Some thoughts on Mark 4:35-41

In Mark chapter 4, Mark recounts a day of Jesus telling stories to a number of people on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. When evening came, Jesus told his disciples to cross to the other side. So, leaving the crowds behind, the disciples and Jesus set out in a boat, and other boats went with them. A great storm blew up, with furious winds and waves so large they began breaking into the boat, threatening to swamp it.

Jesus, meanwhile, was asleep on a cushion in the back of the boat.

If you were reading this passage, which is only a few verses long, you would discover very quickly that all ends well. In fact, most Bibles have a heading for this passage that is something like “Jesus Calms the Storm,” so you know the outcome before you even begin reading.

The disciples, however, did not know the ending. All they knew was that, because of Jesus’ instructions, they were out in the middle of the sea in a terrible storm that was filling their not-so-large boat with water, and they react in the same way as many other biblical characters, whose “hard times” left them uncertain and sorrowful and doubting. Unlike many other biblical characters, though, the disciples’ ordeal did not last very long. (A couple months ago I wrote a post about how waiting and suffering are often compressed in Scriptural accounts; ten seconds of reading, and we’re through months/years/decades of struggle. We have to identify with the characters—we have to take time ourselves—in order to gain a clearer sense of the story.) To identify with the disciples in this story, though, we don’t need to imagine the toll of a long stretch of time; we need to imagine the panic of a perfectly good situation suddenly gone terribly wrong.

As I read this story over and over, what caught my attention was this: the disciples were exactly where they were supposed to be. They’d followed Jesus’ directions; he was there with them; they hadn’t left him behind to follow their own whims. They’d made no bad decision or been foolish or rash. They were right where Jesus wanted and told them to be.

But they still encountered a storm.

A great storm, one with howling winds and waves tall enough to menace above the sides of their boat like monsters and then crash down upon them. A storm strong enough that even the seasoned fishermen among them feared for their lives.

Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever done exactly what you thought Jesus was telling you to do and then found yourself in the middle of a storm? Did you start to wonder if you’d done something wrong? Misheard his voice? Wandered off on your own path? Failed to do something right?

My brother-in-law recently suggested to me that perhaps Jesus knew the storm was coming and was actually leading the disciples into a test of their faith.

Could be. Could be that he wanted the disciples’ faith in him to stretch to cosmic proportion—beyond physical healings to authority over the sky and sea.

Could also not be. Jesus, self-limited as he was in humanness, might not have known the storm was coming. Perhaps he just went out on the boat with the disciples knowing he needed rest and in full assurance that no matter what happened, God would be right there caring for them.

We don’t know which is the case. All we know is that when the disciples woke Jesus, asking him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” Jesus got up and told the wind and the waves to be still. And after the storm stopped–immediately!–he turned to the disciples and asked, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

And then the disciples were really afraid and they said to each other, “Who is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him!”

The boat, the disciples, and Jesus reached the other side of the Sea of Galilee with no ill effects. Not all our storms end this way, with every person accounted for, with no lasting injuries or loss. Some storms take years, even a lifetime, to recover from. Some storms don’t end. Some storms are of our own making, and regret compounds our pain.

But, no matter the circumstances of your particular storm, we can know that God has good for us–“best” for us–in the middle of the tempest. God is not spiteful; God does not have an awful sense of humor; God is not conducting a faith experiment for research purposes; God is not plopping us in the midst of it like numbered lab rats. Rather God, who calls His people the apple of His eye, wants us to find that He has provided an eye in the center of the squall specifically planned for each of us. He has for us the certainty that—even when all evidence points to the contrary—we are seen and known and loved and cared for.

We are much like the disciples. The best, in their opinion, was a trouble-free trip across the sea. For the landlubbers among them, the best was probably their feet touching solid ground on the other side after a smooth crossing.

But God, as we are told, sees things very differently. And in God’s view, our presence in His eye is His absolute best for us.

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The good work of waiting

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This is not quite the “waiting” I had in mind in this post, but I do a lot of this kind of waiting, too, these days. Good thing I have my 16-year-old chauffeur, plenty of portable writing work–and, sometimes, beautiful sunsets!

Most stories related in Scripture are quick—we rush through years in just a few verses. As a result, the emotions we experience as we read these stories don’t follow those of the people within them. We move straight from the “oh no” of the problem to the rejoicing of the climax: with Joseph over his success as the Pharaoh’s right-hand man; with the Israelites over their exodus from Egypt; with Hannah over the birth of Samuel; with Sarah and Abraham over the birth of Isaac; …

And in doing so we often glide right through the waiting period. We don’t recognize and sit in the grief, fear, doubt, and even anger of the loooong limbo that came before the climax.

