The Storm

Last week Pastor Pete recounted for us the story of a great storm that threatened the rebellious prophet, Jonah. This seems appropriate, as I am not sure it has stopped raining this week since that passage was read. Storms, winds, and rains have been the theme of this week. Some start to the Autumn season we’re having.

That said, it has made for a fitting backdrop to our Jonah stories. I have gotten double doses of this prophet’s tale, as aside from just Pastor Pete’s sermon, I have been reading a reflection on the story in Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant. In this book, written primarily to those pastoring, Peterson reflects on the story of Jonah as a warning against what pastors can become. While his primary audience is church leaders; however, he brings out a point that I think is appropriate for all of us to reflect on.

The image of Jonah on a boat in a storm will actually become a significant one in the rest of Scripture. Jesus and his disciples will twice find themselves in similar scenarios in the Gospels, and toward the end of Acts Paul will share in a similar scene. Peterson suggests that there is something worth watching as these accounts progress.

Jonah’s storm story begins when he attempts to take charge of his life and role. Instead of following the word of God to Nineveh, he sets sail for far off lands, paying a hefty sum of money (it is possible to interpret the wording of the book of Jonah to mean that he actually purchased the entire ship in order to assure his passage to this far off country). That control however is thwarted by a storm that doesn’t care about his efforts or his money. The sailors likewise attempt to throw cargo off of the ship. In an act of desperation they pray to their Gods, and implore Jonah to do the same: something he, notably, never actually does.

Fast-forwarding to the Gospels, we see Jesus handle such a scenario on two occasions. First, when he awakens to the disciples futile attempts to row their boat to safety, he invokes the power of God in a simple “peace, be still”. In the second scenario we see him, arriving from a prayerful retreat, tell his frenzied followers not to be afraid.

Finally, in Acts 27 we see Paul as a prisoner on his way west. When the captain of the ship refuses Paul’s sailing advice and they find themselves in a storm, it turns out that Paul has spent the night below deck in prayer, meeting with a messenger of God who has assured his safety and the safety of the crew. While the crew struggles to try and save their ship, Paul calls them all to quiet trust and, while shipwrecked, all are saved.

The through-line in all of these stories, Peterson points out, is what happens when the illusion of control meets the storm. We are people who are often determined to control our circumstances, secure our futures, and determine our own courses. We expend time, money, and authority to try and do all of these things, yet when the storm comes, it cares for none of that. In the storm, it’s as if the world has returned to the chaotic state of Genesis 1:2, and while it might feel as though we’ll be drowned in the deep, we might also remember that in Genesis 1:2 we found the Spirit of God hovering just over the waters, preparing to order the universe.

The point Peterson makes is that in these moments of storm, our lives are stripped back to the most elemental parts. In the storm, there is just us and God, and thus, there is simply, in Peterson’s words, “Prayer or prayerlesness”. Those are our only two true realities. In the storm, Jesus invited his disciples into trust: a surrender of their false control, and a chance to participate in God’s actual control. Jonah is the rejection of this offer, and Paul the positive example.

With all that said, he makes his final point:

“The storm either exposes the futility of our work (as in Jonah) or confirms it (as in Paul). In either case, the storm forces the awareness that God constitutes our work, and it disabuses us of any suggestion that in our work we can avoid or manipulate God. Once that is established, then we are ready to learn the spirituality that is adequate to our vocation, working truly, easily, fearlessly, without ambition or anxiety…”

The reality is that many of us, like Jonah, work long and hard to control our circumstances, often trying to keep them comfortable and free from the hard work that God is calling us to as followers of Jesus. Storms are the unavoidable chance for us to recognize this, and by the grace of God, they are invitations to cease such activity and entrust ourselves to God in prayer. When the storm comes, will prayerlessness and control be the theme of our response as it was for Jonah, or will we, as Paul, take the chance to connect with God and allow him to refine us toward our actual callings?

Dan Vandzura