Practical Faith in the Face of the Storm
Mark 4: 35-41
June 24, 2012
In today’s readings, a fierce gale and punishing waves, a voice from a terrifying whirlwind and a frustrated evangelist cause us to ponder some hard questions about faith and discipleship. In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples cower before raging winds causing Jesus to ask them, “Have you no faith?” In the reading from the Book of Job, Job dares the question of justice and fairness in the face of incomprehensible loss causing God to issue a demand from the heart of a whirlwind, “hitch up your belt like the fighter you are”. And in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul begs his followers to embrace faith and open their hearts wide in the face of “trials, difficulties, distresses, beatings, imprisonments and riots, in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger”. If we read these texts from the perspective of Job’s experience of horrific loss, from Paul’s experience of unremitting hardship, and from the disciple’s experience of the overwhelming force of nature, easy conceptions of faith don’t work too well. The faith of Job’s comforters provides an example of such faith. For Job’s friends, God’s justice orders the world in a way that punishes the wicked and rewards the good with salvation from the worst life has to offer. Job must have done something to make God mad and beside the way of God are a mystery. Job knows he is an upright and righteous man and so, in the face of all he has lost, the faith of his friends no longer makes sense.
Terrence Malick’s recent film, The Tree of Life, is an exploration of Job’s hard questions about faith. Malick begins with an epigraph, a quote lifted from today’s reading form the Book of Job.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?…
When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4,7)
The movie tells the story of one family’s journey of life and loss. The O’Brien’s are a fairly typical mid-century family; a mother, a father and three sons. In the opening scene, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien receive a telegram. Their middle son has been killed in Vietnam. Across the rest of the movie, Malick sets this family’s particular pain in a cosmic context. We hear their questions. “Was I false to you?” “Lord, why?” “Where were you?” “Did you know?” “Who are you?” “Answer me?” Their questions loom large as a whispered backdrop to an epic portrayal of the creation story from the big bang to the quiet street where the O’Brien family’s life unfolds. We see a wondrous yet violent bursting forth from the eternal womb that makes its way across the eons to the joys, sorrows and questions of faith embodied by this one particular family.
In the midst of the pain, the ordinariness and the beauty of the O’Brien family’s life, Malick keeps coming back to a tree; to the tree planted in their front yard when their sons are just babies, to the tree struggling to survive on a barren mountain top, to the tree planted at the center of the park commemorating the fall of the twin towers. Malick makes us see that each of these trees is the tree of life, rooted in the awesome terror and majesty our primordial beginnings. The O’Brien family’s pain and their joy is the way of nature and it is the way of grace that blooms as the tree of life at the heart of creation. The trick is summoning the courage to lean into the fearsome unfolding edge of becoming that creation is so that we might feel for and make our way in the midst of the turbulent mix of chaos and order that is the stuff of ordinary living.
Catherine Keller, a process theologian, says in her book The Face of the Deep that the opposite of faith is not disbelief or atheism but cowardice. For her, the Jesus in Mark’s Gospel was not annoyed with the sea or the storm but with his cowardly friends. She suggests that here, faith is more like a trust that is kin to courage. And so, we can imagine Jesus turning to his disciples and saying, “Have you no courage? Hitch up your belts like the fighters you are and do what you can in the face of this storm.
This kind of faith is a practical faith, an enactment of courage that takes place as we make our way by the seat of our pants in ways we cannot predict or plan. As a way of trying to make some sense of all this, I thought I would share a little memory, a homely little anecdote of wind and courage. On May 8th, 1965, two days after I turned 9 years old, there was a massive outbreak of tornadoes that spread across southern South Dakota and all of Nebraska. It was a long day at school. At least twice, the sirens blared and the nuns gathered us into the windowless hallways for some semblance of protection. There were lots of dark clouds, rain, lightning and thunder but the sisters fervent prayers had evidently done the trick. It seemed the storms furry had passed us by.
Back then, I was a habitual cloud watcher. Maybe it has something to do with growing up on the plains where you can see a storm coming from miles and miles away. After school that day, I took up my perch on the front steps and watched as one long rolling cloud moved slowly in the direction of our house. At one point, my dad peeked his head out the door and asked me what I was doing. I answered, “Watching a cloud”. He paused and took in the roiling, angry, madness my cloud had become. He sat down beside me and he waited as the world became perfectly still. And then, it happened. First one and then another and then another. In the historical records, they call it a family. For a moment, time stood still, the majesty of the unfolding terror was mesmerizing. As these tornados dipped to the ground, my dad and I rose to our feet. This was obviously a killer storm. The power was evident. My dad grabbed me by my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “Do not move.” And he went into the house and yelled for my mother and my siblings. I thought, “What?” “Are you kidding?” And the next thing I knew, for good or for ill, he was shoving us all into the old Pontiac. He intended to outrun the storm. My dad wasn’t a man to take things on faith. “The Lord helps those who help themselves” would have been closer to his mode of operation. He could have, maybe should have, probably should have headed to the basement, pulled out the rosary and prayed for salvation. But he didn’t. He surveyed the situation. He had three killer tornados in his sights. One was moving away from us. But two, with the fearsome potential to merge where headed straight toward us. He calculated the risks, threw us into the car and we ran for it. Twelve miles west of us, the little town of Arcadia, with a population of less than 400, took a direct hit. The city center was badly damaged, 54 people were injured and 4 people were killed. This was a killer storm and survival was more a matter of luck than worthy shelter.
I’m telling you this story, not to justify my dad’s crazy actions but to foreground the hard and practical nature of faith. In the face of the overwhelming force of nature, my dad did what he could. He hitched up his belt, like the fighter he was and speed down the highway with a car full of screaming kids and two tornados in his rear view mirror. Everyday faith is as common and as rare as father doing what he can to protect his family. Here faith is active, practical and courageous. It is the stuff of our everyday lives. And so, we can say, faith in action is as common and as rare as a bus full of nuns traveling across the United States to stand with the poor in the face of insurmountable odds. Practical faith is as common as rare as Japanese senior citizens volunteering to tackle the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power station so that young people won’t have to subject themselves to radiation. Ordinary faith is as common and as rare as a Subway restaurant giving away free meals for the homeless every Friday from 3-5 p.m. And faith as courage is as common and as rare as a monastery and 90 acres of prairie standing for hospitality and the environment in the midst of runaway development. So in faith and in courage may we all hitch up our belts like the fighters we are, so that we might lean into our every day storms and open our hearts wide.