The lake we call life
Week of Sunday June 21 – Pentecost 4
Gospel: Mark 4:35-41
Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables… (Mark 4:1-2)…33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
5:1 They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes.* 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. [The spirits begged that Jesus let them enter into the swine.] 3So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake…
Jesus has already 'been to the lake' in Mark 3:7 but now gives some extended teaching at its edges. He teaches the crowd from the shallows— always in parables that hint at greater depths, and then takes the disciples out over the deep. Not surprisingly, the deeps strike back. The boat is already being swamped by the time they can wake him.
Jesus stills the storm. This is an act of power over the deep. Jesus is the one in control. When he arrives in strange territory— the place where one's God might be expected to have less power— the forces of the deep counter attack. A full legion of demons confronts him. He drives them out of the demonised man into the unclean pigs. In fact,
"the unclean spirits [themselves] begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them…. and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake."
They are sent back to the deep.
At the end of this week's reading the text says
Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
They were not stupid. Their question is a rhetorical device already (cf Mark 8:29) asking of us, " Who do you say I am?"
At Gerasene, when the people
came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and [calm] in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. 17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood… [And] as 18 he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him.
When he leaves us to answer the question: ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him,’ Mark has already told us the answer is obvious. An entire legion of demons, and the very deep itself, know who he is: "Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" (5:7) Everyone in these stories knows who has come among them.
Instead, the challenge Mark presents to us is this: When we have been swamped by the waves of the deep— read this as when we have been in a time of terror— will we get back into the boat with Jesus and his disciples? Will we trust the extent of his Lordship of the deep enough that we beg to get back into the boat with him and go back out on the water? Or will we beg Jesus to leave our neighbourhood? (5:17-18)
The parable with which Jesus began Chapter 4 is unusual in that he or, at least, his voice, gives it an interpretation. The interpretation explores how people respond to the presence of kingdom. After reading the stories of the lake, we might wonder if there are also seeds who understand they have been cast into the good earth by the very Son of God, but who flee the field for the terror they find there. Who, despite all they see, do not trust him when he gets into the boat, and they are instructed to stay behind, to "go home to [their] friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for [them], and what mercy he has shown [them.]" They do not trust that he will continue to overcome the powers. Is this us? There is a sad irony in the plight of the people of Gerasene: it says "they came to Jesus!"
Bill Loader says
We miss all of this if we reduce the story to a wonder, which then leaves us wondering why we do not have such power to avert destructive hurricanes and tornadoes today. God knows how much we could do with such control. Some will have no philosophical difficulty in taking the story literally. Certainly Mark would have assumed a real event, but Mark’s composition indicates that it now serves a greater end and has become a symbolic statement of the gospel.
Symbols should not be ironed out into flat statements of belief. They invite playfulness and reflection. They inhabit dreams and visions. They spring in where words and definitions fail. So the story is rich in suggestion for worship, for meditation, for preaching.
Few folk think the interpretation of this story stops with "flat belief." But, too often, we misunderstand the depths of the lake. The deep water is close in shore. And it flows around us underground.
I lived on a major road in Adelaide as it was paved with bricks during an ' urban renewal.' It is now a 'place to be' for the well off and trendy. But below the surface they built tunnels in which my children could stand upright. Storms flood under the surface. If the depths beneath our life paths are ignored— not cultivated— there will be a day when the deep breaks out and the destruction will be great, and unpredictable.
Our local shopping centre is built over a creek that runs down from the hills. These hill creeks run wild. The glossy shrine to materialism pretends to control all this, and burying the depths with a few pipes, and throttling the stream with a dam under the hills. But without attention, dams always burst.
Jesus was not the first to be asleep in a boat during a storm.
They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. 6The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? (Jonah 1:5-6)
Avivah Zornberg says,
“The captain expresses the existential plight of those who stand between death and life. Uneasily straddling death and life, the sailors stand and cry [out to God.] Jonah escapes into a stupefied sleep. Here, the midrash registers the core [-- what's really at the root--] of Jonah's flight. To flee from God is to refuse to stand between death and life; it is to refuse to cry out from that standing place. The opposite of flight from God is, in a word, prayer. (Avivah Gottleib Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, (New York: Schocken Books, 2009), pp. 84-85)
I say elsewhere of this quotation that a stupefied life is to "be dead while we are alive… lost… driven by fear…" It means we have become unconscious of the rivers that run deep and wild beneath us— within us— because we think that by paving them over, we have contained them. We build a shopping centre of material distraction on top of them, full of spirit deadening drugs. But the lake underneath will not cease to erode our foundations; the salt and damp will seep up through the floors despite our best efforts to insulate ourselves.
