I spent most of my childhood years in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, located on the very large Lake Winnebago and the Fox River. The slogan of the city was and is, “Oshkosh: On the Water”, and because of the water that runs through and around the city, it was believed that tornadoes could never strike the city. When I was 17, however, a tornado did strike the city. I was home alone, too sick with a bronchial infection to go to Mass with my family. I will never forget the sound of that storm, the eerie silence before it struck, the sound of destruction only a couple miles from my parents’ house. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously hurt, although an 8 square block section of town was flattened.
There were many people, including members of the local media, who saw the tornado’s sudden change of course as a sign of God’s intervention. It seemed as though a divine hand had protected the people of Oshkosh. But that belief creates more questions than it answers. If God saved the people of Oshkosh, then why not the families in a neighboring town who died in the same storm? Or why not all the people gathered for Palm Sunday service in Alabama in 1994 when a twister destroyed their church killing nineteen? Or why not all those people in the South just last year, when 57 people died in a similar storm? Why would God act to save some people and not others?
It is this same question of “Why, God?” that we find in the two texts that we’ve heard.
In the first reading, we find God responding to Job at the end of the book which bears his name. Job at this point has lost virtually everything. All of his possessions, all of his children, and even his own health have been gradually taken away. His friends have come with words of advice, but their talk, merely depresses him even more. In the end Job is still left wondering why. Then God speaks directly to Job: “Where were you when I made the earth? Who was it that separated the waters in creation and formed the continents?”
This is only the beginning of God’s challenge to Job. For four chapters, God storms on, declaring his wonderful works and questioning Job’s audacity at demanding an explanation from the one who created and controls all things. At last, Job humbles himself and repents of his anger at God for the terrible things that have happened to him. As a reward, God gives Job a double portion of everything he had lost.
Just as God spoke to Job out of a storm, so Jesus speaks to his disciples in the midst of a storm. Having spent the day teaching, Jesus gets into a boat with his disciples and heads across the Sea of Galilee to get away from people for awhile. Exhausted by all their demands, Jesus falls into a deep sleep in the stern of the boat.
Suddenly, a squall descends on the lake, threatening the safety of Jesus and the disciples. These storms were common, but experienced fishermen knew what time of day they were most likely to occur, and that’s why the disciples are fishing at night, when the storms were least likely. Somehow, Jesus himself has managed to sleep through the storm until his disciples wake him up and ask, “Don’t you care that we are about to die?”
Jesus remains calm: he turns to the wind and commands, “Peace! Be still!” And immediately the wind dies down so that they can make the rest of their trip on calm water. Then, turning toward the disciples, Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And the disciples, terrified by what they have seen, are left to marvel as they ask, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
There are some obvious parallels between these two stories. In both of them, God’s voice is heard through a storm. For Job, it is in the midst of the storm itself that God speaks, while in Mark it is the act of Jesus calming the storm that speaks loudly to his disciples. And in both instances, the message heard through the storm produces a profound response. Job humbly repents and receives his reward, while the disciples are left to wonder fearfully about the true identity of the one they call “Teacher” and “Master.”
What, then, do these two passages say to us? How can they help us as we face the many storms in our lives?
The most basic lesson is that in the midst of life’s storms God is with us. Even when Job, in anger, accuses God, God is present. God does respond, affirming that God has indeed been present and paying attention all along. Margaret Hess notes that, “It is not the content of the speech that heals him. Rather, it is the fact that a God whom he had only heard about has now come to him personally. Theological constructs are not the source of Job’s redemption; rather, it is relationship with God that transforms his profound suffering. . . . Best of all, Job realizes that in all things his path was held in the hand of a God who was waiting to take him in God’s arms and wipe his tears away.”
Something similar happens in Jesus’ encounter with his disciples. As the storm is reaching its peak the disciples ask Jesus, “Teacher, don’t you care if this storm kills us?” They don’t say, “Jesus, do something!” In fact, their reaction when he actually calms the storm shows that such a possibility had never crossed their minds. They had seen the power of storms before; they had never seen a power that could stop the storms.
Unlike the disciples, we think we want more than a God who rides out the storm with us. Unlike Job, we want more than a God whose response reveals the divine presence. We want a God who will fix things. We want a God who will give us clear answers to our questions. We want a God who will guide our boat where the storms can’t reach us, not just hold our hands as we go through them together.
What we have been given instead is a God who suffers alongside us. What we have is a God who mourns our losses, feels our pain and experiences our sorrows. What we have is a God who has willingly gone through all the hardship of being human, including a humiliating death so that we might transcend our challenges and limitations. This requires some action on our part, so of course, we still cling to the illusion that God might offer us some other option.
The fact is that we live in a society where our technology has taught us to want more: better health, more comfort, less drudgery, less work. We deserve a healthy, happy, painless life. When good fortune comes our way, when we win the lottery, not one of us raises a fist to Heaven and cries out, “Why me, God?” or “How can you do this to me, Lord?” We are not at all perplexed, nor is our faith shaken when good things happen to us. God does indeed wish all abundance for us, but the path to abundance is not by avoiding life’s difficulties, it’s a matter of walking through the dark valleys, of working through hard challenges and thereby finding meaning and, ultimately, transcendence. This is, to use an old term, salvation.
So, where is God when we hurt? God is here from the beginning, designing a pain management system that is the only sure way to move us forward. God transforms our pain, using it to teach and strengthen us, if we are willing. God lets us cry out, like Job, in anger, blaming God for a world we have polluted. God’s Kingdom is geared especially for the poor and the outcast. God promises help to nourish the spirit, even when our physical suffering continues unabated.
God is with us, indeed. God hurts and bleeds and cries and suffers with each of us. Through the Christ, our suffering has been shown to be the pathway to wholeness. It’s a mystery, it’s ironic, it’s not the answer we think we want when we are hurled into the abyss. But that is where God is, in the abyss with us. God sustains us, feeds us, holds us close, until the storm passes and all that is left is God and us. The choice is ours: we can curse the situation and hold resentment in our spirit, or we can surrender the situation to God and know that, small as our boat may be, we will not capsize, we will not be lost.