Friday, August 19, 2016

A Vulnerable Messiah

For the last few days I have been meditating not just on one passage of scripture, but one story that is told in Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is a well known one that many of us have read and heard to the point that we find it over familiar that we kind of skim over it without truly seeing what is on the page before us. It is the passage where Jesus calms the storm. I'm sure that many of you can already picture the series of events as it unfolds and we tend to rush through the story to the miracle. Like the disciples, we read this passage in scripture and want the storm calmed, never focusing on what is always central: Christ.

Certainly, pastors and teachers make their sermons and lessons on Jesus calming the storms in our own lives or about fear and doubt. They tend to focus on his question, "Why were you afraid?" I have yet to read or hear anyone talk about Jesus being exhausted. I mean, this was not a nap or a rest but a deep heavy sleep. This is Jesus being wiped out. He was sleeping during a tempest. This isn't just a rain storm but one where the disciples (some who are experienced boats men and fishermen, believe they are going to sink and drown beneath the waves).

Like others, I, too, have been guilty of reading what I believe to already be there and, thereby, glean nothing from a passage. It becomes stories we tell children in Sunday school. Cleaned up and sanitized. Jesus calming the storm is like magic from a fairy tale. It has no relation to our daily lives and experiences so we do what we usually do and connect the dots to, as I mentioned before, applying this to our own storms, fears and doubts.

Not too long ago, I began using the Ignatian form of contemplation that is called imaginative prayer. What this means is quite simply:  I read passages of scripture and then begin to imagine the scene in detail: sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings. I place myself in what is happening. I realize that there will be some who read this and become distrustful of such practices and fearing that it will allow one's imagination to run wild and add things that aren't in scripture. This has not been the case for me but, instead, has allowed me to see the Bible in a new light.

When I came to the passages of Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, and Luke 8:22-25, I found myself drawn to something I never paid attention to before: the vulnerability of Jesus. All three of the Gospels' accounts have Jesus teaching and healing the crowds before he tells his disciples, "Let's cross to the other side." Most likely this is the Sea of Galilee. In each of the three accounts, Jesus falls asleep and a great storm arises. Both Matthew and Mark mention that the boat is being filled by the waves crashing over the sides of their boat. The disciples, afraid that they are about to die, awaken Jesus and he gets up, calms the sea by simply speaking to it, and then asks them, "Why are you afraid? Where is your faith?" We hit that bullet point and start application.

But I didn't. Not this time.

Instead, I closed my eyes and pictured the waves lapping over the rocks of the Sea of Galilee.

Christ is getting into the fishing boat with some of the others. Peter, Thomas, Nathaniel, and James push the small boat off the shore and into the water. When the get waist deep, they are pulled into the boat.  We set out on the cornflower blue sea. I look back at the shore where the crowds are still standing there in the tufts of grass along the beach. Slwoly they begin to leave. I wonder how many of them are already planning to meet Jesus on the other side.

Off in the distance there was a trace of a dark cloud, but nothing to be too concerned about. While the disciples and I are talking amongst ourselves: some over what Jesus had been teaching and the three fishermen about how good it feels to be on the water again. And why not? We can smell the sea and taste it on our lips, and there is the lingering smell of fish in the boat.  It's warm with a gentle breeze.

There is some joking and some bragging about who's caught the most fish. Peter's the worst about this. He always has to be more of a man than the rest of us, especially those of us who were tax collectors. The only thing worse than his bragging is John's constantly referring to himself as the "beloved." We all just roll our eyes.

Off in the distance are the hills that look almost pink. Overhead some Whiskered Terns, white as the clouds, gracefully fly past and, like the Rabbi said, I smile as I do stop to consider them.

At first I find myself just looking at the beauty of it all and then it dawns on me: all of this was created by the very one who's in our boat. It's then I stop and look for Jesus.

I discover that he's  asleep. He was so fatigued to the point of exhaustion that he is asleep in the bow of the boat. I feel tenderness for him. I wish I had a blanket so that I could cover him like one would a child. How vulnerable he appears, sleeping there, unaware. His head resting on a net as though it were a pillow with one hand underneath his dark hair with its short, tight curls. I watch the rhythm of his chest as it rises and falls with each breath like a silent prayer. How much we ask of him. I cannot imagine what it's like to have so many people wanting so much from you and seldom having a moment's peace. 

