Hillary Bergman Cheek
June 24, 2018
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
Mark 4:35-41 (NRSV)
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 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?” 39 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. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
“I have had some of the darkest days of my life while on this voyage of life,
but when it is dark Jesus says, ‘Peace, be still and fear not, for I will pilot thee.’”[i]
These are the words that filled Kate Drumgoold’s mind during her baptism in 1866. Born into slavery in the late 1850’s, Kate lived a life full of sorrow and hardship. Her mother was sold when Kate was a young girl, and they were separated for three years of Kate’s childhood. Reunited following Emancipation, they gathered what remaining family they could find, and moved to Brooklyn, NY. It was there that Kate joined a church community, was baptized, and began feeling a call to dedicate her life to education.
With the help of members of her new church community, she devoted her time and energy to learning to read. She worked in homes in Brooklyn in order to save enough money to cover schooling costs. She spent every moment of her free time studying and preparing herself for this life to which God was calling her.
Once close to saving up enough to cover the costs of tuition, she contracted smallpox and was forced to put her educational pursuits on hold for three years. Never the less, she persisted. She writes of her faith and unwavering determination to answer her call to become a teacher, “He led me on day by day, and after a while I found that He had led me to go away from home that I might get ready for the work that my heart was so full of, for every time that I saw the newspaper there was someone of our race in the far South getting killed for trying to teach, I made up my mind that I would die to see my people taught.”[ii]
Despite the steep medical bills acquired during her illness, she managed to save up enough money to begin formal education. Kate attended school for two years, returned home in order to work to fund the remainder of her education, enrolled in school for another four years, and ultimately returned to Brooklyn to pursue a life of teaching.
Of her life as a teacher, she writes, “I had my hands full of work [. . .] I always made the time for when scholars find that a teacher loves them they will do any amount of hard studying.”[iii]
She knew this to be true because she had many teachers and supporters throughout her life that pushed and inspired her. They showed her love and the power of presence, and she had faith in the love and powerful presence of God.
She continued teaching for the rest of her life, leaving us with these final words that end her autobiography:
“I hope that all [. . .] may have the pleasure of knowing of something of the joys and of the sorrows that have crowned this little life of mine, but in and through it all I have seen the blessed hand of Him who is wise.”[iv]
In her short life, Kate showed remarkable faith in the face of abundant pain and injustice. She experienced so much that was right to fear. Much could have inspired her to feel overwhelmed, many points at which no one would have blamed her for giving up, points at which it seems that her words should have been much more like those of the disciples, “Lord, do you even care?”
So often, when we hear this story of the disciples in this storm, we hear the explanation that the disciples just needed to have faith. If only they had faith, they wouldn’t have been afraid. Therefore, if only we have faith, we won’t be afraid of those storms that we ourselves face.
However, I wonder if that interpretation doesn’t seem a bit flippant? Sure, it explains this text neatly and easily, it makes for an easy line to throw someone who is going through something difficult, it makes it easy to write off fear as simply lacking faith.
But if we’re honest, we admit there is plenty to fear in this world: loss, terrible diagnoses, abuse, death, rejection, natural disasters, financial insecurity, broken relationships, betrayal, isolation.
For us to assume that God would ask us to ignore all of that pain in our world seems to trivialize all that we have deemed frightening and to misunderstand the identity of God altogether.
Throughout the Bible and throughout our lives, we encounter faith and fear living together. In this story of those disciples on the boat, we encounter faith and fear living together, and in the midst of the terrifying storm, Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples that there is nothing of which to be afraid. He instead chooses to show them that his power is stronger than that which they fear the most, that which they fear will consume them. He does not merely calm the storm; he overtakes the storm with his own power.
This leads me to believe that Jesus isn’t pushing these disciples, or those of us reading this story millennia later, to choose either fear or faith.
Perhaps what Jesus is urging these disciples, what Jesus wants for all of us, is to have faith that is stronger, larger, and more deeply rooted than fear.
In the face of the storm, the disciples had two immediate reactions:
- They were paralyzed by fear.
- They blamed God.
These reactions should sound familiar. However, it’s important to note:
- Despite their lack of faith, Jesus still cared about them.
- Despite their lack of faith, Jesus still revealed his power to them.
- Despite their lack of faith, Jesus still refused to abandon them.
Faith is not complacency.
Faith is not complicit with pain in the world.
Faith does not consist of putting on the guise of apathy in order to protect ourselves from the discomfort of confronting the pain of others.
Faith does not entail ignoring storms when they don’t seem to affect us.
Faith is a foundation on which to stand when surrounded by so much uncertainty.
Faith is standing in the face of storms, storms that seem like they may consume us, unsure what may happen next, but certain of God’s unwavering care and presence.
Faith is understanding that those things which we fear don’t have to control us and our lives. Any power they hold pales in comparison to the power of the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
This past Tuesday, many in our country celebrated Juneteenth, the anniversary of the date just 153 years ago which marked an entry into a life of freedom for so many who had known nothing other than life in slavery. The words of Kate Drumgoold that I read earlier are part of an extensive collection of autobiographical slave narratives that have been compiled and made available for free online by The University Library of UNC. I read many; Kate’s account is just one of the numerous fascinating, brave voices made accessible to us, and among an even larger number of voices whose painful stories we will never hear.
Many accounts address the use of the Bible to justify slavery, hatred, abuse, the separation of families, the devaluing of human life, and the hoarding of power by one group to oppress another. Though we see progress in our world, we also sadly see that much has remained the same. In overpowering the storm, Jesus shows his opposition to anything which threatens life, anything which inspires one to question whether God cares about God’s people.
With faith, we are able to confront rather than be overwhelmed by the storms that surround us.
With faith, we are able to work alongside others so that all may be reminded that there is goodness in this world powerful enough to overcome hate.
With faith, we are able to walk alongside others through the darkest times.
As followers of Christ, we must to strive to be more like the one we follow, caring for all who are in the midst of fearful situations, rebuking and fighting all that threatens human life, not allowing fear to overwhelm us, but trusting that we are loved and known by God who is more powerful than all that threatens us.
In that moment of fear, the disciples cried out to Jesus, “do you even care?” In that moment, even though the fear of the disciples was greater than their faith, Jesus showed them that yes, indeed he does care about the fear and wellbeing of his people. He cares very much.
So must we.
[i] Kate Drumgoold, “A Slave Girl’s Story. Being an Autobiography of Kate Drumgoold,” Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/drumgoold/drumgoold.html (accessed June 22,2018), 18.
A summary of this document is available here: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/drumgoold/summary.html
[ii] Drumgoold, 24.
[iii] Drumgoold, 29.
[iv] Drumgoold, 62.