“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”. Those are words of Martin Luther King Jr. We are afraid unless we can determine, with certainty, the ending of the ventures we are being called to. So, in the story of Peter stepping into the raging water, in the chaos and uncertainty of the sea, our thinking – at least mine – is that Peter should have stayed in the boat. It makes sense because it is safer in the boat.
But the real lesson in this story is taking that first step to meet Jesus who is in the storm.
Faith is active. In the action we cannot be certain of the outcome, we may not know the perils that lie ahead. Heather Heyer posted on her facebook page, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. And because she was outraged she took a step to participate in expressing that outrage and the growing hatred and intolerance in the country today. It cost her life.
In the story of the Transfiguration, Peter desired to erect dwellings in the glory of the mountain-top; but the call is to go down into the chaos and uncertainty of Via Dolorosa. That is where Jesus is. He is in the storm, that’s where we meet him, and there is the possibility of sinking.
In the last post I commended Peter for attempting to walk on water – meaning making a risky choice to go where Jesus was – rather than stay in the boat, in safety, with the assurance that Jesus is in control of the chaos and the perils. There is another view we hear so often from some circles, especially where spirituality is overemphasized at the expense of social justice.
I am talking about certain approaches when interacting with those in society who are marginalized or are casualties of systems and the status quo. You may have heard, for example, phrases like “all you need is Jesus”, “if you have Jesus, everything is fine”, “try Jesus, after all everything you have tried has failed”, “the problem is, you don’t have Jesus in your life…” and so on.
With this mindset, Peter is faulted for diverting his focus from Jesus to the storm, and that is why he was sinking. This is escapism. We have responsibility, as individuals, communities and as a society to take action; to do everything necessary to alleviate the burden on the vulnerable.
That is why I am sticking with my views in the previous post. It is necessary to take a risk and get into the chaos, in the storm, not knowing what that initial step may lead to. Take risk to meet new people, go to places never been to before, try what you have never tried before. Remember that Prayer for Courage?
- Lord God,
- You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending;
- by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown;
- Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go,
- but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us;
- Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
While on tour of the Holy Land in 1867, Mark Twain enquired from a boat operator in Tiberias how much it would cost to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When he was told it would cost him $25 (because the boat operator mistook him for a wealthy tourist) Mark Twain is reported to have remarked to his wife, “No wonder Jesus decided to walk”.,
The story of Jesus walking on water is probably one of the most remarkable stories in the New Testament. Kids learn it in Sunday School. It is depicted in different forms of art and it affords illustration for different spiritual lessons.
Still, the story raises a number of questions. First, did Jesus need to walk on water and why? How about Peter; and that is the question of interest to me here. What was Peter’s motive in attempting to walk on the water like Jesus? Was it to test Jesus, or simply to show off?
Most people point to Peter’s faith – or lack ofhttps://joelmlayblog.wordpress.com/book-project/called-to-ventures-of-which-we-cannot-see-the-ending-by-paths-yet-untrodden/ – in this story. And many may wonder, why didn’t he simply stay in the boat, in faith that the situation was under control with Jesus? I think though, that the point is about stepping out into the unknown, into the chaos and the raging waters, and knowing that that is where Jesus is .
The sea’s turbulence represents the chaos in society. Think of the “acceptable” economic system that produces casualties in poverty, homelessness, despair, violence, exploitation, and so on. Our society may accept and defend the status quo as divinely ordained. But true faith as exemplified in Peter’s risk in taking that first step into the chaos leads true followers of Jesus to meet him in the chaos of poverty, injustice and uncertainties of final outcomes.
This is how I find meaning in my favorite prayer:
- Lord God,
- You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
- by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
- Give us faith to go out with great courage, not knowing where we go,
- but only that your hand is leading us, and your love supporting us;
- Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Take a moment to think about these words of the late Israeli intellectual, Yeshayahu Leibowitz: “A religion which has a function, which serves as a means to some other end, is not religion. From the standpoint of Jewish faith, religion, that is to say, the service of God, is itself the ultimate end…If the service of God is not recognized as the human telos, religion is meaningless…If one may talk of the function of religion in the political sphere, it is precisely in terms of its power to check the influence of the political values and to restrain patriotism and nationalistic enthusiasm. Religion forbids regard for state and nation as absolute values. If religion has a function, it is to place human’s limited values in perspective. The state has no value; it is only an instrument serving humankind and its goals”.
Perhaps you are one of those who have written off anything to do with, or related to religion. Many prefer to be spiritual but not religious. And even contemporary society as a whole, is being urged fast away from the arts and even faster from the humanities.
Well, take a moment to think about Leibowitz’s words and tomorrow I’ll share with you why his words have aroused my curiosity.
This is a topic of discussion for a bible study session this coming Sunday, inspired by Matt Rawle’s book: The Redemption of Scrooge. It is a fascinating book that looks at Charles Dickens’ Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge (in A Christmas Carol) in our contemporary world. Ebenezer Scrooge finds a lot of relevance during any Christmas season today, as he did in the nineteenth century.
It is generally acknowledged that though this is a joyous season – or ought to be – sadly, for many, it is like Mr. Scrooge’s famous scoff: “Bah! Humbug!”. Nevertheless, in Charles Dickens’ novel Mr. Scrooge is ultimately redeemed. Everyone, therefore, like Ebenezer Scrooge, can find redemption in this season.
