Why you can dare to step out

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Immediately: I don’t always love the word. It can feel pressured and pushy and rushed, someone demanding something now. But in Matthew 14, it’s full of comfort, and turns the story on its head for me, helping me see what the story is really about.

Matthew 14 is the story of Peter walking on water, and I read it repeatedly last week, trying to understand. At first, I got stuck on Jesus’ question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I wanted to say, “That’s not fair, Jesus! Peter had huge faith! I don’t know anyone else who’s had enough faith to step out of a boat and walk on the surface of the water, especially in the middle of a storm, even for a few steps!”

But on about the fourth day, things started to come clearer. Dallas Willard helped me see that the Greek word Oligopistos, Littlefaith, is a sort of nickname that Jesus coined for his disciples,and I realized that it’s not a condemnation, just a statement of fact, and one with a promise attached, like those verses I love in Isaiah 41:13-14:

“’I am the LORD your God, who takes hold of your right hand

and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

Do not be afraid, O worm Jacob, O little Israel,

for I myself will help you,’ declares the LORD,

your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.”

Oligopistos, yup, that’s me. Littlefaith. That’s why I need Jesus with his ability to trust his Father perfectly on my behalf. Once I have accepted the truth about my smallness and, and along with it, the love of the One who delights to care for me in it, it’s no longer a threat, no longer something that upsets me or that I have to prove otherwise.

And then I started to notice the way the story unfolds.

It begins at the end of a long day, the end of a long stretch of ministry (Mark 6:30-45). Everyone is tired and needing a break. The previous miracle is over and the leftover loaves have been gathered and the disciples have seen that this God, their God enfleshed among them, somehow makes meals where even the leftovers far exceed the quantity of original ingredients. And immediately Jesus sends his disciples off while he dismisses the crowds. He cares deeply enough about their need for rest to do by himself what we used to call in medicine the “scut work”—all those important details that no one wants to do but that are essential for smooth running of the day.

Then, a few hours later, when the disciples are far out on the lake, paddling into a storm, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water and, not surprisingly, they are terrified. (How often have they seen that before? What would you think?) And immediately Jesus comforts them. “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” He sounds a lot like a parent comforting a child who’s afraid of the monster under the bed or the ghost in the cupboard: “It’s okay, Daddy’s here. Don’t be afraid.” And they are comforted.

Or at least Peter is. He trusts that voice enough to say, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus smiles at this eager student who wants to try what the teacher is doing and says, “Sure. Come.” And Peter comes. But in a moment Peter discovers that even though he’s no longer afraid of Jesus, he’s still afraid of his situation, and he cries out again in fear, but this time he cries to Jesus. And immediately and effectively, Jesus reaches for his hand and saves him. Always present, always attentive, perfectly able to deal with whatever arises.

I see the heading to the passage in my Bible, Jesus walks on water, and I see why it has taken me so long to understand the story: My focus has been on Peter walking on water.

But like all gospel stories, this story is not first about Peter’s faith, but about Jesus’ faithfulness.

It’s not about a growing ability to walk on water, but a growing relationship.

It’s not about the disciples’ failure but about Jesus’ attentiveness and care and how safe his followers are with this teacher—safe enough to risk stepping out and trying the tentative steps of trust. Each new attempt to trust and try something new, each failure of their faith, becomes a place to learn a little more of Jesus and then to trust him a little more as they discover how safe they are with him. And by the end of the story, they have a much better idea who he is—“Truly you are the Son of God!”—and they are brought to worship.

And as I write my prayer for the year—that Jesus would help me learn to trust—I hear the disciples’ similar prayer, “Increase our faith,” and Jesus’ surprising response. “You have enough faith. Just get out there and use it” (Luke 17:5-10 paraphrased). Jesus doesn’t condemn small faith. He knows we’re Oligopistos and he alone trusts his Father perfectly. And He knows what I’m learning: that the presence of this gracious, generous, creative, and very adventuresome God is a perfectly safe place to risk baby steps of faith, and that, like a muscle being strengthened, faith will grow as we step out, accompanied by Jesus, and discover his perfectly faithful care in every situation.

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1Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Franciso: HarperSanFranciso, 1998), 211.

God’s (perfectly serious) joke

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I almost laugh out loud as I watch God’s little joke unfold.

I’m reading in 2 Kings 6 of Elisha’s calmness when he rises in the morning and discovers the city where he is staying surrounded by enemy troops.

His servant panics. “Oh no, my lord! What are we going to do?”

Elisha responds, “Don’t worry. There are way more on our side than on theirs.” Then he prays, “Open his eyes, LORD, so he can see.”

And here I’m intrigued. The hills around the city are filled with horses and chariots of fire. They are present, sent, attentive and protective. And yet they just stand their ground, up in the surrounding hills, and the one to act, calmed and empowered by the knowledge of their presence, is Elisha. The fiery horses don’t decimate the enemy troops. They don’t show themselves and make the enemy die of fright or run for their lives. They quietly encourage faith in those who see.

