The Fear of Pan

I used to race sailboats on Wednesday evenings when I was a teenager.  These Wednesday races were a rather mellow affair.  Thirty or so boats on the water create a beautiful impression to the picnic-er on the shore, especially when the spinnakers go up on the downwind leg.  The lake was big, but the sailing was mostly for fun, though we did fight hard to win every night.  But that fight most often meant moving about on the boat as quietly and carefully as possible so as not to spill what little wind you had in your sails. For it is no different on a lake from in the mountains.  The sun starts to set, and the wind dies.

I’ve never been to the Middle East — but I have a hard time believing that the weather patterns there are different than the weather patterns here.  Thinking about this it dawned on me that this story is not like I learned it in church school.  There I learned that Jesus rebuked the wind.  That, of course, does not make much sense — rebuking the weather for being the weather.  But could it be that Jesus was rebuking the disciples for not being who they were, for forgetting their seasoned understanding of the weather?  They’re the sailors.  If they keep their head, they’ll know that  the wind won’t last long.

And of course the story, the way I learned it as a child is not credible.  Humans may have an effect on the weather, but not by asking it to cooperate.  If we can get past our supernatural interpretation of the gospels where God functions to pull strings for the faithful and on their behalf intervene in the natural cycle of the world and life and try to see why the gospel writers might have written stories that are not as wild as we might have been taught to think, either by our upbringing, or by the popular misrepresentation of Christianity, then we have an opportunity to begin to engage them for the reason the writers wrote them in the first place — to tell something about their life changing encounter with Jesus.

After the weather dies down and the boat is still upright, Jesus asks them why they panicked.  How are we to take that question?  He may literally be asking them to reflect on the situation, to think about how dangerous it can be to lose your cool.

But the question might also have to do with the authors’ sense that the basic question in life is a question of participation and decision.  These people who tell the story, are people for whom society has little real use for — they are, in the terms of some New Testament scholars, the expendables — for them life was rather Hobbesian — tough, brutish and short.  But not only that — their lives didn’t matter to the power structures of the empire in which they lived.  If they were of any interest, it is because they could be taxed on their daily catch, almost to the point where it didn’t make sense to go fish — but not quite.

Their encounter with Jesus changed all of that.  Oh, it didn’t change the roman empire — but it did put new wind in their sails —  Somehow, when they spoke with Jesus, he gave them courage — a courage they called from God.  In other words, in Jesus they discovered a quality of life that was inward, and that could not be affected by rulers or storms, by taxes or by leaking boats, that they could only call God.  This courage bubbled up from a basic confidence in life — a sense that life is drama, as Gasset puts it in his philosophy — and that it requires, in order to be true and full, our active involvement in it.  One’s enemy would not have the power to strip one of the basic dignity of human living, of the hunger within to do something good in this world

Gasset notes that this life we live requires our active involvement in every moment deciding to do something about the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  Simply because we are competent in one situation does not mean that the element of decision is absent from a later, similar situation.  And since all decisions about our being are fundamentally decisions about our own individual beings — in each moment we are faced with our non-being — in other words, we may very well abandon it.  Gasset ponders what this means — He notes that if we decide not to abandon life then that is because we want to live.  And because life is something we find ourselves in, like a drama, not just something we think about or observe, because life only is life to the extent that an individual lives it, everything that happens to us, however difficult, however fraught with danger or conflict, happens to us because we hunger for it.  For the expendables of Jesus’ day, he literally re-presented to them their original confidence in life and awakened in them that hunger to live fully.

I ran across a story yesterday as I was reading  Seven Days at the coffee shop that perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about.  The story is about a taxi driver taking a woman from Burlington to Trapp Family Lodge.  His passenger is excited to be back in Vermont after nearly 50 years away.  Conversation revels that the woman used to work at the lodge when she was a girl.  The driver asks:

“Did you get to interact any with Maria?”

“Oh, yah, all the time — or at least when I got my courage up. You know, at dinner, she would sit and talk with every guest. The other thing I remember is how fast she drove around the property. One evening she must have mixed up drive and reverse, or something, and smashed her car into the side of the lodge. I remember we were instructed to never, ever mention it.” Sue paused and chuckled out loud, adding, “I don’t think I’ll get in any trouble at this point, wouldn’tcha think? The statute of limitations has surely passed.”

“That is a great story,” I said. “If I may ask, why is it you’re coming back now? Are you meeting people up there?”

“Yes, it’s a special event. One of the von Trapp grandchildren is getting married. It must be a big wedding, because I’m merely cousins with Lynn, the wife of Johannes, who is, I believe, the youngest of the 10 children. He actually met Lynnie the summer I worked there, on a trip down to Boston.”

For a while we rode in silence, broken only by the whooshing of the air through the slightly cracked rear windows. Behind us, the afternoon sun slid through the western sky. As we turned off the highway and began the trek north on Route 100, I got nosy again. “So, where’d you fly in from?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m from Minnesota. Yah, me and my husband — a couple of Norwegians.”

This was no surprise to me. Every since seeing the movie Fargo, I can pick out folks from the “You Betcha” State. I asked, “So, how’s life in Minnesota these days?”

“Well, I own a B&B, so that keeps me busy, then. Before that — for 25 years, actually — my husband and I had a farm. I think that was Ben’s greatest passion. He just loved the land. Farming gets a little much as you grow older, though, and neither of our daughters was interested in keeping it going.”

“Well, that’s real sweet,” I said. “You and Ben and the B&B. Sounds cozy.”

My customer’s face dropped. “Unfortunately, Ben’s had Alzheimer’s for a few years now. For a couple years, I was able to keep him at home, at the inn. I told the guests to lock their doors at night. ‘Ben’s harmless,’ I’d say, ‘but he does tend to wander a bit.’ But then he began to get aggressive. It’s so heartbreaking, because his whole life he was the sweetest, kindest man. He was a guidance counselor when we were first married, and how the kids loved him. Now he hardly knows who I am.”

“Oh, jeez,” I said. “I’m sorry. That must be tough on you. I can’t even imagine.”

My seatmate turned and smiled, bravely, for sure. This is the thing about life I cannot fathom, despite giving it a lot of thought. Bad things happen to bad people, it seems to me, at roughly the same rate as bad things happen to good people. . . .

We were on Barrows Road, passing Stowe High School, when my new friend from Minnesota turned and spoke again. “Ya know, sometimes the smallest thing makes all the difference in the world. Like, the last time I visited Ben, I walked into the lounge area and found him sitting in his wheelchair. His face lit up in a big smile and he announced, clear as a bell, ‘There is the love of my life.’”

The blue-eyed woman shook her head and choked up a little.

“Just that little thing,” she continued, her voice quiet but no longer quavering, “made the two-hour drive to Sioux Falls all worth it.”

Bad things do happen to good people.  It rains on the just and the unjust alike.  That’s not the question though.  The question Jesus wants us to ask, is whether or not these bad things make a difference to us where it matters most.  To panic in the midst of change and turbulence, to cry and not get up in the midst of loss, is to miss the chance hear again, in the silence of the inner calm, those words of love that come from a place no storm can touch and offer an unmatched confidence in living.  Amen.


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