The movers had finished unloading the van after sunset. Joy and I had gotten up early to get a jump on the unpacking. I was desperately searching for the coffee maker when the phone rang. It was our realtor C-. He said, “I need to ask you a question.”
Thinking that he needed information to complete some form or other, I kept tearing open boxes and said, “Well sure. What’s up?” It hadn’t occurred to me that C- was a member of my new congregation, not as our realtor. That became clear when he asked, “What do I have to do to be saved?”
C- went on to tell me that he had had a very strict religious upbringing. He had left home and left church as soon as he graduated. Now in middle age, C- had started worshipping at the congregation I would be serving in just a few days. He didn’t remember much about the faith, but he was pretty sure that he wasn’t saved.
Initially he talked about God’s judgment and heaven and hell. But then he went on to tell me about his past and about the personal struggles he was facing just then. After a while, we made an appointment to meet in my office. And then I suggested that we would be talking about a slightly different question: How do I get to know God? That question would help us approach salvation in a way that might prove helpful to him.
I suspect we all know what it’s like to need saving. Oh, I don’t mean some guarantee that you’ll go to heaven and avoid hell once you die. Instead, many of us have come to points in life when we feel like the wind has simply gone out of our sails. When life feels heavy or hollow or suffocating or overwhelming. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way: “[Most] of us know what is killing us. For some it is the deadly rush of our lives; for others it is the inability to move. For some it is the prison of our possessions; for others the crushing poverty that dooms our children to more of the same.” (Leaving Church, p. 226).
In the Bible, being saved is always being saved from something right here on planet earth. Something like war or disease or catastrophe. God does the saving, and faith plays an indispensable role. I’ll explain in more detail in moment, but first let’s look at the story of Jesus walking on water. It goes like this.
Jesus has instructed his disciples to climb into a boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the lake. A fierce storm hit as the sun was setting. At daybreak, the disciples spotted Jesus. He was walking on the waves toward them. But they’re not so sure it’s him. Maybe it’s a ghost. Peter said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus invited him to step over the gunwales. After a few steps, Peter sank and cried out to Jesus to save him. Pulling him out of the water, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:22-33)
Preachers and teachers often point to Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water as a lesson about faith and doubt. If only he had had enough faith he could have stayed above the wave. But I’m going ask you to shift your focus. Notice that the disciples were not sure that the figure coming toward them was Jesus. Peter even said, “Lord, if it is you…” Did you catch that? “If.” And then he asked for proof of identity: get me out on those waves with you.
It seems to me that this was what Jesus had in mind when said to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Or to put it another way, “You don’t really know me yet, do you? Let’s work on that. That way you will see that I’m always in the midst of things with you. Even the worst things.”
Through the centuries Christians have gotten to know Jesus through spiritual practices. They connect us to the God who is always already reaching out to us in love. There are many traditional practices: worship, works of mercy, social justice work, fasting, almsgiving, Bible study, and personal prayer. The list goes on.
But let me be clear. An emphasis on spiritual practices shouldn’t be confused with works righteousness. We don’t worship or feed the hungry or pray to win points with God. We engage in spiritual practices in response to God’s love for us. In fact, it’s our way of being receptive to God’s love for us.
As Nora Gallagher writes: “[The] purpose of a spiritual practice is to help us stay awake. Hidden in this kind of repetition is the chance that on any given day, the mind or the soul will connect with what is waiting to connect to us.” (The Sacred Meal, Kindle Loc. 121) God is always present. Spiritual practices help us to be aware that God is always initiating connection with us.
Brian McLaren puts it this way, “Spiritual practices are ways of becoming awake and staying awake to God.” (Finding Our Way Again, p. 18) We don’t have to walk on water to get God’s attention. Actually, it’s sort of the other way around. God walks on water to wake us up. We’re the ones who need help to be aware of God’s presence right under our nose.
Some people might scoff at jailhouse conversions and the atheist’s foxhole prayers. Not me. I believe that sometimes difficult circumstances can clarify our deepest longings. We long for a connection that makes this life worth living. A connection that assures us that our lives matter. Only God gives us a connection like that, and God is already offering it.
To paraphrase Richard Rohr, God is always present. What’s lacking is our awareness. Spiritual practices wake us up to the love that we’re always already being given.
Hi everybody! It’s good to be back with you from vacation. This essay is a reflection on Matthew 14:22-33 from Proper 14, Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (coming up August 13, 2023). As usual, I’m posting one week in advance of the church calendar to help out preachers, teachers, and curious listeners.