They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships

Joy vs. Facts, Sleeping in a Storm

 
One place I like to go, from time to time, to rouse my spirits and draw me closer to the heart of God is Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.

I’ve been chewing on one line in particular the last part of this week: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

Berry’s words are good for us to hear right now, because “all the facts” include the reality of living in a country with a deeply ingrained racism habit that we just can’t seem to kick. The Deacons and I were praying Wednesday night in the back of our sanctuary, right about the same time another group of believers was praying in a Charleston, South Carolina church…. People of color in this country continue to suffer at the hands of racist persons and racist systems that perpetuate their mistreatment.

But, Berry says, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

If Wendell Berry were narrating Jesus’ state of mind in Mark 4:35-41, he would have said, “Jesus relaxed and took a nap, though he had considered all the facts.”

The disciples are thinking, “Oooh, nice—we’re going to go out in a boat with Jesus into this serene lake:”
 

Sea of Galilee

 

Whereas Jesus probably knows that this was in the offing:

 

Jesus Calms the Storm, Gustave Doré
Jesus Calms the Storm, Gustave Doré

 

Here’s Rembrandt’s rendition of it:

 

The Storm on the Sea of Galiee

 

And yet Jesus “lies down and sleeps in peace,” as the Psalm says.

 

A Furious Squall…

 

Mark 4:35 says, “That day when evening came, [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’” From what I can tell, evening can be a good time to catch fish, but to traverse a lake…? When you’re out camping and sunset comes, you try to set up camp, not embark on a new leg of your expedition.

But God’s ways are not our ways, and Jesus’ ways are not the disciples’ ways, so off they go. Verse 36 says, “Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.”

“Just as he was”—it’s like when you’ve made a spontaneous decision to pick up a friend and go out for coffee, and you are in a hurry and you say, “Just come like that, just come how you are. Atomic Cafe doesn’t care if you wear your pajama pants and fleece-lined Crocs. Get in the car.”

Jesus and the disciples just went.

Next verse, verse 37: “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.”

I love this genius storytelling of Mark. If you’re reading or listening to this story, you don’t know yet where Jesus is. “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.” And then, you expect, verse 38 will say, “And Jesus, with power and authority, stood up and made the waves stand still.”

But, no, verse 38 says, “Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.” He needed his introvert time. He found a pillow, or a big sandbag, and put his head on it.

The disciples take this as apathy, some kind of a cruel joke.

If the boat is nearly swamped, and Jesus is still sleeping, he must not be wet yet. It’s possible the stern was raised. The boat could have looked something like this:

 

Raised Stern

 

Which probably makes the disciples all the more upset. You wonder… if Jesus knew this storm was coming, is that why he was at the stern, elevated above the rest of the boat? And if so, the reader of this text wonders, why didn’t he quell the storm before it started? Or give the disciples a heads-up? Mark doesn’t tell us.

But his students ask, “Teacher, don’t you care if we down?”

The specific wording Mark uses in the text suggests that the boat was filled “to the extent of its capacity” (HT).

And doesn’t this imagery of a flooding boat go against the axiom that “God won’t give you more than you can handle?” Maybe it’s more like, “Sometimes we get more than we can handle, and God’s not necessarily the one who gave it to us, but he’ll be right by our side anyway.”

 

…And an Omnipotent God

 

If Mark’s given us the full humanity of Jesus—he was sleeping on a cushion—now we see his full divinity. Verse 39 says, “He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.”

“Who is this?” the disciples ask. “Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The text says it goes from a “great” windstorm to a “great” calm.

Jesus talks directly to the wind and the waves. Can you think of another person in biblical history who talked to the waves and the sea, and told them to do something?

Jesus, they are starting to see, is more than just an amazing teacher. Listen to how God questioned Job:

Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?

I don’t know if the disciples, in that moment of fear, would have had Job in mind, but the kind of thing Jesus is doing in this passage is the kind of thing that only the LORD God Almighty does.

Here he is. God himself, in the boat with the disciples.

Psalm 107 says, “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”
 

But They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships…

 

I wonder if Jesus had this Psalm in mind as he went out into the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. Maybe he thought, “Alright—it’s Psalm 107 time. Let me show these young ‘uns what I can do.”

Listen to part of Psalm 107 in the King James Version:

They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind,
which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven,
they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted
because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man,
and are at their wits’ end.
Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.

Did part of that ring a bell? You might recognize this guy:

 

FishermanMemorialGloucester

 

Here’s a close-up of the Fisherman Memorial overlooking the Harbor:

 

They That Go Down

 

“They that go down to the sea in ships,” the inscription reads, 1623-1923.

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.

 

…These See the Works of the LORD

 

What about those who go unrescued?

