Should I be Sleeping on the Job?

A Reflection

on the Gospel

for June 21

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

by David Somerville

American essayist, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once remarked that “The wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but for deliverance from fear.

Emerson’s remark is a great start point for a reflection on next Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Mark 4:35-41:

When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them .… A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 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?” 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. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 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?”

One day several years ago when I was on the staff of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I was making rounds on a ward assigned for my coverage.  A nurse, called out.

“Chaplain, Mrs. Williams’* pneumonia has gotten a lot worse.  Would you please look in on her?”

“Sure, “ I said.  I walked into room 701 where Mrs. Williams had been dealing with a recurring infection for about six weeks. She did not appear to know that I was there.  She was writhing in panicky agony, struggling for air but drowning in her own lung fluid. It was as if she were being held down by a millstone at the bottom of a lake, but the lake was a hospital bed, and I was at the waters’ edge.  The only things I had were an abbreviated prayerbook, a pocket-sized purple stole, and an oil stock.  I put the stole around my neck, read the passage from Mark, anointed her, and prayed. I put the stole and stock away, and continued making my rounds, saddened by the helplessness of watching someone drown.  I was less than five rooms further down the hall when the nurse called me back.

“Chaplain, the doctor is coming to have Mrs. Williams pronounced.  Would you please stick around and pray with us and give her those ‘last rites’ or whatever it is you chaplains do?

I did what I was asked to do. Later, on my way home from work, I kept getting this sinking feeling that I had somehow euthanized Mrs. Williams! I believe that the uncomfortable experience I had with the dying patient had something to do with a mistake expositors often make that Bishop Benhase discussed in his eCrozier article of Friday, June 12th.  In Mark’s parables and other stories, we tend to see our selves reflected as the responsible agent in charge of making the goodness of God’s Kingdom come into being. Apparently our culture of rugged individualism, our bishop observes, sets us up to do this.

Another problem we “moderns” have with parables comes from our tendency to analyze them rather than just absorb their impressions.  Although some parables, and other stories, like Jesus calming of the sea, have simple allegorical components, we tend to break them down into more components because that is what we have been taught by our culture to do — parse and analyze. Then we begin to see what we are looking for — like parts 1, 2, and 3 in the the parable or miracle account as being about A, B, and C with me being analogous to A as I make some kind of effect on B and C! When this kind of thing is done, an essential trait of the Gospel is obscured.  I loose sight of the fact that A is about something larger than anything comparable to me.  The only thing analogous to me, and my life as it should be is that I should pray to be more like the sower who does what he is called to do, and  then when he is done,  goes home in time for dinner, be good company to his spouse, and finally retire for the night, leaving his cares of the day past.  He does not spiral into “analysis paralysis” over what he said or did with any particular individual piece of grain. But look at what I did when I left Mrs. Williams the day she died:  I went home from my job, taking with me some queasiness, a narcissistic anxiety about what I may, or may not have done in room 701.  I had a poor appetite for dinner, and was lousy company to my wife at the beginning of the same week that saw Mrs. Williams’ family members with their pastor, preparing to celebrate her victory in life and resurrection in Christ. Had I taken into account what an inspired piece of work the whole of Mark’s simply-styled gospel really is, a spiritual masterpiece, I might have had an easier, more graceful night.

I am now seeing a better way toward spiritual health and good service by realizing that I am not required to “transubstantiate” the dying process into its true, unseen reality, the beatific bringing of Mrs. Williams into the blessedness of life eternal.  Instead, I felt flattered.  What was I taking credit for? The blessedness that happened at Mrs. Williams’ bedside. By doing that, I had become one of the “knuckleheads” our bishop wrote about when the nursing staff was expressing thankfulness for a special moment. They marveled at how Mrs. Williams immediately relaxed, seemed to smile peacefully and then died in peace.  I was a knucklehead because I failed to apprehend the fact that  my ego had nothing to do with the event in room 701. Was it a miracle? I don’t know. I saw no more than anyone else did in the room — maybe less.  My real place of responsibility was something I did not attend to at all. When I went home, I was not good company to my wife, and I did not sleep well that night. …And that was my real job! It was simply to spend the day doing what I am called to do as best I can, and then let go for the gifts of fellowship with my wife, nourishment and healthy sleep.

The commentaries I read about the this up-coming gospel lesson discussed the possibility that this was a believably historical event buried under layers of hyperbole and allegory. O. K.  So does the story have to be exactly as it happened historically? I doubt it.  One commentator I read on the subject described in detail how the remains of a boat found in the Sea of Galilee in 1985 was carbon dated to the time of Jesus.  He showed that the boat had a deck over its bow, sort of primitive  forecastle and a compartment in the stern under a small poop deck.  That would account for space available for a sleep cushion.  All of that is interesting, perhaps, but does it really matter?  I don’t think so.

What does matter brings me back to a new appreciation of Emerson’s remark about storms:  “The wise man … prays to God, not for safety for deliverance from fear. It is the storm within … which endangers him, not the storm without.

I had nothing to do with Mrs. Williams’ storm, except to let my irrelevant preoccupations distract me from another storm God also probably wanted to calm — if I would have just gotten out of God’s way. That was my storm, the one that blinded me from beholding what really was important, and what really was  going on.


*Not her real name

Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching

2  Oxford Biblical Studies

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