35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.
37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”
39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them,“Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”
41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”
Mark 4.35-41 is filled with questions answered with questions. Wind and waves are overwhelming the boat as Jesus’ companions wake him asking, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He answers by stilling the storm and asking them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They answer his question-answer with a question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Questions ache off the page throughout scripture, not the least of which is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And how about Genesis when God says to Adam, “Where are you?” And that big book of suffering, the Book of Job, in which God speaks in questions upon questions. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’”
Are you still afraid? I often think I definitely am. Some days I feel fear radiating through me—I feel electric with fear, like a sickness, like a short-circuitingknock-knock joke that won’t stop telling itself. Knock-knock. Who’s there? Fear. Fear, who? I’m afraid, are you? I’m afraid, are you, who? Wait, who are you? Knock-knock. Where’s that knocking coming from? Fear. Fear, who? Where are you? Knock-knock. Is that you? You, who? Yoo-hoo! Fear? Are you out there? In here? Anyone? Knock-knock. Who’s there? Fear. Afraid of what? Who?Knock-knock. You, too?Are you still afraid? Are you?
My granddad used to scream in his sleep—memories of World War II. On summer sleepovers at our grandparents’ house in elementary school my younger cousin told me scraps of our grandfather’s war stories that her mother had told her, ways of explaining his nightmares. I stood in the hallway, in bare feet and a nightgown, staring at the closed door of the sleeping porch where he slept alone. He was screaming. I should go in there and wake him. I should try to help or do something. I just stood there.
He’d been an U.S. soldier in Europe then Japan. He took photographs of the newly liberated concentration camp Buchenwald thinking no one would believe him otherwise. When I was in eighth grade he came to my school to talk to my English class. Someone asked him about the war. He stood there and cried.
At his funeral, as he had requested, we sang “Silent Night.” It was 2006. My sister and I drove up from a still wrecked New Orleans to attend the funeral with our family and there we stood, singing a Christmas carol after lowering his casket into the green earth, that heart ache refrain, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” And, “Jesus, Lord at thy birth, Jesus, Lord at thy birth.” And those final lines of song, “sing Hallelujah. Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born.”
The truth is not that the flood waters will never overwhelm our boats, flood our cities, drown us, our families, our neighbors, plummet whole neighborhoods under water. It happens all the time. God notes that Job is faithful, among the most faithful; then all ten of his children die when a house collapses on them.
Are you still afraid? It’s the wrong question. I conflated the two questions Jesus asks in Mark 4.35-41 and in doing so I’ve gotten it all wrong, made a depressing jumble of things I don’t understand. Jesus knows the people are afraid. That much is totally clear. They’re terrified that they’re drowning, and they’re mad he’s not more worried about it.
Jesus doesn’t ask whether they’re afraid, he asks why.
He says to the roiling wind and sea, those forces that the people with him experience as real and pressing threats, “Peace! Be still!” The result? “Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” You were afraid of death? It isn’t coming—life everlasting is present already, here in the dead calm of the sea and in the windstorm, too, here even in our suffering, in our anger, in our confusion, and in death. Love cuts through every horror and sadness. Grace is all present all the time everywhere. I think that’s the idea, anyway.
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks before going on, “Have you still no faith?” It’s as though the divine is roaring in our trembling, terrified ears, I am here. I’m with you in this. You’ve got questions? Ask them. I’m going to ask you right back.
Jesus asks “Why are you afraid?” and then, instead of asserting that they have no faith, he asks them. He says, “Have you still no faith?”In asking this, Jesus invites them into faith.
The question is not whether we’re afraid. Of course we are. The question is why and what’s the way forward. Do we use our fear as occasion to blame others? To be like the people on the boat asking Jesus why he’s not helping us more? To scream, “Doesn’t anyone care about me?” All the while Jesus is here with us, right here with us, offering peace and asking “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” We can stand in our fear with faith, let it become a reverent fear, a faith that in awe asks to know God more fully—Jesus, who says “Peace!” in the midst of the cruelest, most terrifying, storms.