And the Psalm goes on to describe the wind and the waves. Those at sea “reel to and fro… and are at their wits’ end.” Surely this describes the lives of those lost at sea from 1623 to 1923, and before and since.

Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm,
so that the waves thereof are still.

That very much sums up the experience of the disciples in Mark 4. They’re living out that Psalm with Jesus

But herein lies a theological difficulty. I don’t know how many fishermen cried “unto the LORD in their trouble” in stormy seas, but the memorial in Gloucester stands there to honor those who were not brought out of their distress… or at least, not brought out of a storm. There are some storms–literal and metaphorical–that God just does not make calm. Unlike the ones the Psalm 107 goes on to describe, these men and women that the man at the wheel stands for were not rescued.

“Teacher, don’t you care if [they] drown? …Why didn’t you save them?”

It’s one of the perplexing questions that confronts us—why a God who can and does intervene so often… just lets some things go… lets some evils move ahead. Allows men and women to get lost at sea.

That existential question has come up again this week in Charleston:

 

Why
Source: David Goldman (AP)

 

You can’t kill love

The 9 members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church barely had time to “cry to the LORD in their trouble.” And though Jesus was in attendance at that Bible study and prayer time—“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them”—he didn’t stop the hateful actions of a deeply racist young man.

Surely those 9 didn’t have to die. I don’t know how many more of these things it will take for our nation and lawmakers to finally move ahead in a serious conversation about gun control. I don’t know how many more unarmed black people will have to die before our country wakes up to the pervasive racism in our midst.

They didn’t have to die. But, you know what? In the lexicon of the Kingdom of God, dead isn’t really dead.

Because you can kill a person, but you can’t kill love.
You can try to cut somebody down, but “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” From even horrible death can come new and powerful expressions of life.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney was the Pastor of Mother Emanuel, one of those who died. There’s a short YouTube video you can easily find: a couple years ago he welcomed a group of folks who were on tour in historic Charleston. Here’s what he said:

The African American Church… really has seen it as its responsibility and its ministry and its calling to be fully integrated and caring about the lives of its constituents and the general community. We… don’t see ourselves as just a place we come to worship, but as a beacon, and as a bearer of the culture and a bearer of what makes us a people.

But I like to say this is not unique to us. It’s really what America is about. Could we not argue that America is about freedom? Whether we live it out or not… but America’s about freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. And that’s what church is all about. Freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends us to be… and have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you gotta make noise to do that. Sometimes you maybe have to die… to do that.

We saw this week how the family members of the victims responded. They called on Dylann Roof to repent of his sins and believe in Jesus. As Rev. Pinckney suggested, they called him to a life of “freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends [him] to be.” They said things like, “Though every fiber of my being is hurting, I forgive you.” And the nation watched, amazed at the witness of the families in that church.

And so God, working through the amazing mercy of the families, calms the storm, after all. The winds of hatred and the breaking waves of destruction die down as Christ works in the hearts of his disciples in Charleston who choose faith over fear.

When God’s children find themselves in choppy waters, our Lord, Jesus, is right there with us in the boat.

And because they know Jesus is in the boat with them, the families of Mother Emanuel have chosen to be joyful, “though [they] have considered all the facts,” though their loved ones have been lost at sea, as it were.

Not a sudden storm, not even a tragic shipwreck can keep Christ’s disciples from making it to the other side. There they see the works of the LORD, and their witness lives on.

 


 

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached today at church.

Charleston, S.C.: What Can We Say?

Why
Source: David Goldman (AP)

 

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the U.S. on Wednesday night—which was also an act of racism—I suspect many of us have found ourselves at a loss for words. Scripture’s language of lament can come to our aid in the aftermath of violence and tragedy. Of course, the Psalmists who turned their pain and puzzlement into prayers did not see lament as a panacea for all the world’s evils. Even if God were to vanquish all of David’s enemies on the spot, he knew he still had the sin of his own heart to contend with.

Psalms and prayers of lament do, however, help the one praying make the important move of deliberately entering God’s presence in a state of deep pain, confusion, frustration, exhaustion, and exasperation. If you are tired of praying, “How long?” and “Why?” and “Please come to our aid quickly, O Lord!”, I wonder whether the Psalm writers might simply advise us to redouble our efforts and pray those same prayers once more.

Psalm 74 says, in part:

How long will the enemy mock you, God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.

Psalms of lament—with a couple noteworthy exceptions—end with an affirmation that God is still King, and his ability to bring salvation cannot be compromised. I’ve often imagined that when the authors of such Psalms came to the reaffirmation section of their laments, they wrote with trembling hand, watering eyes, and a fast-beating heart that clung desperately—hope against hope—to the truth of God’s sovereignty.

Now is the time to pray such laments—especially on behalf of others and the injustice and pain they undergo. Though all life is valuable and the taking of another life is tragic in any setting, the victims at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were brothers and sisters in Christ, bonding together in prayer in their final moments of life on earth.

