Dealing with the storms of life
As part of the month of compassion (August), various speakers have been invited to share their stories of compassion with the parish during the services. SUE JORDAAN, a lay minister at St Francis’, shared her story with the congregation on 13 August. Here is the full text of her message:
“In today’s readings from the Bible, there are jealousy, betrayal, sibling rivalry, human trafficking, a fierce storm at sea, the miracle of walking on water and, perhaps most exciting of all, the message from Paul in Romans. He tells us that everyone – no-one is excluded – can know Christ. What is needed is faith. It is perhaps the theme of faith that draws all of today’s readings together.
This morning, I’m going to look at the content of the readings and what they say to us. I’m also going to give some thought to the place of self-compassion in this Month of Compassion.
In the well-known story of Joseph being sold to the Ishmaelites by his jealous brothers, it would seem that the outcome can only be the heartbreak of Jacob, who loves his son Joseph dearly; a lifetime of misery for Joseph who is sold on as a slave to the Egyptians; guilt and sorrow for Joseph’s brother Reuben who planned to save Joseph and has been unable to do so. Yet the story continues to reveal God, working in even this dire situation. Joseph attains power and position in Egypt and it is he who is later able to save his family from death through famine. He is reunited with his father, Reuben and the brothers who betrayed him. It transpires that God was there and that Joseph’s story was part of God’s plan for the salvation of his people.
The story of Jesus walking on water is as well-known as the Joseph story.
It is told by three of the Gospel writers: Luke does not include it. Matthew is the only one who tells us about Peter attempting to copy Jesus. It takes place immediately after the feeding of the 5000 with the loaves and fishes. It occurs on the Sea of Galilee, a sea which is prone to sudden storms and wild waves. Jesus, familiar with the area, would have known this. Jesus is not in the boat with the disciples. He has gone to a mountain to pray on his own. There is no doubt a message in this fact alone: even for Jesus prayer is essential in a relationship with God. This is not the first time that the disciples have been in a boat when a storm has arisen. In Matthew Ch 8 Jesus is asleep in a boat with the disciples. Fearful of the raging storm, they wake him up and he stills the waters. They say: “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and waves obey him.” This time, they recognise the divinity of Jesus. Now they proclaim: “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Academics have debated the miracle of Jesus walking on water long and hard. Some say it is fiction, made up by Christians to add to their message. Others say that, because the weather was so bad, it only looked as though Jesus was walking on water. He was actually still on the shore. Because there was so much rain and wind, the figure of Jesus looked blurred and unsteady. Others say that Jesus was standing on a sandbar and merely surrounded by waves. Yet others declare that the story is true and that, as the Son of God, Jesus is above nature and can walk on water.
None of these interpretations is ever going to be proved, and I would suggest that that does not matter. What does matter is the meaning which we gain from the story.
Our Collect for today is a particularly lovely one. It refers to the “darkness of the night” and the “assault of life’s storms”. Times of fear, hopelessness and depression are part of the human condition and are indeed dark. “Life’s storms” come in many guises: the death of those we love; illness; broken relationships; separation; rejection; unemployment; no money; addiction.
To think that our faith will make us immune against the assaults of life and to blame God when things go wrong is somehow naive and limits the mystery of God’s presence in all situations.
Jesus knew the likelihood of a sudden storm on The Sea of Galilee, yet he did not stop the disciples going onto it. He did not ensure that the weather would be calm that night. He did not intervene at once. But when Peter called out: “Lord, save me!” Jesus did exactly this.
The disciples are not spared fear and desperation. Likewise, Joseph, flung into a pit by his own brothers, sold as a slave to foreigners would have experienced enormous distress.
Almost 17 years ago, I experienced one of life’s most severe storms. I had thought that I would always be spared the death of one of my children as I would simply be unable to deal with it. And yet it did happen, and I am still here. What do we mean when we say “I could never endure that/I would be unable to survive that”? Do we mean that we would die? Commit suicide? Go insane? What normally happens is that you don’t die, you remain sane and you have to go on. The German poet Rilke describes grief as “standing on fishes”. Imagine that – beneath you would not be solid, familiar ground, but something slippery and writhing which gives you no purchase and from which you feel you will never escape.
Many people here know what “standing on fishes” feels like. Amongst us, we have lost children, grandchildren, husbands, wives, parents, siblings, beloved friends. Where is God in such loss and grief? Clearly, he does not stop the worst things happening to us. Clearly, he does not give us what we want most and restore to us in physical form those who have died. What then does he do?
I believe that one of the gifts God gives us in intense pain is self-compassion. Here I am not recommending self-indulgence and a refusal to regain one’s footing. Self-compassion is very different from this.
We have been commanded to love others as “we love ourselves” and, when the storms of life seem insurmountable, there is room for self-compassion. It is time to allow ourselves to draw close to those who offer comfort, those who do not offer platitudes and silly answers; those who just go the distance. A particularly dear friend of mine said: “If this is the only thing we talk about forever, that is what we’ll do”.
Self-compassion also allows time. In my view, “time heals” is a cliché. Some wounds never heal properly, but time does allow the fishes to move on and for each person to find their own way of carrying on. After the death of his wife, the Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, wrote that he is a like a person who has lost a leg. The wound will close, the scar will fade, he’ll become accustomed to walking with a prosthetic limb but “I will always be a one-legged man.”
Self-compassion also means allowing yourself not to minimise horror and anguish, but to really look at what you are facing. Poet David Whtye writes in “The Well of Grief” that it is necessary to: “turn downward through [grief’s] black water/to the place we cannot breathe”. He says that it is only at the bottom of the well of grief that we will find “the small round coins/thrown by those who wished for something else.”
I certainly “wished for something else” and I’m sure that you have also in the midst of life’s storms. But, if we look, we will find that there are coins to be found at the bottom of the well. They come in the assurance of the presence of God; closer relationships with certain family and friends; an increased awareness of life’s mysteries and compassion for others’ suffering.
To conclude. Our readings today involved many serious issues and nowadays we continue to face those same issues and other deeply challenging situations. As Christians, we are not spared pain, but God is always with us and will always help us find a way. So let us move our hearts from the waves which threaten to engulf us to the one who walks on them and says: “It is I. Do not be afraid.”