You don’t have to live long on this earth to have had an experience that has threatened your peace or well-being. Perhaps the image of a storm is the best metaphor to express what that was like. Job, in the first reading, is the one who epitomizes the expression, “If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.” Everything was taken from Job (crops, livestock, family, and his health). It was like he was in a storm that would never end. However, in the end, because of his faithfulness, everything was restored to Job with interest. The disciples in the gospel do not feel they are in a storm; they actually are in a storm. In my own life, I look back at how God has always been with me through the storms of life. Not only was God with me, but God saw me through the storms. I got through them all, and, if I am honest, some of the storms were actually disguised lessons that I needed to learn. Yet, when today’s storm appears, I am right back to square one wondering if God is with me and also wondering if I’ll come out the other side OK. No wonder Jesus says, “Have you still no faith?”
This story comes from an autobiographical novel by Bryce Courtenay called The Power of One. It takes place in South Africa in the late 1930s. It starts off with an emphasis on a little boy who is 6-years-old, and he is an English boy. His father has been killed by a rogue elephant. His mother, in response to this terrible tragedy, has had a nervous breakdown. She is put into some type of asylum. That leaves the boy alone, and he is being raised by a Zulu nanny on a farm that once belonged to his parents.
He is 6-years-old, and it comes time for him to go to school. They send him to the only school that is available, but it is a school of all Boer boys. He is the only English boy in the school, and the Boers and the English hate each other with a passion. And when this small 6-year-old boy finds out that he is in a school with all Boer boys that automatically hate him, he develops a bed-wetting problem. Night after night he wets his bed, and each morning the authorities pull the mattress out into the sun to dry it off. It does not take long before the older Boer boys quickly catch on that this little kid has a bed-wetting problem. So, they devise a kangaroo court. Night after night they drag him out. They tie rags around his eyes, they go through a mock trial, a verdict and a punishment. And since the punishment must fit the crime, they make him crouch down on the ground, and they urinate on him. This happens night after night after night.
Finally, there is a break in the school year. The boy goes home and falls into the arms of his Zulu nanny, and he cries, and he cries, and he cries, and he cries. He tells her about these terrible things that are happening to him at this school. And the Zulu nanny tells him, “Do not worry. We will solve this terrible problem of the night water. For I will send out the word, and the great medicine man Inkosi-Inkosikazi will come. And with one roll of the bones of an ox, he will cure you of this terrible problem of the night water.”
Well, the boy waits patiently, and four days later there comes down the dirt road to the farm the largest black Buick the boy has ever seen. And out of the black Buick steps the oldest man the boy has ever seen. He is dressed only in a loin cloth with a rug under his arm. The farm hands have gathered around, and they are in silence as Inkosi-Inkosikazi moves to a tree and spreads his rug under the tree and sits upon it and looks around at the assembled silent farm hands and sees this small 6-year-old boy. “Come here!” Tentatively the boy comes forward. “Sit here!” The boy sits next to Inkosi-Inkosikazi on the mat. Then the medicine man looks up at the farm hands and say, “Bring me five chickens!”
They bring him five chickens. He grabs the first chicken up top the head, and he bends the chicken over, and he draws with the beak of the chicken a circle in the dirt. And then he takes the chicken, and he sticks the beak of the chicken in the middle of the circle with the rear end of the chicken in the air. The chicken falls dead asleep. Five time the great medicine man does this: five circles, five chickens, beaks in the ground, rear ends in the air…dead asleep! Inkosi-Inkosikazi goes back and sits on the mat. The farm hands are hushed in awe. The medicine man leans over to the boy and says, “You see these people here? They think this is magic. It is not. It is a trick, and I will show you how to do it.”
Then he looked up at the farm hands, “Take these five chickens, kill them, pluck them, and cook them for we will eat them tonight.” The ranch hands take the chickens leaving the medicine man alone with the boy on the mat. And the medicine man leaned over a second time and said, “Before I teach you the trick with the chickens, there is this unfortunate business of the night water.”
Well, the boy’s heart began to sink. But before it could sink too far, the medicine man said, “Close your eyes.” The boy closed his eyes. The medicine man said, “You are on a ledge. It is night. The moon of Africa is bright. Below you fall three waterfalls. The first waterfall plunges and surges into a pool, that pushes over that pool and plunges and surges down into a second pool, which pushes over that pool and plunges and surges down into a lake. On the lake are ten black rocks, and they lead to a beach of white sand. Do you see it?” The boy nodded that he saw it.
