Father’s Day is a fine time to mention that my Dad taught me many things. Some of them were simple, like riding a bike. But others were more complicated, like rhetorical questions.
What? You don’t know what a rhetorical question is? Then your upbringing was quite different from mine. My father taught me rhetorical questions when I was still quite young.
Here’s an example: “Do you think I’m made of money?” (I heard that one fairly often.)
Another one was “Do you want to watch TV after dinner or not?” Which loosely translated meant “So are you going to load the dishwasher?”
You get the idea—rhetorical questions were the questions my father asked when he didn’t really expect an answer. Actually, my mother also used them sometimes, like “Who do you think is going to make your bed?”
Our first reading today reminds us that God is a Father, too, and he uses the occasional rhetorical question Himself. Did you notice what he asked Job? “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Do you think God is waiting for Job’s reply? Obviously not—and of course that’s exactly what a rhetorical question is—a question that’s asked to make a point, not to get an answer.
Just in case Job misses the point, God carries on with another rhetorical question. He asks Job who kept the sea behind closed doors—in other words, who decided the limits of the ocean, who stopped the world from being swept by one great tidal wave?
And if you think this puts Job on the spot, take a look at the rest of chapter 38. God asks no fewer than twenty such questions. Can you tell the clouds what to do? Have you visited the storehouses of the snow?
Of course I feel sorry for Job—how would you like to have a debate with God? But I don’t think God’s doing this to make Job feel small—God’s doing it so that we’ll know how big He is.
Do you remember hearing about the man who said “When I was seven, I thought my Dad knew everything. By the time I turned 16 I discovered he didn't know anything. Now I'm 30, and it's amazing how much he's learned.”
Well, that’s the way a lot of us are with God—only we get stuck at the adolescent stage. We don’t move on to appreciate God’s wisdom and his power, either because we’re too busy rebelling, or just too busy, period. Or maybe we’re just too scared to think straight.
Isn’t that what happened to the disciples in the boat that night? They knew Jesus well—by this point in Mark’s Gospel Jesus has already cast out an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue, healed Peter’s mother in law, cast out demons, cleansed a leper, made a paralyzed man walk, and healed a man with a withered hand. How could they still say “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”
Surely one answer is fear. The disciples knew better, but they were terrified. One of the founders of AA said that fear is the chief activator of our defects. It clouds our thinking—whether about ourselves, others or God Himself.
This incident in the Gospel is particularly dramatic, but the story is as old as humanity. Today’s Psalm tells the same story with a different cast of characters. The seafarers of the Middle East saw God at work as they sailed the seas; they were grateful to Him for the power of the wind that propelled their ships, and the rain that gave them fresh water. But when the waves started to pound and the ship began to toss, their courage melted.
However, like the disciples, the sailors had just enough energy left to cry out to the Lord. And He stilled the storm and hushed the waves, just as He did for the disciples.
So what is it that stops us from asking the Lord to calm the storm of our lives? I’ve already mentioned fear; Jesus mentions something else: a lack of faith. If we don’t believe that God cares, we’re not going to disturb his sleep. If we think he’s not interested in our cries for help, we’ll keep them to ourselves.
And yet our Christian faith teaches that it is normal for a Christian to experience peace in every circumstance. God’s inspired Word tells us so in two of St. Paul’s letters. In the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”
And then comes the promise: “Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7, NAB) To the Thessalonians he writes “may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in all ways.” (2 Thess 3:16).
One thing’s for sure: St. Paul believes Jesus cares that we’re perishing.
So far we’ve seen how fear makes us lose sight of Jesus, while a lack of faith stops us from even looking for Him. But there is another reason why we let life toss our boats around. We lose our peace because we don’t turn to Jesus; we forget he’s right beside us.
Prayer is the shortest path to peace. Not the kind of prayer where we ask God to change things, but the kind where we speak with him about our troubles.
This kind of prayer is a conversation. It helps us answer those two questions Jesus puts to his disciples in the boat:
“Why are you afraid?”
“Have you still no faith?”
As with all rhetorical questions, Jesus already knows the answers. The disciples don’t yet know Him well enough, for all his signs and wonders. That’s clear from what they say to one another. “Who is this man whom the wind and the sea obey?’
At least we know the answer to their question. We have seen the Lord’s ultimate deed of power in the Resurrection—a sign that makes calming the storm seem insignificant. But we still need to know Him better, in order to put our trust in Him. And we need to know ourselves better, too, if we’re to overcome our fears and receive the gift of peace in every circumstance.
Prayer helps us know and trust the Lord, and opens us to knowing our own hearts as well. It is the path to peace.
In church this morning there are young people heading out to the job market in an uncertain economy. There are high school graduates waiting for the final word from universities and colleges. There are grade sevens looking nervously towards high school.
There are parishioners mourning the loss of a loved one, or facing serious illness. Some face unemployment, others worry about investments. And some of us even worry that things are going too well, and wonder when disaster will catch up with us.
We can start now—whatever our circumstances—to seek peace, in faith, by prayer.
For which one of us doesn’t want that peace that surpasses all understanding?
And that, in case you didn’t notice, is a rhetorical question. Thanks, Dad!