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Earthquakes, Stormy Seas, and a Sleeping Savior

“Chippie the parakeet never saw it coming. One moment he was peacefully perched in his cage. The next he was sucked in, washed up, and blown over. The problems began,” as Max Lucado tells the story, “when Chippie’s owner decided to clean Chippie’s cage with a vacuum cleaner. She removed the attachment from the end of the hose and stuck it in the cage. Then the phone rang, and she turned to pick it up. She had barely said ‘hello’ when [thhhhooomp!] Chippie got sucked in. Horrified, the bird owner gasped, tossed down the phone, turned off the [vulturous] vacuum cleaner, and carefully opened the bag. To her amazement, there was Chippie–still alive, but rather stunned.”

Covered with dust and soot, his owner grabbed Chippie, raced to the bathroom to wash him off in running water. Realizing Chippie was now soaked and shivering, she reached for the hair dryer.

When asked how Chippie was recovering, the owner said, “Well, Chippie doesn’t sing much anymore–he just sits there and stares” (Max Lucado, In the Eye of the Storm: A Day in the Life of Jesus).

I have always loved this story, not only for the humor with which Max Lucado tells it but also for its potent yet palatable reminder of the fragility of life. Chippie’s predicament is much closer to ours than we tend to admit. At some point or another, we all find ourselves sucked in, washed up, and blown over. Economic collapse wipes out our retirement savings. We are diagnosed with cancer. Our life partner leaves us for another love. We bury beloved parents, siblings, and sometimes children. In spite of our best intentions, we speak hurtful words to our loved ones. We destroy the environment. Our students commit suicide leaving us to wonder how our failures contributed to their despair.

We helplessly watch a country decimated by natural disaster. We hear of thousands dead, strewn in the streets, tossed in mass graves, and buried alive. We shudder to imagine their failed attempts to claw out of rubble. We cannot fathom how orphans will survive psychologically intact, how an entire nation will be rebuilt. If Chippie was sucked in, washed up, and blown over, then these have been pummeled, swallowed up, and displaced.

Jesus calming a storm in Mark 4:35-5:1 is another favorite story of mine, one that affirms my instincts both to accuse God of ignoring injustice, suffering, and tragedy while simultaneously re-orienting my posture toward God and unfathomable loss. In this story, Jesus’ disciples not only battle raging waters and whipping winds, but they also battle their silent, sleeping Lord.

Imagine the scene with me: The disciples have endured another long day with Jesus teaching and feeding and healing. Finally Jesus decides to call it a day’s work. He climbs into the boat, stumbles toward the back, finds a cushion, and falls fast asleep. As the disciples relax and try to rest a bit themselves, a storm arises suddenly on the water. This was no ordinary wind or rain storm. The Greek words indicate that there was a violent upheaval like an earthquake. It was a cyclonic gust that came down from the mountains and violently plundered the sea.

I imagine that the disciples leapt to their feet, assessed the situation, and tried to maintain control of the boat. But the storm raged on and on. The waves beat against the boat, causing it to sway, rise and crash back into the water. Not unlike Chippie, the disciples were soaked. They were thrown across the deck like puppets dangling from the strings of a capricious puppeteer. They were disoriented, not knowing which way was up or down, right or left. Then the boat–their refuge, their place of peace and rest–began to sink.

And where was Jesus? Sleeping. Soundly. Can you imagine the incredulity of his disciples? First of all, how could he possibly sleep through this? Second, doesn’t he know that their lives are in mortal danger? They have given up everything to follow him. Has he no concern for their safety, sustenance, and well-being? Doesn’t it matter to him if they live or die? The storm rages on. The boat is going down and God’s precious children are going down with it. And God is nowhere to be seen or heard. How could this be?

Storms descend upon us seemingly out of nowhere, and earthquakes decimate an already plundered people. Another marriage shatters; another friend is diagnosed with cancer. There is no job, no health insurance, no home. There is no way out of the collapsed building. Hospitals try to placate the pain of amputees with Motrin, while another tremor sends people screaming for cover. In situations like these, our sense of security becomes as topsy-turvy as that little boat struggling to maintain afloat on the Sea of Galilee.

Thankfully that’s not the end of the story. On the brink of destruction, Jesus awoke to the panicked, accusatory cry of his disciples. God in Jesus Christ felt the water pouring off his beloved, sensed the violent thrashing of their boat. He was not distant from them. The Incarnate Son of God was in their predicament, for he has entered fully into the human situation. And he was in their suffering and helplessness precisely to liberate them from it. He arose from his slumber, walked to the front of their sinking boat, and spoke three words that silenced the storm and rescued them all from the brink of destruction.

This story of Jesus calming the storm prefigures another story, the central story of the Gospel, and the definitive story for all our lives. Jesus’ slumber in the boat foreshadows another slumber and a descent of another kind–his death, burial, and descent into hell. His silence points toward the silence of the Word of God on Holy Saturday, the day when God did not speak, the day when God endured the annihilation of hell and overcame it. So, too, Jesus’ awaking, speaking, and silencing of the storm prefigures his resurrection and the annihilation of sin and death.

“It is finished,” cried Jesus. Yet we do not see his accomplishment fully manifest, sometimes not even at all, in the here-and-now. Like his slumber on that boat, God sometimes still seems to be silent. The tremors keep coming. The number of dead keeps rising. The orphans have nowhere to go. Will he speak? Will there be peace and healing for Haiti, for all who suffer this day?

Where is Jesus now? He is in the rubble, just as he was in the boat. Now he shares in the terror of an entire nation. He is in the makeshift hospitals and the food lines. He is in the singing, because somehow, unlike Chippie, his children in Haiti find hope beyond hope. He is in the wailing and lamenting, because he is God-with-us, God-with-Haiti, God-with-all those who suffer injustice, tragedy, and ruin.

We, as his body, are there, too, whether we realize it or not. We are not ultimately separate from those who are ravaged by sin and suffering. We are invited to follow like Jesus’ disciples followed him, crying out with intercession, lament, and groans too deep for words until God cries out and silences all our storms and earthquakes. Then, we too, we will enter that silent rest in which awe and trust replace our fear and helplessness. Then all God’s children will sing again.

Theresa F. Latini teaches congregational and community care at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and serves as parish associate at Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. She is the author of the forthcoming, The Church and the Crisis of Community: A Practical Theology of Small Groups (Eerdmans).