I remember reading Moby Dick, the great American novel by Herman Melville, when I was in high school. It was the hardest, but also most rewarding, book I had read to that point in my life. I recall the teacher saying when the time came to start: “Be patient! The first section is long and slow… but it gets better.” Wow, was that teacher right. Melville opens the novel with endless, mind numbing detail about what it was like to venture out onto a sailing vessel such as the Pequod, which was Captain Ahab’s ship. The teacher told us that the long and tedious descriptions would help us truly understand what it felt like to live during those times and to be a sailor headed out to sea. I remember only that it truly made me feel like I was getting a root canal without novocaine. It was brutal. But then, as predicted, it got better. Much better.
Moby Dick is about an obsessed, vengeful ship’s captain who sought victory over the great white whale he had previously encountered and which had bit his leg off on one of those encounters. It is an exciting, action filled book that is, at times, terrifying and also exhilarating. There is a reason it is considered a classic. But since I was reading this for an English class, we took it a level deeper and tried to understand some of the underlying themes and metaphors and the lessons about life it might teach us. I remember talking about Captain Ahab’s reckless despair, about how the white whale could represent God… or, some argued, evil. We even, at one point, talked about how America, still a young country when Moby Dick was written in the 1800s, was represented by the Pequod and its crew, sailing perilously out at sea – a nation still attempting to find its way in the world.
On the surface, Moby Dick is about a big white whale and the man who pursued it. On a deeper level, it is about so much more.
Today’s Gospel story is about another boat and its crew facing grave peril, this one containing Jesus and his apostles, out upon a dark and stormy sea. On the surface, we see that Jesus calmed the raging winds and rough waters. The Gospel tells us that: ” The wind ceased and there was great calm.”
This was an incredibly impressive miracle – one that defied all expectations and demonstrated just how great and powerful this man was to have confronted the forces of nature and to have completely overcome them. This was God after all.
But go with me to a deeper place. To below the surface. To the metaphor. To the reality that every one of us faces difficulty, challenge, and suffering in our lives. Some experience this occasionally. Some more often. And for some, it is the defining characteristic of their lives. To suffer. To suffer greatly. These are the raging winds and rough waters we all face.
Just below the surface, this Gospel is about trusting our Lord and Savior to calm those waters. Ultimately, it is about trust. And it is about the fact that no matter what happens, no matter what… we can believe that it is going to be alright. This is not an easy thing to embrace, to accept, when you are in a boat that is being tossed around wildly on a treacherous sea, in the dark, and with no sign of land in sight.
I remember my dear friend, Rich. From nearly out of the blue, he received word from his physician that his time remaining in this life was going to be short. Extremely short. Rich clung to this particular Gospel reading and so every time it comes up, I can’t help but think about him. And about those first days after he got the news. How it was a lot like being in a boat at night and on fierce and unforgiving waves. But Rich clung to this Gospel reading. He clung to Christ. And he trusted. He trusted in the one who said: “Be quiet and be still.”
I readily accept the fact that the creator of all things can physically calm a stormy sea. It’s impressive… but to me, it’s not all that impressive.
What is more impressive to me is that when I find myself facing what Rich faced, for myself or for someone I love, the true miracle is that if I trust Jesus, if I believe in him and his promise, then I can know with confidence that no matter what happens… it will be alright.
Be quite, be still.
When you’ve lost your footing or can’t find your way forward… be quiet, be still.
When the wind picks up and the light fades all around you… be quiet, be still.
And when the cross becomes just too much to bear… be quiet, be still.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus said: “In the world, you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.”
When we trust… when we cling to Christ…
The wind will cease and there will be great calm.