After Hurricane Irene: A Lesson of Two Seas

The Galilean Sea. The Adriatic Sea. Violent storms on both. Mark’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35–41). A tired Jesus is fast asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat when a sudden storm erupts. The book of Acts tells of Paul on the Adriatic Sea, as he travels from Jerusalem to Rome. After the crew and passengers have endured some fourteen days of howling winds and high seas, and they are sure they are all about to perish, Paul urges them all to sit with him and eat (Acts 27:33–38).

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” the disciples ask. Jesus is seemingly oblivious to the peril from the Galilean wind and waves. But once the sleep is rubbed from his eyes, Jesus stands with outstretched arms and, in all the authority of his divinely cosmic person, bids the storm to cease: “Peace! Be still!” And, reports Mark, there was a dead calm. “Who is this?” The astounded disciples rub their own eyes in wonder and bow their souls to the majesty of the moment, a moment not unlike a later moment three of them would experience on the mountain of transfiguration. A powerful story of a powerful Jesus.

But where is this majestic Jesus when his servant Paul and his fellow travelers are engulfed by the raging waters of the Adriatic? Where are his powerful out-stretched arms? Where his authoritative voice? Does he not care that Paul and his fellow travelers are about to lose their lives? Does he need again to be awakened?

These and similar questions have haunted believers down through the centuries. They are certainly very real questions for those who recently lost loved ones in the fury of Irene. Real for those evacuated from their homes as the water rose and the wild wind toppled trees and snapped power lines. Real for the pastor in upstate New York who watched the water rise above the pews of his church and sweep away the church organ and piano. Irene was not Katrina, to be sure, but it certainly left its cruel mark as it clawed its slow way up the coast. And left, as well, those nagging questions about God’s providence and power. Jesus, where are you? Jesus, please wake up!

“[And Paul] took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat.” As Paul gives thanks and breaks the bread in the midst of the Adriatic storm, we hear an echo of Jesus’s words and actions on the night in which he was betrayed. And in this eucharistic moment, we recognize that Jesus is there with Paul and his fellow travelers. He is there, not in all the power of his cosmic glory, but rather he is there in all the paradoxical power of his brokenness. There to share the brokenness of the frightened passengers on the boat. There to remind them of God’s power made perfect in the weakness of the cross. There to reassure them in the broken bread that he was broken for them and had stormed the gates of hell and death for them. There to give them his resurrection hope that death is not the End, but rather the Beginning of all that is to come after.

Two seas. Two storms. One Christ. One Lord. One Immanuel, God-with-us. With us in our joys. With us, as well, in whatever Irenes might batter our lives. Often our vision is fogged over with the distractions of life, and we miss this quiet, powerful presence. But always he is there. Sometimes with us in all the power of his authority to calm wind and waves. Sometimes with us in all the power of his brokenness to calm and reassure us and to remind us that, in life and in death, he is our sure comfort, and that, come what may, we belong, for all time and for eternity, to this Master of Wind and Sea who was broken for us and for our salvation.

Carol Westphal is a retired pastor in the Reformed Church in America, now living in Nanuet, New York.