Getting out of the boat

March 17, 2008

Recently I was all excited about doing a little project that I felt pretty certain that God was calling me to do — the details of what it was don’t matter, suffice it to say that it was a small but enjoyable task that I thought would be a wonderful way to show Christ to others. About half way into the undertaking, it became more challenging than I’d anticipated. Then yesterday morning I heard through the grapevine that someone had made a belittling comment about it, expressing some criticism of it in a condescending way that really got under my skin. That was the last straw in making it officially “not fun anymore.”

I was exhausted from a busy weekend anyway, and this little comment threw me into a bit of a funk. I was so disappointed that the wind had been taken out of my sails about this endeavor, and thinking about that snowballed into a general malaise. To make myself feel better, during the kids’ naptime I drifted off to do what I usually do to mentally run away when the going gets rough: I escaped into a book, surfed the web a little bit and then watched some television. At the time, I didn’t feel like that was the right thing to do. These activities were not making me feel more peaceful, and in fact seemed only to serve to make me more unsettled. I felt like what I needed to do was to stop trying to distract myself and step away from the book and the computer and the television and just pray. But I didn’t want to. Praying sounded uncomfortable, it sounded like it would take too long, and I wanted to feel good now. So I continued to bury my head in the sand of shallow distractions.

Though I felt somewhat better later, I never did completely pull out of the bad mood yesterday. For the entire day I felt bummed out about that condescending comment, uninspired about the project, and disappointed that God felt distant. I contemplated abandoning my project altogether.

And then, this morning, I saw something that gave me insight into what was going on. I watched a sermon by T.D. Jakes called The Last Night on the Boat, and as soon as I turned it on I knew it was what I needed to hear — not what I wanted to hear — but what I needed to hear.

“Where do you go when you’re traumatized? Where do you go when things are too much for you?” he asked the audience. “That’s your boat.”

His sermon was about the symbolism of the boat, how the boat was where Peter and the other disciples felt comfortable and safe, how they wanted to cling to it in times of trouble, how they had to get out of it and leave their lives as fishermen in order to become fishers of men. When the going gets tough, Jakes pointed out, when things start to get painful or uncomfortable in our spiritual journey, we say to ourselves, “I’m going back to what I can control. I’m going back to what I can handle. I’m going back to what I’m good at. I’m going back to what’s safe for me.”

And in an oratory technique a bit more startling than what I’m used to from my soft-spoken priest, he implored the congregation to “slap somebody and say ‘GET OUT OF THAT BOAT’!”

After taking a moment to imagine just how awkwardly I would have carried out that order had I been there in person, I realized that that was exactly what I needed to hear: GET OUT OF THAT BOAT!

What happened with that little project is what’s happened over and over again as I’ve worked to grow closer to God: I know what I’m supposed to do, but when the going gets rough, I run back to the boat. In my case “the boat” is things like seeking other people’s approval, trying to get a big thumbs-up from the world in all that I do, wasting time reading uninspiring content on the internet, watching vapid television or finding comfort in certain foods. Those activities are comfortable and provide immediate gratification with little required on my part.

It was interesting to reread the passage that Jakes alluded to in his sermon, Matthew 14:22-33, where Peter sees Jesus walking on the water. Peter says “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Jesus tells him to come, and he gets out of the boat. He’s scared, but he does it anyway. I imagined myself in Peter’s shoes, and thought of how differently it would play out given my current attitude: after I came to believe in God I prayed for him to ask me to come to him, i.e. to give me some direction so that I might know he exists, and know what he wants from my life. “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water, ” I basically said. And here’s how it played out from there:

JESUS: Come.

ME: Who, me? Are you serious, Lord? To be honest I didn’t really expect an answer.

JESUS: Come.

ME: How am I going to be able to walk on water? That’s impossible! I can tell you right now that I am going to drown if I set foot outside this boat. It’s night time, the water is deep, this is too scary! You cannot possibly be asking me to do this!

JESUS: Come.

ME: Ya know, I’d love to, but now that I’m actually looking at the black abyss of water that stands between you and I, I think I’ll just go ahead and stay here in the boat.

As I’ve said before, my problem is not usually knowing what God wants me to do, but actually doing it. In matters large and small, over and over again I’ve found that doing the right thing sounds a whole lot more exciting when the idea is first proposed; but when I actually take a look at just what I’m being asked to do, when I look down at the inky water that I’m asked to step out into, I want to run back to what’s safe. Sometimes I feel like it’s too inconvenient, other times I feel like it’s too painful or too scary or just too different than anything I’ve ever done. Sometimes I think it’s impossible. But I’ll never get close to God if don’t step out of the boat.


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