And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
– Mark 4:35-41
I spent my formative childhood years in wilderness. Every day prompted a new foray into the woods with my dog Bessie leading the way. This was actual wilderness, not the national kind with streams of visitors. Bessie and I were the only outsiders; our hosts were cougars, bobcats, coyotes, bears, owls, skunks, and rattlesnakes. We imagined ourselves insiders, and learned to read signs of every sort. We climbed cliffs and forded streams. Any given day the wilderness might injure or kill us, and nobody would know until at least dinnertime. My pocketknife would be flimsy defense. That awareness sobered and exhilarated me. I vowed never to live anywhere near a city.
Everything changed when I turned 18. My college outside Chicago was multiple days’ drive from wilderness, and I was left staring at mountain posters on my dorm wall. How would I not shrivel?
One night some new friends and I decided to head downtown and catch a Bulls NBA basketball game. We knew nothing about the city but we’d figure it out. We got off the train in the “Loop” business district and asked around for directions to the old Chicago Stadium. “You can’t walk there from here” was everyone’s reply. What? Five miles, ten miles – we didn’t care, we got legs. Shortly we were in the heart of the Near West Side, surrounded by forces that might injure or kill us. I doubt I am exaggerating, given various verbal greetings that came our way along the streets. I had never seen so many buildings that appeared bombed out, or such impressive rodents. How we made it to Chicago Stadium I can’t say, or how we made it back.
I fell into bed that night knowing we had been foolish and naïve – and very lucky. That awareness sobered me. In a strangely familiar way, it also exhilarated me. There was a wild and formidable energy to the city, to crowds – forces fantastically larger than I might control. At best I might eventually learn to see, to read the lay of things, and to navigate. The next weekend I was in Chicago again, walking.
For peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world and nearby desert regions, water was both absolutely essential and terrifyingly wild. Water held enormous significance in life and in imagination. Of course water had practical significance, as it does today. Life doesn’t happen without it. But water transcended the practical, surging into the mythic. Fickle and forceful, “the waters” held the possibility of life and death – divine and demonic (more on this here). “And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat,” our scripture says. Hmmm, talk about out of the frying pan into the fire! From the swirling and unpredictable crowds, to the fickle and fearsome waters. What follows is a nature miracle story – one of the few miracle stories in the gospels that does not involve Jesus healing sick or demonized people. “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm” (Mark 4:39).
For many modern readers this episode stretches belief. Jesus’s moral example and influence is widely recognized. But supernatural, divine power over untamed natural forces? The ancients were similarly incredulous. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (v. 41).
Having spent time deep in both nature and crowded communities, I’m not sure what might be the greater challenge: peacemaking in a storm squall or peacemaking amid the great energies churning within gathered humanity. I might put my money on humanity for downright impossibility. Though I’ve learned a bit of navigation in cities since my college days, large urban realities can still make me feel foolish, naïve, and small. Stories from our global network are daunting. Seeing what we’re all up against, I grip the sides of the boat.
Yet Jesus speaks peace, proclaims blessing on peacemakers, and opens imagination for the impossible. He shows compassion, not disdain, for crowds. Moving among masses of humanity, Jesus is at home in creation and makes creation at home with itself – shalom. This is divine work, amid the disordered and chaotic. Even this nature miracle is more about human fear and its effects (“Why are you afraid?” v. 40) than meteorology. It speaks to the work of peace we are invited to, even amid our smallness and fear.