I think that whoever we are, and even if we’ve never been in a boat, we know what it’s like to be in the middle of a storm. It’s no surprise that Britain’s favourite poem is said to be that one by Kipling called ‘If’. You probably remember the opening lines;
‘If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…’
We all somehow recognise that sense that it would be good to be able keep your head when all around you a storm rages..
And it’s no surprise that those posters that say ‘Keep calm and carry on’ – or countless variations of that – are so popular – and that most of us probably have some version of them on a wall plaque or a book cover. We know how hard to it is find that calm place and to carry on. We envy those who seem to be able to find calm in the deepest storms of life. And we long for someone to help us find that place too.
Jesus, it seems from the Gospel stories, was a person like that. Even before Pilate, facing a death sentence, he was calm and quiet. Even when tested with difficult questions and challenged to defend his message of forgiveness, he calmly wrote with his finger in the sand. And on the lake, when the wind rose and the billows rolled and everyone else was terrified, he slept. So vivid is this memory of Jesus that the Gospel writer conveys it to us all these centuries later with the vivid detail that he slept on a cushion. I can imagine that it was something of this quality of calm that made Jesus such an intriguing and attractive figure, that it was this that led so many to look to him for blessing, that made it clear that he was so close to God that he was somehow of one being with God.
This week I was by another lake and experienced another kind of storm. I’ve been in Geneva. The weather was beautiful and the lake calm. But I witnessed at close quarters the kind of media storm that happens when a Pope visits. Security was rated as class one – in other words as high as it could be. Roads had to be closed, barriers placed, and police drafted in from all over Switzerland and even from some parts of France. Buildings were sealed off and everyone who got anywhere near the Pope had to be searched and checked. The Pope himself has a large entourage – with inscrutable looking security guards, a doctor, and numerous attendant priests. And then there was the media – hundreds of journalists with cameras and questions. And everyone involved was nervous and anxious that all would go well. When the moment came and the Pope arrived, there was a small man dressed all in white, not always steady on his feet… but he, he was calm itself. He smiled and looked into our faces with no anxiety at all. He spoke, calmly, words of healing and hope, for the church and for the world. Even at the final event in the midst of a vast arena full of thousands of cheering faithful, he was still and calm – and spoke of the call to the true simplicity of the Christian life. He preached on the Lord’s Prayer and urged us to know God intimately as one who is ‘our father’, to pray only for bread for today, and to offer forgiveness. Pope Francis is a true follower of the Jesus who could find the calm in the midst of the storm and trust his life into God’s hands. Whatever you think about the Roman Catholic church or the Papacy, I was privileged to be in the presence this week of someone who knows God close enough to find that true calm that quells all fear, whatever comes.
I also heard the story this week of a young man called Guy, a journalist, who suffered a nervous breakdown, the most devastating of human storms. He drank too much, was afraid to leave his room for months on end and attempted suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. He took help from conventional medicine and from therapy, but then decided to so something else. He decided to walk the pilgrim route from London to Canterbury. Something in that experience then inspired him to take a still longer walk and for ten months he walked from Canterbury all the way to Jerusalem, following the old pilgrim paths. He has written an account of his journey – and it’s been ‘book of the week’ on Radio 4. Guy was not a Christian when he set out and, having finished, he’s still not quite a full convert. But he discovered, while staying in many tiny monasteries and communities on the way, that prayer and silence really can nurture something in us that enables us to be calmer and kinder and more resilient to the storms of life. He discovered a dimension of human life that he didn’t know before. He says that throughout his troubles he had felt somehow ‘unmoored’, anchorless.. but he found people – religious people – who did have an anchor for the storms of life and he realised that there was something real there…
I reckon that most of us here will know what it feels like sometimes to be ‘unmoored’. But many of us have also found that in our faith we have an anchor, something to keep us still and held through the storms. Perhaps we should be a more confident than we sometimes are that we have something very precious here, something very real, something that is truly a gift – and that it’s not only for us. There are plenty of lost souls in this world, plenty of people adrift in life, plenty of those who are afraid. Let us not be afraid to hold on to that anchor, to speak of what we know and to celebrate the God who is with us. Jesus said once to the sea and the wind, ‘Peace! Be still!’ – and he brings that gift to us today too. We can be calm, because Jesus is here.. Amen.