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When I was a young adult I lived in an area of Toronto known as the Beaches. Two blocks from my apartment on Queen Street there was a long stretch of sand with a boardwalk running parallel to the shores of Lake Ontario. After a day of working downtown in the heart of the city, I loved coming home on the streetcar and heading down to the water for a stroll or a jog before dinner.
The boardwalk became an especially important place for me during a time in my life when some significant internal storms began brewing within me. After happily working in the same job for a number of years my office was relocating to Ottawa and I was being courted to move with them through some significant financial incentives. At the same time, I’d also returned to church after a long absence and I was beginning to feel within myself the first stirrings of a call to ministry. I still refer to this tumultuous period of my life as the Autumn of my Discontent. As I wrestled with the decisions that faced me, I spent hours walking up and down the boardwalk. There was something about the water that calmed and soothed my soul. Even when the waves were high and the water was rough I would feel reinvigorated and more confident after spending time on the shoreline.
In the bible, references to water, specifically deep waters and stormy seas often represent the chaos and disorderliness of life. Sometimes, God is described as coming to us in the form of a powerful storm or a whirlwind.
So in this morning’s scripture reading, when we hear about a storm rising up on the lake and nearly capsizing the boat in which Jesus and his disciples were travelling to an unknown land, the land of the Geresenes that we hear about in the verses that follow this morning’s story, we are meant to think about the kinds of uncontrollable storms that blow up in our own lives especially when we are heading into unchartered territory. We might even imagine the boat that they are sailing in as the vessel of our individual lives. Or, since the church has historically been referred to as a sailing vessel, we might imagine the church being tossed to and fro on the waters as it heads into the unchartered waters of life in a post-Covid, post- Christian world. Or, we might want to think of this little boat as our entire planet as we head into an uncertain future.
In any case, anyone who has ever experienced a change that has transformed their lives, whether by circumstance or by choice, knows that we rarely arrive in a new land, in a new place in our lives, without going through a storm or two. Those storms often arise in the moments when we realize we have to let go of our status quo, our cherished ways of being and our perceived control of the future.
There’s nothing like unwanted change to send us into a panic and even desired change can stir up a whole tornado worth of emotions when we don’t know what awaits us on the other shore.
Years ago, when I was trying to make a decision about whether to go to Ottawa or stay in Toronto, whether to pursue a call to ministry or stick to the rivers and lakes that were familiar to me this was the kind of chaotic windstorm that blew up in me. Just the thought that I was losing control of my life, that my future direction had suddenly become unknown, that I didn’t know which decision was the right decision to make caused enough turmoil in my life to make me feel like I was going under, as if life as I had known it was perishing.
As we literally experience the kinds of climate events that are causing more and more storm surges in our world, it’s not surprising that we may be feeling frightened and uncertain about what the future may bring.
So, here’s something worth noticing in this morning’s story. The whole time the disciples are wrestling with the sails and bailing the boat and losing their grip on the rudder while they battle the storm that has blown up in their midst, Jesus is fast asleep in the hull. All they had to do was wake him up and he who had no fear of the wind and the waves rebuked them. The winds stopped blowing, the waters stopped raging and there was calm.
Over my many years in ministry, I have had many people tell me they are good with God but they have a lot of trouble with Jesus. I think that’s because sometimes in the midst of the turmoil of our lives it can feel like Jesus is doing nothing to still the winds and the waves. Even after we’ve shouted “make it stop!” at the top of our lungs, the storm has just raged on and on.
So instead of thinking about Jesus as one who literally makes storms stop, what if we think of Jesus in this story in particular, as representing those God-given aspects of ourselves that we all carry within us, those things that travel with us in our little boats, that when awakened have the capacity to bring us courage, strength, wisdom, calm and even peace in the midst of life’s storms, those aspects we sometimes refer to as the Christ-life within.
Is it possible, that if we were to cultivate a practice of regularly calling upon the presence of the Divine within us, accessing our internal wisdom, courage and strength, we might be able to remain calm or return again to a sense of equilibrium when the storms of life are raging?
The interesting thing to me about storms is that they are an important part of the created order. Rain storms bring much needed moisture to drought stricken regions of the world. Japan receives over half its’ precipitation from typhoons. Lightning strikes that result in forest fires burn decaying plant matter and dead trees, turning them into ashes and returning their nutrients to the soil to facilitate new growth. Heavy snow serves as a thermal layer to protect crops from freezing in the winter. Wind storms carry seeds from one place to another literally blowing life into new lands. There are many benefits to the storms systems that are a regular part of the created world. They actually restore equilibrium to our climate.
But our current dependency on fossil fuels, our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and the many ways we are heating up our planet, are creating bigger and more frequent storms of every kind. Even the forest fire management practices we have had for many years are creating bigger forest fires.
In the words of Greta Thunberg and other climate activists change is going to keep coming whether we like it or not.
We are either going to stir up a storm of change in our behaviour as citizens of this planet to halt the damage we are doing; or the storms of change are going to keep coming our way in the form of mass migration, food insecurity, death and destruction. My preference is the former over the latter.
This week I was reminded of ecological theologian Sally McFague and the way she talked about the entirety of creation as the body of God. For those of us in the Christian tradition who speak of Jesus as the incarnation of God, Sally called creation the first incarnation. She also spoke of all of us as inspirited bodies, people who have a deep wisdom within us about how to live with respect in creation because we are born of the same essence of our Creator. Across the centuries, people living close to the land have always known this sacred interconnection. But Sally McFague said that in our industrialized world most of us have to relearn this connection because we have become so alienated from our individual bodies and from what she called the body of God, the created world. In other words, we have become alienated from who we are. In the language of our story today, we have to be reawakened to this truth about ourselves not just to calm the storms around and within us as we face an uncertain future but also to allow the necessary storms to blow up so that we can realize we human beings are not ultimately in control of our world. We must re-learn our rightful place in it.
In my own experience, if anything is going to throw us off course or sink our boats as we move into the future, it will be our fear. That’s what threw the disciples off that day in the boat, their fear that they were perishing. I have to confess that I do have a lot of fear of perishing these days but I carry in my boat a lot of confidence that we can still be reawakened to the kind of wisdom and courage that will help us to make the kind of changes we need to make for the sake of our planet. I can’t help but wonder if the current storms we are facing aren’t the very catalyst we need to propel us onto newer and greener shores.
In those days back in Toronto when I found myself walking back and forth back and forth along the boardwalk by the shores of Lake Ontario, it was the water that calmed my soul and gave me peace. It was the place I went to remind myself of God’s faithful presence in my life and the promise that no matter what was being asked of me and no matter how much it felt like I was going under, I had within me everything I needed to weather the storm and to make it to the other side.
Whatever storms you may be facing in your own life whether they be due to changes that have been thrust upon you or because you have intentionally chosen to set out for new lands; as together we face the storms that are coming at us due to climate change, may we remember the strength and courage, the peace and calm we carry within us, may we remember the capacity we have to say to the winds and the waves, be still; may we awaken the power we have been given to call a halt to the storms that are of our own making and the wisdom to reshape the world we live in.