I like to blame my fear of water on the 2006 film Poseidon. In the movie, a cruise ship is hit by a massive wave, and nearly everyone drowns. It’s one thing to hear about the Titanic, and it’s another to see it on the TV screen at 10 years old. But there are really a myriad of other reasons why the seas are a no go for me. Water’s expanse, depths, murkiness, mystery, danger, and lack of air terrify me. To willingly submerge yourself into something you can’t survive for more than a couple minutes in, something that slows your movements, something that blurs your vision and something you have no control of just seems irrational to me.
A couple weeks ago, my men’s group leader suggested we take a break from reading Scripture and just hang out together, maybe go paddle boarding? Truthfully, I have a general unwillingness to socialize in the first place, so adding a potential drowning to the mix sent me on a frantic search for an excuse not to go. I found no such excuse, and my mentor’s words hung heavy in my mind from a few weeks earlier: “To lead men, you must be before them.” I think that’s one of those statements that sounds deeper than it needs to, but I suppose it’s true. It’s hard to pastor people when they have no idea who you are or that you exist. He’d said it to me as I was searching for a way out of another large group gathering that involved camping, one of my other not-so-favorite activities.
“My men’s group leader suggested we take a break from reading Scripture and just hang out together, maybe go paddle boarding?”
So, of course, over the past couple weeks I’ve found myself at a campsite and then floating on a paddle board, alone in the middle of a reservoir. And in both settings, I was not comfortable. I’m going to focus on the second event–paddle boarding–and I’ll start at the unnerving beginning.
Drifting Along (Physically and Mentally)
I crawled my way off the dock onto the paddle board and took my spot in the middle of the board. I’d been on a board a handful of other times and was fully aware of my limited balance, so I started on my knees. I maintained a hesitant balance and started floating across the reservoir. I soon went to work with the paddle, “cruizin” (their words, not mine) across the surface of the waters. Fun? Not so much, but I wasn’t in the mood to just sit on the water and talk (couldn’t we just do that on land?).
Shortly thereafter my knees started to ache, so, emboldened by the group’s praise, I decided to get to my feet and make the most out of the experience. After a couple nervous attempts cut short by the subtle movements of the “waves,” I finally pushed myself to my feet. I stood for a solid minute, though I’m not sure I paddled a single time. My legs shook uncontrollably the whole time. No internal monologue could stop the shaking; no practical advice from the others would have helped.
“Finally, I gave up and sank slowly back to my knees, feeling every movement of the board.”
Finally, I gave up and sank slowly back to my knees, feeling every movement of the board. Somehow I was completely exhausted. (I fancy myself a natural athlete of sorts.) I needed to work myself to a seated position so my legs could recover. Again with great effort, I shifted off my knees and sat on the center of the board, extending my legs in front of me on the board. The water lapped over the edge of the board, cooling my legs and feet. I readjusted to let my feet dangle under the surface and looked into the murky waters that were a sickly brown. The reservoir stretched for miles before me and behind me.
Despite my unnerve, the waters were actually quiet that day. A gentle breeze and a warm afternoon sun seemed to give off the impression that this was a perfect day for water activities, or you know…anything else. But as I looked across the gentle waves pondering my misfortune, a question popped into my head: “Jesus walked on water?”
“As I looked across the gentle waves pondering my misfortune, a question popped into my head: ‘Jesus walked on water?'”
My mind was just starting to process the thought when I noticed the board was getting too close to the brush on the shore, so I switched my focus to paddling. I’d seen a video earlier that day of a man being chased off the shoreline by an alligator in the Everglades (I live in Idaho and am fairly certain there are no alligators here, but you never can be too careful), so I quickly pushed away from the shore, fearful of sharp teeth. However, now that I thought about it, in the video the alligator had emerged from underneath the water, so I suddenly felt a chill run up my spine as I remembered my feet were hanging just beneath the surface. I quickly pulled them out, fearful of the uncertainty.
