Scripture: Matthew 14:22–33
By the time these words are published, it will be a new year and we will be starting another trip around the sun. But as I type these words, my husband and I are in New York City. It is Advent and we have slipped away for a few days between Sundays for a personal reading and writing retreat. It may seem counterintuitive to be spending time in one of the busiest cities in the world for five days of silence and solitude, but this is what we have chosen. Intentionally.
Today it is raining so the world is gray just beyond the glass. I’ve spent a good deal of the morning simply watching people as they navigate the crowded sidewalks fourteen stories below, arms loaded with packages and open umbrellas. From our room, I can hear sirens and horns blaring on the street.
For the past three days, we have spent hours walking around the city. Our challenge to one another has been to experience the crowds and lights with fresh eyes, to look for glimpses of God and to practice what Henri Nouwen calls “solitude of the heart.” We have been experimenting a bit, practicing stillness in the middle of a storm. While walking through the crowds one day, I found myself singing “Silent Night” quietly under my breath. Without any prompting or planning, I heard Jim’s bass voice joining my alto and the moment was somehow transformed into a sacred one. It is easy to feel God’s presence in a cabin in the mountains or in a beach house at the shore. It is quite another experience to discover it in the activity of Times Square, Grand Central Station, or Fifth Avenue at Christmastime. One must stay focused to remain calm in the chaos.
In our text this month, the disciples find themselves in the chaos of dangerous waters, as strong winds toss and batter their boat. In the days leading up to this story, they have grieved with Jesus over the death of John the Baptist, experienced compassionate acts of healing, and have helped feed over 5,000 people. Now Jesus has sent them away, needing some alone time in prayer. In the wee hours of the morning, while the storm is raging, the disciples see a figure walking toward them on the water! Verse 26 tells us that “they were terrified, saying ‘it is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.” (Back home at First Presbyterian Church, in Pasadena, Texas, I’ve spent weeks preparing shepherds to be “terrified” when the Angel of the Lord appears to them in our annual nativity offering, so I’m quite used to the image by now.) It’s good to remember that whenever Bible folk are terrified, the very next words are those of comfort and assurance, and Jesus is no exception when he says to his frightened friends, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Immediately Peter tests Jesus with “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” At Jesus’ simple invitation, “Come,” Peter steps out of the boat and onto the water and walks toward Jesus. In my mind’s eye, I can see the picture clearly, Peter taking that leap of faith as he keeps his focus on his Lord, moving closer and closer to Jesus with every step. He’s almost there and all is fine until he notices the strong wind. Distracted by the storm, he shifts his focus away from Jesus (if only for a second), his terror returns, and he begins to sink. When he cries out in fear, Jesus immediately reaches out and catches him. When they climb into the boat, joining the other disciples, the wind ceases.
It’s worth noting that the storm didn’t come up after Peter stepped out onto the water. The waves were already battering the boat long before the disciples first saw Jesus walking toward them. The wind was blowing strong when Peter took his first step toward Jesus. The circumstances and the weather conditions did not change. What changed was Peter’s focus. It is only when he took his eyes off of Jesus that his fear overwhelmed him and he began to sink.
So how do we keep our eyes open to the power and presence of Jesus regardless of circumstances? How do we remember to stay focused when fearful happenings surround us? At the end of our study this month, on page 45, the author emphasizes the importance of sharing our faith with others, encouraging us to create settings that invite people to talk about their encounters with God on their journey. She writes, “This can be one way to connect the dots between biblical teachings and life experiences. It is also a way of strengthening a faith community, building trust, and deepening the faith of individuals.” She goes on to say we need to be able to talk about times “we were walking on water and also about times when we felt as if we were drowning.” I close this blog with one such story . . .
In June of 1971, I was on a 16-day choir tour with the Westminster Youth Choir of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, under the direction of William C. Everitt. One Sunday morning after singing in worship at a Presbyterian church in New Jersey, I had what I can only describe as an emotional breakdown. Details are not important, but it is enough to say I was depressed, frightened and really didn’t feel like going on. While my friends climbed onto the three chartered buses for the ride to the next destination, I lingered back in the darkened narthex of the church. I couldn’t stop crying and didn’t want anyone to see me, feeling embarrassed by my sadness. I remember the dark paneling of the old church and how the wooden floors creaked beneath my feet as I walked around that echo-y and empty space. I looked around on the tables with the usual displays and flyers when a small stack of cards caught my attention. At the top, the words read “A Little Prayer”, with “short enough to memorize” printed beneath the title. I picked up one card, read both sides, and took it with me. The words on the back were outdated even in 1971, but somehow they spoke to my 18-year-old heart.
I carried that card onto the awaiting bus and as I sat near the back, surrounded by the laughter and playfulness of my friends, I felt like I was in a safe cocoon. I read the prayer over and over and soon had it memorized, just as the words had promised. My breathing slowed down and a peace came over me that I had never experienced. One of my friends, Walker Westerlage, who is now a Presbyterian pastor, stopped in the aisle to see if I was okay. He had been concerned about me earlier but when I told him I really was okay, he said he could see it was so. I did not share the source of my peace, fearful that someone might make fun of me. Instead, I kept these things inside and held on to my card.
I have carried the card with me for over 44 years. It is now tattered and yellowing. I have made copies and shared it with others. Several years ago I substituted the word “God” for “Father”, but other than that, the prayer remains the same. I say the prayer whenever I feel afraid or overwhelmed—if I remember to, that is. How easy it is to be distracted by our circumstances, to shift our focus to the storm instead of to the life-giving power and presence of a living God.
I am grateful for the faithful committee (for we know how these things happen) who long ago felt called to purchase a stack of prayer cards (at a penny a piece) and place them in the narthex of a Presbyterian church somewhere in New Jersey. It has been life-saving and life-giving many times through the years.
I’d love to hear how you have experienced the power and presence of God in the midst of chaos. How do you practice stillness in the middle of a storm/life? As our author reminded us, it is important to share our faith stories. You never know—your experience might just keep someone else from sinking.
With love and a grateful heart…
Jo Ann Currie
Director of Christian Education & Spiritual Formation
First Presbyterian Church