This moment of peace is soon broken when a storm suddenly arises. My attention shifts from Jesus to the storm. Waves begin to batter against our small boat and waves crash over the sides, causing the bottom of the boat to fill around our sandalled feet. It does not take long before my clothes are soaked and sticking to my skin. Inside, my stomach is churning from the boat being violently tossed to and fro. I look around. All of the men are filled with terror, even Peter now.

At first they debate waking Jesus. I look at him. He's still sleeping. How much does his preaching and teaching and healing and all of the crowd pushing in and wanting to touch him take out of him?

The others are mystified, "How can he sleep during this?!!?"

But I see him there. He's soaked and water is all about him, but he just sleeps on, with a such a weariness. His strength depleted. I want to stop them. I want to stand him and the rest of the disciples and say, "STOP! Let him rest! Can't you see how exhausted he is?"

It does not matter, for James and Andrew are shaking him. It takes Jesus a moment. He's groggy and he wipes the sleep from his eyes. He has not fully come out of his dream. What does he dream about? His Father? The kingdom he left but talks about in parables? Then he sees us. He sees the fear in us before he even notices the storm. "Why are you afraid?" he asks.

"Look around you, Lord. Really?!!?" I know we think it, but none say it. Not out loud.

Then, someone speaks up. Some later say it was Judas, but they like to blame him for everything.

"Rabbi, do you not care about us? That we are perishing?"

With gentleness, he sighs and shakes his head, "O you of little faith." It's as if he is as if he is saying, "You are still such little children. When will you grow up?" Slowly he sits up and then, putting his hands on the sides of the boat, lifts himself and, though the rest of us are having a hard time standing, he does not. "Peace," he says. "Be still!"

Jesus Calms The Storm by Laura James

I realize he is not just talking to the waters. And I am. And I'm scared because the storm obeys him.  I see that the others are all afraid. They whisper among themselves, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?" I can hear the awe in their voices.

Yet I see, that for many reasons, he is still tired.

How many times have I read this passage of scripture and never, ever taken in the fact that the Son of God is now a man who is so exhausted that he sleeps during a violent storm. He probably collapsed into sleep as soon as he got on the boat. I found myself in tears seeing him there sleeping. We are unprotected, unguarded when we sleep. That vulnerability is so childlike. It's why, as a parent, I love to check on my boys as they are sleeping and kiss their foreheads. In that moment, I wanted to kiss Christ's. I loved him with a tenderness. I felt protective of him as I am my sleeping sons. It did bother me that the disciples could not see past their own fears and needs to see the need of Jesus to just sleep. In the past, I might have been like them. I might have been angry with Jesus for not being there when I needed him, but not now. In this moment, as I saw him sleeping, I was moved with compassion for a God who made himself so vulnerable as to take on flesh and become one of us to show us just how much the Father really does love us.

And Jesus is vulnerable so many times in so many different ways throughout the Gospels. Think of when he has returned in his resurrected body and he confronts Peter. There is a tenderness in him asking, "Do you love me?" He asks us that just as he did Peter and we can answer, "Yes" or , "No." In that moment, he allows himself to be either accepted or rejected. I can see both he and Peter weeping as they embrace. Peter sobbing into Christ's chest. Jesus placing his hand on Peter's head, like a father would a child, like the Father did his prodigal son.

Or that passage in Revelation 3:20, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock." Think of that. The Creator of the universe is knocking. He is not beating down the door. God is knocking and waiting on us. The Maker of heaven and earth, is waiting on us. "If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me."What a beautiful image. God is knocking and if we answer, then we will share a meal, share intimacy. This is the picture we see of Jesus throughout the Gospels. Sharing a meal and himself with people. His vulnerability is the vulnerability of a God who so desperately loves us and longs to have communion with us, so much so that He bent down and became God-and-man to show us.

This is why I have embraced this way of meditating on scripture because it invites me in, asks me to take a closer look without my preconceived ideas, my misconceptions, and my assumptions. I see passages afresh and with new eyes and glimpse greater meanings because of I am not outside the text but approaching it from within.

How do you see these passages?

Perhaps, because you're going through something, you, like the disciples, ask Jesus, "Rabbi, do you not care?"

What does God show you?

What does He reveal to you that you've never noticed or considered before?

What does what you are shown reveal about you and where you are in your spiritual life?

Here is James Martin, SJ explaining Ignatian Contemplation:

If you decide to use this form of prayer, let me know how it has impacts your own faith. If you are already using Ignatian imaginative prayer, share how it has deepened your understanding of the Bible.

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