleep at switch. His main point is that when they needed Jesus badly, he was very much there.
The other point is that, when Jesus awoke, he demonstrated a power over nature that is equal to God’s. That was Mark’s way of reminding us that whatever is happening in our lives now, God is an enduring and undeviating part of it. There is no escaping the fact that life will suck from time to time, for many perhaps even most of the time. But there is also no escaping the fact that God who loves us will always be a part of it.
For most of us, life is a long haul and living through it requires a stubborn resoluteness and a durable faith.
In 1985, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan wrote a helpful guidebook, Ten Commandments for the Long Haul.
Berrigan’s first and most important commandment is simply this:
“Call on Jesus when all else fails. Call on Him when all else succeeds (except that never happens).”
As the boat on the Sea of Galilee appeared about to break-up, the disciples didn’t hesitate to call on Jesus. In this particular instance, Jesus' response was instant and dramatic.
Amid the inequities and injustices of real life, we know Jesus' response may not be instantaneous, and often Jesus’ response to our needs will require more patience than we think we may have.
In times such as these, we pray for the wisdom to wait and trust that God loves us and will never desert us.
Because Jesus and the Holy Spirit will always respond. And when that response comes, we may well be reminded of the gentle query of Jesus to the disciples so long ago: “Why were you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
God grant us faith sufficient to endure every storm and celebrate every calm as God’s abiding and everlasting gift.
For even when God is furthest away from our thoughts, God is always as close to us as the air we breathe.