Mark 4: 35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” 39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. 40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
I’m talking today about a scary subject: fear. In particular, about good fear and bad fear, the kind that makes us take stock of what is important and valuable, the kind that makes us marshal our efforts and energies constructively against a threat, versus the kind of fear that makes us lose our heads and brings about the very things we fear most. And by the time I’m done with this message I hope I will have convinced us that the best antidote to the bad, self-defeating, divisive and destructive kind of fear, the kind that the disciples experienced during the storm, is not no fear. That’s neither possible nor desirable. To have no fear at all is to not care at all, to be totally indifferent, which is really, really scary. The antidote to the bad, self-defeating kind of fear is the good kind of fear, what the saints have called “holy fear” and the Bible calls, “the fear of the Lord,” the fear that the disciples experienced in that boat after the storm had passed.
Some fear in life is just inevitable precisely because we care about someone or something. Because we care about life, ourselves and others, we’re in the same boat with those disciples who screamed at Jesus, “Don’t you care that we’re gonna die?” The question comes down to this: do we manage our fears, or do they manage us? That depends on how much good fear, or holy fear, we have, as opposed to the bad fear, the carnal or the worldly fear in us. And that depends on what and who it is we value most.
For example: The very first Europeans to record their encounter with the Grand Canyon in Arizona were not pleased nor thrilled with it. They were terrified at something so deep, so wide and so long; they were angry and anguished and infuriated, because they weren’t wandering around the Desert Southwest looking for a national park in which to take pictures. They were 16th Century Spaniards, part of Coronado’s expedition looking for gold. They didn’t understand that the Indians kept telling them that there’s gold over yonder just to get them out of their hair. And here’s this gi-normous hole in their way. Fear, fury and frustration were their reaction to this giant gulf in the ground. Five centuries later, ironically, its the same destructive and divisive kind of fear that has cops in that same state of Arizona pulling people over for the crime of driving while Hispanic.
And its not unlike the fear of those disciples in that storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, one “dark and stormy night.” On one hand, we shouldn’t be too hard on them. If such a storm broadsides us while we’re out on a boat, hopefully we won’t just keep calmly casting for walleyes. God gave us adrenaline glands for a reason.
But there’s something strange about this story. There are at least four seasoned fisherman among the twelve disciples on the boat who must have had some experience with storms on this lake. This is before the day of Doppler Radar, so it wasn’t uncommon that a squall would come in off the Mediterranean Sea, and people on the lake wouldn’t see it coming until it had cleared the mountains to the west. Then you’ve got about five minutes warning, max. Less in the dark. So, I can understand it if Peter had gone to wake Jesus up in the back of the boat and said to him, “Sorry to wake you up, Sir, but we need to talk. While following your orders to row to the Decapolis, a nasty storm seems to have broad-sided us. Do you recommend, Sir, that we:
turn the stern to the wind and the waves and row with them, to effect a speedy landing on the windward shore, if its not too rocky? Or:
that we turn the bow into the wind and row just to keep it in place, so the wind and the waves break around us, not over us? Those are standard procedure out here, in case of storms. And if we still get swamped, and the boat overturned, its not going to sink; its made of wood. We’ll lose our food and gear, but…
…if we all hang on to the hull, and to each other, even the non-swimmers stand a good chance of making it out of this mess alive. Just so you know, Sir.”
Kind of like when a tour boat on the Rio Negro in Brazil got broad-sided by a sudden rainy-season storm some years back. And this was the storm from hell. It soon became apparent that this boat was taking on water and was going to sink; it was made of metal. Some people were running around like chickens with their heads cut off, screaming, “We’re all gonna die!” But the leader of a Japanese tour group on that boat calmly said to his fellow tourists, “Let’s all put on our life jackets, shall we?” Then, as the boat listed to one side and water lapped at their feet, he said, “Let’s all hold hands.” As the boat went under, they could all feel the water rushing down, pulling at them with a force strong enough to overcome even their life jackets. But together, by holding hands, they kept every last one of their group up and alive. All it took for everyone to survive was one calm person who exuded a contagious confidence.
But fear is contagious, too. And that’s how I understand what happened on that other boat, on the Sea of Galilee. To awaken Jesus by screaming, “Don’t you care that we’re all going to die!!??” is not a healthy care or concern. That is unadulterated, irresponsible and counter-productive panic. Its also what counselors and self-help groups call “catastrophizing.” Catastrophizing is when we look at all the options and possibilities before us in a crisis, and we immediately embrace and assume the worst possible outcome, thereby losing our capacity to deal constructively with it, and almost guaranteeing the worst possible outcome, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now, why do we do that? Is it delayed traumatic reaction to our last previous disappointment? Do we think that if we assume the worst, we’re setting ourselves up to be pleasantly surprised by anything else that happens? Or is it because we feel most alive when we’re most afraid? That’s to be hooked on fear. That’s the only way I can explain the market appeal of horror flicks and slasher films. Or do we think that assuming the worst is the most responsible thing we can do in a crisis?
Whatever the reason on that boat, a contagion of panic overpowered everyone’s confidence. The four seasoned fishermen who knew better were letting the least experienced, the most fearful and the most reactive people set the agenda and extort them all, emotionally. And with that I have just described most of the paid political advertising that we’re going to endure this year, of the left and right.
Why did that happen? Why did the least responsible, the least experienced and the most reactive people among the twelve get to set the emotional and practical agenda for everyone else? Any number of reasons, but I’d guess at fatigue and over-stimulation. They had just been ministering in Galilee before they left. They had just witnessed mind-blowing, adrenaline-rushing miracles like the multiplication of loaves and fishes for five thousand people plus their families. Now they were up, late at night, rowing. Maybe Plan A was for them to rest once they got to the other side, for there was probably no rest to be had while people in Galilee were looking them up, probably to ask, “Would you mind multiplying these loaves and fishes for me, too?”
