Living in the Presence
2009-06-18 by Roger Gustafson
Good Lord, the disciples are more afraid of Jesus than they were of the storm, and he just saved them from it! Before, they were afraid for their lives; now, it’s almost as if they’re afraid of their lives: If we’ve thrown in our lot with this One who just turned out to be completely beyond our experience and expectation, what’s in store for us when we reach land? This part of the service was definitely not in the bulletin.
But great awe can turn into great appreciation, and that can turn into courage. It might take time, as it did for the disciples, but it happens.
Enough about boats. I love road trips on a motorcycle. The planning, the anticipating, the packing, checking over the bike – it’s all part of an exhilarating experience in which I quickly remember how elemental life really is.
Most of the time, I am guarded and sometimes guided by insulators. I delegate and assign and manage. At work I have a storehouse of resources, including an imaginative co-pastor to consult in the event of a creativity drought and an administrative assistant to protect me from the peddlers of the latest sure-fire, shrink-wrapped evangelism program. At home I have caller-ID to alert me to the deputy sheriff’s association pledge-takers. I live with insulators, shields.
Not so on a motorcycle. The greatest value of a road trip is the fact that the road doesn’t care. Forget to pack an essential, the road doesn’t care. Forget to tighten something, neglect to fill up at the gas station you just passed as the needle on the gauge began to tip toward “E,” break the front zipper on the leather jacket as you’re about to head into the Rockies in late October, the road doesn’t care. Deal with it. There’s no one to call for suggestions, no one to delegate the solutions to, no resources to call upon. Except yourself.
It’s amazing how quickly I’m able to identify my insulators once I’m stripped of them, how refreshing it is to be glad of their absence. How curious and ironic, then, that it is at precisely the times that I’m engaged with the immediacy of life – dealing with it by my wits – that I have an overwhelming sense of and appreciation for the immediacy of the presence of the Almighty. Ah, so this is what “filled with great awe” feels like!
This God-awareness doesn’t ease the pain that comes from skidding and falling on wet pavement or laying the bike down in the middle of an intersection in order to avoid being hit by someone running a red light (we’re still responsible, and sometimes we pick up the tab for others’ bad judgment), but it does encapsulate the entire ride in bright and grace-filled promise. It also reminds me that my life is not primarily about me but about the astonishing God who has entrusted it to me; and it sharpens my desire to use the resources that God has implanted in me, to use myself fully.
“Teacher, do you not care … ?” Yes, he does. But his always-ready caring is not a replacement for our own. It’s the gracious box in which we deal with the chaos that life occasionally brings our way. It’s the Teacher’s caring that shapes us for the future.
2009-06-17 by Stephen Schuette
Turn left and it’s the power of the storm; turn right and it’s the power of Jesus over wind and wave. Either way these disciples have eyes popping and mouths a-gape.
What they wanted, perhaps, was for Jesus to put them back in control of a situation that had grown out of their control. At least that’s what I want in a crisis. I don’t want everything to change; I don’t want the world to shift radically; I just want the specific need addressed, thank you very much. But please don’t upset the whole order of the universe as I know it for that is fraught with a whole new set of anxieties.
And perhaps that’s why there’s a delay before rousing Jesus. They’re not just waiting for the storm to take them but are bailing, turning, straining on the oars – everything within their means. They’ve thrown their efforts at order against the chaos and the chaos is winning in spite of their efforts. So their final appeal to Jesus is a cry of exhausted resignation. They’ve done everything, except trust, which according to Kierkegaard and others does nothing to speak to their need of control over the natural forces of the world. Instead they run into another force beyond their control and now must take God seriously.
Could that be the point of the story? Look at the order. In vs. 40 Jesus’ question isn’t “Why were your afraid?” but “Why are you afraid?” Then in vs. 41 the words tumble over themselves: “They were overwhelmed (like being swamped?) with awesome awe." But this is after the storm is calmed
This narrative cracks the world open in a way that has nothing to do with peace and calm. It’s interesting that John places a similar swamped boat story at the end of his Gospel with the risen Christ, only there the boat is not swamped with water but an abundance of fish. Either way, it’s quite a boat ride!
