Overwhelmed By Stormy Seas
Bryan Stephenson is the author of a book called Just Mercy and he’s also the founder of an organization that tries to help those unjustly convicted of crimes. Years ago he was trying to free a man who was clearly innocent. About a dozen people had seen him elsewhere when he allegedly committed the crime, but none of those people were allowed in the courtroom because they were black. He complained to the judge, who finally and reluctantly allowed him to call a few of these eyewitnesses to the stand.
One older black woman named Mrs. Williams was chosen to represent the group of eyewitnesses. But there was another big problem: a huge German shepherd stood guard outside the courtroom. When Mrs. Williams – who was deathly afraid of dogs – saw the dog she froze, and then her body began to shake. Tears started running down her face before she turned around and ran out of the courtroom.
Later that day she went to the attorney and said, “Mr. Stevenson, I feel so badly, I let you down today. I was meant to be in that courtroom. I should have been in that courtroom.” And she started to cry, and he couldn’t console her. She said, “I wanted to be in there so bad. But when I saw that dog all I could think about was Selma, Alabama in 1965. I remember how they beat us, and I remember the dogs. I wanted to move and I tried to move but I just couldn’t do it.” And she walked away with tears running down her face.
The next day her sister told him that Mrs. Williams didn’t eat or talk to anybody all night. They just heard her praying all night long the same prayer: “Lord, I can’t be scared of no dog. Lord, I can’t be scared of no dog.” The next morning she walked up to him and said, “I ain’t scared of no dog. I ain’t scared of no dog” and then she walked right past that huge German shepherd into the courtroom.
The courtroom was packed when the judge walked in and everybody rose and sat down – except Mrs. Williams. She told the entire courtroom in a loud, firm voice: “I’m here!” But Stevenson said, “What she was saying wasn’t that she was physically present. She was saying, ‘I may be old, I may be poor, I may be black, but I am here because I got a vision of justice that compels me to stand up to injustice.’” And that was when the tide for the case turned.[i]
It takes a lot to override fear. Fear is that innate response of our brain that either interprets a situation as physically, or even emotionally or spiritually dangerous, or remembers a similar situation like that, and it then initiates a whole sequence of physical, mental, and emotional processes to get us out of that situation. And it all kind of takes over the brain and body and makes it hard to function. Hard to move.
As humans we tend to have one of three responses to fear: we fight, we flee, or we freeze. We all have our preferred inherent response too. Some of us are fighters. And if we really cannot fight, we still feel anger as we flee or hide. This is the person who starts yelling and posturing when they’re afraid. A lot of men find themselves in this category.
Some of us are flee-ers. We do our best to avoid fear-producing situations, and if we find ourselves in one, we quickly flee. We get out. I remember the first time I really tried to ride a roller coaster. I was with in college, and had taken some friends with me to King’s Island amusement park, since it was close to where I was from. The first time they went, I just dropped them off and went on home to visit my family for the day. The second time they went, they talked me into going into the park with them. We were waiting in line to ride “The Beast,” the world’s longest, fastest wooden rollercoaster. You climb not one but two big hills on The Beast. The closer we got to the front of the line, the more scared I got. By the time it was time for us to board the train, I was so scared I felt like I was going to pass out. I said, “Nope” and walked right through the train and out the other side and waited for my friends at the to the ride. I did eventually work up the courage to ride, and loved roller coasters for many years, although I really have no desire to ride them anymore. Some of us are flee-ers.
And some of us are freezers. When faced with something that makes us afraid, we freeze up. Like the person who has to give a speech in front of a crowd and gets up to the mic and can’t speak.
