Sunday, August 10, 2014

When the Storms of Life are Raging

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33


One of my favorite British comedies is a show called “Rev.
”  This hilarious comedy is about a vicar in the Church of England, Adam Smallbone, who has very successfully served in a large and engaged congregation in the countryside. At the start of the series, he has just been moved to a massive church in significant need of repairs with a tiny congregation of messy and broken people in inner city London. 

It is never made clear in the series whether Adam was sent to this church or if he chose to go, and I’m not familiar enough with the polity of the Church of England to infer how he came to be the vicar at St. Saviour’s. What I can tell you is that watching Adam try to serve God and love people in inner city London is quite painful. Don’t get me wrong, this is the funniest show I have ever seen. But it’s painful! 

Adam seems to have been thrust into circumstances foreign to all he has known before and he’s struggling to figure out how to use his gifts in this new situation while navigating a new place, a lot of very emotionally needy people who lack appropriate boundaries, providing age-appropriate religious education to the parish school, while NOT flirting with the headmistress and attempting to maintain a loving relationship with his wife Alex. 

As the series continues, Adam finds himself in a lot of uncomfortable situations. He has a secretary/liturgist/treasurer who opposes him at every turn, an archdeacon who insults him constantly, an old classmate/rival who’s wildly successful in the church who plagiarizes Adam, St. Saviour's continues to be in constant need of repairs and Adam struggles to know whether he’s been called to this parish to be a priest or an accountant, he rarely sees his wife who resents the fact that Adam is a priest, he receives a bad review in the press, and despite Alex’s frequent complaints in seasons one and two that they don’t share enough intimacy, Adam and Alex finally have a child together in season three, at which point Adam begins to complain about their lack of intimacy. 

Life in ministry has never been so honestly portrayed on the small screen. Forget crime-fighting, mystery-solving Father Dowling of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. From the constant visits from unwelcome visitors at all hours of the night to the lack of sufficient hours in the day to get it all done; from the faithful few individuals who continue to show up at church for services and office hours to the occasional snide remarks by Adam; from the competition with the megachurch to produce more numbers and bring in a bigger collection to the absolutely terrifying theology of the evangelical hip-hop service across town; from the crippling self-doubt and prayers desperately seeking answers, meaning, direction, confirmation to the complete and utter burn out that Adam experiences by the end of the third and purportedly final season, “Rev.” gets it right. 

As Adam struggles to balance the demands of being a pastor/fundraiser/counselor/teacher with his role as a husband and father, he is not particular successful in most of his roles. It feels as though he’s been sold out by the church; or rather sold into ministerial slavery and he’s sinking. He’s absolutely drowning. Adam is fervently seeking to serve the Lord and focus on what’s important. When it comes to it though, at the end of the series, Adam steps down from his position as a pastor and seeks to pursue a career in the secular world. 

His ministry over, the failing parish closes, and his former congregation is scattered. Everyone blames Adam and they make it clear that they believe he is at fault, verbally accosting him whenever they happen to cross paths in public. But his wife, Alex, realizes that some kind of closure is necessary, and as the series ends, she convinces Adam to break into the church with his ragtag group of followers and do a sunrise Easter service as his final act of ministry to this now disbanded congregation. As Adam stands with these people, including the ever-insulting archdeacon and passive-aggressive, undermining secretary/liturgist/treasurer, in this now closed church at 6:00 in the morning, he prays: 

Dear Lord, 

I seem to be back in a cassock again. You won’t let me go, apparently. Is this what resurrection is? Here I am surrounded by the people who believe in me. I’m going to miss them all, Lord. For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven. I am leaving you but not just yet. 


“You won’t let me go, apparently.” You won’t let me go.  

How many times in life have we felt burnt out? At the end of our rope? Tired? Done? Just plain over it? How many times have we, like Joseph, been going about our business, discovered what we needed wasn’t where we expected it to be, met someone who seemed to point us in the direction we needed to go (“They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’”) only to find ourselves feeling as though we’d been cast into a pit? Or worse yet, sold off and living in exile? 

Do you ever wonder who that stranger was, whom Joseph met in Shechem? Who was this man wandering the fields where his brothers were supposed to be pasturing their father’s flock? And how do you suppose Joseph felt about him in that moment that his brothers threw him into a pit while they sat down to eat? How do you suppose he felt when they lifted him out of the pit only to sell him as a slave to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver? 

I know I would have been cursing that interfering stranger to the heavens! Initially. In the coming weeks, the lectionary will take you through the rest of Joseph’s journey, his time in Egypt, his reconciliation with his family. At the end of it all, perhaps he’ll look back and be grateful to that stranger who led him on an adventure he could never have dreamt he’d be on. 

While I often respond with anger at the perceived instigator of my troubles, I think I’d rather be like Peter. I want to walk on water. I want to approach Jesus fearlessly and full of faith. That’s what we see Peter do. “Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.” Oh, to have that kind of faith. 

“But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 

Oh. I guess Peter’s faith wasn’t so strong after all. Much like Peter, much like Adam Smallbone, we can focus on Jesus, we can take steps in faith, we can even walk on water. For a time. Too often our attention is drawn away from Jesus and as we begin to focus on the strong winds and choppy waters, we forget about who has called us to this time and place, and focus instead on the storms raging in our lives. We get distracted by all that is going wrong and forget to consider what is going right. 

The amazing thing about storms – literal or metaphoric – is that we are actually powerless to do anything about them. We cannot control the actions of others any more than we can control when the winds blow, the lightning strikes, the rains fall. However, we can choose where we invest our energy – mental, emotional, physical . In remaining focused on Jesus, the storms of life will rage on, but we will still strand firm upon the turbulent waters. 

“Lord, save me!” 

“You won’t let go of me, apparently.” 

It’s hard. Sometimes, it feels impossible. When life gets bad, really bad, it can be hard to see Jesus, standing right in front of us, reaching out a hand. Where, then, can we turn? 

The apostle Paul assures us in Romans, that “The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” 

Jesus, the Word, is as close to us as the whisper of our breath passing our lips. When we call out to him, he is faithful to answer, for any “who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 

You won’t let me go, apparently. Is this what resurrection is? Here I am surrounded by the people who believe in me. I’m going to miss them all, Lord. For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven. I am leaving you but not just yet. Amen.” 

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