I think we need to pay more attention to the waiting in the Bible—there’s quite a bit of it! The descendants of Jacob were enslaved for generations before the dramatic plagues that resulted in their rescue. Joseph, imprisoned after his double betrayal, must have eventually accepted his lot—until the cupbearer promised he would try to get him released. Joseph’s heart surely soared—and then descended to the depths when he realized the cupbearer failed him. The waiting years that followed must have been filled with some bitterness and wrestling—and lots of questions. Sarah chose against patient waiting; she worked and connived to get the fulfillment of God’s promise, but when she realized the folly and futility of her own way, she settled, opting for the numb loss of hope rather than the pain of expectant waiting. Hannah endured years of taunting by her husband’s other wife (who probably felt unloved by their husband) while Hannah prayed and cried for a son.

We read these stories and move from problem to answer in words and phrases. From the perspective of those living in the story, though, the climaxes did not come quickly. And often, when a climax did come, it was followed by more waiting.

Much, if not most, of our lives is spent waiting.

And waiting is hard.

A book that is on my summer reading list is The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. In it Alan Kreider argues that the early church saw patient waiting as one of its primary works. After all, the Church then saw itself as being in the already-and-not-yet time between Christ’s inauguration of the Kingdom and its complete fulfillment. We are in the same time! Waiting is an integral part of our lives as believers; it is, in a sense, one of the defining marks of our Christian faith.

Kreider believes the early Church grew and thrived through its focus on and development of patience; patience, he says, was a huge topic among the early church writers. They emphasized the use of prayer, catechesis*, and worship to help the church develop patient reflexes. And they saw that patience not only was work; it did work: good work.

We can and should develop expectant patience in the same ways; and some of our study should focus on God’s story as it wove through Israel’s history, was fulfilled in Christ, and is continuing to weave through the history of the Church. When we do this we realize, as the early church did, that our waiting is not new; waiting has always been required; and waiting does good work in those who accept it with patient expectation in God.

How do we do this? We can reflect on stories that had long lag times between the conflict and the resolution. Rather than gliding over the waiting verses, we can press into them; we can emphasize the in-between period more; we can wonder what sustained the biblical characters during this time.

We can also tell stories of our own waiting more often. Too often we only tell our fulfilled stories, our stories of answered prayer. Maybe we need to share our stories even while we are still in the waiting time; maybe we need to share the prayers we pray that are as yet unfulfilled. And we definitely need to affirm the good work all this waiting does in us; we need to examine it in ourselves and point out the growth waiting has accomplished/is accomplishing in others.

I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from deep mud. He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip. He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise-song to our God. More and more people are seeing this: they enter the mystery, abandoning themselves to God. Psalm 40:1-3, the Message (the link takes you to this verse side by side in Message and NIV)

Wait on the Lord; his day is near.Wait on the Lord; be strong, take heart.  (These are the words to a Taize song that I often sing to myself when the waiting [for whatever] seems long and hard. The link is to a beautiful rendition of it on Youtube.)

*instruction given to a person in preparation for Christian baptism or confirmation—basically, the teaching of the faith.

When death breaks in

This morning I learned of the death of a former student.

Sudden, unexpected death.

Now, in this season of life, when we read verses like Zechariah’s pronouncement about Christ’s birth: “…the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,” death has again triumphed, and a family is weeping. Christmas will forever be changed for them. Even when the great waves of grief have passed, every year, in the midst of celebration, there will be a tinge of sorrow.

Death has broken in.

My soul rages when I hear news like this. Somewhere deep down in me is the knowledge that this is wrong. It should not be like this. We learn to live with dysfunctional families, fallen bodies, mental illness–all the “subtle” reminders of a broken system. But then death breaks in and hauls us up short. We turn the corner from “life is hard but endurable–even good at times” to find that the passage before us is gone. It has dropped off and all we see is darkness.

“This is unacceptable,” I want to say.

But I have no power to change it. In fact, in my own small way, I, too, will wreak death as I walk through my days: wounding those I love most, including my own self.

I don’t always notice this, but then a life that intersects with my own is snuffed out, and capital-D Death makes me wail with a specific-yet-vague knowing of the shadow that hovers over our planet and in our very hearts.

At times like this I get a glimpse into what God must have felt when His beloved image-bearers made that irrevocable choice that doomed all of creation to groaning and travailing in a bondage of corruption.

God sorrowed–far more than we because He could see the great contrast between what was planned and what we chose.

But then He did more! The Lion of the tribe of Judah roared.

We thought it was simply a whimper–an insignificant birth, a controversial life, an ignominious death.

But no! It was a roar! “It is finished!” was a victory cry. His death had swallowed up death itself.

We are in the night of sorrow.

But morning will come.

 

 

This Way, His Way

The four beautiful Del Vecchio women: from left, niece Anna, sister-in-law Cindy, niece Sarah, and niece Grace. Not pictured from their family are my brother Mike and nephew Luke. We visited them this past week for spring break and had a great time. Thank you, Del Vecchios, for hosting our crazy family.

