By The Rev. Drew Williams
I was recently invited to speak at an important public meeting. At almost exactly the same moment that I needed to talk, I received an urgent text beckoning me to come straight to Stamford Hospital’s E.R. where my youngest daughter had been rushed. She is now back at home and much recovered, but in the moment, it was very disturbing news. I hastily passed my notes to a good friend, ran out of the building and got on I-95.
My prayers, in the privacy of my own car, were not pretty! Honestly, I was angry and dismayed. Where was God? Why was my daughter in the E.R.? My prayers were very much reminiscent of the disciples’ cry as their boat was being battered by the storm all the while Jesus “was in the stern, asleep on a cushion” (Mark 4:38a). Not unreasonably, they asked him, “…do you not care that we are perishing?” I don’t think that I was quite as polite.
The next morning, I found myself pondering the previous night’s events and in particular my I-95 prayer time. Honestly, I felt a little embarrassed before God. In my prayers, however, I felt reminded of the place that God has made for us to bring Him prayers of utter desperation — even—and especially—angry prayers of desperation.
At times, we can fear God’s apparent absence, and we can feel alone, angry and confused. We may imagine that a prayer that says, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” is a prayer that exposes a loss of faith. The Bible corrects this false view of faith. Real faith is not simply an intellectual assent to some statement about God. It is the sometimes-challenging struggle to entrust our entire selves — pain and all — to God.
Scripture does not shy away from raw human emotions. Over fifty Psalms are laments (defined as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow”). Job lamented, “Why did I not perish at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:11). The prophets lamented before God. Jeremiah cried out, “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable…?” (Jeremiah 15:18) and Habakkuk wrote “…my legs tremble beneath me. I await the day of distress that will come upon the people who attack us” (Habakkuk 3:16). The apostle Paul stated that he was “perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8).
There is a distinction to be noted here. Despair leads us to give up on our relationship with God. Lament, on the other hand, is a sign that our faith is alive and kicking. Lament is part of the rhythm of faith itself. Lament is not a failure of faith, but an act of faith. Michael D. Guinan wrote, “We cry out directly to God because deep down we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us and it counts to God.”
It occurred to me that in that moment of utter frustration and despair on I-95, I could have backed away from God completely, and yet, even as disagreeable as my prayers were, by the leading of His Spirit and the sheer grace of God, I was still leaning into God. Debbie Przybylski put it this way: “Prayers of lament can often feel like prayers of complaining, but they can still serve as prayers of faith, because this type of prayer refuses to let God go.”
Thankfully, God has made a space in His heart for my I-95 prayer life! But that still left me with the question of what was I doing on the highway headed to the E.R. in the first place? I felt led back to the disciples’ experience recounted in Mark 4.
To begin with, how did the disciples find themselves in such a storm that evening? Earlier in the chapter, we had been told: “Again He [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.” (Mark 4:1). So Jesus was already in the boat, exhausted from teaching the crowd all day. Before falling asleep, he said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” (verse 35). The “other side” was the place of the Gentiles. After having ministered exclusively to the Jewish people, this boat trip was the very first venture into non-Jewish territory. As they made their way, “a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.” (verse 37). Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy made over Him as an infant that He would be “a light to enlighten the Gentiles” and now He was taking His disciples with Him into the eye of the storm.
Experience teaches that storms are inevitable whenever we leave the security of our home port. And when we do this—when we do what Jesus is asking of us (and especially when we do exactly what Jesus is asking of us) — we should expect it to get a little choppy. There is simply always resistance when we take new ground for God.
So how Jesus could sleep in the midst of the storm? It had to be that His security and peace came from someplace other than the weather. He knew He was safe because all His security and confidence came from the Father. “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4:8). Jesus had a security, assurance and confidence that allowed Him to lie down in the boat and sleep.
What did the disciples want Jesus to do? “And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher [notice they did not address Him as Lord!], do you not care that we are perishing?’” (verse 38b). If you are a fisherman, as several of the disciples were, and your boat is filling with water, what do you do? You bail out the boat. Perhaps panicking as they were undoubtedly bailing as fast as they could, they immediately assumed Jesus must not care about them since He was not joining them in their efforts.
Isn’t that how it feels to us in our own storms when He is not apparently answering our frantic prayers? In those moments, we might conclude that God doesn’t exist, but more often, we may conclude He simply doesn’t care. C.S. Lewis put it this way in his diary following the death of his wife: “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
So what did Jesus do? He did not grab a bucket, but spoke directly to the storm: “And He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” (Mark 4:39). The Amplified Version says that all that Jesus needed to say was “Hush!” and the wind ceased and there was great calm.
Back on I-95, I got to the hospital and found that the doctors and nursing staff had already brought calm to our family’s storm. There was my daughter, looking extremely little, lying in a large bed, wearing an oxygen mask and a big smile. Back at the public meeting, apologies were made for my sudden departure and my friend calmly read my notes. Later, I was told that when the room heard that my daughter was unwell, immediate prayers were said. How interesting that in the very moment of my daughter’s need of prayer, a room full of people drawn from faith communities all over Greenwich, got the news and silently went into action.
Back in the boat, now in calm water, the curious thing is the disciples were still afraid! So, Jesus asked them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (verse 40). In other words, to the disciples and to us in all the various storms of life, Jesus would reassure us, “You just wanted me to bail you out of the storm. I want you to know the power of God to carry you through the storm.”
The Rev. Drew Williams is senior pastor at Trinity Church in Greenwich.