“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
So said FDR when considering the United States’ national perspective and outlook in 1932. He was talking about the ways that the U.S. would move forward post-Great Depression, but we’ve taken that phrase out of context so many times, it stands on its own.
The author of John wrote, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” I think I like this better but it still doesn’t quite help us get around the idea of “fear” itself, and the fact that we, too often, operate out of fear.
In the story “Chicken Little” (or “Henny Penny”), a chick is hit on the head by a falling acorn and assumes that the sky is falling. Running around screaming about impending doom, the chick causes other animals to panic as well, inciting panic. The acorn is the precipitating thing but in some versions of the story, the chick’s panic actually causes the chick (and others) to end up in danger, or dead.
How often do you think that fear causes the outcome? How often do you think fear influences us in ways that are greater than the thing that causes the fear?
There’s a story told about Charles Blondin, the legendary tightrope artist who crossed the Niagara Gorge at Niagara Falls in 1859. Known for showmanship and increasing difficulty for the sake of a gasp, he sought someone to hold onto his back while he went across the gorge. When no one stepped forward from the crowd, he dragged his manager to the rope and hoisted him onto his back.
Harry Colcord, his manager, knew all of Blondin’s tricks and stunts, knew that the stumbles were not actually dangerous but intentional. But swaying in the breeze, dozens of feet from safety, he felt the pairing begin to tilt too far to one side. Screaming, he tried to lunge in the opposite direction to counterbalance the weight, and heard the firm, yet calm voice of Blondin: “Stop moving. I’ve got this.”
Oh, to be that kind of non-anxious presence!
Consider our story from Mark today, about a time when the disciples were anything but calm.
Scenario #1: They have just listened and observed as Jesus taught a crowd of people and he has decided that they must cross a lake. Where they’re going is not on their minds, but simply getting there. So when Jesus decides it’s time to cross the lake, they go.
But before too long, a huge storm came up. When we read this matter-of-factly, we see a storm, we see the water crashing down on either side of the boat, flooding into the passengers’ areas, threatening to drown everyone on board. And we see Jesus, asleep, taking a nap, while the disciples grow more and more concerned. Then they wake him up, and he calms the storm. Pretty straightforward, right?
Let’s look at it again, first from the disciples’ perspective.
Scenario #2: The disciples have worked so hard, and they just want to get to wherever Jesus will let them sleep. They are craving a bacon burger (a kosher one, of course!) and a round of Cheerwines for everyone, and Jesus decides to take a detour across the lake at dinnertime. But, it’s his show, and who’s going to argue with Jesus, anyway?
So across the lake they go, even as other ships coming across the lake pass them and tell them that they’d better hurry and get to shore, that a big storm is coming. But the disciples look at each other and then at Jesus sleeping in the boat, and roll their eyes, and say, “what are we gonna do?” Before too long, the twenty-foot-high waves are slamming into the boat, and crashing into the disciples. They’ve never seen so much water inside a boat!
‘We’re gonna die! We’ve gotta get out of here! Why aren’t we there yet? Why isn’t Jesus awake?” And so, in their genius, they go and wake Jesus up, and say, “Jesus! Omigosh! It’s stormy! Aren’t you scared? We’re scared! Why aren’t you scared? Omigosh! It’s stormy!”
And Jesus gets up, and sternly rebukes the storm, and it stops trying to smash the disciples and their boat into bits.
Scenario #3: Jesus has shared the good news of God’s love for the world but people just aren’t getting it. Even the disciples aren’t getting it! But he patiently explains what God’s love is like, and the people spend all day being encouraged by Jesus. Now, he’s tired, and hungry, and needing some alone time, so he asks the disciples to go with him across the lake. It beats walking around!
Jesus finds a place that’s quieter than most on the boat, listening to the disciples joking and playing dice on the deck above him, and before too long, he’s asleep. What seems like seconds later, he becomes aware that the disciples are shaking him, and shouting. He feels moisture on his face, and he can’t tell if that’s because there’s water coming onto the boat or because so many of them are spitting on him in their panic!