Their prayer and study of the Word of God is now transformed into something more than they could have imagined, as they meet the One who is called the Word, face to face, in all his glory.

But there’s more to respond to—the shooter appears to have been a white supremacist who targeted his victims specifically because they were African Americans. It’s stupefying how people of color in our country continue to be targeted. Our prayers and support are needed.

I know it can feel like “it’s getting old” to make lamentations, and we can get tired of praying the same prayers (over and over) for justice and healing around issues of racism and hatred in all its forms. But battle after battle, injustice after injustice, threat after threat, that’s what the Psalmists did. They kept turning their pain to prayer—kept bringing complaints about injustice into the presence of God.

Let’s not lose heart in praying that God’s kingdom would come, in all its fullness.

 


 

The above is adapted from what I wrote to our congregation this morning: a call at a time when words fall short to engage the lament language of Scripture.

Reading Jonah, Receiving Jesus in Advent

Jonah into Sea
Jonah Thrown into the Sea, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

Advent is a season of preparation, of expectation, of taking stock before the Christ comes.

In his mercy Jesus came into the world to save a wayward people. In his mercy Jesus comes to us each day and dwells with everyone—woman, man, and child—who calls on his name.

Jonah—that recalcitrant prophet who finally cried out to God from inside a giant fish—knew God’s mercy. It was probably a deep appreciation of God’s grace and a desire to share it with others that led Jonah to the prophetic vocation in the first place.

Yet the book of Jonah shows a follower running in the opposite direction of his Lord.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity,” Jonah will say in the fourth and final chapter of the book bearing his name. “That is why,” Jonah said, “I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.”

Reading the first few verses of Jonah, we think he is fleeing from God because he has to call a powerful, godless empire to repentance—and that would involve some serious risk to the prophet’s life! But at the end of the book, Jonah reveals it wasn’t fear for his safety that led him away from Nineveh; it was fear that this heinous people would actually accept and receive God’s mercy.

The same God of mercy who had drawn near to Jonah and won his heart now wanted to draw near to the unworthy city of Nineveh.

 


 

A King and Savior drew near—to one of Israel’s most despised enemies in the 8th century B.C., the Assyrian Empire. And—hope against hope—Nineveh’s king repented and called the rest of the city to “give up their evil ways and their violence.”

Our King and Savior now draws near—through our remembrance of the Incarnation, a scandalous act of God’s lavish mercy to the undeserving. The Incarnation would culminate in the crucifixion, an act by which Jesus would draw all people to himself—from sacred Jerusalem to Gentile Nineveh, from Main Street to Wall Street.

Our King and Savior now draws near—through the promise of Christ’s second coming, to be at an hour which no one knows, at a time when we least expect it.

Our King and Savior now draws near—in daily interactions with neighbors, in world events, among the least and the last, and to our own hearts.

The book of Jonah teaches us who have accepted God’s mercy that we are to extend God’s lavish love to everyone. We should not begrudge God’s grace given to those we most despise.

That’s easier said than done.

Reading through Jonah, we do well to pay special attention to what it reveals of its main character (Jonah’s God), to Jonah’s internal struggles (and how it resonates with our own), and to the repentance of unlikely characters (the sailors, the Ninevites).

And may we each consider, as we meditate on the unfolding of God’s mercy, from Jonah to Jesus:

Our King and Savior now draws near—how do I receive him?

 


 

The above is adapted from an introduction I wrote for my congregation as part of an Advent Reading Guide to Jonah. (A number of us are reading a chapter of Jonah each week of Advent.) More on Advent and Jonah to follow.

“Jonah” (A Poem by Bonhoeffer)

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

 

They screamed in the face of death, their frightened bodies clawing
at sodden rigging, tattered by the storm,
and horror-stricken gazes saw with dread
the sea now raging with abruptly unleashed powers.

“Ye gods, immortal, gracious, now severely angered,
help us, or give a sign, to mark for us
the one whose secret sin has roused your wrath,
the murderer, the perjurer, or vile blasphemer,

who’s bringing doom on us by hiding his misdeed
to save some paltry morsel of his pride!”
This was their plea. And Jonah spoke: “’Tis I!”
In God’s eyes I have sinned. Forfeited is my life.

“Away with me! The guilt is mine. God’s wrath’s for me.
The pious shall not perish with the sinner!”
They trembled much. But then, with their strong hands,
they cast the guilty one away. The sea stood still.

 

–“Jonah,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written from prison the year before his death

Our King and Savior Now Draws Near—How Shall We Behold Him?

advent wreath

 

Keeping Advent is counter-cultural. To be sure, Advent has been integral to the culture of the Church for at least a millennium and a half. But if we used to complain about seeing Christmas displays and shopping specials before Thanksgiving, now it’s not unheard of to hear Christmas music in mid-October at Stop & Shop. Not exactly Advent-y.

