The fourth chapter of Mark ends with the great story of Jesus calming the storm. What we don’t always notice is that when they were caught up in the storm, Jesus and his disciples were heading toward a part of ancient Palestine known as the Decapolis. It was the “other” side. The Decapolis was a group of cities culturally distinct from the area Jesus and most of his disciples called home. This area was so deeply influenced by Greek culture that many devout Jews would have considered it morally suspected, or possibly even depraved. For them it was the kind of place, that if you went at all, left you feeling contaminated.
As soon as they got out of the boat on this side of the lake a naked man with broken shackles and chains rushed at them. This would have confirmed the darkest of the disciples’ suspicions. Yet Jesus met the man, spoke to him, calmed him . . . and healed him. The locals were intimidated. They asked the group to leave. Our reading (Mark 5:21-43) comes right after this. When Mark says that Jesus and his friends “crossed again” it meant they were coming back to their side of the Galilee.
On their side Jesus was well-known. Instead of being met by one tomb-dwelling man, on this side of the lake Jesus was met by a “great crowd.” They pushed and pressed him. They crowded him. In the disorder and hubbub, a leader of the synagogue made his way to Jesus. The man was distraught and anxious. He threw himself down at Jesus’ feet and begged him to heal his daughter.
The crowd pressed in. They pushed and shoved. Jesus felt someone pull on his clothes. “Who,” he asked, “who touched me?” His disciples thought that it was an absurd question, given the circumstances. In the chaos it could have been anyone. Then someone else came from the home of the synagogue leader and told him not to bother: his daughter was dead. When Jesus was finally able to make it to the man’s home he saw, again, a commotion. People were weeping and wailing. Older translations say he saw a “tumult.” We could also say there was a breakdown in the public order or a loss of civility. The niceties of public behavior had fallen away. With abruptness the callousness of death pressed down. Hope and quiet were pushed aside by brute force.
In our congregation’s worship this summer we want to ask each other a question that goes something like this: What keeps us centered and non-anxious at a time when anxiety is running high? The reality is that many of us worry. We worry about politics. We worry about our loved-ones. We worry about the future of our work. We might even worry about the future of the church, the church in general or our church in particular. Many of us have the sense that things are unstable, that change comes at us from all directions. It feels like tumult and commotion.
You may have heard a term being used with growing frequency, “diseases of despair.” This is a way of talking about an increasingly common cause of death in our time. In certain segments of our society life expectancy is not increasing, the way it is for many, it is declining. This is happening because of these diseases of despair: because of the loss of meaningful work, because of the weakening of the things that give structure to our lives, because of an evaporation of the sense that our lives have meaning. That might not hit you with the force that it hits others, but you’ve probably grappled with some related challenges.
So, how do we keep from being overcome by the sense of chaos? How do we not obsess about things beyond our control? There isn’t an update we can install to rid us of this problem. What is striking today is that our reading from Mark 5, shows Jesus and the disciples in a chaotic situation. The crowds are pressing in. We can imagine that questions are flying back and forth. Maybe they want an explanation for why he would go to the ‘other’ side of the lake. People were bringing their problems. They would have been jostling for position. Everyone wanted to be heard and to hear. The story overflows with desperation.
At the heart of this passage are two people so desperate that they threw themselves at Jesus’ feet: a father whose daughter was dying, a woman who had seen many doctors and yet found her health continuing to deteriorate. In all the jostling and the commotion of numerous people trying to get the attention of Jesus, these two people stood out. They were desperate for God’s restorative power. They needed order restored to their lives.
Something about these two people caught the attention of Jesus and the attention of the person who passed the story on to us: their faith. The woman had tried to get ahold of Jesus’s healing power secretly. Was she embarrassed to need it? Was her disease one she didn’t want others to know about? Did she think Jesus would ignore her? But Jesus did notice her. He said to her, “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” To the man from the synagogue, Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe.” The people gathered at the man’s house laughed at Jesus’ suggestion that the girl would recover. But she did.
Faith and belief are tied to peace and freedom from fear. We might call this posture one of trust. When we approach Jesus with trust we are offered peace and freedom from fear. We know that not bad every situation is fixed. Fathers do lose children. Women still suffer. Yet I don’t think this gospel passage is asking us to be naive about the things that prompt us to worry. What it shows us is that something positive, something strong, can displace our desperation and anxiety. This strong thing is trust. It is trust that God is good; trust that we can know God through Jesus; trust that we can live whole lives even if we can’t get what we think we want.
What I’m learning is that trust is like a garden’s produce. It must be cultivated. If we don’t want to be overcome by anxiety or overwhelmed by fear, we need to cultivate something different. One way I have learned to do this is by spending time in nature. This isn’t a new idea or a uniquely Christian idea. Yet it is something we see Jesus doing. And it is something the ancient monastic mothers and fathers did. The other week I took a day off and went hiking with one of my sons. Getting away from screens, from questions, from strategy, and replacing those things with being in the mountains, with scrambling over rock, with focusing on a gnarly trail, with the sight of Lake Champlain in the distance—for me, that exchange is a movement toward prayer. If I’m mindful about it, it’s a way of being with God. I find that it builds my inner sense of space and trust.
What does this for you? How do you remain non-anxious in an anxious time? How do you cultivate trust?