Jung and others might say that neuroses are the sign that the hidden waters have broken through the floor. Our pretend landscape is finally cracked open. But for a long time most of us simply flee to another distraction or another job, in the hope of relieving whatever it is that we are being confronted with by our inner life.
If we use the language of Mark, there are many times when the storms come upon us that, like the sailors, we toss Jesus overboard in the hope we can escape the storm. We are not brave to stay with him and trust that he will bring us through the storm. Jesus was asleep like Jonah, except his was the untroubled sleep of someone who knew who he was. Jonah, as I have suggested here, was sleeping the sleep of avoidance.
Real life examples beyond the symbolic language:
Early in theological college the fear that life and faith were not what they had seemed on the surface constantly confronted us. The temptation was to hold onto the old faith—what our Sunday School teacher or favourite minister had said— instead of allowing ourselves to be confronted by a deeper vision of life and faith. Some of my colleagues left and joined fundamentalist churches. I had to decide not to do this, but to trust the church-boat in which God had placed me. Were my friends and I being tempted to, throw Jesus overboard while pretending to keep him and his church safe?
In the article I have been referencing, I describe being confronted by long buried trauma from my early life. There was a clear invitation here: flee. Decide this ministry job is not for you. Do something else. If I had done this then the trauma would be waiting for another time, another weak spot in the floor, through which to flood in.
Sometimes the symbols in our dreams, or the contours of our fretting and stressing, seem obvious. One of my friends was having constant dreams about tidal waves. It was in the eighties, interest rates were at 17%, and the family had a new house. She said, "I know what these dreams are about!"
Sometimes the 'obvious' is not so obvious. A man fantasises constantly of finding a new wife, one who is young and understanding. Such men project the problem onto the current wife when, really, the problem is the current life— their life. I see these older blokes, new young wife and family, and wonder if anything is actually different. How often, after what one of my friends called "a bit of a lift" does the original issue rise up again?
What is the pain and the fantasy with which a man may try to heal it about? Is it a new wife he needs, or new fresh young life? I've been spared that fantasy if only because I've seen just how destructively it can turn out! But, like all couples, my wife and I have to deal with the struggle and pain of a relationship that continues past infatuation and does not settle into two single people living in the same house.
My wife has her life struggles to deal with, and they have impacted upon me. (I have more than returned the favour!) But most of my struggling with them has not been because of her issues. It has been about my refusal to let go of my safety. It has been my refusal— put bluntly— to grow up and face the reality that my life is not, and cannot be, some ordered logical sequence where I am in control.
This is easy to say, but in actuality, it is terrifying. It is to let go. The symbol of the storm on the lake speaks to things of life that at first seem quite banal. Richard Beck says
On the surface sharing doesn’t seem to illustrate the connection between love and death. But the attendant anxieties about our own well-being—If I keep giving will there be enough for me, for my family?—in the face of sacrificial sharing quickly reveal the connection.
The same dynamic operates within families when we seek to love, rather than to use our partners as a shield against life. Beck goes on to draw two conclusions:
First, you might claim that you don't fear death, but once you start loving others you'll quickly find out that you do.
And second, love is very much about our ability to transcend that fear.
I would add that unless we own up to that fear and face it we will always be at the mercy of deep water. We can go live so that we are at "the farthest limit of the desert" rather than the sea (Ps 139:9) but the spirit will still find us, and still needle us with its presence. Reading more carefully, we find the Psalm says
5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me…
and in the Authorised Version,
Thou has beset me…
This is where I find the great blessing in the story of Jesus stilling the storm. It is the promise that in the ambiguous world of spirit, he is still Lord. He guides the boat. To throw him overboard, or beg him to leave as the Gerasenes do, is to leave ourselves to the mercy of what rises up from the deep. In the boat with Jesus, in the church at its best, we have a guide and way of being which takes us safely through the deep waters.
I find a link here between the language of church and the language of psychology. The deeper and wider life which psychology often calls "the unconscious," about which orthodoxy is sometime suspicious, or doubtful, is the same deep water over which we say Jesus is Lord. I wonder if in Jesus' time people knew that humans could not stay on the edges of the lake we call life. Only our rationalistic age that thinks we can suppress spirit by pretending it does not exist. It means we are often blind to the meaning of stories like the calming of the storm, and do not hear the promptings of our anxieties as Jesus' invitation go down into the deep waters to be healed. When we refuse him, the waters take matters into their own hands. We may seek to ignore them with all the resolve of solid rock, but the water always wins over the rocks.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!