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Calming our Fears

4th Sunday after Epiphany BCP

29 January 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

Sailing out into the peace of the Sea of Galilee and singing the hymn 'Dear Lord and Father of mankind' is one of the highlights of a Holy Land Pilgrimage - normally on mercury silver calm waters. It was a picture of stillness on the day I was there with my last parish. Sun-kissed turquoise waters of calm are similarly most people's experience of the Med, and going on holiday in the summer months usually guarantees an experience not unlike some of the holiday brochure pictures. But, as in life, so with nature - storms can arise suddenly and seemingly from nowhere. Sailing back from the island of Paxos to mainland Greece some nine years ago during a storm, I thought it was to be my last journey. Part of the problem I think might lie in the construction of the boats, which seem to be designed wide and shallow, to go with the force of the waves rather than to withstand and cut through them. Even a Disney ride couldn't quite replicate the swaying of that boat which bobbed from side to side, and quite how it didn't capsize completely I shall never know. The fact that the experienced holiday company rep was in tears, and the crew looked distressed, hardly inspired confidence. Sadly, we are, all of us, in recent years, only too aware of the potentially destructive power of nature.

Possibly based on Psalm 107 (vv 25-30) today's popular story of the calming of the storm again uses St. Mark as the source, though cutting out some lovely details like Jesus resting on a cushion. Jesus sleeps at the back of the boat, an image of quiet confidence and faith in the power of the Creator who makes both land and sea. Are there resonances here with garden of Gethsemane? In that story it is the disciples who are asleep in the hour of Jesus' greatest need…but not of panic… "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake." They do not, as we know.
The great tempest brews up and makes the disciples understandably agitato…"Lord, save us, we perish", though they clearly have failed to grasp the most important truth that their Lord and Master is already there with them. They are themselves asleep to Him who is already present in their hour of need. "Why are ye fearful?" asks the Lord, before God calms both the storm, and the fears of the twelve. The main problem for them in this story, as in many stories which follow, is that the disciples do not understand…do not know who Jesus is. It is an ignorance which eventually leads to them abandoning him. This not knowing Jesus is actually at the heart of their fearfulness.

We are told that babies have only two inborn fears - the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. All other fears are either acquired or induced. Of course as we get older our fears multiply, don't they? Worries about failure, or losing a job…dread about getting sick, or of losing a loved one…anxieties that those we love will turn out to be unfaithful… fears of being left alone on the shelf, of growing old…the ultimate fear of death itself. And this collective fear and denial of death surely lies behind the unreal search for a kind of immortality rather than for resurrection. Like the disciples on the stormy lake, we act as if we don't know who Jesus is. If we do know him in true faith, we might rejoice that we are promised not only a good life, but a good death…'why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith'?
"Yes," says Henri Nouwen, who had time during his terminal illness to meditate much on the themes of fear and death, "Yes, there is such a thing as a good death. We ourselves are responsible for the way we die. We have to choose between clinging to life in such a way that death becomes nothing but a failure, or letting go of life in freedom so that we can be given to others as a source of hope. This is a crucial choice and we have to `work' on that choice every day of our lives. Death does not have to be our final failure, our final defeat in the struggle of life, our unavoidable fate. If our deepest human desire is, indeed, to give ourselves to others, then we can make our death our final gift…we have to prepare ourselves for our deaths with the same care and attention as our parents prepared themselves for our births"

This process is best attended to during the calm ordinary times rather than when we have arrived frantically in the valley of the shadow of death…in other words it is a constant necessity. There is a story of an old skipper who took day trippers to the Shetland Islands as a living. One day his boat was full of youngsters who laughed at him saying his prayers before setting out on what looked like a fine calm day. Just like my experience on the way back to the Greek mainland, a storm suddenly blew up and the boat pitched violently, causing the terrified passengers to ask him to join them in prayer. But he replied, 'I say my prayers when it is calm. When it is rough, I look after my ship'. As we face the coming week we can recall the experience of those frightened disciples and count ourselves amongst them, with whatever dangers threaten to disturb our peace. But we try to remain awake and alert to the assurance of Jesus' presence concealed within the boat, which promises, both in life and in death, that even though he may seem to sleep, he is still with us…and those unpredictable torrents of fear and anxiety will not overwhelm us and drown us. Or, in the words of our first hymn this morning 'Father like he tends and spares us, well our feeble frame he knows - in his hands he gently bears us, rescues us from all our foes' (Lyte based on Psalm 103)… not least those fears and alarms.
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