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.

2016: To play or be played?

IMG_4514I sit slumped in my chair, waiting for the small, informal worship service to begin. Eventually I decide I want to play too—my dearly loved brother is playing, after all, and some others with whom I really enjoy playing—so I go to the back of the room to get my viola and join the worship team. I open the case. My viola is gone, and the end of the bow is lying outside the case, the stick shattered where the case has slammed on it, the hair hanging limply between the two broken pieces. Chips of wood are scattered inside and outside of the case. I cry out in grief and anger and fear. What has happened? Where is my viola? Who would do this?

Slowly the initial shock wanes, and I begin to look around. I see a second case on the table, and open it to find my viola safely hidden in it. It’s not gone after all! My heart lifts a little, then sinks again. What good is it without a bow? The worship is about to begin. How can I play?

Something inside me rebels against the sense of helplessness and my reason kicks in, determined to fix this situation. No big deal, I tell myself. I’ll just get another bow. Maybe it will even play better than the first. Where can I find one?

But the next morning as I pray about my dream I begin to sense that I’ve missed the point. This isn’t about replacing one means of control with another. It’s about realizing that I am not meant to be playing the instrument at all, any more than I, the clay, am meant to be spinning the potter on the wheel.

I am not the artist but the art, not the violist but the instrument lovingly tucked under the master’s chin:

“This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles. . .” (Acts 9:15)

“If a man cleanses himself from [ignoble purposes] he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” (2 Tim 2:21)

“. . . offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom 6:13-14)

I talk often about God, and think and write about him, and it’s easy for me to slip into a subconscious posture in which he is the instrument and I the musician, analyzing, explaining, exploring his tone and his timbre.

Then He breaks my bow—through a dream, or a discovery that the mystery of God is (still!) too big for my little mind to comprehend—and I discover again that I am neither God nor expected to be.

I often ask God at the start of a year if there’s a word He wants to work a little more deeply into my life in the coming year as I allow it to question and shape me. This year He gave two.

The first was courage.

Courage. Yes, Jesus, I want to be a woman of courage. Please do this work in me. But. . . oh dear, why are you giving me this word now? What fearful things are you going to ask of me this year for which I’ll need courage? My mind races to the possibilities, all too big for me. But as I talk with a friend who helps me listen, I sense that this is about more than whatever specific external situations or choices might require courage. This is about the way I relate to God. This is about trusting Him, not my own reason, my tidy theology and carefully considered categories.

The invitation to courage keeps turning up everywhere.

At my soulcare group the next evening the leader has chosen Mark 6:45-52 for us to pray with. The disciples have been sent on ahead, rowing hard against the wind. Joints creak and every muscle burns. Their hair is soaked with sweat and they taste the spray of waves. The moon glints through a hole in the clouds, dimly lighting the scene. Are they even going in the right direction anymore?

Someone screams and points. They all see it—a ghostly figure coming toward them on the water, a sure sign of their imminent demise.

“Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” There’s that word again. Courage. And linked to it is the second word I had been given, the place I find my courage: Jesus.

“It is I.” Though you don’t recognize me at first, it is I who am breaking your bow, unsettling your reason, coming to you in the middle of the dark night, in the middle of soul-straining winds, in the middle of a way-too-big-for-you-to-swim lake, walking along the surface of the water in which you can barely stay afloat as though it were as smooth and solid as glass. I come to you in a way which shatters your reason so your trust will be not in your understanding but in Me.

The unsettling is scary at first, but there’s a goodness in it too, and a peace, when I turn and look at the one who speaks. “It is I”—the Jesus whom I’ve come to know as so gentle, so passionately loving. The Jesus who, when his friends cried their fear from the boat, immediately reassured them with his words and, though he’d been planning to pass by them, instead climbed into the boat with them. It’s this Jesus who is unsettling me from my too-small assumptions to help me learn that He is more wonderful than I’ve ever dreamed.