I give the “five minutes till we need to be out the door” call, but four of us are still together in the bathroom. I stretch over Maddie, brushing her teeth at one corner of the sink, so I can lean against the mirror and dab mascara on my lashes. Beside Maddie, PJ shoves for space to spit. Behind us Em scrabbles in the “hair stuff” drawer to find a rubber band for her braid. Then Jake wanders in. I glance at his feet.

“Where are your shoes?”

His eyes go wide.

Shoes? His look says to me. Did you mention shoes?

“Jake, I’ve already asked you three times to put on your shoes!”

“Oh, okay.” He turns to go.

“But don’t you need to brush your teeth?”

He turns back. “Yeah, but you just said to get my shoes.”

“Well you might as well brush your teeth while you’re in here. Patrick, stop wiping your mouth on your sleeve. That’s gross.”

Maddie interrupts. “Mom, what’s today?”

“What?”

“What day is today?”

“Why does THAT matter right now?”

“I want to read the verse for today, and I don’t know if you’ve already flipped it.”

I hadn’t.

I’d been too rushed.

I look at my watch and tell her the date. She reads the verse aloud, “Psalm 25:4. Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.”

And in the fussing of Jake getting to the sink and Patrick and Maddie away from it, of Emily reaching between to wet a hairbrush, I hear the Holy Spirit’s clear whisper: “This is not My Way.”

This: the hustle-bustle that I in large part created with my impatient spirit.

This: the grasping of minutes only as vehicles to “being on time for the ‘bigger’ thing” rather than as gifts in themselves.

This: moments lived without remembrance of the Giver, without heeding what He wants me to see and learn

Suddenly they are gone and I am alone in the bathroom. I lean over the sink, finally still.

Why do I have to learn this lesson over and over? I wonder, but I look again at the verse: Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.

I’d read Psalm 25 recently. I know what it teaches about “His Way.”

“To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust… Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all the day long.”

Not rushing.

Waiting.

Even in busy moments, waiting—to see God’s gifts, to see HIM. I often think of waiting as inactive, but couldn’t “waiting” be “expectation”? Couldn’t I live each moment expecting that I will see Him in it? That I will learn more about Him in it?

The psalmist did. He wrote, “For You I wait all the day long.”

All the day long!

Every minute lived in expectation that God will be in it!

THAT kind of expecting would affect far more than my rushed moments. It would cause me to “lift up my soul”—my whole being— to God. It would cause me to trust in Him as my complete salvation, my full purpose. It would lead, eventually, to what the psalmist calls friendship (also translated as “secret counsel”) with God (verse 14) and a deep understanding of God’s way—so, so different from ours.

Am I going to live this way—in the hurry-scurry of my middle-class suburbia, this way that leads so easily to a life that’s self-focused and blinded to others’ needs?

Or am I going to live His way?

One small step at a time, one moment leading to the next, listening closely and expectantly to the Holy Spirit’s whisper, trusting that all the moments—the small steps—add up to the everlasting path, the Way of Life.

His Way.

Show me Your ways, my Lord, teach me Your paths.

And then, please, help me to walk, step by step, in Your Way.

It’s the end of the train as we know it…

Just a random picture I took at Macy's downtown. The colors in the ceiling glow!

We live on the wrong side of the tracks in our town. Not figuratively—there’s nothing really different about the two “sides” of West Chicago—but literally. We have to cross two intersecting railroad tracks to get to schools, work, church, friends, grocery store, and library. The only thing on this side of the tracks are Walmart and the shopping mall, both of which I avoid as much as possible.

I have heard that, on average, a train crosses the tracks here in West Chicago eight times an hour. I believe it. In fact, I think that number may be low. I often have days when I wait for a train every single time I cross the tracks. One day two weeks ago, that was eight times.

Early on in our renting of this house, I was sitting at the train crossing, drumming my fingers and looking and listening for the big engine that powers the end of particularly long freight trains like that one, when I realized that, if I was willing, God could use the trains to teach me patience. Since then, I’ve tried to use that time well. I sing, talk with those in the car with me, pray if I’m alone, jot down thoughts in my journal, even knit (that only happens when I’m not the one driving).

A few weeks ago I was waiting at a train with the three youngest kids. We were chatting and goofing off, and they were looking for the rear engine. For no reason at all I began singing the song, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” I only know about two lines of that song, so I sang those phrases a few times and then slipped into another song I know better. Suddenly one of the kids shouted out, “There’s the engine.”

Sure enough, the heavy rumble announced its approach. As if on cue, the three kids, ranged across the back seat like a chorus, belted out, “It’s the end of the TRAIN as we know it, it’s the end of the TRAIN as we know it, it’s the end of the TRAIN as we know it,

“And we feel fine!” (And then they sang that funny line that sounds like the singer might be saying, “diggy, diggy, diggy, diggy.”)