And if we’re unable to use our preferred method of handling fear, we default to another one. I’m primarily a flee-er. I’ll avoid fear-inducing things at all cost until I’m dragged kicking and screaming to face them. And I don’t like heights. I can fly on planes, and have several times, but I prefer to have my feet on the ground. Sometimes I get “that feeling” just looking at something from a high perspective in a picture or something. So a few years ago, when all of the kids were still at home, we decided to do a fun day trip to the Mackinac Bridge and Mackinaw City (not the island). And we took the kids across the bridge. Now, I’ve been across it several times as both a driver and a passenger. But on this morning, it was really foggy. The fog was so thick, we couldn’t see down to the water, and we couldn’t see the tops of the towers. It looked like a bridge floating through the clouds. And I didn’t handle it very well. Like at all. I couldn’t flee. I was in a moving vehicle on a bridge, where was I going to go? And freezing did me no good because Becky’s Yukon just kept going. So I fought. No, I didn’t punch my wife, but I did begin to loudly and with some choice language start criticizing her driving. You’re going to fast. Stop swerving. You’re going to drive over the rail. Whoever taught you how to drive failed miserably. That kind of stuff. The kids were in the back and at one point I remember one of them saying, “Uh oh. Shots have been fired!” That story comes up whenever someone in the family wants to humiliate me. I was legit terrified, and in the moment, really angry.
That’s what we do when we’re scared. We fight. We flee. We freeze. We actually use that to our advantage in teaching students how to respond to armed intruders in their school or on their campus. What do we tell them? If you can get away safely, do it. That’s flee. If you can’t get away safely, then hide. That’s freeze. And last of all, if you can’t get away or hide, the fight for your life.
In Mark 4, Jesus has spent a day on the shores of the Sea of Galilee teaching the crowds. And exhausted from a long day, he tells his disciples that he wants to stay in the boat and just go on over to the other side of the small inland sea. Little did they know that after absorbing a day of teaching, they were going to face a test. Did they really understand, in their hearts, what Jesus was saying? Could they, would they really trust him, even when things got scary. Turn with me to Mark 4:35-41.
Mark begins by telling us that this happened “On that day, when evening came …” On what day? On the same day that begin in the opening verse of this chapter with the words “Again he began to teach beside the sea,” when the crowd got so large that he “got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables” (Mk. 4:1-2). Parables like the parable of the sower, the lamp hidden under a basket, the parable of the seed growing, and the parable of the mustard seed, and others like them. You can read through the parables Mark includes here in ten minutes or less. Jesus taught all day.
And then, when he finished, “when evening came, (Mk. 4:35), he and the disciples, and probably several other people too, get into boats and head across the Sea of Galilee to the other side, probably to get a little break after a long day of teaching.
And evening was a common time to head out onto the Sea of Galilee. Most Galilean fishermen went out at night for a reason. You see, the Sea of Galilee sits 690’ below sea level, and it is surrounded high mountains, so it basically sits in a really deep basin. There is a cleft in the mountains on the south side of the lake that funnels the cooler air from the hills and plains down into the basin, where it collides with the warmer air that has been sitting in that deep basin heating in the sun. Now, what happens when cooler air and warmer air collide suddenly? You get storms, right? Storms that come up suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere. And this most likely to happen during the day, when the sun was warming the air down over the surface of the lake. So fishermen tended to go out when things were calmer, from dusk to dawn. We often read stories in scripture of Peter, Andrew, James, and John – the four fishermen among the disciples – were out overnight, and then repairing their nets the next morning along the shore.
And the storms created by this unique weather feature over the Sea of Galilee were, and still are, legendary. Even today, with modern fiberglass and steel boats that have powerful motors and modern navigational equipment and pumps to pump out the water that always washes into boats, captains still keep a very close eye on the weather reports and conditions in the area so as not to be caught out on the lake in bad conditions. And we know, living on an inland sea ourselves, that during storms, waves on the lakes can get really high. High enough and rough enough to sink even the largest of freighters today. The smaller size of an inland sea keeps the waves concentrated and allows them to grow to enormous sizes. So, fishermen in ancient boats without motors or pumps or fiberglass hulls tended to go out at night, when conditions were more predictable.
