August 10, 2008
1 King 19.9-18; Matthew 14.22-33
As some of you might know, I am a poet. I am the author of seven books of poems. And in 2004, I was named an Associate Poet Laureate of North Dakota by current poet laureate Larry Woiwode. I also have a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Creative Writing from Vermont College. And so, poetry, as you can probably guess, has been a very major part of my life.
Recently, I have been working on my eighth book of poems this summer. I have had no classes to teach at the University of Mary this summer—the first time in five years—so I have found myself directing a good amount of energy into this new book. The book that I’m working on has come out of an obsession that I’ve had since I was very young. That obsession was the tragic tornado that hit Fargo on June 20, 1957. Twelve people were killed as a result of that storm and countless lives were altered and changed. Two of those people who died were my mother’s cousin and her husband. Actually, my mother’s cousin, Betty, was severely injured in the tornado and “lived” two and half years in a coma before dying of her injuries.
As I have wrestled with and struggled over this book, I have found myself dealing with many issues. I have been forced to confront the victims who died—all twelve of them of them. I have had to confront my own family’s stories and the collective silence that has predominated the fifty-plus years since the tornado. And I have had to confront the actual storm itself.
And this issue—the storm—has been the one that I have found most amazing. The fact is, in this life, we are going to face storms. Here in North Dakota, we know this very well. We have been through our share of summer thunderstorms, we have known the fear when the weather turns dark and ominous and threatens to unleash on us something beyond our control and full understanding. And we have also experienced our share of blizzards—which are just frightening for their force and fury. We’ve experienced our share of spring and summer floods over the years as well in this part of the country.
So, yes, we have all experienced the natural storms of our lives. But we have also experienced other storms in our lives. We have experienced the storms that come into our lives and shake them up and turn everything upside down and leave us different people than we were before the storm. And those storms are, by far, more frightening. They are more unpredictable. And they are the kind of storms that no matter how many times we may weather them, we find we can never fully prepare ourselves for them.
In our Old Testament reading and our Gospel today, we find storms. We find, in our reading from First Kings, that the prophet Elijah is being confronted with several natural disasters. First there is a storm, then an earthquake and then a fire. And in each of them, he finds that, despite their magnificence, despite the fact that they are more powerful than Elijah himself, God is not in any of them. He does not hear the Word of God coming to him out of these instances. But rather, God speaks to him in the “sheer silence” after the storm.
Our Gospel reading is similar in many ways. There too is a storm. And this one is just as frightening. The disciples in the boat are buffeting, they are trying to make their way back to shore and cannot because the storm’s wind is against them, and they are clearly afraid. A word we keep experiencing in our gospel reading for today is “fear.” The disciples see Jesus, think he’s a ghost and they cry out in fear. And Jesus says to them,
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter, audacious as he is, then gets out of the boat and starts walking to Jesus. But when he notices the storm raging around him, he becomes frightened and begins to sink. And Jesus reaches out his hands and lifts him from the water and stills the storm.
In the storms of our own lives, we often find ourselves at a loss. We too often do unpredictable things in those storms like Peter. We do the equivalent of getting out of a boat and attempting to walk on water. We find ourselves venturing into areas we maybe shouldn’t be venturing. We find ourselves doing naively audacious things. And while doing it, we sometimes lose heart, we become afraid, and we begin sinking.
This is what storms do to us. They sap us our energy, of our joy, of our bravery and they leave us vulnerable to them.
This is also what fear does to us. It causes us to lose heart. It causes us to lose our joy and our gladness and our happiness. It saps our life and our energy from us.
And that is why, during those storms, during those moments of false courage, during those times of raging fear, we need to strain into the storm and we need to hear that calm voice speaking to us with familiar words:
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
In the storms of our lives, in the raging tempests of fear, these are the only words we can cling to. I am always fond of reminding people what the most often repeated commandment we hear throughout the entire Bible. Whenever I ask: what is the most often repeated commandment in the Bible? people often go instantly to the Ten Commandments and think about something that begins with “Thou shalt not.” But over and over again throughout Scripture, we hear that the most often-repeated commandment is, in fact,
“Do not be afraid.”
Both in the Old Testament and in the New, this is one of the most repeated statements we find from God. And this commandment still holds true for us today.
Fear is one of those things we all live with in one form or the other. We live with a fear of the unstable world around us. We live with a fear of all the terrible and bad things that life can throw in our way. We live with a fear of the future, and all the uncertainties it holds. And we all live with a fear of death—of all the uncertainty that awaits us when this life is done.
But God, again and again, says to us, “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid of the things this world can throw at us. Do not be afraid of things you cannot change. Do not be afraid of the actual natural storms of this life, because we have faith in the God who is more powerful than any storm that can come upon us. Do not be afraid of the storms of this life that come from within—the storms of anxiety and fear and uncertainty, because we have faith in the God who is in control of our lives as well. Do not be afraid of even death, because God promises us that God is not a God of death, but of life and if we trust in God and have faith in God, God will give us life that will never end.
For those of us who live in faith, we have no reason to fear. Faith means trust. Faith means being able to look to God, in those storms of our lives, and know that although frightening things may rage about us, with God, we can find the calm center of our lives. As we venture out on to the choppy waters of our lives and, there, we find ourselves sinking into the storm, as we are overwhelmed by the storms of our lives, as we despair over the storm, we need to look up and see Jesus standing there.
This reminds of the greatest part of the Gospel reading for today. In the midst of that storm, as Peter sinks into the waters, Jesus doesn’t simply stay put and raise Peter miraculously from the waters from a distance. Rather, Jesus actually comes to Peter where he is in that storm and lifts him out of those waters. And that is the image we can take away with us as well.
In the storms of our lives, as we sink deeply into the dark waters of anxiety and fear, when we call out to Jesus, he comes to us where we are and raises us up. And he leads us back to a place of safety.
So, in those moments in which you find yourself sinking, in the storms of your life when you feel as though are lost and can never be found again, remember the importance of this Gospel reading. Allow Jesus to come to you and let him lift you up from the waters. And let him lead you to a place of quietness and safety, where, in that silence, you too can hear the soothing, comforting words of God speaking to you. And in telling you not to fear, in taking your hand and raising you up from the darkness of your life, he stills the storms of your life as well.
There is a wonderful prayer from the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church in New Zealand that I often pray with people I visit in the hospital or who are suffering from any anxiety or fear. The prayer begins,
who in Jesus stills the storm and soothes the frantic heart,
bring hope and courage to those who trust in you.
This should be our prayer as well. We also should pray that the God, who in Jesus stills the storms of our lives and soothes our frantic hearts, truly does bring hope and courage to us, who trust in God.
So, allow Jesus to still the storms of your life and sooth your heart when it becomes frantic. Allow him to come to you where you are to bring you to safety. And when you do, you will find an abundance of hope and courage in your life so that you can live your life fully and completely—and without any fear—as God wants you to.