And the medicine man said, “Then, hear it!” And there rushed within the boy the sound of water—in his mind, in his heart, in his soul, in every fibre of his being. And outside him, alongside him, above him, beneath him, engulfing him was the sound of water. And in the middle of the sound—cool, calm, and confident—came the voice of Inkosi-Inkosikazi, “You are a young warrior. You stand on the ledge above the waterfalls of the night. You have just killed your first lion. You wear a skirt of lion tails. You are worthy to be in the honour guard of Shaka himself. Now here is what you must do, my little warrior. You must dive. And when you hit the first pool, you will go to the bottom, and coming up you will count 3-2-1. You will be swept over into the second pool, hit the bottom, and coming up you will count 3-2-1. You will be swept over into the lake. You will leap on the first black rock. You will count backwards 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 to the beach of white sand. Do you understand?” The boy nodded that he did.
And Inkosi-Inkosikazi said to him, “Then, my little warrior, dive!” And in the imagination of his heart, the boy left the ledge. He hit the first pool, 3-2-1, swept over into the second pool, 3-2-1, swept over into the lake, 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1, to the beach of white sand. And no sooner did he lay on the beach of white sand—with the sound of water rushing through him and around him—then the voice of Inkosi-Inkosikazi returned, “You have crossed the night water; there is nothing more to be feared. If ever you need me, come to the ledge above the waterfall of the night, and I will be there. Open your eyes!” The boy opened his eyes. The medicine man leaned down toward him and said, “Now, the trick with the chickens.”
The story continues in the boy’s own voice, now a man. “I went back to school. I never again wet my bed. But that didn’t stop them. I was English; they were Boers. Night after night, they dragged me out, but they could never make me cry. And I knew this bothered them that they could never make me cry. For they had little brothers who were 6-years old, and they knew how easy it is to make a 6-year-old boy cry. But they could never make me cry. For when they tied the dirty strips of rags around my eyes, I would take three deep breaths, and there I would be on the ledge above he waterfalls of the night with the voice of Inkosi-Inkosikazi in my ear, ‘You are a young warrior. You have just killed your first lion. You wear a skirt of lion tails. You are worthy to be in the honour guard of Shaka himself.’ It was then that I knew that the outer me was a shell to be pushed and provoked. But inside was the real me where my tears joined the tears of all the oppressed, sad, and powerless people of the earth to form the three waterfalls of the night.”
I liked that story from the very first time I heard it back in 1993. I like it particularly because of the ending: “I went back to school. I never again wet my bed.” I’m thinking to myself, “Good, the kid gets a break and the bullying is finally over.” Unfortunately, for the boy, this story is more realistic than that. He continues, “But that didn’t stop them. I was English; they were Boers.” Life does not always give us happy or satisfactory endings.
In that line, I think of husbands or wives that have to deal with a spouse who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Tomorrow will not be a happier ending than today. Like the boy in the story, the circumstances of life have not changed one bit. But like the boy in the story, I hope the spouse can find a place of inner strength that will help them deal with the other’s infirmity. “I was English; they were Boers.”
I think also of people who are dealing with a terminal disease, like cancer. Tomorrow will not be a better day. In fact, tomorrow brings that person one day closer to their actual death. The circumstance of terminal illness has not change. Yet, I hope, like the boy in the story, these people facing their own mortality can go to a deep place within themselves (a ledge above the waterfalls of the night or the stern of the boat) and find a voice of comfort and hope. “I was English; they were Boers.”
Lastly, this story of Jesus and the disciples on the boat reminds me of both Christmas and Easter, the two high points of our Christian faith. Why Christmas? Well, it is at Christmas that we learn the name of the Divine. The Divine is called “Emmanuel” which means “God-with-us.” Whatever dark space or stormy sea we may be subject to, we can be assured that God is with us. With God we are never abandoned. Never!
Why Easter? Easter tells us that not only is God with us but that God is the victorious one. Because Jesus was faithful to the Father’s will, he was given victory over pain, suffering, loneliness, abandonment, and yes, even death itself. The outer circumstances of Jesus’ life did not get better; in fact, with each passing day they got worse. But like Job, Jesus remained faithful to God and, in the end, had everything restored to him, including his life, with interest. The disciples had to learn God was with them and God would lead them to victory over any storm life could send their way. That was Good News for them, and it is Good News for us.
Fr. Phil Mulligan