When Death Comes Knocking on Your Door

People Are Rarely Prepared When a Crisis Strikes

Sam Bush / 7.16.21

People are rarely prepared when a crisis strikes. As much as pre-flight safety demonstrations make sense, I still don’t feel like I’m adequately trained to know how to not panic if my plane goes down. In a hypothetical emergency, there is a significant difference between how I imagine I will react (measured and heroic) and how I will probably react (scared and self-interested).

It is in these moments when people are likely to say something from the depths of their subconscious. They get to the heart of the matter and bare their soul. The scene in Almost Famous — when the band’s plane is caught in air turbulence — is a classic example. Rather than holding hands in peace and harmony, each character unleashes a slew of past hurts and deeply buried confessions. It may not be pretty, but it all rings true. 

A crisis can come as quickly as an afternoon thunderstorm, leaving you helplessly buckled in your seat. The airbags drop from the overhead compartment and there’s little time to react. Then again, sometimes a crisis comes with ample warning. The signs are seen (or ignored), notifying you of the impending storm. There may be time to prepare, to read the winds, to circumvent the weather. In these times, we try to do whatever we can to forestall the inevitable. Springing into action can make for a good distraction, but the panic remains, albeit in a lower, steady dose.

It’s been said that poetry is the language of a state of crisis, where words express more than the nonessentials. The deeper concerns are brought to the forefront while the everyday anxieties fades to gray. This axiom rings especially true for the last crisis of life: death. In my current line of work as a hospital chaplain, I’ve seen the way that death sometimes comes suddenly without any time to prepare. Other times, it comes with ample warning as the slow decay of the body signals that one’s clock is winding down. 

Those who know death is coming soon can respond with newfound clarity about their life, of what wasn’t accomplished or what wasn’t said. Regret awakens a new sense of purpose. Or it doesn’t, and the news is received with bitterness, despair, and anger. In either case, the Big Questions are always to the forefront of their mind. The soon to be deceased don’t inquire about their career, reputation, or even their legacy. Instead, they ask: Where is God in this? Am I lovable? What was the point of my life?

The Gospel of Mark presents the disciples in a position where death is at their doorstep and the heart of the matter is at hand. Like anyone else, their Big Question is revealing: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mk 4:38). When death is more sudden, quick, and entirely unexpected, the reflective process is the same as that of the anticipated death, but condensed to an infinitely long millisecond — their life flashes before their eyes. Prepared speeches turn to gasps of panic as a lifetime’s meaning condenses into the smallness of a few moments. 

The disciples’ primary concern is not to put their affairs in order, but whether or not Jesus cares will soon die. This is the question of anyone in a state of crisis. If you’ve ever read a history book, if you’ve ever watched the news, if you’ve ever noticed your own aging body or watched your life slowly falling apart, the question “Do you not care that we are perishing?” serves as a baseline cry for human history.

But Jesus’ response is all the more telling. While we might be in panic mode, he seems to be the least prepared of all (“in the stern, asleep on the cushion”). And yet, he is the only one who has the audacity to address the heart of the matter. While a typical hero in this story would help everyone remain calm and encourage them to paddle harder, Jesus addresses the actual problem: the storm itself. Here, we see that Jesus is the lord of the crisis. He alone remains calm because he alone has the authority to do so. He rebukes the wind because the wind is his to rebuke. While we fumble with our seatbelts and cry out in fear, Jesus goes to the source and extinguishes it. 

Unlike you, Jesus is not worried about your life. He is not panicking amidst whatever storm you are facing. And yet he cared so much about our perishing that he perished on our behalf. On that day, human history’s two unstoppable storms of sin and death — which will inevitably capsize every ship, no matter how well-rigged — were calmed. 

When we panicked in our unpreparedness, when we thought the only solution was to paddle harder, Christ alone had the  audacity to do such an unthinkable thing as calm the storm. And it was no collaboration, mind you. Jesus didn’t give us a map to circumvent the storm; he didn’t show the disciples how to read the winds correctly. He didn’t even tell us to calm down, but, instead, calmed the seas. He rebuked the wind as the disciples simply stood and watched in awe. 

Whether or not we are prepared for the oncoming storms of life, God is the one who calms our crises. Whether we flail in panic or respond with measured assertion, Jesus always meets us in the storm. If poetry is the language of a state of crisis, the Word himself is the expression of everlasting peace.