No doubt about it, the disciples are in trouble by the time we catch up to them in this piece of Matthew’s Gospel. While Jesus has been praying alone on that mountain they have found themselves on the Sea of Galilee in a boat that is ‘battered by the waves, far from the land, and with the wind against them.’ It is little wonder that with the sight of someone ‘walking toward them on the sea,’ they were confused about Jesus’ identity and suspicious of his intent. It is what comes next, however, which always surprises me, no matter how many times I have imagined it. For perhaps it goes without saying I am nothing like Peter. In the same situation (and no doubt, in similar situations I have encountered in my life), I would have been with the rest of the disciples, clinging to the side of the boat.
Only Peter seems to be the one we are called to emulate in this memorable story. Even though his ‘walking on water’ was momentary and within a heartbeat fear overtook him, too, Peter is the one whose story is told and told again. For Peter was the only one willing to take the risk of getting out of the boat. Peter was the only one who had enough faith that it was Jesus. Finally, Peter was the only one to literally put his fate in the hands of Jesus with his cry of “Lord, save me!’
Indeed, I expect that over the centuries Peter has been painted in a negative light because of his fear which gave the wind and the waves power over him. I am not there today, however. I just marvel that Peter got out of the boat at all. And today I am thinking that the call to us in this story is to simply ‘get out of the boat’ as well. We may yet be battered by fear, yes. But we will also be pulled up again by the strong arms of Jesus.
And so in these last days I have been looking for examples of those who have ‘gotten out of the boat,’ for, in fact, people do it all the time — stepping out of their self constructed safe places into a world where ‘the waves are wild and the wind is against us.’ I would offer a couple of them here:
The first is this — a story, in fact, which I shared a week ago. It is like that sometimes, when something so captures your imagination that you can hear a Gospel word speaking to it and through it in the words of more than one account in the Gospel. Last week, this story spoke to me of unexpected abundance, and that, in fact is there. This week, however, I am thinking it is a story of courage and hope. For it is that as well:
Several months ago I began serving on the board of Hope Haven, our local homeless shelter. For decades this organization has provided emergency housing for the homeless. In more recent years we have come to the understanding that many who are homeless also suffer from mental illness and so need specialized kind of help. In fact, one of our units is long term housing for people who simply would not be able to function in the world without this support. Of late, the director has been putting more and more energy into addressing the root causes of homelessness — particularly with the children — trying to break the cycle for this next generation. Sadly, it is not surprising that many of these young people have been the victims of one kind of trauma or another, too often sexual abuse.
Now, as I have learned, it is not uncommon for a victim of abuse to ‘disassociate’ during the abuse — a coping technique which then spills into other parts of their lives as well. In other words, they are simply not ‘present.’ While this may be almost necessary when one is being abused, it can be harmful in the rest of one’s life, leading to all kinds of negative, even life and spirit threatening consequences. And so Hope Haven now has ‘trauma groups’ where courage in ‘getting out of the boat’ is demonstrated and healing is begun. In fact, for the last couple of years they have taken these young people camping for by being put in physically demanding situations where they can be assured they are physically safe, they learn to be ‘present’ — connecting with their bodies again: a skill which spills over into the rest of their lives.
In fact, a few weeks ago, in order to give them even more practice at ‘connecting,’ a group of eleven teenagers from Hope Haven went on a trip to Colorado where along with their adult coaches/therapists/chaperones, they climbed the side of a mountain, went white water rafting, jumped off a cliff into a lake, went horseback riding, prepared meals in the rain, and had their breath taken away by mountain air. Two weeks ago I sat next to four of these young women at a board meeting and witnessed their joy as they told stories about this recent experience. We also heard them speak about their own individual journeys to healing from horrific places of pain.
For a young person who has never lived outside the city it takes a certain amount of courage to leave the city at all, much less to “climb the side of a mountain, go white water rafting, jump of a cliff into a lake, or climb onto the back of a horse.’ In fact, as we heard them speak, several of them were heard to say that they likely would never do some of those things again, but they were glad they did them once. In every case they were literally ‘getting out of the boat’ of their comfort zone and learning to connect more deeply with the world and with themselves. Even more than that, though, for a couple of years, some of them have been ‘getting out of the boat’ of the protected places they had devised for themselves in an all too threatening world — protected places which were guarded by their anger, their fear, their denial, and their dying hope of anything different from what they had always known.
And isn’t this always so for each and all of us?
Peter got out of the boat and stepped into the arms of Jesus and in doing so he came to a deeper understanding of what was possible for him in the world.
Eleven young people got out of ‘their boats’ and stepped into whole new understandings of what might just be possible for them in the world.
And this as well. For some time, the director of our homeless shelter has been ‘stepping out of the boat’ of the usual way of simply addressing the surface needs of the homeless. She has stepped out of the boat and taken those first steps in ‘walking across the water’ of skepticism and doubt and the questions of others who wonder if we should spend this much on just a few kids. Indeed, I have seen for myself how her hope is renewed as she begins to sense what it is to ‘walk on water’ as she sees it make a difference for the next generation of young people for whom she feels responsible.
And so again, I say, “Peter got out of the boat and stepped into the arms of Jesus. In doing so he came to a deeper understanding of what was possible.” Don’t you suppose you and I are called to do the same? And in doing so, might it be possible that we, too, will come to a deeper realization of what is possible — especially knowing that Jesus waits to catch us should we fall?
And so I wonder with you now…
- What is the ‘boat’ that you are called to get out of?
- What ‘safe construct’ of your own making is Jesus calling you or your congregation or your organization away from?
- Oh, no doubt there are wild waves and battering winds which threaten, but what difference does it make that Jesus is waiting to catch you even should you falter?
- What would such a ‘first step’ off the boat look like for you?