My father Sam grew up in Gaffney, South Carolina, during the Great Depression. In those days, Gaffney’s economy centered around textile mills. The Owensbys worked in one of those mills and lived in one of the company-owned little houses in the mill village.
Sam was the youngest of thirteen children. He was just fourteen on December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the Second World War. The next month he turned fifteen, ran away from home, lied about his age, and joined the Navy. He served in the Pacific throughout the war on a variety of warships.
Storms were a fairly common experience, but my father remembered one in particular. Their ship had been tossed by massive waves and battered by gale-force winds for days. The kitchen couldn’t provide hot food. Drinking water was running desperately short. And the ship was steadily taking on water.
Finally, the captain came over the intercom. He told them that they had been a good crew. It had been an honor to serve with them. The ship was going down. May God have mercy on their souls.
Now my father was telling me this story when I was just a little boy. I was on the edge of my seat, but I had to interrupt him to ask, “Were you afraid?”
He said, “You know, I was really just sad. All I could think about was how my friends were about to die. How some of them had wives and children. To tell you the truth, it never occurred to me that I would drown, too. I was too young to be afraid. I didn’t think anything could happen to me, so you can’t really say I was being brave.”
That’s when I first learned that courage is not the absence of fear in the presence of danger. On the contrary, fear is our natural response to a threat. We demonstrate courage when we face a threat and do what needs to be done. Courage involves risk of injury. That injury may be physical or emotional, spiritual or social.
Doing the good despite the danger to ourselves, despite our fear, is at the heart of courage.
The relationship between fear and courage helps us understand Jesus’ response to the disciples when they were caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. And this in turn will teach us what it means to be a person of faith.
You know the story. Jesus is asleep in the stern while all the disciples are losing their minds. Even the seasoned fishermen have lost their grip. The waves and the wind are about to swamp their boat, and Jesus snoozes on a pile of unused personal flotation devices.
They wake him up shouting, “We’re going to die! Do something!”
In some translations you’ll read that Jesus said, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40) You might reasonably take from this that fear cannot coexist with faith.
Jesus is actually saying something more like this. “Don’t be so timid! Don’t be paralyzed by the storm!” In other words, “Cowboy up! Swallow hard and push for shore. You know I’m in this with you!”
Faith does not make us fearless. It makes us courageous. We do not live under the illusion that our faith comes at no cost or that our faith shields us from injury and sorrow.
Jesus being Jesus, he understands that the disciples haven’t been with him for very long. They have a lot to learn about following the God who dwells in their midst.
So, instead of insisting that they grab the oars and pull, Jesus calms the seas and quiets the wind. This time. They still have time to learn how to endure, how to persevere with Christ through the storm. For now, he’ll just rescue them.
But even in the rescue, there’s a soul-stretching lesson. Being saved is not about escaping. It’s about overcoming. Overcoming hate and greed. Selfishness and violence. Oppression and deprivation. God’s mission is to overcome the brokenness of the creation. And Jesus has called us to join him in the work of reconciliation and restoration.
Engaging God’s mission means that we will allow ourselves to become vessels, to become conduits, of a startling power that exceeds our comprehension.
When Jesus rebukes the wind and calms the waves, he displays the power to move heaven and earth with a mere word. Mark says that the disciples respond with awe. A literal rendering of the Greek would be this. They feared a great fear.
God’s is a power that cannot be harnessed or tamed or redirected to serve our own agenda. God’s power is transforming the world by passing through Jesus and by passing through his followers. And that power leaves nothing it touches unchanged. Including us.
God’s power is always good. But that’s not to say that it’s safe. Learning to trust God’s power takes some time.
And the frightful piece of it is that God’s power works through us only when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to him, to surrender ourselves to him with abandon. The more recklessly we abandon ourselves to God, the more forcefully and creatively his love transforms us and flows through us.
It takes courage to seek reconciliation instead of retribution. It takes courage to give up our own status and privilege so that others can finally know equal opportunity and equal treatment before the law. It takes courage to trust in forgiveness and nurture to heal the world instead of using force and violence to make it safe for me and my group at the expense of others.
God does not rescue us from racism, economic injustice, poverty, terrorism, and tyranny. He saves us from them by transforming them into freedom, equality, justice, and peace. Through each and every one of us. Freedom, equality, justice, and peace are just words until we live them with every breath we take and insist upon them for everyone else.
Shortly after the captain made his announcement to his sailors, the storm broke. The ship did not sink. My father and his shipmates did not drown that day. But I suspect that many of them got a lesson in the nature of courage.
God does not expect us to be fearless. He calls us to trust him enough to let his healing, reconciling power flow through us. This is not safe. It can be dangerous and fraught with risk. But it is always good.