Time to bail
2009-06-17 by Roger Gustafson
Of course Jesus is asleep. What, he should worry? What the disciples experience as the threat that is likely to end their lives is the same old λαῖλαψ (“whirlwind”) out of which God spoke to Job. We know this; they don’t. So they wake him up. According to artists’ renderings, they are wide-eyed and terrified, their mouths open in a shout. According to Mark, they simply say: Teacher, do you not care that we are dying? Either way, it isn’t a request for information; it’s a declaration of desperation in the face of disaster.
But we too have questions. The Greek indicates that the waves were beating into the boat and that the boat wasn’t simply taking on water, but that it “was already full.” So why did they wait so long to call on Jesus? What had they been doing, bailing or waiting?
What is it about our appropriation of faith that renders some of us helpless (“Teacher, do you not care … ?”) and some of us lion-hearted (“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Phil 4:13)? Had the disciples’ journey with Jesus simply sapped them of their initiative, of confidence in their own resources? After all, some of them were veteran fishermen; the Sea of Galilee was their office, so storms were nothing new; this one was no surprise, probably nothing they hadn’t encountered before. But this one was new; it was first storm they encountered in the company of Jesus, the miracle worker, the healer, the great teacher – the One to whom they had taken a backseat. Perhaps they had gotten too comfortable back there.
We often lament our tendency to domesticate God and so turn away from God’s redemptive power in our lives; it’s also possible to domesticate ourselves in the face of faith in God’s power and so turn away from our own “created co-creator” power. There is a downside to a pure “let go and let God” surrender ethic.
Roger and Theodicy
2009-06-17 by David von Schlichten
I am grateful for our guest blogger's reflections on Job. Scroll down to read Roger Gustafson's insightful posts.
He is right that, when someone suffers, she or he does not really want to know why. The person just wants the suffering to stop. That's a helpful point that I will probably take with me into the pulpit this Sunday.
Many people derive comfort from the belief that "Everything happens for a reason," but I find more comforting and more sound biblically and logically the belief that "Some things just happen, but God never forsakes us."
Why do people cling to the "Everything happens for a reason" theology? What's good and bad about it?
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
'Now my eye sees you'
2009-06-16 by Roger Gustafson
Job asked for it, a reckoning, an explanation for his suffering. No secret sin burdens his conscience; he has nothing to fear because his record is clean. So bring it on. “Let the Almighty answer me!” (31:35b)
In good rabbinic fashion, God responds to Job’s question with a question. “Why do I suffer?”, Job asks. “Who are you?”, God responds.
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” Job has been wearing not simply blinders but a blindfold. The Lord speaks out of the chaos of the whirlwind. While the appointed reading encompasses 11 verses, God goes on for four chapters, recounting God’s own activity throughout the grand sweep of creation. God’s view is cosmic; Job’s view has been pitifully myopic and immediate. As God speaks, God inserts an invitation to Job to respond (40:1-5), and by then his response amounts to wide-eyed surrender in the face of God’s majesty: “I am of small account … I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” (40:4-5).
What accounts for Job’s shift in perspective? “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,” he says in 42:5-6, “but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Job had known God by reputation only; now, he had a vital, personal experience of the Almighty that gave his circumstance wider perspective. Job stops asking for an answer that fits within his framework of justice because he has encountered God in all of God’s glory and power. It’s an encounter that has rearranged Job’s priorities and given him new eyes.
We don’t really want answers, do we? When we suffer, we don’t want to know why, not really. We simply want the suffering to stop. The weary, all-cried-out, puffy-eyed parents of a 19-year-old daughter who is dying of liver cancer come to you pleading for an answer to “Why?” But they’re not really trying to understand the mechanics of the illness’s origin, as if understanding will make it all better. They don’t want information; they want the cancer gone. To use Craig Barnes’ construct at the recent Festival of Homiletics, the question is the text, the pain is the subtext. The subtext is where those parents deeply live.
We can’t give them what they want, but in time we can give them an awareness of the overwhelming, overpowering presence of the God who redeems even the very worst thing. We can invite the anger, the despair, the questioning; we can ride out the storm with them, contributing a generous amount of “I don’t know” and putting up with their corresponding frustration with us. We can, if they allow, enter into that subtext and be present, announcing by our presence the God who redeems.
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