storms of life

My connection to the natural world is often reflected through the lens of my dog’s eyes. Among the things I’ve learned about my dog over the past few years, there are three things that are relevant for today’s sermon. The first thing is that Geo is a bit of a dandy. Whenever Tabor and I take him camping, we think, “Oh, Geo is a dog; He loves being outside.” Then we quickly remember that he prefers to collect all the pillows in the house and lie upon them all day. He also detests becoming wet. Rain, river, no matter, he avoids water, until Tabor tempts him with food.

That leads to a second thing I’ve learned: Geo is not in the habit of checking weather forecasts. In fact, that feels like an exclusively human thing to do. I could be sitting in my living room, or waking up in my bed in the morning, wondering what the weather will be like. Instead of looking out the window, I open my phone and look up the weather forecast. Not only will I be concerned what the weather is like here in Edmonton, I’ll also take a little trip with my phone, and look at the weather in Jasper, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and some other lovely place. During the winter, I like to look at what the weather is like in colder places, just to assure myself that Edmonton is lovely. Humans become anxious about the weather. Dogs – or at least Geo – go to the door and look outside. If it is sunny, he goes out. If it is raining, he quickly loses his urge to visit the squirrel he’s been having a cold war with for the past two years.

I’ve also learned a bit about anxiety, through the lens of my dog. Geo was adopted from a shelter, which means he was abandoned at a shelter in the first place. I can’t imagine what kind of traumatic experience that was, but whenever Tabor and I leave, Geo becomes incredibly anxious. I’m sure he’s convinced we’re never returning. And yet, as soon as Tabor and I return, he becomes calm, and focuses on the present.

Our anxieties are rooted in things we fear, and our living-in-the-present happens when we feel healthfully, lovingly interconnected.
Our gospel message today involves a group of people – some of Jesus’ disciples – who apparently don’t like to get wet. Of course, that’s an understatement – the text says “a windstorm swept across the lake, the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger.” The disciples, afraid, notice that Jesus is asleep – and that was probably what most alarmed them. “Why isn’t he freaking out with us?” they likely wondered. “We want him to be just as anxious as us!” So they wake Jesus up, and he calms the storm with a clever wave of his hand, turns to the disciples and inquires, “where is your faith?”

I find great depth and frustration with Jesus’ Biblical miracles. On the one hand, they have great capacity to illustrate an otherwise obscure point. Yet, they also depict Jesus and his teachings in such grandiose ways, many struggle to take the meaning seriously.

I think that a quick reading of this text could lead to awful scriptural interpretation. I could read this and wonder if Jesus believes that anxious people are faithless. Then that would only make me more anxious!

Maybe it’s just a simple tale about how faith in Jesus calms the storms of our lives. But that seems somehow unsatisfying. “Prove it!” we say.
And maybe that impulse is where the story begins.

Human beings are anxious beings. We have perfected the art of concern for the future. We send giant computers into space and set them into orbit around this enormous planet, so that we can make educated guesses about future weather patterns. And every great religion grew out of a desire to alleviate suffering and create contentment. We build bombs capable of destroying the planet several times over, to ensure that our enemies remain under control, while we utter quiet prayers to God to calm our nerves.
I don’t think Jesus is saying, “don’t be anxious”. I think Jesus is saying, “

don’t let your anxiety become a god in and of itself.” Anxiety can become idolatrous. It can consume us, and tie our souls into knots.

Many of us have become good at temporarily pacifying our anxiety. When I was younger, a teacher of mine always said, “don’t lose sleep over this…” and I had no idea what she meant. Now, I have to listen to podcasts to distract my thoughts – in particular, thoughts about all the things that need to get done – before I can fall asleep.

And the deeper anxieties that we will wrestle with in our lives can be paralyzing. These are anxieties that surround illness, challenging relationships with family and friends, and financial security. We may be tempted to soothe these illnesses with avoidance… we may turn to alcohol or drugs, unhealthy relationships, or self-harm.
That’s where I find depth in Jesus’ parable. The disciples are operating a boat. A storm comes. Instead of continuing the boat’s journey, the disciples are tempted to stop and completely freak out. The boat is no longer moving toward its destination, because the captain is no longer at the helm. Instead, its being tossed and turned, only creating more anxiety. No doubt, that’s a frightening situation. I’m sure we’ve all driven in white-out snow storms and no matter how many years experience driving, we white knuckle it, or pull over. But we don’t slam on the gas, and take our hands off the wheel.

There is another point in here, that needs to be dealt with. Jesus is quite literally asleep during this whole scene. There’s a message of self-care in there. As we deal with illness in life, we may be tempted to keep up a façade, and pretend that everything is ok. But its not. There is sadness, confusion, and myriad other emotions welling up inside of us, and they won’t have any value, if they are not shared. They will become destructive, if you do not take care of yourself.
Each of us will encounter storms in our lives, and most of us already have. A storm can be anything that feels like it has blown in from the northwest, and creates new challenge. It can be a matter of no consequence, but it is most likely a form of disruptive bad news. And the anxiety inducing part of storms, is that there is little we can do to prevent storms.

St. John of the Cross wrote a poem called The Dark Night of the Soul, in which comes out of a storm, and moves into closer union with God. I’m not saying that God causes storms. But I will say that, how we move through the storm, can bring us into closer relationship with God and each other, once the storm has passed. Pardon the cliché, but rainbows require storms.

One of the things that I admire most about this congregation, is your regular emphasis on spiritual journey. No two people in this room have the same spiritual journey. We are the composition of our many lives’ experiences, both life-affirming and challenging. We will not be the same tomorrow as we were yesterday. Hopefully, we will be more mature, deeper souls.

The storms we encounter are critical in the shaping of our spiritual journeys. When I hear you speak of the life changing moments you have experienced, and the deep wisdom offered, it most often comes from that which you have learned in a storm.
I have never heard anyone say that, “I was only able to grow and learn from the storm, by isolating myself from everyone else.” I think the thing that creates the most anxiety during storms, is the deep feeling of loneliness and isolation that often occurs, when you feel that others cannot possibly empathize with you.
When the disciples freaked out, and prepared to individually jump ship, the storm raged on. They would have drown by themselves. When they reached out, and sought companionship, the storm calmed, and they made it to the other side.

May the storms in your life create fertile conditions for your humanity to prosper. Amen.