Beyond the shadowy places

Pentecost 4, Proper 7B
Mark 4:35-41 

In the name of the God of the rough places and the plain; the God who sends and the God who shelters.  Amen.

One of the most consistent mistakes that is made among Christians, and in Christian communities is that we tend to look to plant our feet on level ground.  We look for security and predictability and calm.  It’s our inclination as human beings to seek these things, but too often, we impose them on the will of God.  If our physical security falters, we wonder where God was.  If the world becomes too unpredictable, we pray for God to intervene.  We think that if we just baptize the parts of life that challenge us – just wash them in Christ – then they will go away.

But you don’t have to look too terribly far in the Bible – and certainly not terribly far in the Gospels – to see that that’s just not the way that God typically works with us.  God doesn’t exist merely to wipe clean our struggles, and to replace them only with happiness and contentment.  In fact, it’s our struggles – those things that challenge us most – that are most likely to help us to grow more perfectly into the image of God.

In reading the Gospel lesson this week, my mind kept turning to the story of the Disney film, The Lion King.  There’s a scene near the beginning – before the real conflict of the story emerges, when the young Simba who would be king is studying under his father.  His father says, “Look Simba – everything the light touches is our kingdom…”  But Simba asks his father, “What about that shadowy place?”  His father says, “That’s beyond our borders.  You must never go there.”

As the story progresses, Simba does go into the shadowy place.  He even goes beyond the shadowy place.  And it leads him through significant hardship.  He’s imperiled and left vulnerable to dangers he’d never imagined.  But he does get through it.  And, on the other side, he matures, and eventually become his more authentic self.  When he finally returns to the kingdom as its king, he is more ready for the task than he would have been if he’d merely stayed in the safety and security of his upbringing.

The challenges of life are that way – whether they be physical or emotional challenges, or even challenges to the ways we’ve typically thought about things.  It’s precisely that – the challenges – that most cause us to grow.  They can leave us vulnerable and imperiled, but they can also bring us closer to our truest selves – our truest selves that God imagines for us in our creating.

This story we read from the Gospel is one of the more familiar ones we encounter in the church.  There’s just something so deeply engaging about trusting that we will survive the storms of life, because Christ is with us in whatever we face.  We typically imagine ourselves as the disciples – weathering the storm and calling on Christ to fix it for us.

But this week, as a sort of mental exercise, I tried imagining myself in another place in this story: I imagined myself as the storm-tossed sea.  That is often where we are in our own stories – we are the ones who feel out of control.  We are the ones sloshing about and feeling alone as the stuff of life floats over us and through us.

I imagined Jesus proclaiming that command to me, as the sea: “Peace!  Be still!”

I am certainly no scholar of Greek, so I can’t speak to the authenticity or reliability of the translation we use, other than reporting that scholars trusted by the church have endorsed it.  But even so, I’ve never really heard those words the way they’re punctuated here: “Peace! [exclamation point] Be still! [exclamation point].”  Instead, I hear it, as I so often hear the voice of Jesus in these stories, as a little softer.  A little more comforting.  “Peace, [comma] be still [period].”  I hear it less as an order from on high, and more as gentle pleading from someone on my side; someone with my best interests at heart.

The goal of our lives in faith is not to avoid the storms of life altogether, but to realize that in those aspects of life that are floating over us and through us in our storms – Jesus is in them.  Christ is riding through them and calling us to calm ourselves.  It’s all just a part of the journey, and Christ is with us in every part of the journey.  Sometimes walking on our storm-tossed seas; sometimes riding along in the parts of our stories that seem outside of us, and intrusive in us.  Through it all, Christ is with us, calling us to faith and calling us to calm.

If we put ourselves back in the boat for a moment, remember that it was by going out on the boat – into the storm – that they made it to the other side.  And the other side wasn’t just a place on the other side of the lake, another point on a map – “the other side” in this context has metaphorical impact.  The other side is foreign; the other side is beyond what we know and are most comfortable with.  The other side is what made them grow beyond their humble beginnings into more of their potential.

The same is true for us.  To follow Christ, we have to go to the other side, too.  We have to step out of what is easiest and most comfortable.  We have to subject ourselves to challenges – not just comfort.  We have to be vulnerable – not just secure.

The Lion King without Simba going where he shouldn’t have gone – going into the shadowy places; without him leaving the safety of the familiar and tested and true – it isn’t much of a story at all.  It’s really nothing more than a documentary about a maturing lion.  Not without value, but still not all that it ended up being.

Our stories have value beyond their simple reporting, too.  And when we try to minimize the rough places – when we try to focus only on what was smooth and clear and easy – we miss the best parts of the story.  We miss the parts that give us depth and dimension.  We miss the growth.

In all things, we are called to grow.  Whether we are the sea, or the disciples, or the boat, or something else entirely, we are called to move toward God’s dream for us.  That takes faith, because it always involves risk.  But hear this: Christ is in the midst of it.  Whether your current moment is easy or hard or anywhere in between – Christ is there, calling us to faith.  Peace, be still.  Relax.  It’s going to be okay.  It may not be what you imagined, but it’s going to be okay.  Christ is with us.  Amen.