Out of the Boat
by Fr. Jack McArdle
In an earlier chapter I spoke about having to step out of the boat if you want to walk on water. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I grow in faith by practice, and that journey consists of constant decisions and regular usage.
I like St. Peter. Oh, he was brash, and sometimes not too cautious, but over-caution will be the death of us all. "Lord, if you want to, you can bid me come to you on the water". Who but Peter would have suggested it?! He had a big heart, and oodles of good will, even though he was really a kitten within. Jesus loved Peter because he dared to venture. He didn't do too well when the pressure came on him, but, at least, he wanted to be there with Jesus, and for him, as best he could. He grabbed the sword in the garden, because that was the only way he knew how to defend. He took the risk of following John into the courtyard where Jesus was a prisoner. The fact that he panicked and lost his nerve is something that Jesus could easily understand, and forgive. Later on, when he had 'fished all night and caught nothing', at Jesus' word he was willing to give it another go.
Very few of us are asked to be in the front line like Peter, but we all get many opportunities to step out in faith. The centurion must have been an extraordinary man. He was a Roman and a pagan, yet he dared to break ranks and go 'to the enemy' to look for help, no matter what anybody else thought of him. No wonder Jesus was impressed by him, and declared that he 'had not found faith like this in Israel'. The springboard for jumping out of the boat, for letting go of our fears and insecurities, is a very clear conviction of helplessess and powerlessess, and the acceptance that we just have to go elsewhere to get the help we want.
There is a direct connection between the depth and scope of our faith, and our own sense of inadequacy. If we think that there's the slightest chance that we might be able to manage this on our own, we will hold back from looking elsewhere. When many of his listeners turned and walked away, Jesus asked the apostles "Will you also walk away?" Once again it was Peter to the fore with a resounding response "Lord, where else can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life. We know, and we believe that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."
There is one scene in the gospels that impresses me more than most. Jesus was in the house of a Pharisee, and many other Pharisees had joined him there. As usual, they were keeping a watching brief, lest he say or do something that they might use against him. Into that very house came a woman who 'had a bad name in the town'. Boy, did she take a risk! She walked straight into the lion's den. The woman was desperate. She was guilty, afraid, lonely, and very unloved. She knew there was only one place she could go, only one person she could approach. With extraordinary courage and faith she walked right into that house, and went straight to Jesus. Despite the stares, the sneers, and the sense of shock that surrounded her, she knew that she had found a safe place. She actually risked her very life by walking into that house, because she might easily have been dragged out and stoned to death.
Talking about stepping over the side of the boat! In the full glare of animosity and hostility, she interrupted whatever was going on, and she threw herself at the feet of Jesus. She began to cry, and she let her tears fall on the feet of Jesus, as she began to wash the dust of the roads from them. By now her whole attention was on Jesus, and she was past caring what the onlookers might think. She washed his feet, and proceeded to dry them with her hair. Her tears were the only water she had, and her hair the only towel. She did all she could with the little she had. Then she produced a jar of precious ointment, and began to anoint the feet of Jesus.
Meanwhile, Jesus was very conscious of those who looked on, and he knew exactly what they were thinking. "If this man were a prophet he would surely know what kind of woman this is", they muttered. Jesus spoke. He did not have to directly defend the woman or plead for understanding of her situation. He pointed out to the owner of the house some of the services that he had neglected, services that were normally accorded important visitors who came from some distance. The Pharisee had not offered facilities for Jesus to wash and dry his feet, but this woman made use of what little she had to provide him with that service. The woman now produced a box of precious ointment, and proceeded to anoint the feet of Jesus, so that the perfume filled the whole room they were in. This really was pushing the Pharisees to the limits.
Jesus delivered his greatest salvo when he announced that this public sinner had her sins forgiven 'because she has loved much'. If sin is alienation from God, how could this woman do what she did for Jesus and be alienated from God at the same time? The woman took the risk, she dared to do what she felt she had to do, and she won God's favour and approval. Jesus went further when he declared that 'wherever the gospel is preached, what this woman has done will be spoken of'. She is one of the many people I am looking forward to meeting in heaven!
When Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit will never leave us, he is saying that he will never lead us where his Spirit will not be there to see us through. If I have a cardiac unit, a wheelchair, or a cancer ward waiting for me down the road, I will get all that I need to be at peace there, and to deal with that situation. "I will never leave you, or abandon you in the storm". Even if life leads you to Egypt or to Calvary, you can be sure that his Spirit will be with you in every moment and movement of that journey. You need have no worry what the future holds, if you believe that he holds the future.
When I speak about stepping out of the boat, I am not thinking of acting irresponsibly, without common prudence or caution. I am speaking about those decisions we have to make, and those situations we have to face that can have us frozen into inactivity, afraid to move one way or another. I am speaking of those times when I put my hand in the hand of the Lord, and I 'go for it'. The fact that I don't know the outcome is where faith comes in. If I knew the result I wouldn't need faith. The Lord didn't let Peter drown, no more than he will abandon you when you step out in faith. Many a time I have found myself facing situations where I had every reason to be conscious of my inadequacies.
I was asked to give a Retreat to the bishops and priests of the United Arab Emirates. I said 'yes', knowing they were multi-lingual, and the job seemed impossible. When the Abbot of a Cistercian Monastery asked me last year to give a six-day Retreat to the community, I said 'yes', and only then did I begin to think of what on earth I'd speak about for six days! The way I figure this is that, when someone, like the Abbot, asked me to do something, it was the Lord's way of telling me that I would have what it takes when the time comes. The Gift would not be given to me, but to the community, through the message I would deliver. With each call comes the grace to respond to that call. I will never come to believe this until I practise it again and again. My faith can grow like the grain of mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds.
I remember looking at mustard trees in the garden of Gethsemane, and then requiring a strip of cello tape to pick up mustard seeds, because I could not grip them with my fingers. Jesus says that the birds of the air will come and find shelter in those trees. In other words, people of faith often find that others come to them for prayers when they're in trouble, and their faith provides a source of shelter for the troubled one. An enclosed community of Sisters are usually inundated with requests for prayers from people near and far. The community is like one of those mustard trees that Jesus spoke of.
I spoke earlier of the woman who washed and dried the feet of Jesus, and how I looked forward to meeting her in heaven. There is another little woman that I would love to meet, and that is the one who reached out and touched the hem of Jesus' garment. I don't know how long she thought about this, or how many times she nearly did it, but held back. My own suspicion is that this is the first time she got near enough to Jesus to be able to do what her heart told her to do. She felt she was taking a great risk, and when Jesus asked who touched him, she was sure she was in serious trouble. What an extraordinary little woman she was!
I say 'little', because independent of her stature, she was obviously a very humble little woman. It is very clear what drove her to such a simple act of faith and bravery. She was desperate, and she had no doubt that her healing was not to be found elsewhere. Like the rest of us she had tried everything else, and, like us, she found that nothing had worked for her. She saw in Jesus a new hope. She saw something that touched her spirit, and, risk or no risk, she just could not let the moment of grace pass.
When Bartimeus, the blind man, who sat on the side of the road, heard that 'Jesus of Nazareth was passing by', he had just a moment in which to make a decision. He could let Jesus pass on down the road, and die a blind man, or he could grab the opportunity with both hands, and be free of his ailment. These are moments of grace that come our way on a regular basis. We can grab them or let them pass. To grab them is to step out, if not out of the boat, at least in some form of reaching out. As far as Bartimeus was concerned, Jesus would have kept going, and would have passed him by, had not Bartimeus chosen to stop him. The more he shouted, the more the crowds told him to be quiet. But there was no stopping him. He knew what he wanted, and he knew where he'd get it. "I once was blind, but now I see". It is sad to think that I could live my life and never really experience the power of God, all because I was afraid to take a risk.
Jesus gives us 147 promises in the gospels, and there is not one might or one maybe in the whole lot. Elizabeth praised Mary, because 'you believed that the promises of the Lord would be fulfilled'. "The sin of this world is unbelief in me" says Jesus. Prudence and caution can stultify us into inaction, and we end up, having settled for existing rather than living. "I came that you should have life, and have it in abundance". Jesus speaks of a life of abundance, and the only limits to that abundance are the ones I set. What a pity!
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