The Church in the East
Rainer Maria Rilke had this to say about fathers:
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
Rilke’s poem comforts the father in me, the parent in me really, because it reassures me that there’s nothing wrong with being an exhausted father. Fatherhood should be exhausting at times because raising a child is a pilgrimage of our own self-discovery in order for us to model to our children a life that knows how to journey from the ordinary world of mundane comforts to the sacred center of life that God is calling us to. So, happy Father’s Day to all of the dads who strike the right balance between the dinner table and that far-off church in the East. It's not easy. It’s hard work. And you deserve a day to sleep in maybe and be appreciated certainly.
And there’s a truth here that goes beyond fathers and goes beyond children. Pilgrimage—a spiritual and physical journey from one place to another—reminds us that clinging to the places where we feel most safe is not always what’s best for us, or for our children, or for a world that needs the energy and, frankly, the risk of our movement—our pilgrimage, our perilous passage across the sea.
Ms. Opal Lee is known as the grandmother of Juneteenth. She is 94-years old. At 89 she undertook a 1,400-mile walk from Forth Worth, Texas to Washington D.C. to raise awareness and to gather signatures for a petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday. This was not some corporate–sponsored, cushy, comfortable trip. For much of the journey she slept at night on a mattress in the back of a Ford Explorer on the side of the road. But now, thanks in no small part to her work, Congress and the president have enacted a bill which recognizes June 19th, long celebrated in many Black communities as a day marking the end of slavery, as a public holiday.
So, I imagine that yesterday Ms. Opal Lee celebrated Juneteenth as never before, with her whole country behind her. And I pray today, after all her walking, her advocacy, and her organizing, that she has her feet up in some comfortable place where she can rest from the demands of her work. I imagine there is no better tired than the tired Ms. Opal Lee is feeling this morning.
And, so, we come to our scripture reading and Jesus asleep in the boat. We feel a little offended that Jesus might go to sleep on us, don’t we? Especially when we need him most. The disciples are certainly put out by it. They don’t just wake him up with a good shake or a friendly kick. Instead, they say, “Don’t you even care what’s happening to us? Don’t you even care we’re perishing here?” Which hardly seems fair. Doesn’t Jesus deserve his rest too?
Up to this point in Mark’s gospel Jesus has had a busy schedule—lots of travel, lots of people and crowds, lots of needs, and healings, and exorcisms, lots of disagreements with local authorities and even with his own family. It all leads to this striking line, “And leaving the crowd behind, they took Jesus with them in the boat, just as he was.” Just as he was.
And how was he? He was exhausted. And (much like Ms. Opal Lee’s mattress in the back of the Explorer) all he had for comfort was a cushion in the back of a friend’s boat. Jesus was, after all, at the end of a long day, a human being like any of us. So, why should we resent his much needed and well deserved sleep?
And yet, while this sleep seems to be ordinary and expected, there is also something very not-human about this particular little snooze, isn’t there? I mean, can you imagine? The wind is gusting! Lightning is flashing and thunder crashing! The boat is being tossed on the storm! The rain is pelting his face and the waves are swamping the boat! The disciples are howling in terror! How can someone, anyone sleep through something like that?
There is something a little troubling about it, isn’t there? Exhaustion accounts for why Jesus falls asleep, but it can’t account for how he stayed asleep. How can you stay asleep at a time like this? Don’t you realize the danger we’re in? Don’t you see the danger you’ve put us in by commanding us to sail across the water in the dark of night when even the best of fisherman can’t watch out for a change in the weather let alone navigate around a squall. The risk you’ve asked us all to take, and you’re sleeping through it?
Antonio Machado remarked:
Humankind owns four things
that are no good at sea:
rudder, anchor, oars,
and the fear of going down.
When the disciples wake Jesus up, he rebukes the storm! And then Jesus turns to the disciples and rebukes them. But he doesn’t say, “Hey, what’d you wake me up for anyway?” He simply asks, “Why are you afraid?” Don’t you know that fear is no good at sea? Why are you afraid?
Why are you afraid? Well, how much time do you have? Political unrest, nuclear proliferation, international warfare, gun ownership at record highs, gun violence exploding, culture wars, the rise of white nationalism, global climate change, mass extinctions, and a global pandemic that may very well have started in a lab just to name a few of the headlines I was scrolling through in my mind when I couldn’t get to sleep last night.
We think that the miracle is that Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, and said, “Peace,” to the sea, and the storm was over. “And they feared great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” But maybe there’s another miracle that we miss—that Jesus was able to sleep through that storm. What is it like inside of Jesus’ mind that he was able to do that? The text says that Jesus brings a “great calm” to the sea. But before Jesus externalized that great calm onto the wind and onto the water, he first contained that great calm within himself—lying in a bath of cold water tossed around on a cushion in the back of a sinking boat, and sleeping like a baby.
Why are you afraid? I’m afraid because my boat is so small, the sea is so big, and the storm is so fierce, that’s why I’m afraid! I’m afraid because I’m a father, and I have a little boy to protect—it’s like my heart is running around on the outside of my body. And how will I keep my heart safe from forces and powers far beyond the ability of any one person to anticipate or control?
And so I’m afraid! Because I’ve got big responsibilities. And so I’ve got to play it safe. I’m a father. It’s only reasonable I play it safe. I’m not going to cross the sea at night. Are you kidding me? I’m not going to go looking for that church in the East. No way! I’m not going to walk from Texas to D.C. Forget it! I’m going to stay right here where I feel safest.
We think that the antithesis of faith is doubt. But I think the antitheses of faith are things like despair, pessimism, selfishness, and fear—the emotions and tendencies that we use (or perhaps that use us) to close the doors of our house and make small the circle of our connection to world. Listen again to what Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Jesus brings a heaving sea to a standstill with one word: Peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says in the sermon on the mount. At the last supper he says, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.” When he returns to the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection, his first words are, “Peace be with you.” But how many of us have claimed our fair share of Christ’s peace? And how many of us have lived up to its implications?
How could Jesus have slept through that storm? I think the answer is that there was no distance—none whatsoever—between Jesus’ supper table and Jesus’ “church in the East.” Jesus had aligned the sacred center of his life with God. Jesus knew he was on the path that God had created for him and was calling him to. He knew that there would be storms all along the way, but he didn’t need to fear them—not because his boat would never sink, but because, when Jesus slept on that cushion, he did it as a human being exhausted by his calling on a pilgrimage to his destiny. If we want inner peace, we must also (as Howard Thurman often put it) turn the nerve centers of our consent over to God. It won’t make us invincible. It won’t even make us entirely fearless. But here is Christ’s peace—the deep peace of recognizing that your safest space and God’s biggest risk are one in the same!
Beloved, imagine an ending with me. Close your eyes and imagine a journey by boat from your safest place to that place which God has been or may be calling you to—to the church in the East, or to Washington, D.C., or to whatever “other side” it might be. You’re sailing through the dark of night, with just enough light that when you check back over your shoulder you see that Jesus is in the stern of your boat sleeping peacefully on a cushion.
A storm begins to brew. The waters get choppy and the wind blows. Then rain begins to come down in great, big sheets. Soon, the cold waves break over the rail. Of course, you’re afraid.
Now, imagine yourself crawling into the back of the churning boat and curling up on the cushion with Jesus. Imagine spooning Jesus for a little extra warmth, being careful not to wake him up—he’s sleeping so peacefully. Imagine taking his hand and holding it tight. Up in the sky, the lightning illuminates great towers of dark cloud, and thunder shatters the air all around you. You squeeze Jesus’ hand in yours and whisper up to the sky, “Peace. Peace. Peace.”
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Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations