How to Sleep on a Stormy Night
by Louise Westfall
How many of you slept at least 7 hours last night? Fewer than 7 hours?
I had a feeling I’m not the only one who has difficulty sleeping. And yet, research shows that sleep deprivation can be destructive to one’s health. Lack of adequate sleep may diminish antioxidant levels and weaken immune systems. It can cause increased consumption of foods with a high glycemic index, which increases risk of obesity and associated morbidity. Good sleep reduces risk of cancer, stroke and heart disease. A fascinating study in 2017 suggested the optimum amount of sleep every night is … seven hours. Research scientists are quick to add that the main factor in determining this magic number is how you feel the next morning. Do you feel energized? Can you function without a substantial hit of caffeine? Can you maintain laser-like focus for the first 3-4 hours at work? [from Powered by Habits, a blog by Ankurman Shrestha]
Oh my. I guess there are good scientific reasons for the Biblical admonition, It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for God gives sleep to the beloved. [Psalm 127:2]
Frankly, worry about this keeps me awake at night.
Depending on how you hear it, the morning text is either guilt-producing or sleep-inducing. On a trip across the sea of Galilee, a sudden storm whips up. The reactions of Jesus and his disciples are sharply contrasted: Jesus sleeps; the disciples panic. They were frantic and filled with indignation at the sight of the resting body of their leader. A lot of good he is! But I wonder if his example is, actually, something good to follow for the storms we face, personally, as a church, and as citizens of a nation and world. A reading from the good news according to Mark, in the fourth chapter at the 35th verse. Listen for God’s powerful Word … of peace. [Mark 4:35-41]
Recently I read an article about building community. The author made the point that defining people by their job or education is a barrier to developing an inclusive, accepting community. She suggested that when you meet a person for the first time, rather than asking what they do, ask instead “What’s giving you life right now?” This might startle the person a little, but it presents the opportunity to go a little deeper right from the start.
I think another good question these days might be “What’s keeping you up at night?” I don’t know of a person inside or outside the church who isn’t troubled by current events and trending situations. The cries of children separated from their immigrant parents keeps me from sleeping, and I know it does you too. Even with the executive order stopping the practice, over 2000 children were taken previously, and it’s not certain how and when they’ll be reunited. The debate about it makes me fear that we have lost our moral compass, when obedience to law supersedes human decency and compassion. I become particularly disheartened when leaders cite Biblical justification for actions so far from the love of neighbor that is the cornerstone of our faith.
So when we talk about the blessing of sleep, make no mistake: there are things that should disturb our rest. The peace that allows us to rest in the face of storms has nothing to do with denial or keeping our little boat safely tied up on shore so we never encounter a storm. … nor ever discover new lands. A friend I love and respect is taking a “news fast” currently — an intentional, mindful “Sabbath” from the constant barrage of information, opinions, and analysis in which we’re immersed. Probably we’d all benefit from that practice from time to time. But you can’t do that forever and remain a responsible citizen and faithful Christian.
Here is an affirmation that there is nothing in the world, no human being, no crisis, no evil action or intent, no force of nature that is more powerful than the love of God, and the good purposes built into the very fabric of creation, including human life.
Storms happen. Some brew slowly and we miss the warning signs until a wind gust knocks us to our knees. Some blow us over suddenly, initiated by a phone call or a test result or the dreaded words from a loved one, “We have to talk.” Some storms flow directly from our own choices; others from forces outside our control. But there is not one of us who has not had to face the fierce and sometimes inexplicable opposition to our well-thought-out plans and purposes. We’re sailing along under clear skies and favorable winds … when dark clouds gather. Storms happen.
Sudden, violent storms are not uncommon on the Sea of Galilee. Many of Jesus’ disciples were seasoned sailors, fishermen who knew how to handle a boat in troubled waters. So it’s a little curious how agitated they became, and how quickly they concluded they were goners. Fear is a powerful emotion, triggering the “fight or flight” response hardwired into our brains. However, it can also paralyze so that all potential responses get blocked. This is what seems to have happened with the disciples. Perhaps they forgot the resources at hand — the sailing skills of the fishermen, the other boats close by, even the ready availability of things with which to bail water. And most of all, they forgot about the One who was with them in the boat. They thought his sleep was a sign of apathy, as if he didn’t care for them and the danger they were in.
With a single command, Jesus stilled the wind. Can you imagine the stunned silence in the moments that followed?! And then Jesus’ questions to the disciples, reflecting his disappointment: Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
I think we have to be careful about drawing conclusions from this episode in Jesus’ life. For example, if we look for sudden resolution to our problems “if we have strong enough faith,” then we are in danger of making faith a transaction, a talisman or symbolic object to ward off evil. Fact is, some storms bring long-lasting consequences that are not quickly healed or smoothed over. They will require resilience and perseverance and hard work to overcome. And time. What Jesus challenged here, I think, is fear. Fear that life is inevitably destroyed by death. Fear that the universe is impersonal, with no moral framework outside the laws of nature. The way the gospel writer portrays Jesus’ power over the winds surely offers an alternative view. Peace! Be still! Here is an affirmation that there is nothing in the world, no human being, no crisis, no evil action or intent, no force of nature that is more powerful than the love of God, and the good purposes built into the very fabric of creation, including human life.
Sometimes Jesus calms the storm … and sometimes Jesus calms the sailors.
Peace! Be still! Jesus is still speaking this liberating word. A word that frees us from the fear that insists our actions don’t matter … a word that frees us from the fears that keep us awake at night, twisting and turning with anxious worry that does little more than exhaust us … a word that frees us from trying to navigate this complicated world alone … a word that frees us to do more with our lives than protect and guard and preserve them. A boat in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what boats are for. Neither is it what we are meant for. One of the symbols for the church is a small sailing vessel with a cross-shaped mast, a reminder that we are called to sail the seas, face the storms, and arrive on the other side, remembering that we are never alone, but go always with God.
So we do not lose heart. We will continue to serve our neighbors in need. We will continue to speak out on behalf of those who have no voice. We will welcome the children. We will work together to address the storms of our time with courage, compassion and the faith from knowing Whose we are. And God will give us the peace to sleep, yes, sleep in heavenly peace, ready to rise again, refreshed and ready.
In the silence that follows, I invite us to bring to mind the “storms” we are currently facing. They may be personal, a difficult and threatening situation you are experiencing right now. They may reflect the daily headlines, the political storms we can’t ignore. See them in your mind’s eye. And then hear the voice of Jesus, louder than the pounding waves and howling winds: Peace, be still. We will break the silence with a hymn that is our prayer, Jesus in our boat, a very present help in times of trouble.
[SILENCE, then Hymn #184, Calm to the Waves]