In a society where Black Friday deals (and now pre-Black Friday deals) seem to outpace a few moments of meaningful reflection, how can we be faithful in preparing our hearts for Jesus? “Our King and Savior now draws near,” declares the Book of Common Prayer. We, the people of God, are expected to respond—want to respond—“Come, let us adore him!”

This King draws near when we don’t expect him, maybe when we weren’t even watching. But God’s mercy is like that—unexpected. Unpredictable. And meted out to all the wrong people.

Jonah certainly thought of God’s mercy that way. Though a prophet—whose vocation was to proclaim God’s message of deliverance—he resisted God’s call, because he was angered at the Lord’s grace toward the evil empire of Nineveh. How much more offended might he have been at the scandal of the Incarnation, and at the universal, saving power of the Cross?

Jonah is an obvious counter-example as we seek to pursue a faithful response to God’s mercy. On further examination, however, we find ourselves more like Jonah than we want to admit.

At the church where I minister, we’re keeping Advent together, a season of expectation and inward preparation. Each of four Advent Sundays I am preaching from a chapter of Jonah. My hope is that we can engage Jonah’s inner turmoil as a springboard to inwardly reflect and prepare our own hearts for the coming of God’s great mercy, as revealed to us in his incarnate Son, Jesus

 

Our King and Savior now draws near—how shall we behold him?

 
 


 

The above is adapted from a letter I wrote to my congregation in advance of Advent. Keep coming back here for more posts on reading Jonah and receiving Jesus this Advent.

Advent Wreath! Advent Wreath! Advent Wreath!

advent wreath

“Advent Wreath! Advent Wreath! Advent Wreath!”

This is the mantra my 2-year-old son repeats as soon as bedtime routines begin–and sometimes before that.

Each night since the beginning of Advent, our family has observed Advent together by praying, reading a Bible passage, lighting a candle, and singing a verse and the chorus of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” There is perhaps nothing more heart-warming than hearing our two young boys sincerely belt out, “REJOICE! REJOICE!” each night around the Advent wreath. This will be a family tradition for years to come.

We made the wreath together as a family at our church before Advent. We use it to mark the time as we eagerly anticipate the celebration on Christmas of Christ’s first coming to earth, even as we await and long for his second coming. The waiting and yearning themes of Advent have been particularly appropriate given that we have yet again recently seen the evil we humans are capable of.

For those of you who plan worship services, or like to think deeply about them, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has a helpful Advent and Christmas Resource Guide. A reflection from that site says:

In Advent we hear the prophecies of the Messiah’s coming as addressed to us—people who wait for the second coming. In Advent we heighten our anticipation for the ultimate fulfillment of all Old Testament promises, when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, death will be swallowed up, and every tear will be wiped away.

There is something for me to learn from my two-year-old’s persistence as we gather each night. The anticipation with which he comes to our time of prayer (often clapping his hands) is what I want to offer God in this time of waiting.

Jesus weeps, we weep

Shannon Hicks/Newtown Bee, via Associated Press
Shannon Hicks/Newtown Bee, via Associated Press

Jesus wept, and he weeps again today, with the horrible news of another school shooting in Newton, CT. From the New York Times:

A gunman killed 26 people, 20 of them children between the ages of 5 and 10, in a shooting on Friday morning at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., about 65 miles northeast of New York City, the authorities said.

The gunman, who was believed to be in his 20s, walked into a classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School where his mother was a teacher. He shot and killed her and then shot 20 students, most in the same classroom. He also shot five other adults, and then killed himself inside the school.

This evil deed is so heinous that even naming and describing it feels bad. May God have mercy on the souls of those poor children, and the grieving families they leave behind.

Christians have a rich Biblical tradition of lament that we can employ in times like this. This summer after the Colorado shooting, I posted this prayer, which was an aid to me in processing the grief, anger, and bewilderment I felt after hearing such awful news.

Prayer of Lament

O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.

For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.

How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.

**From Let the Whole Church Say Amen! A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public, by Laurence Hull Stookey, pp 94-95 (Copyright 2001 by Abingdon Press). Reproduced by permission. Formatted print-friendly pdf of prayer here.

The Scriptures that the above prayer draws on are: Psalm 124:8, Psalm 37:39, Psalm 22:4, Romans 8:26, Isaiah 59:7, Job 41:22, Nahum 2:10, Lamentations 2:11, Isaiah 6:11, Psalm 91:6, Psalm 44:23, Psalm 44:26, Exodus 34:6, 1 Corinthians 1:17, Ephesians 2:14, Amos 5:15, Revelation 21:4, Isaiah 60:22.