It seems that God’s kingdom power, made visible in those fiery horses, so vastly outweighs the power of the human armies that God decides to play a little joke while he’s at it. Why not have a little gentle fun when the situation at hand is so easily managed? And Elisha, trusting God, gets to be part of the joke. Is it hard for Elisha to hold back a smile as he prays for the God who has opened the eyes of his servant to blind the eyes of his enemies? They don’t seem to notice their blindness, and Elisha, the man whom the troops are seeking to capture, calmly carries on with the joke. This small, vulnerable man—the intended captive—is graced to carry out God’s work while the armies of heaven stand by watching and witnessing (and marvelling at?) this grace.

“Oh, no, this isn’t the right road, and this isn’t the right city,” Elisha says to the troops. “Follow me and I will lead you to the man you’re looking for.” How absolutely true. It wasn’t the right road or the right city for what God was doing, and with every step Elisha was leading them to the man they were looking for, the man who was walking just a few steps ahead of them and whose identity would be revealed when they arrived.

They reach their destination and the would-be captors find themselves captives in the city of the king of Israel.

God’s magnificently gentle, perfectly serious joke continues.

“Oh no, don’t kill them,” Elisha instructs the king. “Feed them and send them back to their master.” And so the army which comes to take Elisha captive is taken captive by that same praying, trusting man, and is set free after being honored and cared for, nourished and tended.

(And for some reason, despite the extravagant hospitality, the enemy soldiers don’t seem tempted to come back for another meal. Problem—which in God’s eyes was never much of a problem—solved.)

 

Oh LORD, you change times and seasons,

You set up kings and depose them,

You free your people and feed your enemies

And You do it all with such creativity and freedom,

Such lovely humor and grace.

 

Open our eyes to see you at work in the world around us

and give us the faith to join in your perfectly serious joke.

 

LORD of the nations, we pray

make America great again—

great in faith and love and peace,

in joy and courage and generosity.

And let all whom you grace to stand and watch,

to walk and speak and lead hungry captives to the banquet

do so gently and humbly

delighting in your limitless love

and your vibrant joy

which erupts again and again in rich hospitality.

When winds pick up

As I walked home one night from a soaking prayer evening, the world around looked like it had been soaking in God’s love too. All was still, a perfect reflection, tinted golden.

The scene that met me the next morning was completely different.

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Winds whipped dark water into jagged whitecaps. Even when I managed to peek between strands of hair that whipped across my face, blinding me, I couldn’t see a single reflection. Not even a broken one. Only rough turmoil.

I ran anyway, leaning hard into the wind that resisted every stride.

Rounding the corner, I saw numerous small boats anchored out in the deep water, well away from the shore. I watched one boat as wave after wave threatened to roll over it, then tilted the bow up and rolled underneath, threatening to dunk the stern. The little boat stayed afloat.

At first I felt sorry for whoever might have been on those boats. All that rolling. I began to feel seasick just watching.

But I rounded another corner and changed my mind. What’s a little seasickness once you see a boat that sits tilted, fixed and unmoving, gripped by the rock on which it has run aground? One wave after another hit hard, sending spray over the boat that shuddered and groaned but could not roll, could not rise and fall with each wave. Each wave pounded and tore and fractured the boat a little more as it sat, fixed and helpless, in the shallows.

When winds rise, I often forget that deep water is safer. I fear the waves, the rolling seasickness of change. It’s not hard to imagine myself spread eagle, clinging with all my might to a slippery black rock, trying to keep myself safe while the waves pound me to pieces.

But slowly I’m learning that the real danger isn’t the waves at all, but my clinging to control, to supposed security, when winds rise.

Slowly I’m learning to hear in the voice of the wind the summons to move out of the shallows, out of the clinging to the familiar, the apparently secure, out into the deep, deep love of Jesus where alone we are safe.

“Oh the deep, deep love of Jesus

Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free

Rolling as a mighty ocean

In its fullness over me

Underneath me, all around me

Is the current of your love

Leading onward, leading homeward

To your glorious rest above.” (Samuel Francis)

When God teaches you to fight

Twenty years earlier, the young man had run away from his brother who was threatening to kill him. He’d spent those twenty years breaking his back for his father-in-law who seemed to take perverse pleasure in finding new ways to rip him off.

He’d worked seven years to be allowed to marry the woman he loved, only to discover on the morning after his wedding night that the wrong woman was with him in bed. “It’s not our custom to marry off the younger before the elder,” his father-in-law had shrugged. So the young man had worked another seven years in exchange for the woman he really loved.

And then for another six years, he had continued to tend the flocks of his father-in-law, his father-in-law changing his wages every time he could conceive a new way that he might possibly be able to pay him a little less. Finally, with the situation continuing to worsen, God said, “Enough. I’ve seen what your father-in-law has been doing to you. It’s time for you to go home.”

The not-so-young-anymore man set out amidst another layer of drama (packing up his household and running away, one of his wives stealing her father’s household gods, and a week-long cross-country chase by his irate father-in-law culminating in a nasty confrontation).