Strangely enough, I think that’s when the Spirit got hold of me. I lay down on the board, facing the heavens, and thoughts started pouring into my head. Our group had finished the Gospel of Mark the week before. The account of Jesus walking on water appears in the book’s sixth chapter after Jesus feeds the 5,000 and goes off alone into the hills to pray. His disciples get caught in a massive storm and seem to fear for their lives. As Jesus walks on the waters toward them, they think he’s a ghost, but he calls out to them reassuringly as he calms the storm. Obviously, they’re amazed. Matthew records in his Gospel that Peter stepped out onto the water during this episode but was overcome with fear and doubt, so he sank into the waves, in the end being rescued by Jesus.
“Peter stepped out onto the water during this episode but was overcome with fear and doubt, so he sank into the waves.”
As I rested on the board, my circumstance felt like a perfect analogy for human existence, and a chance to internalize the story and theology of Mark 6 and Matthew 14 (also John 6).
Here I was, your average person floating on the waters of life. My board served as my identity or the lens through which I saw and interacted with life. It’s how I stayed afloat and made sense of everything. In my case, the paddle board felt like an analogy for my understanding of God. (For others it might be a job, family, status, social cause, etc.)
Beneath my board, the waters of life were dark and dangerous, seemingly uncontrollable. For generations mankind had struggled with the waters, seeking to understand it, control it, perhaps leave or rise above it. But for all of human history, the waters had remained. At times, the waves crashed and roared, submerging and destroying. At times, the waters had been placid. The waters felt neither fair nor firm, but rather indifferent and uncertain. This was the plight of every man, woman, and child: to live a life upon the waters, to somehow navigate the storms. We all fashioned our own paddle boards, some means to stay afloat.
“We all fashioned our own paddle boards, some means to stay afloat.”
If one day my board didn’t withstand the waves, and I became submerged, I wouldn’t be able to see much beyond myself. If when under the waters, I got disoriented, I wouldn’t be able to tell up from down, right from wrong. Even if there was life and beauty around me, I wouldn’t be able to see it. I would only be fearful of every touch, every movement around me. I’d be in a constant state of fear, fighting for survival. I wouldn’t be able to see the freedom and light above me. I’d be left to pull and claw at whatever seemed to offer escape or strength, even if it just took me farther into the depths. It was a hopeless situation, one that could only end in a slow, miserable, isolated death.
I figured that if I were able to metaphorically make it to the surface, I could perhaps stay afloat, but I would still be surrounded by the waters, susceptible at any moment to what lies beneath the surface or the people swimming around me. I’d likely swim to my family if they were around, or swim to a group that had a similar goal to me. Should we just fight to stay alive for as long as possible? Enjoy the swim till we drown? Some people would be faster swimmers, others slower. Some might scrounge together enough resources to make a raft, some might even have big rafts. People would fight and squabble over resources, anything to stay afloat.
I figured there might even be some people around who would just enjoy drowning other people, as morbid as that sounds. Maybe I’d find a few close friends, some I’d come to love, but undoubtedly storms would come, and there would be little I could do to save them. I couldn’t control the water. I couldn’t control anyone around me, and at some point I too would grow weary and sink beneath the waves.
“At some point I too would grow weary and sink beneath the waves.”
I thought of my paddle board (for me, my theology). My small group leader (for others perhaps a parent, mentor, teacher, pastor, industry leader, boss) assured me that it was unsinkable. It was perfectly balanced. Regardless of how out-of-control it felt, I wouldn’t tip over. I figured I would trust the engineers who had built it. They knew how to stay afloat. It would keep me safe and out of the murky waters. Occasionally, I might be splashed by waves, but I could dry off. On my board I could survive, maybe thrive, but was that really enough? Was that really the point?
What about the other rafts? What of the other people? How many could I fit on my board? Could it save us all? Despite the assurances, the cold truth of the waters is that I really had no control, and neither did anyone else. If there was a wave big enough, I was going to fall in. At some point, that board would decay or break. What a hopeless picture.
