Yesterday morning we visited the First Baptist Church in Ann Arbor. For Caroline and I it had been awhile since we were last in church; for Jay and Wally it had been forever.
After dropping Wally off in the nursery, Caroline, Jay, and I slid into a pew a few rows back from the front. “What’s this,” Jay said, pointing at the book on the backside of the pew in front of us. Caroline blushed. In a whisper I replied, “It’s the Bible. We’ll explain later.”
The Gospel reading was Mark 4:35-41. Jesus takes his disciples in a boat across a body of water and the weather turns. “There arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.”
The disciples are terrorized by the storm but Jesus is not: He’s asleep in the back of the boar, his head upon a pillow. The disciples grow so scared that they shake Jesus awake. “Master, carest thou not that we perish?” Here I picture Jesus rubbing sleep from his eyes, physically pained to be awake but aware of his responsibilities, just like I felt when I’d hear Wally crying at night and stagger downstairs to make him a bottle.
“Peace, be still,” Jesus commands the storm. Just like that the seas abate and the wind settles. Once the threat has passed he turns to his disciples. Now it’s their turn to get it. “Why are ye so fearful?” he says. “How is it that ye have no faith?”
“How did Jesus manage to sleep during the storm?” the Reverend asked at the outset of his sermon. “And why, had they not woken him, had he been willing to leave his followers at the mercy of the storm?”
As the Reverend explained it, Jesus slept because he had faith. He had faith in God, yes, but he also had something more than that. Jesus had faith in disciples—in fact, more faith than they had in themselves. He trusted they knew how to steer the boat and maintain the oars. When Jesus stood up and said, “Peace, be still,” he wasn’t just speaking to the storm; he was speaking to the conflict and doubt raging in his disciples’ hearts. Calm down. Be still. You can handle this.
I liked this reading of the story a lot. I liked that although the story features what is essentially a divine miracle—Jesus lifting his hand and taming nature—the real message might be that we have been endowed with the capacity to take care of ourselves.
At the close of the sermon the offering plates were passed. As they moved back and forth across the pews, I kept coming back to a question I come back to often: When does it make sense to place my faith in my own abilities and my own knowledge, and when does it make sense to say, “I don’t know. This is more than I can handle. Please tell me what to do.” Too often, I think, I underestimate my capacity to steer my own fate and make of my life what I want.
I was thinking about that tension—the line between divine will (or chance or chaos) on the one side and human initiative on the other—when the Reverend announced that a member of the congregation had a birthday coming up that week. His name was Bud. He raised a hand from the front pew and I leaned around Caroline to get a look at him. He was wearing a yellow shirt and a big ol’ smile and he must have been pushing 90. The Reverend explained that Bud was a composer of music, including some church music, and that to celebrate his birthday the church’s choir director was going to sing one of Bud’s pieces.
The choir director stood up and placed a sheet of music on a stand. Her name was Bonnie. As it turned out, she was also going to have a birthday that week. “A big one,” the Reverend said with an unholy grin. “It ends in a 0…and it’s not 40.”
Bonnie laughed and used her fingers to flash a “5-0” to the congregation. Then she took a breath and prepared to sing.
I love the moment just before someone you’ve never heard begins to sing. Bonnie wore a dress and a cardigan and had short brown hair and glasses. Who could tell based on her appearance what was about to come out?
So when she opened her mouth the first notes of the song nailed me back into the pew. She was a high soprano with an opera singer’s range and intonation. She sang crisply, piercingly, her whole body still except for her mouth.
As I listened to her sing I thought about the sermon and in that context what struck me most about the singer’s voice was how thoroughly human it was. There is an instinct to see or hear something beautiful and to see in that beauty the movement of a power bigger than us. But I when I heard her voice I did not think, “God created that voice.” Instead I thought, “She created that voice”—through who knows how many hours of practice.
As a father raising two boys and a man still figuring out the shape of his own life, it was a nice reminder that between life and death, there’s a whole lot we can do on our own.