BUT, storms could happen at night, and when they did, they were doozies. Night storms on the Sea of Galilee were, and still are, much more dangerous than the already dangerous day storms. And they didn’t have satellite navigational aids, lights on the boats, things like that. They were just out there blind. Mark tells us that there were other boats with the boat Jesus and his disciples were in. The chances of them running into one another in the storm were great.
And I mentioned these storms come out of nowhere, right? When conditions are right, they pop up suddenly and violently. No warning. A boat captain or fisherman could look at the skies and see nothing threatening at all and be in the midst of a terrible storm before he hit the middle of the lake, and then back in calm seas by the time he reached port. If he reached port.
So at least four of the disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – who had made their living on this very lake before meeting Jesus, who were out on it more or less every night for years, who had grown up in fishing families and had been around the lake since they were born, knew very well what they were sailing into. They knew the violence of the storms and the vulnerabilities of their fishing craft.
Back in 2017, on man tried to cross an ocean channel near Juneau, Alaska on a homemade watercraft – more specifically, an inflatable, duct-taped craft. Now, we all know that, in many instances, duct tape is highly reliable – but as a means of water transportation, it may not be a prime choice.
And this guy was out there on the channel, in the ocean, in a duct-taped inflatable boat, with a paddle, his dog, and a conspicuous lack of a life jacket.
A local news outlet said that while the weather on scene was reportedly calm with 9 mph winds, a local Coast Guard crew still ended up coming to the man’s aid, when the makeshift boat started to fill with water.
The Coast Guard then deemed the craft unsafe and transferred it, the man – and his dog – to nearby Douglas Harbor. Perhaps to guard against embarrassment, the news release did not identify the man.[ii] Apparently the press up there in Juneau is a little kinder than our press can be!
Now, that guy may not have known what he was getting into, or he may have placed a little too much faith in his duct tape, but the four disciples who were fishermen, and any others who were from the area, knew exactly what they were getting into. They knew exactly what a storm on the lake could do. And ancient Jews didn’t swim for fun. They didn’t take swim lessons like we often do. They didn’t have swimming and diving teams. The preferred to stay on the dry side of the water as much as possible. So going overboard even in pretty calm seas could lead to a drowning. I guess they didn’t want a replay of the whole Jonah episode.
These sea-hardened fishermen knew exactly what they were in for. They’d made it through storms before, but some, as I’m sure you can imaging, were a fight to survive, limping back to shore on storm damaged, partially swamped boats. They knew what to do in a storm to at least have a chance, they knew how to fight a storm, and they were still losing. Mark tells us that pretty much as soon as the storm hit, the boat was overwhelmed and “already” filling with water. He’s emphasizing the speed with which the storm was overwhelming them.
So they all turn to Jesus, expecting to find him bailing water and doing whatever else was necessary along with the rest of them. But he’s exhausted from teaching all day, and he’s asleep on a cushion in the back of the boat. Look at V. 38. Notice that they don’t wake him in a panic, although I’m sure they were. They wake him angrily. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” That’s an accusation. They’re accusing him of not caring about them, or about himself for that matter. They’re rebuking him for not taking the right action during the storm. This was certainly not the right time for sleeping.
We do the same thing, don’t we. We’re sailing along in life, in our duct-taped inflatable boat, thinking we’re fine, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a violent storm hits. As followers of Jesus, we know that he is with us, just as he was with the disciples in that boat. And we accuse him of not caring that we’re going to die – literally or figuratively. We’re afraid, and because we’re afraid, and fear isn’t comfortable, it doesn’t feel good, and so we get angry. And we look for someone or something to blame. And ultimately, we blame God. Where are you God? Don’t you care that my marriage is failing? That my business is going under? That my family is falling apart? That I don’t have enough money to pay the bills? That we don’t know where our next meal is coming from? That the doctors are saying that there’s nothing else they can do? That I’m losing my child, my spouse, my parent, my friend, to addiction? That my life is on the brink? How can you sleep at a time like this?