A little further along, the man hears that his brother is coming to meet him with four hundred men. His breath shortens and his mouth dries. What am I doing going home? The last time I saw my brother, he wanted to kill me! His throat tightens and his heart pounds, and he cries out to God for protection. And that’s where the already action-packed story gets even more intriguing.

God doesn’t come with comforting words or a reassuring guarantee of protection. He pulls him into a night-long wrestling match.

Why, after years of traumatic experiences, when someone cries for help, would God come to him in the form of a human assailant?

All encounters with God are mysterious and multilayered and I expect there are many layers of healing taking place. Perhaps God is confronting the sin that caused the young man to have to run in the first place since, in asking his name, God elicits a confession: “My name is Jacob—deceiver.” Perhaps he is removing the disgrace of that identity and giving him a fresh start, rooted in this encounter with God, by renaming him and then blessing him. And perhaps, face to face, hand to hand, God is teaching Jacob the deceiver what it feels like to confront head-on instead of to manipulate and sneak and hide. Perhaps for Jacob, learning to fight fair is part of his discipleship.

Perhaps, for many of us, learning to stand up and fight—at all, or in a new way—is part of our discipleship.

David cried out for God to rescue him. God did—and then trained David’s own hands for battle, arming him with strength to be able to defeat the enemies that had previously rendered him terrified and helpless (Psalm 18).

Ezekiel’s formation as a prophet involved God pulling him, quite literally, to his feet and making him strong and stubborn enough to do the job God was calling him to do (Ezekiel 2:1-2, 3:7-9).

I see God wrestling with Jacob and I find myself face to face again with a trauma counselor who once had me stand and push as hard as I could against her hands. Sometimes you have to stand up and fight or you will lie down and cry.

 

Part of me wishes it wasn’t this way. That part of me would rather discipleship were all about growing in gentleness, in quiet contemplation, surrender, trust. But Mulholland challenges me:

“We would much rather have our spiritual formation focus on those places where we are pretty well along the way. How much of our devotional life and our worship are designed simply to affirm, for ourselves, others and perhaps even God, those areas of our lives that we think are already well along the way?” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 45)

And—surrender? trust? I write those words and feel myself cornered by a stronger Love who whispers that his embrace isn’t always what I’d expect. That genuine surrender means being open to him in whatever way he comes. That growing in trust might look right now like raising my arms and stepping into the wrestling ring with the divine assailant who stands before me, hands raised, calling me into the freedom of wholeness which involves body as well as soul, confrontation as well as gentleness.

“O God of wholeness, when I consider the lack of balance and wholeness in my life, the one-sided spiritualities with which I attempt to appease you, to appear good in the eyes of others and to please myself, I come face to face with my need for a holistic spiritual life. Help me, I pray to hunger and thirst for the wholeness you have for me in Christ. Help me to be willing to surrender to you whatever stands in the way of such wholeness.” (Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey, p. 76)

Three more reasons you can dare to put your heart out there

I’m sitting in that uncomfortable space of waiting while a couple of trusted friends read a draft of my story. As much as I try to steer my runaway thoughts in more helpful directions, they seem to have a remarkable ability to slip under the fence when I’m not looking and make for this week’s favorite question: Are my friends cringing as they read, wondering, ‘How am I going to tell her this is really, really bad?’

At the same time I’m preparing to share pieces of my story with my small group and some (pretty big) part of me is wishing I’d found a way out of this.

I want to faithfully steward the story I’ve been given to live and write. But the actual stepping out of hiding and sharing it can sometimes feel like one of the scariest things in life—right up there with stepping on that plane heading for Afghanistan.

I turn for the hundredth time to my list of ten reasons I can  (and must)  dare to put my heart out there. This week God has added three more:

1) God wrote my story first. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Ps 139:16) Every one of us has been given a unique and beautiful story to live. And with God as the author, there’s no question that the story is worth sharing.

2) I am meant to need help. The idea that I should be able to live—or write—my story alone (and perfectly!) is a lie from the pit of hell. We are not isolated individuals with something to prove. We are body-members, called to live together in God’s love and work together for his glory. Only I can live and write my particular part of this story. But others have been given overlapping bits of story to live which include helping me see and write my story more clearly, or praying for me in the process. Living a story, and writing one, is a community project, with every person’s part important.

3) Telling the story God is writing in our lives is one of the most powerful ways to overcome the enemy of our souls. “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” (Rev 12:11) The God of peace who dealt the fatal blow to Satan’s head through Jesus’ bare, nailed feet continues to crush Satan, now underneath our feet (Rom 16:20). And in the upside-down-ness of God’s kingdom, vulnerable bare feet, willingly offered, crush Satan’s head far more effectively than self-protective steel-toed boots.

So, friends, let’s take off our shoes. We need to stand barefoot anyway, here on the holy ground of helping each other live and share the stories God is writing into our lives.

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