Click here to read a testimony on God’s wisdom and power revealed in storms, offered in worship by Luke Allgeyer.
A storm is one of those things that is hard to point at. A storm definitely exists… it is darkness and cloud… rain or hail or snow or sand… wind and waves.
And yet, darkness alone is not a storm – the still night is also dark. A summer drizzle is also rain; fall days bring wind; kids play in the waves; these things are not, by themselves, a storm.
A storm is hard to understand. When I was little, I learned somewhere that severe weather happens when hot and cold air meet. My dad helped me type a letter to local Omaha meteorologist Jim Flowers asking what, for me, was the obvious question begging to be asked: “So if a fire-breathing dragon breathes her fire in the Arctic, will or will she not produce a tornado?” (To my great dismay, Mr. Flowers’s intern wrote a cordial but lackluster reply clarifying that no, tornadoes need larger air mass, blah blah – something way less awesome than dragons.)
The way we understand storms today – as meteorological events with scientific causes and effects – is quite different from how they were understood in the ancient world. Ancient Mesopotamian religions understood weather as being administered by a powerful god named Ba’al. In their agricultural society, Ba’al’s power to send either rain and sun, or drought and darkness, was power to determine a fruitful harvest or a severe famine – essentially power over life and death.
The monotheistic Yahweh worshippers later came to reject Ba’al (and any other deity but Yahweh), but some of these early human ideas about storms carried over. Rain and fertile crops were seen as signs of God’s favor. God was understood to personally administer the weather, like when God drove back the Red Sea by a strong east wind all night so that Moses and the Israelites could safely cross over to freedom (Ex 14:21). The presence of a storm indicated the presence of God, like when God accompanied God’s people in a pillar of cloud through the wilderness (Ex 13:21), or when Moses received the tablets of the covenant while thunder and lightning and smoke shook the mountain he stood on (Ex 19:16).
And some of these early ideas about storms carry over today too. For insurance purposes, the worst and most unpredictable of storms are officially classified as an “act of God” – legally outside of human control. Some public Christian figures continue to claim that natural disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, function as God’s punishment for humanity’s disobedience.
In fact, maybe our ides about storms aren’t so different from the earliest humans after all. Nowadays we do understand why storms happen from a scientific perspective, but their theological implications continue to be problematic. God is good and God is powerful. God created the earth; does God cause the storm? Or, does God simply fail to prevent the storm – and would that be any better? Where is God’s mercy in the storm’s destruction? In my life I have heard lots of answers to questions like these, but in my opinion not any good ones. Human wisdom falls short.
In these four weeks we’re observing a Season of Creation and we’ve been hearing about the Wisdom of God. In today’s reading from Job, wisdom is compared to a fine and precious gem that humans dig and dig for, but cannot find. Birds fly high in the air, but even from way up there, they can’t see it. Even the Sea and Death itself – both of which are understood to have cosmic power – have barely heard rumors of this mysterious wisdom. God alone knows the way to it. The text says that God “searched it out” and saw it when God was taming the wind, the waters, the rain and the thunderbolt.
We’re supposed to feel the tension here: the precious wisdom that designs and orders every part of creation – even those parts that are a mystery to us – is to be found only in the very heart of the storm, the most unpredictable and ungraspable creation of all.
I imagine what the disciples in the boat might think about this text – wisdom found in the swirling storm. They are in the midst of a huge and scary disaster, one that is beyond their understanding and that threatens their very lives. We can imagine what that feels like. There have been moments in our lives that have felt completely out of control, the waves that used to hold us afloat now threatening to capsize our existence.
The struggle to care for the planet as people of faith feels kind of like a tiny boat in a powerful storm right about now. The metaphorical winds of economic progress swirl; they sweep up crashing waters of pollution and human caused destruction; the floods and fires of climate change are literal and at huge cost to life. The scope of the problem feels beyond our understanding, and its powerful progress dwarfs our oars of good intentions.
What is the appropriate response? We know Christ is with us in the storm, but… has he fallen asleep? The disciples yell, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” Some of us create stockpiles for the end times… others paddle furiously in activism… others resign hope.
We hear Jesus’ voice, “Where is your faith?” The disciples’ response to the storm was evidently not the correct one, and the text gives no indication as to what an acceptable response would have been. It’s unclear what the disciples would have done if they had been acting out of faith. But what is clear is that Jesus is calling for something different than fear.
One of my favorite poems is by 14th century Persian mystic Hafez. It reads:
and I have become
Like two giant fat people
Living in a
Bumping into each other and
What a beautiful alternate vision Hafez offers us. The tiny boat is the same – fragile – but the experience is altogether different. Waves rock the boat; we toss and tumble, but we are not alone, and not afraid. Awake or asleep, God is in the boat with us.
The mystery of life’s storms are not unknown to God, and are not a threat. In fact, if the waters were completely still, God and I would still be sitting on opposite sides, keeping our boring distance. But when crashing waves come into the picture, the disciples learn something about the magnitude of Jesus’ power.
And when scary unknowns threaten to flood our tiny boats, we hang on, and wait – for the joyous, warm, familiar “bump” of God’s presence.