The Water or the Boat?
Some years ago my wife arranged for us to ride in a hot-air balloon as a birthday gift. We went to the field where the balloons ascended and got into a little basket with one other couple. We introduced ourselves and swapped vocational information. Then our pilot began the ascent. The day had just dawned—clear, crisp, cloudless. We could see the entire Canejo Valley, from craggy canyons to the Pacific Ocean. It was scenic, inspiring, and majestic.
But I also experienced one emotion I had not anticipated. Want to guess? Fear.
I had always thought those baskets went about chest high, but this one only came up to our knees. One good lurch would be enough to throw someone over the side. So I held on with grim determination and white knuckles. I looked over at my wife, who does not care for heights at all, and relaxed a bit, knowing there was someone in the basket more tense than I was. I could tell, because she would not move—at all. During part of our flight there was a horse ranch on the ground directly behind her. I pointed it out because she loves horses, and, without turning around or even pivoting her head, she simply rolled her eyes back as far as she could and said, “Yes, it’s beautiful.”
About this time I decided I’d like to get to know the kid who was flying this balloon. I realized that I could try to psyche myself up into believing everything would be fine, but the truth was we had placed our lives and destinies in the hands of the pilot. Everything depended on his character and competence. I asked him what he did for a living and how he got started flying hot-air balloons. I was hoping for his former job to be one full of responsibilities—a neurosurgeon, perhaps, an astronaut who missed going up into space.
I knew we were in trouble when his response to me began, “Dude, it’s like this.…”
He did not even have a job! He mostly surfed.
He said the reason he got started flying hot-air balloons was that he had been driving around in his pickup when he’d had too much to drink, crashed the truck, and badly injured his brother. His brother still couldn’t get around too well, so watching hot-air balloons gave him something to do.
“By the way,” he added, “if things get a little choppy on the way down, don’t be surprised. I’ve never flown this particular balloon before, and I’m not sure how it’s going to handle the descent.”
My wife looked over at me and said, “You mean to tell me we are a thousand feet up in the air with an unemployed surfer who started flying hot-air balloons because he got drunk, crashed a pickup, injured his brother, and has never been in this one before and doesn’t know how to bring it down?”
Then the wife of the other couple looked at me and spoke—the only words either of them were to utter throughout the entire flight. You’re a pastor. Do something religious. So I took an offering.
The great question at a moment like that is, Can I trust the pilot? I could try telling myself that everything would turn out okay. Facing the flight with a positive attitude would certainly make it a more pleasant journey. But the journey would be over soon. And the real issue concerned the dude who was flying this thing. Were his character and competence such that I could confidently place my destiny in his hands? Or, was it time to do something religious?
Peter and his friends got into a little boat one afternoon to cross the Sea of Galilee. Jesus wanted to be alone, so they were boating without him. Peter didn’t mind—he’d been on boats his whole life. He liked them. But this time a storm blew in. Not a minor squall, either. The gospel of Matthew says the boat was “tormented” by the waves. It was so violent that the only thing the disciples could do was to keep the boat upright. Then one of the disciples noticed a shadow moving toward them on the water. As it got closer, it became apparent that it was the figure of a human being—walking on the water.
When Jesus came to the disciples on the water, he was revealing his divine presence and power. Only God can do such a thing. It is interesting that the disciples entered the boat in the first place at Jesus’ command. They would have to learn—as do we—that obedience is no guarantee of being spared adversity. But now that the storm had their full attention, Jesus decided it was time the disciples got to know a little bit more about the guy who was piloting this thing. It’s like this, dudes, he reassured them. You can trust me. You know my character and my competence. You can safely place your destiny in my hand. Take courage. It’s me.
Peter blurted out to the water-walker, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Why does Matthew include this detail? Why doesn’t Peter just plunge into the water? I think it’s for a very important reason. This is not just a story about risk-taking; it is primarily a story about obedience. That means I will have to discern between an authentic call from God and what might simply be a foolish impulse on my part. Courage alone is not enough; it must be accompanied by wisdom and discernment.
This is a story about extreme discipleship. This means that before Peter gets out of the boat, he had better make sure Jesus thinks it’s a good idea. So he asks for clarity,
“If it is you, command me.…”
And in the darkness, I think Jesus smiled. Maybe he laughed. Because one person in the boat got it. Peter had some inkling of what it is that the Master is doing. Allowing his disciples to face a storm alone in a boat is an example of Jesus using controlled trauma with masterful skill to help them take the step toward trust that they would never be able to develop on their own. Not only that, Peter had enough faith to believe that he too could share the adventure. He decided he wanted to be part of history’s original water-walk. Command me.
If I am going to experience a greater measure of God’s power in my life, it will usually involve the first-step principle. It will usually begin by my acting in faith—trusting God enough to take a step of obedience. Simply acknowledging information about his power is not enough. I have to get my feet wet. But when I say yes, I set in motion an adventure that will leave me forever changed.
He’s inviting you to go on the adventure of your life. But at the same time, you’re scared to death. What would you choose—the water or the boat?
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