“other boats were with him…”

Posted by on Jul 16, 2014

I am now back home after attending two very good, very different events. One was the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, and the other was the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

At the Assembly I was especially moved by Betty Pries’ presentation on Saturday morning, and by the various worship times in which we were immersed, again and again, in the story of Jesus and his disciples in a boat in the middle of a storm (Mark 4:35-41). In each worship time – with word, song, visuals, soundscapes, symbolic action – we experienced the whole story and focused on a particular phrase/element (“Leave… Go…”; “Teacher, don’t you care?!”; “Why are you afraid?”; “Have you still no faith?”; “Peace! Be Still!”). I was (and am) deeply moved and very grateful – those worship times, so ably planned and led, “placed” us right where we needed to be for the discernment that was before us each day.

There was one phrase that kept sticking out, for me, from that Scripture reading – a phrase that we didn’t explore in those worship times, but that I have been pondering ever since.

“Other boats were with him.”

After teaching a large crowd “beside the sea” (Mk 4:1-34), Jesus says to his disciples: “‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.” (Mk 4:35-36).

We are told nothing of these “other boats.” How many were there? Who was in them? How did THEY experience and navigate the storm? How did THEY relate to Jesus? We do not know. The narrative is focused entirely on the drama of Jesus and his disciples in one particular boat.

And yet there is that tantalizing hint: “Other boats were with him.”

In the midst of the details of our own dramas and discernment, and the struggles and dynamics in our particular “boat” (church, denomination), we are subtly but unmistakably reminded: We’re not the only ones. “Other boats were with him.”

I think of  Luke 24, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, where two disciples are on the road to Emmaus, and they encounter a stranger who turns out to be Jesus himself. When they hurry back to Jerusalem to tell what had happened to them, they discover that Jesus had not only appeared to them, but to others as well.

“Other boats were with him…”

I am also reminded of the prophet Amos, who says: “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)

“Other boats were with him…”

It turns out these hints (and more than hints) are seeded all over the place throughout the Scriptures. On the one hand, the Bible is an astonishingly self-absorbed collection of documents, endlessly fascinated and concerned with the history and minutiae of a particular people that is, for all intents and purposes, marginal and insignificant on the “world stage” of great empires and civilizations. Intricate details of law, genealogy, family history, geography, poetry, politics, worship, architecture, economics, and so on are endlessly remembered and described and rehearsed and debated…

Along with the persistent and insistent claim that these details – this peoplehood – is of significance not just for itself but for others. That this peoplehood exists, in fact, for the sake of the whole world. This is true from the community’s founding (Genesis 12:1-5), and it remains true throughout hundreds and thousands of years of history. This is a high calling, and it’s worth paying attention to the details.

And when we are in danger of getting swamped by those details, there are also persistent and insistent reminders – like Amos 9:7. Like Mark 4:36.

“Other boats were with him…”

Two of my favourite fictional communities exemplify this dynamic. Wendell Berry writes story after story, novel after novel, all set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky – a town that is engaged (as he often describes it) in “endless conversation about itself.” A marginal community – insignificant by most standards – and yet it is a stage on which a great drama is being played out (Berry’s novels are all set in the “hinge time” of the advent of modern, industrialized agriculture and its impacts and implications for the land and community.)

And in Tolkien’s epic “The Lord of the Rings,” the Shire is also a marginal community in “endless conversation about itself.” The hobbits who live there love nothing better than to gather at the local pub, drink their pints, sing their songs, and talk about family history, where to find the best Longbottom leaf, and how the Gaffer’s garden is doing this year. And yet this self-absorbed “peoplehood” has a vital (in fact, decisive) role to play in the epic drama that is going on throughout the wider world – a gathering storm that they don’t even know exists. As Frodo and his friends find themselves “leaving” and venturing into the broader world (“It’s a dangerous thing walking out your front door,” as Bilbo is fond of saying), they begin to learn how their story is part of a much bigger story..

“Other boats were with him…”

It seems to me that there is a “both/and” here that we would do well to keep in mind. A “both/and” that the Bible continually holds before us.

On the one hand, it’s worth paying rigorous attention to the details of the life (and, yes, structures) of the church. The “peoplehood” matters so much – it is so integral to God’s strategy for the blessing of the whole world – that it is worth spending time and energy and effort talking together and discerning together and working at apparently hum-drum things like structures and bylaws and budgets and “task forces” and so on. The Bible – much like Wendell Berry’s fictional town of Port William, and much like Tolkien’s depiction of the Shire – is astonishingly interested in the details of the life (and history, and structure, and poetry, and… and… and…) of the “peoplehood” that God is forming. It is appropriate that we be that interested and pay that kind of rigorous attention too.

And yet… whenever we are in danger of being so focused on our own agenda that we become self-absorbed and insular, we are reminded that our story is but a subset of the larger story of what God is doing.

We are reminded, again and again, sometimes gently and sometimes forcefully:

“Other boats were with him.”