And, of course, the question is how.
I would suggest that instead of examining, “how our hopes and fears shape our future” make it personal: “how do my hopes and fears shape my future?”. For everyone of us lives in a world whose reality is, to a very large extent, the product of our individual mindset and worldview, especially when that worldview carries the values and traditions of our particular society.
Ask yourself, as we will ask ourselves in our bible study, how does your faith relate to your hopes and fears? Can you identify three hopes and three fears you have during this season? Again, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge did find redemption in the end. What does it mean for you to be redeemed? Especially, what are you being redeemed from and how?
The connection between the present mindset and the future is a topic I would like to continue to explore even after the Christmas season. It is important that we cultivate that mindset which gives joy and peace which are the purpose of our creation and at the heart of the Christmas story.
Phillips Brooks (1835 – 1893) was a famous Episcopal clergyman who became bishop of Massachusetts and is particularly known for his sermons and the lyrics of the Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. In one of his prayers, he prays, “open wide the eyes of my soul that I may see good in all things”.
There is something very powerful here, that we often miss: We can find something good in every situation, every circumstance and every moment of life. Tragically, most of the time we are overwhelmed by what we see as wrong. We have become focused on things being bad. Some years ago, a co-worker remarked that he had trained himself to not expect anything good so that when the “bad” arrived he would not be disappointed. You probably know already that he never was disappointed because what we expect always arrives.
We don’t see the good in anything because we live focused on the five senses – we rely exclusively on the sense of sight – at least in the external world. That is why Bishop Brooks’ prayer is so powerful because it is only when we turn into the soul that we are able to see the “good in all things”.
We need that especially in this season which can often be a source of misery for many.
Imagine for a moment the three astronauts – actually two, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – that moment – on July 20, 1969 when, for the first time in human history, they set foot on another world. It was, physically, stepping outside of their (and our) environment and looking back at the world that has “forever” been home.
It is the same with self-awareness, except that it is not physical. For self-awareness is our ability or capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, emotions, scripts, motives, history, habits and mindset. If we could do that – and we ought to do that every moment – then we would see who we really are.
Stepping outside of our self is the first step into discovering and becoming who we really are. When that happens, and as St. Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380) said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire”. Is it joy and peace you cherish? Then be who God created you to be.
Every so often something happens that shocks our comfort zone or just prompts us to reflect. That is part of life and it is healthy because comfort zones are, in reality, probably not actually comfortable, and they keep us stunted. In those moments when we are shaken awake, we inevitably ask ourselves, “what then shall we do?”
The question is ingrained in our humanity. Luke writes about crowds seeking to come to terms with new revelation, using the same expression: “what then shall we do?” (Luke 3: 10). Even tax collectors and solders wondered (3: 12, 14), “what then shall we do?” And in his second book, he gives us a picture of an audience “cut to the heart” (Acts 2: 37), and asking Peter and the other disciples, “what then shall we do?”
Both Leo Tolstoy and Gar Alperovitz chose the question for their book titles to reflect on poverty and exploitation and new realities. It is fitting that we too, as we face new challenges, we constantly and conscientiously ask ourselves, “what then shall we do?”.
I say conscientious, deliberately. Conscientious is defined as “governed by conscience; controlled by or done according to one’s inner sense of what is right, and principled”. Perhaps we have travelled too long on a path lacking in those virtues but we need not stay on that path. If peace and joy are the desire of the human heart, we will only find them internally, not with external power.
In a sermon recently at a local parish church, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams urged: “Whatever you do, ask yourselves, ‘what kind of humanity do you desire?”
This got me to reflect – at a personal level – on John Macmurray’s observation that “it is in and through my consciousness of other persons alone that I can know myself as a person”. We are,. as a community and as a society, a composite of individuals. The humanity in our community and in society is projected from the individual persons we are.
Think about it as we move forward in life. There is a deep desire in every human heart and we are ever in search of it. C. S. Lewis observed that that deepest desire of the human heart is joy. There are many routes in pursuit of this yearning desire of the human heart: wealth, health, fame, power, and so on.
However, Saint Augustine discovered – and we would do well to learn – that “Our Hearts are Restless Until They Rest in You” (from Confessions).
One of the 4 cardinal virtues mentioned by St. Ambrose in his commentary on the gospel of Luke is that of fortitude. Fortitude? What is that? It is certainly not in our everyday vocabulary.
Even before Ambrose, Plato, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, all recognized fortitude as a virtue. But what is it?
The word is derived from the Latin fortitudo, and can mean endurance, strength, forbearance, or the ability to be in control in times of uncertainty, fear or intimidation. Some translate it loosely, as courage but I want to underscore here, the “ability to remain under control”. It is not to control, but to be under control.
Anxiety to control circumstances and the energy we exert in the vain exercise, are the source of much of the frustrations we find in life and in society. It makes it so much more expedient that we constantly remind ourselves and learn to practice this virtue of fortitude.
Peace and joy are incompatible with a mindset of controlling – and this is not to be confused with being under control. The latter involves surrender. So, to truly experience peace and joy, begin each day asking yourself, “what area of my being, my make-up, do I need to surrender today?”