Survive and Thrive!

We are on an extreme boat ride together; a ride with the disciples, learning as they did that we will survive and thrive! Jesus is not absent-he is present. Photo: Robert Fullerton
We are on an extreme boat ride together; a ride with the disciples, learning as they did that we will survive and thrive! Jesus is not absent-he is present. Photo: Robert Fullerton
Published November 13, 2012

Last summer, a life vest saved my son’s life. He and his friends, river rafting in southern Africa, were smashed against a cliff face on the Zambezi River below Victoria Falls. Thrown against the rock by the strong force of the water, the raft flipped and everyone was sucked down into the eddy. No one would have bobbed back up if not for their life vests. One of Nick’s friends was under the water such a long time that when the top of her life vest finally peaked out of the water she was quickly drawn out and tossed back into the raft. Life vests helped Nick and his friends survive their extreme adventure. I, for one, am grateful.

In the case of the Titanic, 1,500 people did not have the means to survive its sinking. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage. On April 10, 1912, she sailed from Southampton with 2,200 passengers and crew. Just four days later, the Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank. Seven hundred people survived. The ship was outfitted with only a third of the lifeboats required for an emergency evacuation. The standards were different then, but no one imagined that the biggest steamship ever built for passengers was sinkable, so there seemed little need to have enough lifeboats.

Here is what happened:

The sea was calm and the sky clear. Only a few reports of ice had come over the wireless. A lookout saw the iceberg dead ahead coming out of a slight haze. He rang the warning bell and telephoned the bridge. The engines were quickly reversed and the ship was turned sharply. Instead of making direct impact, the berg seemed to graze along the side of the ship, sprinkling ice fragments on the forward deck. Sensing no collision, the lookouts were relieved. They had no idea that the iceberg’s jagged underwater spur had slashed a 300-foot gash well below the ship’s waterline and that the Titanic was doomed.

A little more than an hour after contact with the iceberg, a largely disorganized and haphazard evacuation process began with the lowering of the first lifeboat. The craft was designed to hold 65 people; it left with only 28 aboard. Amid the confusion and chaos during the precious hours before Titanic plunged into the sea, nearly every boat would be launched, woefully under-filled, some with only a handful of passengers. Of these, few were women and children, due to the failure to make them the procedural priority.

On a much smaller scale, in Mark’s gospel, “Jesus Walks on the Water” (6:45-56), we learn that Jesus told the disciples to get into the boat and go across the sea without him. Of course, the disciples’ boat was nothing like the Titanic, yet their trip was no less potentially dangerous. Mark says that Jesus “made his disciples get into the boat.” They must have been reluctant to go out on the water without him…without the one who had just multiplied two loaves and five fishes to feed thousands…without the one sent from heaven who helped them survive and thrive. One could say that Jesus told them to go out on the water in the boat without life vests-perhaps not very smart or compassionate, you might think.

Do you recall another time when Jesus and the disciples were on the water in a boat? The wind created huge waves while Jesus slept; the disciples watched their life flash by, realizing they were going to sink-until they awakened Jesus and he commanded the storm to stop! (Mark 4:35-40).

This time, Jesus wouldn’t be with them should a storm arise. The disciples, who might have known they would be facing a similar frightful scene, couldn’t believe it when Jesus instructed them to get in the boat without him. Jesus had to insist! They had to go it alone this time, to learn what they could face without him.

Jesus wanted time alone. He didn’t want the disciples around with all their questions and wonderings. It wasn’t “me time,” though; it was time to be with his Father and pray. The thing is, the disciples were still on his mind, for he loved them deeply. Jesus closed one eye in prayer, peaking out with the other as if keeping a lookout for the sailors down below on the lake. Mark tells us that Jesus saw that they were in serious trouble, “straining at the oars against an adverse wind.”

Did Jesus roll his eyeballs, thinking, “Here they go again”? What was he playing at? Since he had insisted they go it alone, then perhaps he was testing them, seeing if they too couldn’t summon the faith to stop the wind, hoping for them to have the vision and fortitude to pass through the storm, safe and sound. God had given just such a test to Moses, Miriam and Aaron when they faced the impasse of the Red Sea. Is it possible that Jesus went up on the hill to pray that the disciples would grow in confidence and faith? Did the Father and the Son long together for the disciples to act not as fishermen but as holy men of God who do the most amazing things in God’s power as in days of old?

There is proof that this might be so because Mark adds, “he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by.” Are you kidding? Jesus saw that they were in serious trouble; their combined manly strength wasn’t getting them through the wind and any closer to the other side. But he deliberately walked by them. Sounds like he had a plan-a premeditated plan!