The disciples are gesturing at the wind and rain, and Jesus recognizes that it’s a summer storm, here one minute and gone in the next. But the disciples’ fear is evident, paralyzing, and even potentially infectious, so Jesus, straightens his robe and stands near the bow, looking out over the storm, and says, “Wind, settle down.” And the winds die down and the waters recede from the boat.
I wonder sometimes what would happen if we looked at our situations from someone else’s perspective, if we looked at the troubles we were having from the perspective of Jesus. Would any of them fade away?
I’ll admit that I have a fear of things that sometimes get in my way. I do not like to fly. But I’m able to fly because I remember that in all of the situations where I have flown before, that God has always seen me through. I’m able, at least for the length of the flight, to overcome my fear of the flight until I’m able to get where I’m going. To see my parents! To go to Disney World!
All of these things are parts of my life that would’ve gone unexperienced if I hadn’t gotten past my fear of flying. (I guess I could’ve driven but my family would’ve disowned me.) And they’re all things that people along the way, often my wife or my parents, reminded me about and encouraged me in as non-anxious presences or N.A.P.s.
Now, some of you are saying, ‘but I’m not afraid of anything! I’ve never experienced a storm in my life! There’s nothing I’m anxious about or scared of or struggling with.’
To which I say, “good for you.” And not in a mean-spirited, one finger in each ear, tongue stuck out sort of way. No, I believe that some folks don’t experience the side of life that feels out of control, and I don’t think they need to beat themselves up about.
But consider group think. Consider the boat’s occupants minus Jesus.
Do they have to wake Jesus up if there’s one person who can see the beauty of the wind? Or the wonder of the lake in the middle of the storm? If there is anyone else who is a N.A.P., do they interrupt Jesus’ actual nap?
You know, most of us avoid storms. We hide in our most secure areas and away from windows and buy up milk and bread like they may one day go out of style. We can’t wait for the storm to be over.
Other people chase storms, revel in storms, embrace the dancing in puddles. Some people, apparently like Jesus, recognize that some of the best rest comes when it’s raining.
I wonder what it would look like if we danced in the storms of our lives, if we saw them as merely chapters or subheadings rather than the book of our life and the ‘end of the world.’ What would happen if we recognized that Jesus is a N.A.P. with us in the midst of each of them and that Jesus’ response to so many of our situations, that seem earth-shattering, is to yawn, and roll over back to sleep? Jesus knows who he is and he knows who we are!
This week, as my New England Patriots prepare to play the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium in Colorado for the AFC Championship in the National Football League, I read an interview with Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady. He said that many people outside the team were making a big deal about the Patriots being forced to play the Broncos away from home and at a much higher altitude. But Brady said that Coach Bill Belichek reminded his players that it didn’t matter where they played but who they were.
At the end of our story, right after he tells the storm, like a little child, to “settle down,” Jesus asks the disciples if they don’t have just a little bit of faith? They’ve been traveling with him, learning from him, but in the midst of the storm, they have completely forgotten what they know. Momentarily, they have forgotten who they are and whose they are.
We know that Jesus will keep reminding them who they are but ultimately, he will model for them what it looks like to recognize that regardless of the situation, our identity in God is the only thing that matters.
Whether you’re fighting sickness or debt or addiction or relationship issues or the job field, or a storm on a lake or death on the cross, who you are matters. So, ask yourself today: who am I, and how do I face my storms?
Do I get caught up in what the crowd thinks or do I care only about what God thinks?
Do I see my storms as all encompassing or merely a part of the greater story?
Do I recognize that I might be the non-anxious presence in someone else’s life or do I only worry about having enough life preservers for myself?
What if the storms aren’t times to grow, to change, to break free from the past, to be healed and renewed? What if the storms aren’t for the puddles afterward, to be danced in and splashed in, to reflect and remember that Jesus saw us through it all?
Storms will come. The boat will rock. The rain will fall. Will you be NAPping?
This sermon is for the 9 a.m. The Stand worship service at Blandford United Methodist Church on January 19.