Of course you heard about Continental’s flight #61 that arrived in Newark Thursday morning from Brussels, a flight on which the pilot died. Can you imagine your stress level had you been that young co-pilot as he took into his hands control of the Boeing 777 and the lives of 250 passengers? It is a perfect segue into our Gospel reading from Mark 4.
What the scriptures call the Sea of Galilee is a relatively small lake, thirteen miles long by eight miles wide, barely 65 square miles and none of it deeper than one hundred and fifty feet and sitting almost 700 feet below sea level. It is encircled by the mountain range marking the east end of the Mediterranean with the elevation of some of the land mass over five thousand feet. It has warm, moist air in this deep trough covered by cool, dry mountain air. But when the cool air drops and the warm air rises the lake becomes treacherous for small boats. As I read this passage what I envisioned was one of Jesus’ followers gently kicking him in the ribs and handing him a bucket and saying: “…bail!” Being in such an intense storm is an anxiety generator. And yet the story is that somehow the exhausted Jesus was sleeping through it.
On that day, when evening had come, he(Jesus) said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But 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?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
In looking over how some others people had developed our Gospel story for today I exceeded my limit for Jesus being described as “a non-anxious presence.” My computer counted over 236,000 hits for the now popular phrase “non-anxious presence”. The comments I read, from leadership consultants, coaches, trainers, mediators, and preachers seemed to have a common root in a few pages of Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s landmark book Generation to Generation which itself is rooted in the Family Systems Theory of Murray Bowen.
A positive descriptive word or a phrase for “non anxious” has evaded me. What do I mean when I say: “I feel anxious?” Anxiety is an uneasiness, a disquietude, fretfulness it is generally all around us, at times it is attached to a set of circumstances and for some it becomes a chronic condition – they don’t feel anxious, they are anxiety on the hoof. We live is a time of general anxiety that reflects the state of the economy for instance, but when a deranged fanatic shoots down a physician then we are dealing with situational anxiety – that will resolve itself in time. But there is the illness of anxiety of an individual that is communicable and which can make another or keep another ill. Anxiety is real, it has its effect on each and every one of us. Anxiety and fear or not the same thing. Fear has a focus.
Denying our anxiety way be more of an issue than its acceptance. That is portrayed pretty well in a passage from Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil. She wrote: Bengt Maardh’s (the priest’s) face bore a troubled expression as he seated himself in the visitor’s chair. He folded his hands and rested his elbows on the armrests while his serious gaze focused on Irene. Again she felt that a priest was here to console her, as if she was the one who needed comforting. The feeling was absurd, yet it was there. Maybe it was evoked by his sympathetic brown eyes behind frameless glasses.
Then it struck her that she was simply being exposed to a basic tool of his profession. This was the way Bengt Maardh (the priest) had learned to act in times of grief: He displayed compassion.”
If you are personally invested in the outcome of a situation, how are you able to simply swallow your own anxiety and put on your professional poker face? That’s disingenuous. It puts me in mind of the non-directive theory of counseling proposed by Carl Rodgers where the counselor’s goal is to create an atmosphere of non-judgmental acceptance. Of course my reaction may be to someone defining Jesus in negative terms, or it may be that it is about a misapplication or a misunderstanding of what Murray Bowen and Edwin Friedman were trying to say. Most of all I decided that when you decide to be free of anxiety it is akin to Janis Joplin singing “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Rabbi Friedman’s earliest mention of what has become the palliative jargon “non-anxious presence” comes directly from a paragraph where he attempts to describe what Murray Bowen hypothesized as a scale of self differentiation. Friedman writes: “Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say ‘I’ when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we.’ It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) nonanxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and emotion being.” “Differentiation means the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected.”
Now how does that change our understanding of what was occurring among the passengers on the fishing boat enduring a storm on the Sea of Galilee. What does that say about Jesus’ followers, several of them experienced boatmen, screaming their anxiety to each other above the din of the storm and saying to the sleeping Jesus “Don’t you care” and “We” are about to perish? Jesus wasn’t demonstrating some preferred state of lack of anxiety, he was demonstrating a confidence in God’s presence with him.
Later in his book, Friedman points out two important parts of a religious leader’s response to a crisis of anxiety in the worshipping community: the first is the need to be playful as a way to step down the anxiety; the second is the need to avoid diagnosis which automatically increases it.
In our Old Testament reading for today several stories introducing David, or telling how he came into Saul’s court, have been combined into one tale. Each ‘introduction’ to David underlines the point that ‘success’ in Israel’s struggle with the Philistines, as in all its struggles, is not guaranteed by power, might, technology, or other clever strategies, as measured in human terms. We find playfulness in the comical dressing of David in Saul’s armor shows, it seems that God’s ‘champions’ are always a size too small when subject to human assessment.
David takes with him five small stones and his sling. He has already explained to Saul that he has killed bears and lions with little aid. Even so this story is not just about David’s skill and gifts. Different than Saul or the whole Israeli army, he is the one with whom the Lord is present. Moreover, Saul mentions that it has been the Lord who actually has saved David, and will again. This is the point of the story.
So, on one hand, in 1 Samuel 17, we are not in the realm of fairy-tale giants like ‘Jack and the beanstalk’. Goliath is presented simply as this large warrior, over seven feet tall. His armor and weapons are likewise impressive. All this emphasizes his strength and power. But the description of his armor serves as much to remind us that underneath and behind all that metal, leather and lance he is flesh and blood. In a negative way we are reminded of who calls us to be his people in spite of our weakness, our seeming ill-preparedness, and our lack of confidence in ourselves. We are also reminded that whatever we do as the Lord’s people is only by virtue of his presence with us. All true assessment of strength, value, and of what and who is right, is not measured by the standards of this world, its structures, and its ways, but rather by what pertains to God.
On the other hand, 1 Samuel 17 does have something in common with fairy tales and stories such as ‘Odysseus and Cyclops’. The nature of the giants in these stories hints at our inborn anxiety about what we perceive to be ‘supernatural’ forces that would overwhelm us. As with the enormity of Goliath and his hardware, so the storm in ancient literature represented such a malignant force as to be thought to be demonic. Matter of fact, Jesus addresses this storm with the same words Mark says he used in addressing the demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue. In David, we see a faithful, trusting servant whose struggle is part of a much larger conflict, but whose part is played with confidence in the God who is present with him. In our Gospel story, in the face of such supernatural force, Jesus demonstrates an attitude of confident faith to his disciples. This is not a call for a foolhardy confidence that can be reduced simply to putting the Lord to the test. God does not play cheap games. Rather it is a call for faith in the God whose presence under girds all of life and who undercuts false assessments of security and strength. William Barclay, the Scottish New Testament scholar wrote: “once the disciples realized the presence of Jesus with them, the storm became calm.” It also reminds us that the voyage with Jesus won’t be without its’ storms but it will never be without his presence and the peace he brings.
To help their students find some inner peace during the stress of an academic term Worchester College Chapel at Oxford produced a handout to be used on a walking tour that included devotional material specifically appropriate to particular places on the campus. One most helpful was the prayer of David Adam which reads:
Calm me, O Lord, as you stilled the storm
Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm
Let all tumult within me cease
Enfold me Lord in your peace.