Cara Ellen Modisett
Reflection, 5:30 service, Sunday, June 21, 2015
A little over a week ago, I was standing at the edge of the world, on a beach in South Carolina, and the sea was stormy, someplace. Whitecaps were visible as far as the horizon, the waves were noisy and rough, the wind blew sand until it stung and high tide had stretched itself up the shore almost to the foot of the sand dunes.
My niece and nephew, five and seven years old, had no fear. They raced through the wind to meet the sea, running into the swirl of foam and green, kneeling in the water so that the waves washed over them and pushed them back toward the shore, letting the strong current nudge them north, away from their mother, who told them only to go in as deep as their knees.
"We’ll be careful!" my niece assured my sister in her little, confident voice. My niece does not understand that the ocean doesn’t care if you’re careful, that the ocean is far more powerful than a five-year-old girl. It’s dangerous, my sister told her, but what can a five-year-old know of that word? She doesn’t know rip tides, or sharks swimming too close to shore, or deep water. She sees the ocean as a beautiful place, a place with music, that reflects the sky and hides a deeper world, a place where she can dance.
The wind wouldn’t die down, and the waves kept coming, so my sister gathered up her children and we went inside. A few hours later, I went back out to the beach: the wind had calmed and the water had receded, leaving tide pools on the shore, puddles of silver reflecting the sky and the sunset, and I walked up and down the sand, watching the water turn rose and then mercury under a darkening sky - a wild, dangerous beauty giving way to peace.
The disciples, in today’s gospel, knew the water was dangerous. While Jesus slept in their boat, a storm blew up; terrified, they thought he had abandoned them, and they woke him, and he calmed the storm. "Why were you afraid?" he asked them. "Have you still no faith?"
One of today’s appointed Psalms is a bit of an Old Testament foreshadowing of this New Testament story:
Some went down to the sea in ships *
and plied their trade in deep waters;
They beheld the works of the LORD *
and his wonders in the deep.
Then he spoke, and a stormy wind arose, *
which tossed high the waves of the sea…
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper *
and quieted the waves of the sea.
Then were they glad because of the calm, *
and he brought them to the harbor they were bound for.
In the ideas of ocean and storm, there are almost too many obvious metaphors, comforts that can become platitudes. God is with us in all the storms of life. He has power over the earth, and his Word brings peace. The metaphors of journey, the wind in the sails of a ship, the compass, the north star, uncharted waters, the currents of life, two sets of footprints in the sand, the safe harbor we are bound for.
The problem lies where the metaphor ends. The ocean and the storm intend no destruction. The ocean is dangerous because it is an ocean. The storm is dangerous because it is a storm. There is no malice in the storm, no evil in the ocean. They are, as the psalm says, "the works of the Lord" and contain "his wonders in the deep." The ocean and the storm can kill, and have killed, tragically, inalterably, but they do not choose to kill: they are phenomena of weather and nature, part of the pattern of things, without emotion or thought.
Another storm came to South Carolina this week, a different kind of storm, not without emotion or thought, and its landfall killed nine people. Dylann Storm Roof - the storm is even in his name - was only part of it. He entered a safe harbor, the sanctuary of a church, where people were gathered in prayer and love, and he made that sanctuary an unsafe place. The deaths of nine people in Charleston were not caused by the unemotional sea, by the behaviors of weather; they were caused by human hatred, by an intent to destroy, by a young mind that was not at peace. In a matter of minutes, a church, a city, the world lost mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, pastor, coach, cousin, grandchild, friend. They have reached the harbor they were bound for, and we live on in their absence.
If God is in the wonders of the deep, if the storm - both natural and human - is part of his divine creation, how do we reconcile our understanding of a creation that leaves room for this kind of human choice, this kind of deliberate destruction?
And here is what makes that question even more difficult: while one person made a terrible decision, he did not come out of a clear blue sky - the winds were already there. We also bear responsibility for what happened on Wednesday night. How do we reconcile our understanding of ourselves as divine creations that make this kind of choice, cause this kind of destruction? How do we sit and listen to the Word of God, pray together, in communion with each other, and then turn and break that communion?
The storms that blow over the ocean we cannot control - we do not have the power of God to call up or to calm the winds with a word - we must weather those storms, prepare for them, travel through them as safely as we can, and know that we are not alone.
The storms that blow through our communities, our cities, we cannot control completely, but we can create a community that can withstand them, that can rebuild better after them, that can maybe, someday, find a way to prevent their ever coming ashore - by acknowledging that our society is imperfect, that we are divided too often by prejudice and an absence of empathy, but that we are capable of great love. We can calm these human storms, by reaching out as human beings toward each other, with compassion and respect and understanding and peace, because we are not alone.
Cara Ellen Modisett, minister of communication at Holy Communion, served as music director of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke, Va. and as communications advisor to the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia. She has an MFA from Goucher College and degrees in music and English from James Madison University, is editor at large of Blue Ridge Country magazine and has published essays in journals including Braided Brook, Still: The Journal, Artemis, Flycatcher and Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture. At Holy Communion, she coordinates Words3, a reading series for writers in all genres.
Photograph by Cara Modisett: shoreline, Garden City, South Carolina.