If the disciples hadn’t screamed out at Jesus’ ghostly silhouette, he might have succeeded at passing them by. Their man-screams brought out Jesus’ compassion and he so he turned toward them saying, “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.”

Then Jesus climbed in the boat and the wind died down.

Jesus was the disciples’ lifeline. Like stunned rafters dragged out of a dangerous eddy, they didn’t know what was going on; they were still lost in thought over the miracle of the loaves and fishes that day. The disciples didn’t know that the “I Am” was in their boat-the divine voice and power of the people of Israel, who had declared himself as “I Am” to Moses, was with them.

Mark didn’t write this story for our entertainment but so that we might learn more about the nature of being the church in the world. I believe the story is true; it is not a parable or a metaphor, but something Jesus led the disciples to experience so that they and all future followers would understand a few things about themselves and the “I Am.

First of all, Jesus puts us on a sinkable ship. Before you despair, let me explain. According to some hypotheses, the Titanic was doomed from the start by the design that so many lauded as state of the art. The watertight bulkheads inspired the shipbuilder to deem the Titanic “practically unsinkable.” This became the God’s honest truth, so that no one considered it necessary to have enough life boats and a good evacuation plan.

Sixty years ago, no one in the Anglican Church of Canada would have thought the church was sinkable. We were riding the wave of Christendom, a time in which almost every new town across Canada was founded with an Anglican church at its centre. The Church of England had sent out missionary priests to build and establish the church here; buildings and traditions were founded, and people filled those buildings and followed church traditions. Since then, many of those churches have sunk and been deconsecrated.

Current studies show that the Anglican Church of Canada has hit an iceberg and needs to prepare to sink. The statistics and projections speak to us as a lookout from the crow’s nest. We have grazed an iceberg. The alarm has been sounded but, like the crew of the Titanic, we are in disbelief. The lookouts on the Titanic, sensing no collision, were relieved. Have we done the same? You may or may not have sensed a collision, but there has been one. It is time to put on life vests.

We are still afloat at St. George’s Anglican Church, here in Maple Ridge, B.C. We know more clearly than before that our ship can’t survive long and that we have been straining at the oars against a fierce wind for too long. We need a lifeline! I venture to say that Jesus is praying to the Father with one eye closed and the other open, seeing us struggling hard.

What we are to learn from Mark’s gospel is that Jesus and the Father insist upon us growing in the knowledge of the power and presence of God. After his death and resurrection, Jesus will send the Spirit, and the disciples will learn that, though Jesus is absent from the boat, the Spirit is present. They will survive. We will survive. We have been given a life jacket in order to survive and thrive.

In all the days of church life, Jesus has deliberately tested her faith. Unfortunately, in times when the buildings were big and glorious, filled to the brim with families, she thought her efforts would always be successful. Pride in her structures, her tradition and her bulwarks blinded her to the necessity of calling out for the Spirit to empower her to be filled with humble, courageous people, willing to be new Moses’ and Miriam’s.

What seems to be an unkind action by Jesus is actually the very action we need him to take! I think Jesus determined to show the disciples that they could face a deadly storm and, with the power of God invested in them, they could have the divine strength to defeat the storm and survive. This has been a message the church has gone to for comfort, faith and hope. Christians throughout the ages, when faced with a sinking ship, have survived-not because of their strength but because of their reliance upon God’s strength. Reliance upon man’s hubris is unwise. Reliance upon the tradition, buildings and structures of the Anglican church to save us at this time is unwise.

Unlike the Titanic, the ship of the Anglican church has enough life jackets for everyone; no one need drown. Jesus said, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He promised the Holy Spirit and sent her to each one of us as a life preserver. There is no need for despair and panic. We must face up to the reality that we are not on the good ship Lollipop and stop tap dancing on the deck like Shirley Temple.

We are on an extreme boat ride together; a ride with the disciples, learning as they did that we will survive and thrive! Jesus is not absent-he is present. He has not left us! The one sent from God IS present to us on the stormy seas of the world today. Our actions in light of what is true can be different from those who were part of the Titanic tragedy.

Prepare yourselves for survival, for everyone’s survival, but more than that, much more than that-prepare to be heroes of the faith. The disciples didn’t remain stunned, wondering what was going on that night on the lake. They worked it out, kept pondering, stayed with Jesus all the way and became the heroes of faith we now learn from.

This can be our story, too. Will you have the courage and faith? Will you set aside your fears and remain aboard? There is no need to run around in panic; there is a life vest for everyone-please make sure that everyone wears one. Jesus put us on this ship and he will see us through.

The Rev. Denise Doersken is the rector at St. George’s Anglican Church, in Maple Ridge, B.C.


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