What’s as tall as a small office building, snaps large vessels in half and inspires a small tribe of surfers to launch themselves into an unholy maelstrom? Giant waves. The bigger the better — or worse — depending on who’s talking; better for extreme surfers, worse for seafarers. Until very recently giant waves lived only as lore. There was the story of the Tlingit Indian woman who returned from berry picking to find her entire village disappeared. The polar explorer Ernest Shackleton once reported narrowly surviving “a mighty upheaval of the ocean,” the biggest wave he’d seen in 26 years of seafaring. But witnesses of a 100-foot wave at close range rarely lived to tell, and experts dismissed stories about these waves because they seemingly violated basic principles of ocean physics.
It was only 15 years ago, when the British research ship Discovery was caught in an endless North Sea storm and struggled to station-keep for more than a week before it could break free. The scientists had been lashed to their bunks while the maelstrom swirled around them – all the while the data recorders were at work. The data recorded seas 60 feet high, with some wave faces spiking at 90 feet and higher. With such reliable data established, satellites began confirming that these rogues, freaks, and giants of the ocean were far from rare.
Wind, waves, atmospheric conditions make for a strange brew that can suddenly appear are wreak havoc. During high school, with a hurricane approaching the East Coast, some friends and I snuck over to Sebastian Inlet to surf. The early morning waves were great, bigger than anything I had seen at that point in my life. As the day progressed, the wind picked up and the waves became huge (and they get bigger every time I tell the story…). My last ride was the thrill of catching one of these monster and the pain of being crushed by it. We all got into shore safely and then stood in near gale wind conditions and watched the ocean become this whirling dervish of chaos. It was frightening and mesmerizing.
The same terror returned a few years later while sailing in the Chesapeake Bay. During the summers there is a phenomena called line squalls that come roaring down the tributaries. One moment you are having a great time out on the water, the next you are racing to drop sails, close hatches, and point the boat into the squall line. Then the squall hits. The wind is terrifying enough, but there is no shelter. You are being pummeled by the rain, the horizon disappears, and you feel like you have somehow been put on the back of the meanest bucking bronco that ever lived. It is disorienting, dangerous, and deadly. And that was in the daytime when we could see it coming.
Now imagine it is nighttime on the sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee, surrounded by high mountains, is like a basin. Violent winds from the southwest enter the basin from the southern cleft and create a situation in which storm and calm succeed one another rapidly. The apostles were experienced fishermen, night-time fishing was not unusual, and they had experienced a storm or two in their careers, but perhaps this night it was different. Every body of water and its watermen tell the legends. That night, in the dark, the storm, coming wave after wave, was one of those legendary storms, only spoken about, but which no one survived.
These apostles, these watermen, these men of faith know the water is a place of chaos and danger, but they know the word of the psalm: “They cried to the LORD in their distress; from their straits he rescued them, He hushed the storm to a gentle breeze, and the billows of the sea were stilled.”
But it seems the Lord is asleep in the stern of the boat: do you not care that we are perishing?
Life has its storms and maelstroms, when our trust is tested and we wonder if Jesus cares and even knows what’s happening to us. There are times no matter how much we pray or how hard we pray, God seems silent, distant and detached from our lives. When cancer that has been in remission for years suddenly and unexpectedly reappears; when the test results are the very worst we feared; when the unimaginable happens to our children; when Alzheimer’s cruelly steals the memories from someone we love and it feels like our life is taking on water and on the brink of capsizing. In those moments the words are whispered: do you not care that we are perishing? Then the silence is even more profound.
With no one to talk to, we talk to ourselves. Our internal dialogue grumbles in fear and frustration, we are disciples out on the water—“What about our faith? We’ve trusted you; we’ve worked hard and lived good lives. We pray every day and rarely miss Mass. But now, things are really tough, tougher than they have ever been. Please Lord, hush the storm to a gentle breeze and still the seas. Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
Sometimes there just isn’t an answer for the question of suffering. Our trust in Jesus isn’t a guarantee of calm waters. Our prayers will not always resolve our fears. And Jesus will sometimes be silent. When we finally hear his voice it may only be to ask us—“Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” What do you say in response? What can one say? I think my answer would be one of honesty and hope: “Seriously? Look I am upset, I’m scared, and I am hanging on by a thread… but I am still in the boat. I am with you even in the moments I am not sure that you are with me. I am staying in the boat because in the end, despite what I feel, I trust you will never leave me. So, do I have faith…. Yes, but I am still working on it.”
It is the experience of life on the water that prepares you to drop the sails, batten the hatches and point up into the storm. It is the experience that keeps you in the boat. It is only in the boat that faith grows.