And what does Jesus do? He rebukes them for rebuking him, right? He gets angry back, right? No. Look at Vv. 39-40. Oh, he rebuked something, someone, but it wasn’t the disciples. It was the wind and the sea. Ancient Jews viewed the seas as the place where chaos reigned, where the powers of the supernatural world that are against God and God’s kingdom make their home. They viewed it as the place where God and the powers of evil clash. That, to them, was what a storm was – a spiritual battle between Yahweh and the spiritual powers that sought to defeat him, headed by Satan, the adversary. They’ve seen Jesus heal the sick and cast out demons. Now they see him in the real of, in their minds, a great spiritual battle, and he speaks, and the winds immediately die down and the sea immediately becomes still.
And who controls the wind and the sea? Look at Psalm 107:23-30. “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.” Who controls the wind and the sea? God does. To be honest, it kinda sounds like the disciples were living this Psalm out at that moment, doesn’t it?
And then, after the test is over, he offers them a little more instruction. Good teachers are always teaching. Look at V. 40. How many times had the disciples heard the parables of Jesus that Mark records? Every where he went with them, he taught in parables. And then he explained things privately to his disciples. Over and over and over and over again. They could probably recite them verbatim by now, like the support staff of a public speaker who hits the same themes over and over again. They knew his words as well as he did. And how many people had they seen delivered of demons and healed of sickness. Hundreds? Thousands? John tells us at the end of his gospel that if they’d tried to record everything Jesus said and did, the world itself couldn’t contain the volumes necessary. They knew the answers in their heads, but it was still making the journey toward their hearts. They knew the answers, but they’d failed the real life test.
Following Jesus happens in real life, in the heat waves and storms and peaks and valleys of daily life. It isn’t just about what you know about Jesus. It’s about what you do in your daily following him. It’s not just about church on Sunday morning. It’s about how you run your business, how you handle your marriage, how you relate to friends and neighbors, how you pray for your enemies and those who have hurt you. It’s about trusting Jesus in the storms of life.
In this instance, he calmed the storm, because he needed to make a point. He doesn’t always do that. He doesn’t always calm the storm. But he will never leave you to face it alone. And he alone is Lord over the wind and the waves. That’s really the point of this test. The disciples asked one question during the storm: don’t you care about us, about this storm, about our lives, about your own life. They asked a different question when the wind and waved died when he spoke to them. Look at V. 41. That’s the question Mark wants us to leave this episode with, the question he wants in our minds too. He isn’t just a great and powerful teacher or a mysterious, fully actualized guru. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, he is lord of the land and the sea, and he is lord over the storm.
But this isn’t faith over fear. This isn’t a rebuke of everyone who ever feels afraid. As human beings, we’re wired to feel fear. It’s part of what keeps us alive. It’s about faith leading to courage in the face of fear. And what is courage? In the words of John Wayne, “Courage is being afraid, and saddling up anyway.”
In an issue of CT magazine contributing editor Susan Wunderink writes:
When I was a swimming instructor, I spent a lot of time trying to get little kids to float. I would tell them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons out of it, and I’d say, “When I count to two, you won’t feel my hands underneath you, but they’re there.” As soon as I’d say “two,” most of the children would frantically jerk their knees towards their chins and flail their arms, dropping their full weight into my hands. Almost all people float when they assume a posture of rest, but people who think they’ll sink don’t keep that posture for long.
Faith is about a posture of rest, too. Many of us are terrified by the life of faith, needing always to feel the support of steady jobs, steady relationships, and back-up plans. God, knowing that, signed us up for swim lessons. … God intends to make a swimmer of (us), and he is teaching (us) to rely on him through what seems like a disaster.[iii]
[i] Adapted from Lauren Spohrer, Phoebe Judge and Eric Mennel, “Just Mercy (Episode 45),” Criminal Podcast (6-17-16)
[ii] Tripp J. Crouse, “Coast Guard Rescues Man and Dog in Gastineau Channel in Duct-Taped Inflatable,” KTOO (6-08-17)
[iii] Susan Wunderink, “The Sabbath Swimming Lesson,” CT magazine (March, 2013), pp. 36-37