We were hosting some friends for lunch a couple of days ago who are in the throws of planting an international English speaking African church and community center to serve the second and third generations of Congolese refugees living here in Tucson. I mean, come on, what a vision, right?!*
As they were excitedly sharing from across my kitchen table the many ways in which full dependence on God was their only avenue forward, I began to understand that this is what walking on water looks like in the middle of southern Arizona. I could almost see salt water spray on their faces as they were talking.
Each little step of faith is exhilarating and miraculous and life-giving and unbelievable. No sea required.
Sadly – but not surprisingly – When Jesus is walking on water in the Gospel of Matthew, the first reaction from the disciples is not exhilaration nor awe, it is fear.
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear.
Jesus tells them “take heart”, and then proclaims the most repeated command in the Bible:
Do not be afraid
This seems to calm them enough, and so once the fear subsided, Peter – in true Peter fashion -was ALL IN BABY. But I wonder if he was hesitant to come out and say it directly to Jesus or something, at least that’s how I interpret this weird request…
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Jesus invites him in, and what comes next is one of my all time favorite verses in the entire bible, found right in Matthew 14:29
So Peter got out of the boat…
Peter got out of the boat, you guys! He did it! He walked on water towards Jesus! Go Peter Go!
Peter said YES to faith in Jesus and NO to a dry, safe boat.
All the crazy times I have said “YES” to Jesus flood my mind when I read this story.
I see myself getting out of the boat in a mirage of people and places and moments and prayers: my children and husband, college students and our school choice for the kids. I see trips to China when 6 months pregnant, broken down cars and where is the money going to come from and unknown next steps in life and risks in relationships and asking big things of myself and asking big things of others. I see all those times I raised my hand and stood up when I could have kept my head down and LOTS and LOTS of trying to explain myself.
I see my friends and family getting out of that boat, too! (we’re all having a party on top of the water!) Church plants for refugees and sacrificial giving and sacrificial love and moves across the world and foster children filling up homes and pushing off retirement and showing up day after day after day to the ‘stuff’ of life. All by faith.
When we proclaim Yes, Lord! It is nothing short of a life of walking upon the water – even here in dry, dusty Tucson. Hallelujah! Peter got out of the boat and so do we.
Sadly, in Peter’s story, and all too often in mine, there is a but..
But…when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out…
There is that word again.
Fear does a funny thing to our brains and the science-y people tell me I will respond in one of three ways:
(Maybe we should add “SINK” to that list…).
Now this fight or flight stuff makes sense from a survival standpoint, or maybe from an evolutionary standpoint. But not being a biologist or an anthropologist or any other kind of -ologist – just a devoted follower of Jesus, a student of scripture, and wannabe theologian – I have my own perspective on all this.
As a woman made in the image of God, I was created to rule. He has set man and woman apart from the rest of creation to reflect Him uniquely and part of that is to rule in a way the lizards and kitty cats and dolphins don’t and can’t.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
However, when fear strikes and my brain’s reaction is FIGHT or FLIGHT or FREEZE, in some ways it is like I am forfeiting part of my Imago Dei.
Perhaps “FEAR NOT” is the most common command in scripture because it is out of fear that I surrender my place of ruling to a point where I am not so better off than the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Because it is out of fear that I muddle the reflection of God and miss out on his best gifts.
If I am being ruled by fear I cannot fully enter into Jesus’ invitation and calling.
I cannot mother from a place of fear.
I cannot minister from a place of fear.
Well, I can, but the results are pretty ugly.
When I see those mighty, mighty waves I will sink 10 out of 10 times.
I don’t fear for my life regularly. There are no literal ocean waves in my life, just a lot of sand and cactus.
BUT… I fear rejection. I fear being excluded and what that says about me as a person. I fear making the wrong choice. I am afraid for my kids’ futures. I worry and fret over my value to others. I am afraid of not having enough. I fear risks and discomfort and loneliness and failure and being exposed and cancer diagnosis and freak accidents.
These fears look different then Peter’s but the results are the same:
FIGHT – I yell at my kids. I cling to self protection and pride in relationships. I let the passive aggressive comments slip out. I put myself first for fear that no one else will. I look out for number one, I craft the perfect argument, I damage and break and claw away.
FLIGHT – I disengage. I isolate myself. I hide away in my introvert cave and distract from the pains of life. I walk away from people and places and conversations. I throw my hands up in defeat. I keep others at a distance. I build bubbles and I build walls.
FREEZE – I watch life pass me by. I can’t run away but I can’t take a step forward, either. I settle for status quo and the path of least resistance. I show up only to go through the motions.
SINK – The enemy wins. He got his way. I just couldn’t do it.
Peter sees the waves and his fight or flight animal brain is activated and he surrenders, even if just for a moment, that Imago Dei.
If I am ruled by fear, I simply cannot fully rule as God intends. And that is a pity.
My God-given capacity for impact and intimacy will be hindered, broken, and ultimately forfeited over and over again.
Every time FIGHT or FLIGHT or FREEZE are my responses to fear – I’m not so different from the animals. I miss out on the chance to love, serve, mother, preach, write, sacrifice and yes even walk on water in full authority, security and joy. My Father created me for those things, they are mine to do and oh how tragic it is when they sink with me into the water!
Well, it would be a pretty depressing story if it ended here. But what comes next is still a little bitter but a whole lot of sweet.
Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?”
Or I like how The Message version has it:
Jesus didn’t hesitate. He reached down and grabbed his hand.Then he said, “Faint-heart, what got into you?
It is bitter and and sort of tragic because Peter didn’t get to finish his stroll on top of the water. He missed out. Bummer. My own weakness and lack of faith have cost me greatly, I haven’t been able to receive some AWESOME things that Jesus has wanted to give me.
This is just plain sad, no two ways around it.
But… with the bitter comes the sweet and that sweet is Jesus himself. The most breathtaking and miraculous part of this whole passage in my humble opinion is not Jesus walking on water, or Peter walking on water, it’s the first part of that verse:
Jesus didn’t hesitate. He reached down and grabbed his hand.
Jesus does not leave us to sink.
Spoiler alert: Fear will strike. Sometimes, sadly, fear will win the moment and steal the joy. But without hesitating, the scripture says, he reaches down and pulls us up. That is good news to me.
I sincerely hope that as I mature and grow up as a follower of Jesus my FIGHT -FLIGHT – FREEZE responses to fear will decrease. Help me, Spirit. But if I don’t, and I miss out on something AMAZING that Jesus has for me and my flesh fails me because I am afraid, I don’t need to be afraid of losing Jesus because he won’t lose me. I will not sink.
The story of scripture tells of a God that does not hesitate to reach down and grab us. Indeed, the story of my life tells of a God that does not hesitate to reach down and grab me.
And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”