Walking on the Water
Then I pictured Jesus just walking on the water. I don’t know why, but whenever I picture him walking on the water, I see him walking on a calm lake. It’s still an incredible image, but based on Scripture it’s not accurate. The gospels record a massive storm. I think I picture a calm lake because I can’t even imagine a man walking in the middle of a storm.
What were the physics of that moment? When a wave was cresting, was Jesus lifted up with it? Did he get wet at all? When waves crashed together, did he just rise to the top, or was there an air bubble in between? As the waters went one way, did Jesus just walk the opposite direction? Then he calmed the storm.…Was it immediate? Did the waves just collapse into the water? Jesus walked on water, and he controlled the waves. I have a difficult time processing that.
“What were the physics of that moment? When a wave was cresting, was Jesus lifted up with it?”
I have difficulty understanding how Jesus navigated the waters of his own earthly life, how he just stayed above all of it, and how he called me to do the same. What’s that supposed to look like? How do I walk on water?
For the longest time my theology has served as some means to navigate life. As people of faith, we follow the commands. We try to love; we try to share our faith; we worship; we get baptized; we have our theology. But in the end…I look a far cry from Jesus walking on the waves. None of my theology or methodology really comes close to looking like the one who is master over the winds and the waves.
In the midst of my consternation, Jesus reaches out and asks, “Why did you doubt me? (Matt. 14:31). Just walk on the water. I’ve made a way. Your paddle board can’t save you, but I can.”
“Why did you doubt me?”
These thoughts and images of Jesus leave me deeply humbled, yet I often remain confused and self-reliant. It’s impossible to just walk on the waters, right? Realistically, what does that even look like?
Ephesians 1:18-21 gives us a picture:
“I pray also that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else in this world or in the world to come” (NLT).
Who is this that even the wind and waves obey?
Jesus has authority over everything, anything. I think of all the times in Scripture that God blew people’s minds, ruining our understanding of physics and nature and redefining what’s possible in human existence.
An axe head was at the bottom of a river, so God made it float. A giant slaughterer faced down a shepherd boy, so God hit the giant in the head with a rock. There were five loaves and two fish, but God turned them into twelve baskets of leftovers. A man was thrown into a den of hungry lions, and God just shut their mouths. Three men were thrown into a furnace, and God just made them not get burned. There was a void, so God just spoke light and life into existence. People killed the Son of God, so he just brought him back to life. Humanity was desolate and sinful, so God reconciled them to himself. All of this God has done; all of this God has offered to those who believe.
God, you mean to say that I could just walk on the water?
It really is a wild picture. Jesus simply stands on the waters, reaching out and beckoning me to stand on the waters with him.
“Jesus simply stands on the waters, reaching out and beckoning me to stand on the waters with him.”
As I float on the waters of life, I’m prayerful, as Paul was, that I can understand. I’m prayerful that it can affect my life and the lives of those around me. I’m prayerful that someday we/I would understand the incredible greatness of Jesus, and his will for our lives, and the power of his Spirit. After all, “[T]he Kingdom of God is not just fancy talk; it is living by God’s power” (1 Cor. 4:20).
At this juncture of theology and application, I don’t know what your paddle board is. But it can’t save you, and it can’t save anyone else. No one other than you can make the decision to step out onto the waters of life, and no one other than Jesus can help you stand above the waves.
“No one other than you can make the decision to step out onto the waters of life, and no one other than Jesus can help you stand above the waves.”
No, it might not always make sense; it might look ridiculous to everyone else, but sometimes that’s what faith is, a confidence of things we hope for, a certainty of things unseen (Heb. 11:1). It’s a reliance on a God who is greater than all of this, whose promises never fail.
Is it time to get out of the boat?
“All right, come,” Jesus said (Matt. 14:29).