As a trauma survivor with CPTSD, I experience flashbacks and nightmares.  For me, flashbacks are like seeing a reflection on a window and what is through it at the same time. When they happen, I experience the past and present simultaneously, but neither clearly. The past becomes superimposed over the present. Depth of time doesn’t make sense. Everything is confusing. Nothing can be trusted. Nothing is predictable. Everything is dangerous. I treat people and God with skepticism and distrust. I feel very small and insignificant. 

As an artist, I know our brains are malleable.  Our imagination and neurological pathways give us the tools to deal with our brokenness and past.  How we handle our memories matters.  The imagination can foster hatred and anger or it can create empathy and community.  Through our imagination, we can take material gifts to create things that are good, or we can distort them into narcissistic idols.  We can forgive, or we can let bitterness harden.  Our imagination can help us to rewire our self perception in a healthy way.  Our imagination is a gift because it can help us make things that lead us back to God.  

It has been hard work for me to sift through the emotions from the things I have seen.  The hardest for me to overcome has been horrific nightmares, which leave me trembling and sweaty.  The dreams are so vivid that I lay shaking and too terrified to sleep.  John has spent hundreds of nights holding me, rocking me, whispering calming words of love.  

One morning, after such a dream, I stopped at the Goose Pond dam to recenter myself through prayer.  And as I stood at the water's edge there was total stillness in the air.  Not a ripple was on the water.  The calm was like a weighted blanket of comfort.  It was in such contrast to Rembrandt’s painting “Storm on the Sea of Galilee”.  

Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt

In it, Rembrandt captured the tremendous chaos at hand.  The sail is ripping and huge waves are crashing.  The bow of the ship is being swamped.  One man strains with all his might to control the rudder.  One man is leaning over the side of the boat to vomit.  Another man looks directly at the viewer of the painting with a look of plea for help.  (That man is supposedly Rembrant’s self portrait.)  The muscles of the men strain to keep their boat upright. They are completely out of control and consumed with panic. Their faces are etched with fear. Only one man stays serene in the stern of the boat, calmly sitting on his cushion - Jesus.

This painting is based on a story of Jesus and his disciples trying to cross a lake. The story is told by three different authors.  (Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25) As they started across, a ferocious storm came up and waves buffeted the boat.  Some of them were experienced fishermen, and yet, they were absolutely terrified because the storm was so strong.  Through it all, Jesus remained so relaxed that he was sleeping.  Eventually, the storm became so horrific that the disciples woke Jesus and pleaded for him to save them.  Jesus spoke with authority and demanded the wind and waves calm down.  When the power of the storm dissipated instantly in response to Jesus’ rebuke, the disciples knew that Jesus had complete and total power and authority over all the earth.  Everything was in his control.  Even the wind and waves obey him.

The part of the story I love so much is that Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “Oh, you of little faith!  Why are you so afraid?” These men had been tossed by a life threatening storm and yet Jesus displayed his supremacy.  It is key to me that Jesus displayed it in an act of mercy and love. He did not look at his faithless companions, throw his hands up in disgust or let the storm destroy them. He did not abandon them to misery.  Yet, he didn’t prevent the storm. He entered into the storm with them.  He remained with them.  He used the storm as a tool to gently show his disciples who he was.  Again.  Just as they had seen when he gave mercy to the outcast who had leprosy.  And the non-Jew who was seeking healing for his paralyzed servant.  And Peter’s feverish mother-in-law.  And … and … and!!! Over and over, Jesus showed them who he was.  Again.  And in his act of mercy, Jesus reminded his followers that they belonged right there beside him.   

I stood looking over Goose Pond, tired of all these nightmares.  I was tired of the hateful, angry storms of my past.  They leave me physically exhausted, emotionally depleted, and uncertain in the present.  As a person of faith, it is easy to think that if I just believe enough - if my faith is strong enough - my behavior will change and then I will belong to God.  But this story shows me how wrong my thinking has been.  

He did not remain with his disciples because of their unwavering faith. Jesus’s love was not dependent on their faith - nor is it dependent on mine. This story helps me see that I belong to God, just like the other faithless disciples did.    And because I belong to him, my faith grows.  As I grow to trust I belong to God, I see more clearly that he is who he says he is.  And miraculously, as my belief morphs from a hazy question to a resounding exclamation, my behavior changes to be more like Jesus’.

Many artists have illustrated the chaos of the storm from that story.  But I don’t need to be reminded of the brokenness and awful things of this world.  I need to remember who Christ is: a God-man who has the power to change storms to serenity.  A God-man who loves me so much that he entered into my messiness and hurt in order to show mercy and compassion.  A God-man whose actions concretely show “you belong to me.”

Goose Pond Dam: The Storm Is Calmed