All together, on key, like they had planned and practiced it (and as far as I know, they never had).

I laughed so hard.

This morning I thought about that story as I crossed the train tracks—without a wait. It made me think of my current favorite song: “This is not the End” by Gungor (if you haven’t heard of them, check them out—thought-provoking music). Here are a few of the lyrics:

“This is not the end of this.

We will open our eyes wide, wider.

This is not our last breath.

We will open our mouths wide, wider.

This is not the end of us.

We will shine like the stars, bright, brighter.”

I feel like crying and laughing at the same time when I sing that song—which I shout out as loud as I can if I’m alone. It’s full of so much hope! THIS, a life that often feels a lot like waiting for a train, is NOT the end of it all. One day it will pass, and that ending will be a huge beginning! I will be able to see with wide-open eyes. I will be able to praise with wide-open lips. I will fulfill that beautiful image of Philippians 2:15: I will shine like a star in my complete revelry in God.

But there is hope for this time, too, this train-waiting time; I can rest in the promise of Philippians 1:6: that until THAT end, God will open my eyes, bit by bit, wider and wider, so I can see less of my frustrations and more of Him. He will open my lips (and my pen/keyboard) so that testimony flows from them rather than selfish, hurtful things. He will turn up, degree by degree, my dimmer switch (or in this case, my brightening switch) so I shine His love brighter into the darkness that surrounds me.

In a few months we will move to the house we’re purchasing on the “right” side of the tracks, and my regular train-waiting times will be over. They’ve become almost enjoyable as necessary stopping points, worthwhile reminders that there is much good in waiting, listening, trusting, reflecting. It’s so easy to forget my true purposes when I’m incessantly running around. Good waiting (both for trains and in life) helps me remember.

Be the Dough

Emily is becoming our master cake maker! This is the angry bird cake she made for Patrick's sixth birthday (1/17/12). She made cake pops for the birds and pigs, colored almond bark to coat them, and then made a marshmallow fondant ("It tastes better than regular fondant," she told me.) for the details like eyes, noses, and beaks! It turned out so, so well.

Proof the yeast, add the flour, mix and knead, knead some more, let it rise, punch it down, shape the dough, let it rise…
And,
Finally,
Bake.
It’s a long process, a restful process.
Or a frustrating one.
It all depends on the perspective.
For most of the high school sophomores in the Bread of Life class I taught the first two weeks of January, frustration won over rest.
“Why does the yeast need to proof? And what does that mean?”
“Have I kneaded enough? No? Really? How much longer?”
“It’s still not ready?”
“It has to rise again?”
“When will it be done?”
We made yeast bread six times during the course, and some of them were still asking the same questions on day six.
I ask the same questions of God.
How long? When will this be over? Haven’t I been in this situation long enough? Isn’t there anything I can DO? Just WAIT?
Breadmaking is a complicated process–and a little magical, too. The yeast—captured as a living organism and then dehydrated (“put to sleep” in a sense)—is “waked up” by the warm liquid. It bubbles and pops on the surface, letting you know, “Yes, I’m alive! I will work.” You add flour (and a few other things) and begin to knead. As you shove at the dough, hit it, smack it, even toss it back and forth (if you have a couple people), the protein in the four (called “gluten”) begins to stretch; it becomes elastic and flexible.
Then you let it rest. While it rests, it rises, and you wait, peeking every so often to see it fill up the bowl. Finally (this is a long rise period), you punch it down, knock all the extra air out. It deflates when you do this, like a balloon gently popped. You form it then, into loaves or rolls or whatever shape you fancy, and it rises again, smoothing out the surface, becoming beautiful. Another wait, another rest.
And, finally, it bakes. And it rises a little more with the extreme heat that would have killed the yeast at any time prior in the process.
It’s a lot like spiritual growth. “Magic” is involved: the Living Water brings to life what was dead within us; the Holy Spirit allows us to stretch and grow beyond our natural limits. A Master Baker (like the Potter) knows the complicated process: how long we need (sorry, unintentional play on words) trials and troubles; when waiting periods will help us grow; the right time to knock us down a little, to let failure reveal sin areas in our lives; what shape is the perfect one for us and most useful for the Baker’s grand plan.
I know so little of the recipe and the plan for me. But God says, “I know the thoughts and plans that I have for you… thoughts and plans for welfare and peace and not for evil, to give you hope in your final outcome” (Jeremiah 29:11, Amplified version).
I don’t know why it’s so hard to remember that I don’t know what I’m doing, but it seems I have to tell myself again and again to “be the dough,” to let go of the desire to control.
And let God, my Master Baker, work.