Monday Over Coffee: "Scream"

Published September 4, 2023 by Greg Funderburk

My son Charlie and I moved from room to room within the National Gallery of Art in Oslo, Norway, one bright day a few summers ago. I thought the museum was lightly attended, but it only seemed that way because most everyone had congregated in a single room. In fact, most everyone had crowded around a single painting. The Scream, though painted a century ago by Norway’s Edvard Munch, captures how many of us see our own age—riven with deep anxiety and tense uncertainty, all amidst an unsettling vibrating motion.

I should’ve known better than to pick up a book entitled Poems that Make Grown Men Cry, but I did so not too long ago. Inside, I found a poem called “For Julia, in the Deep Water” by John Morris. In it, the poet describes his experience at his daughter’s swimming lesson:

The instructor we hire
because she does not love you
Leads you into the deep water,

Her open, encouraging arms
That never get nearer
Are merciless for your sake.

Wasting your valuable breath
You will scream for your mother—
Only your mother is drowning
Forever in the thin air
Down at the deep end.
She is doing nothing,
She never did anything harder.

You are over your head,
Screaming, you are learning
Your way toward us,

It is with our skill
We live in what kills us.

Kindergarten is the deep end. Middle school is still deeper. Then high school. Pretty soon, it’s just water all the way down, and you can’t touch bottom. But whether you’re a kid or a grown-up or somewhere in between, what’s clear is, in a primal and elemental way, there’s fear and anxiety lurking deep inside us threatening to come out.

The Gospel of Mark throws three miracle stories at us early on—Jesus calms a storm at sea, exorcizes a demon, then raises a little girl back to life. Right in a row we’re told a single thing over and over again: God resurrects. Resurrects us from fear. Resurrects us in spirit, bringing us back to life and extinguishing our fears in every way imaginable.

After calming the seas, Christ says to His disciples, “Why are you so timid?” in such a way that telegraphs to us this story is not just about the weather outside but about God’s ability to tame our fear inside. Taken like this, it puts in context what comes next. The story of the Gadarene Demoniac.

Let these images flicker through your mind: A battered boat carrying a dozen shaken disciples as a series of savage shrieks pierce the darkness. Between the unsettling screams, over the lapping waves, the men then hear another disconcerting noise—a far off snorting sound. In the moonlight on the cliffs above, they see razorback boars rooting around along the ridge. As the boat lurches to a stop, something else emerges from the darkness. It’s been among the tombs—its face gaunt, anguished; its mind gone.

Christ, standing His ground, demands its name. “Legion,” it howls back. The disciples, trembling, hear Jesus say something about the pigs as the demoniac sets off scrambling up the ravine, disappearing from view. Then, an intense moment of silence follows, until from above, a faint rumble. Then louder. They all look up as hundreds of hogs plunge into the sea in an endless series of dark thuds and heavy splashes. And when it all ends, the demoniac, healed—a man anew—comes down from the cliffs, resurrected in every way a person can be. What began as an absolute terror-fest, screams hope back into the world. It screams God’s sympathy isn’t inert, motionless, or theoretical, but active, sure, and real.

Then, the third story—this time, it’s a little girl. She is twelve and has died. Her father and her mother weep beside her body. But Jesus takes her hand and says to her, “Talitha koum!” (“Little girl, to you I say, be arising.”). Immediately the girl stands up.

We all swim in the deep. Often, we stretch out our toes as far as they’ll go, but we can’t touch bottom. It can induce fear. Sometimes it even feels like God isn’t here. But God is present. Like a parent at a swim lesson, watching closely as we learn and struggle, God is present—sometimes remaining still for a time, though I expect it’s as hard for God to do nothing as it is for us when our child is scared. But whenever resurrection is truly needed in life, God moves and finds us in the deep. God hears us when we scream and resurrects us in every way a person can be.

God — Help me arise, arise above all that makes me want to scream. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk