Last summer, my son Graeme, then four years old, was cast as Jesus in the vacation Bible camp play about the stilling of the storm. We were at that time living in the town where I grew up; a coastal town with a long history of commercial fishing--and, going even further back--of whaling. As a result, it’s not hard to come by an old boat: you see them on people’s lawns, used as planters, overturned to form see-saws, or suspended above restaurant entryways as signs. So someone found an old wooden rowboat and put it at the front of the church, and there my small son curled himself into an even smaller ball, and pretended to ‘sleep’ upon the cushion in the stern.
At that time, Graeme was still so shy that he would bury his face into me if a stranger happened to say hello; he would speak to me in whispers if other people were around to overhear. I couldn’t imagine how this casting decision would work out. It seemed to me that he would be better cast as a cowering disciple, fearful of the winds and the rains. But Graeme surprised us all--the smallest of all the children in his age group, who were screaming appropriately in fear of the imagined storm, stretched his arms widely and authoritatively, and declared in a strong voice: “Peace, be still!”
That beautiful phrase--peace, be still!--appears in Mark’s Gospel. It is a familiar story, and one that we often tell to children because it is so vivid: the disciples leave the growing crowd with Jesus to go into a boat, ready to cross to the other side, when a storm begins to batter and swamp the boat. The disciples are, quite understandably, panicking; Jesus, inexplicably, is sleeping. They wake him with a cranky-sounding “don’t you care that we are about to die here?” Jesus wakes up to rebuke not the disciples but the wind and the waves with that lovely phrase. And then he asks them why they were afraid. “Have you still no faith?” They are stunned--who isthis, that even the wind and the sea obey him? Who is this man who can still a storm?
Even a year later, my son has not forgotten that play, or his part in it, or the lesson learned from it. Many times throughout the past year--which has included an international move in addition to the usual stresses over jobs and finances--when he has detected a note of tension in my speech, or overheard my husband and I speaking to each other with voices raised, he has again shared those good words with us: “Peace, be still!” It’s a little bit funny--he does it in his stage voice, with arms outstretched--and that breaks the tension, but there is more to it than that. He reminds us of the one who has the power to still every storm, even the ones within us.
There is a very old prayer--known as the “fisherman’s prayer” or the “seafarer’s prayer”--that goes something like this: “Dear God, be close to me; thy sea is so wide, and my boat is so small.” To me, this prayer captures something of what life itself feels like: the world is big and wide, and not altogether safe, friendly, or predictable, and our ability to cope with it all feels as flimsy as a small wooden boat battling the waves of the open ocean. We are all but guaranteed to face more than a few storms. It is, all in all, a frightening business, this journey of life. Psalm 107 describes this terrifying scene:
Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
24 They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
31 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.
The early Christians sometimes likened the journey of life to a voyage on the seas, with the hope that God’s promises are sure and steady, providing “an anchor for the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). Some old churches--including the one where my son performed the role of Jesus at Bible camp--are built to resemble ships on the inside, and the anchor--like the fish--was an important Christian symbol for many, many years--and fittingly so. It is good to have reminders that while the sailing will not always be smooth, and while our boats will sometimes seem pitifully small and rickety, the one who commands the wind and the waves sails with us, speaking to them--and to us--these words: peace, be still.
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