But we spend most of our lives in Plans B and C. That’s why taking care of ourselves and respecting our legitimate needs and our limits, observing the sabbath and getting our rest, attending to our prayers and our quiet times are always the responsible things to do, so that we don’t become prey to fatigue and all its distorting and confusing effects. Like panic. That’s why its just as legitimate and important to seek and to accept help and support from others as it is to offer them to others. Because only God is infinitely resourceful and capable. Its why God programmed us to spend a third of our lives asleep, on his heavenly recharge cycle. Its why the Biblical notion of a day begins with the night, when God recreates us, and then includes the day time, when we work from the rest he has given us. Because only the One “who neither slumbers nor sleeps” is tireless and indefatigable. That subtly rising level of anxiety, irritation and fear that many of us live with could be a symptom of fatigue, of taking on too much responsibility, activity and constant distraction and entertainment, of not letting God be God, maybe even of chronic sleep deficit.
So much for the bad fear, the worldly, carnal fear. Just as it happened in that storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee, so it happens in our spiritual lives and journeys, that the good kind of fear, the holy fear, the awesome and wonder-filled fear of God often follows after an encounter with the normal, worldly fear of danger, death and disaster. Its not uncommon to go from the one to the other. Like cancer survivors or trauma survivors who have learned not to sweat the small stuff anymore. Or when you have attended the birth of a baby, or held hands with a friend or parent who’s breathing his last. Suddenly, the latest celebrity Twitter is your last priority.
Like when Becky and I stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon the Monday before last. It was my first time. And of course, my first thought was, “Don’t get too close to the edge; Man alive, that’s a long way down…….. Will this railing hold?”
Then come some other thoughts and sensations: “How did they get it to look just like all the photos of it?” Or, “Where in the sky did they hang this amazing huge picture, and can I touch it?” It takes the mind a while to register the inconceivable depth and distances. Then you think, “I’m so small compared to this. And my lifespan is just a blink of the eye compared to the hundreds of millions of years that went into making this.” Finally, “Good thing they didn’t put that reservoir in here. Or that uranium mine or that trash dump like they were talking about some years back. What a treasure.”
Then after people have gazed a while in silence at it, you see people taking out their smart phones, but not to check the latest Twitter from their favorite Hollywood celebrity, nor to check up on the Stock Market, but to take pictures. “This will replace my Spongebob SquarePants wallpaper from now on.” Or, “I’ll send this to Grandma; I’ve neglected her lately, and this will remind her of her honeymoon in 1947. Too bad Grandpa’s not here to see it.” You can see how the experience of awe and wonder—the good kind of fear– is having an effect on priorities and relationships.
As with the disciples in that boat, post-storm. “Who IS this man?” they ask. They’ve just had what scholars of Bible and religion call a “theophany,” that is, a direct revealing of God, or at least as direct a revelation of God as a mortal being can stand and still live. Like what the prophet Isaiah experienced in the temple, when he saw a vision of the Lord, “high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” (Is. 6:1-4)
Far from being filled with comfort and joy and syrupy-sweet Precious Moments Hallmark Card sentiments, Isaiah cried out, “Woe to me!… I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” But the vision, as overwhelming as it was, did not destroy Isaiah; it purified and empowered him for his prophetic ministry. His was what saints and mystics call a “holy fear,” or what the Bible calls, “the fear of the Lord,” that is “the beginning of wisdom.”
As the words of the song, “Amazing Grace” put it: “twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” Its that mix of repentance and relief, of having one’s pride and pretenses and false securities devastated, blown away, by something or someone so much infinitely greater and purer than ourselves, even while we realize that we are not being judged and rejected; we are being loved and welcomed. Its like Saul getting knocked off his horse on the Road to Damascus and blinded, only to find that he can stand and walk and see with new eyes. Its finding that that all-seeing eye that sees right through our outer shell, before whom no secrets are hidden, who knows us better than we know ourselves, is looking at us not with disdain nor contempt, but with welcome, love and delight.
So, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” the disciples ask each other, in fear and trembling. With them, with the Bible and the creeds, I confess that this man in the bow of the boat, who has just stilled the storm, is the Lord, the Son of God, Israel’s Promised Messiah, the World’s Savior, the Prince of Peace, the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God, the Word of God, the Alpha and Omega, and more.
But don’t ask me to explain it all. How Jesus can be so fully human that he has to sleep even through a storm, and yet so fully divine that he can stop a storm, I can confess, but I can’t fully comprehend. The mystery of it all amazes me, even as it gives me hope, because I he’s infinitely bigger than any of the things that I fear. If I could understand it all, I could also then explain the mystery of how the Holy Spirit lives and works in us, creating faith, hope and love. But I can’t. I just know it happens, and like the disciples, I marvel. I wonder. And I worship.
That’s the good kind of fear, the holy kind of fear that liberates us, rather than enslaving us. Its a constructive kind of fear, rather than the destructive, carnal kind. Because carnal, worldly fear is usually so destructive and divisive, maybe we shouldn’t call what the disciples experienced “fear,” but just stick with, “awe and wonder,” or “reverence,” following the lead of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi and Old Testament scholar. Out of such awe and wonder, God told Isaiah to go forth and speak his Word. And he did. Fresh from such awe and wonder, the disciples would also go on to have prophetic ministries of their own.
We’re all in the same boat with them when it comes to fear. There’s no getting away from it. As another pastor once said, “We’re all either sailing into a storm, or through a storm, or out of a storm.” If we cultivate such awe, wonder and reverence in our lives and loves, if we turn our fears from screams of panic into prayers of hope, then we too can master all the worldly, carnal fear coming at us, rather than letting it master us.