There is a curious story in the Christian scriptures which suggests that the failures that beset us may serve as channels through which we experience fullness of life. It’s a story about Jesus’ disciple Simon, better known as Simon Peter, or simply Peter.
In general, Christians who speak of Peter tend to focus on the “family photo” moments of his life. You know what a “family photo” moment is. It’s one of those moments where some pinnacle of success has been achieved, or an attractive side of you has been revealed. You may display these moments on the walls of your house, or on a desk or end table. They’re the public moments you’re all-too-happy to display. I imagine that one of Peter’s family photos would be a scene of him as a dashing fisherman who leaves his nets behind to follow Jesus. Another photo would show Peter vowing to follow Jesus to the death, as he does in Matthew 26 or daring to welcome Gentiles (non-Jews) into the early Christian fellowship when they had been excluded before, as he does in Acts 10.
The most impressive of Peter’s family photos, however, would undoubtedly be the scene where Jesus tells Peter that he is no longer to be called Simon, his given name, but Peter, which means “rock” in Greek. After renaming Simon to “Rock,” Jesus declares, “upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Pretty impressive! Yet this triumphal moment cannot be fully appreciated until another, less triumphal yet no less distinguishing scene is viewed. . It’s the scene of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee – and Peter sinking in it.
As the story goes in Matthew 14, Jesus once asked his disciples to set out across the Sea of Galilee by boat while he stayed the night on a mountain to pray. During the night, a fierce storm broke out and the disciple’s boat was tossed about mercilessly. Early the next morning, the disciples spotted Jesus walking on top of the water and were terrified, believing him to be a ghost. But Jesus reassured his disciples commanding, “Take heart, it is I. Do not fear.” Incidentally, the command “do not fear” is the most frequently repeated phrase attributed to God in the Hebrew scriptures.
Before going further with the story, a point of clarification must be made. You may wonder if the story ever happened this way – if Jesus really did walk on top of the water as Matthew’s gospel says he did. Frankly, I do not know the answer and I do not think it much matters which way a person concludes. What I do know positively is that when a person acts from a state of wholeheartedness, amazing things can happen that defy explanation. So I do not discount the possibility that Jesus really did walk on water. Yet what impresses me about this story is not its possible historicity but its assured repeatability. No, I have never walked on water as Jesus did. But I have sunk in it like Peter many times. And precisely where I have sunk, I have discovered something that has moved me from fear to flow, allowing me to live in my place of wholeheartedness. How? The same way it happens in the story:
Peter responds to Jesus’ words “fear not,” by asking, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (I wonder what the other disciples were doing?)
“Come,” Jesus beckons.
So Peter gets out of the boat and actually starts walking on the water for a few wholehearted-moments. Peter starts out in a state of flow – a state of non-anxious awareness produced by his draw toward something more wonderful than it is terrifying. Then he notices the wind and waves. Fear sets in again. I can hear Peter thinking, “This is crazy. People aren’t supposed to be able to do this! And I’m certainly no Jesus, so who am I to even think I can do this?” He looses his nerve and sinks quickly.
Yet something wonderful happens. Just before Peter sinks beneath the stormy sea, he cries out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately, Jesus reaches out his hand and grabs hold of Peter, raising him to the surface. I can see the look on Peter’s face as his eyes meet those of Jesus and Peter realizes that he is now standing on the sea, and it is solely because Jesus has him firmly in his grasp.
I find helpful insight in this story. First, it reminds me that when I finally dare to step beyond the safety of my little “boat” (the familiar/conventional) and venture out onto the waters that constitute my place of wholeheartedness, at certain points I will absolutely lose my nerve and let go of whatever peace or joy has brought me here. When we operate from our sweet spot, the power we draw upon is often intimidating unless we’re clear about where it’s coming from (not just within ourselves but beyond ourselves).
Second, the story reminds me that when I cease to act out of this peace and joy, the waters of chaos are not far off. When I find them washing over me, I need not lose hope, however. What I need to do is raise my hand, not to shake my fist at the heavens. I need to ask for help. Again and again I have learned that when I reach for help, a power I have come to know as TheUnexpectedLove grasps hold and keeps my head above the waves, allowing me to do what I could not do for myself. This regular experience suggests that our place of fullest humanity is connected to divinity. We are designed in such a way that even our flaws serve as important channels through which we connect to a power beyond ourselves. In the firm grasp of TheUnexpectedLove, we become the people we are truly designed to be: just “a little lower than God” according to Psalm 8.
I believe this basic pattern of daring to act on our wholeheartedness, followed by failure to keep it in our grasp, followed by TheUnexpectedLove grasping us and connecting us to our truest selves, is what it means to have flow in its distinctly human form. This particular flow is so important, in fact, that Jesus renamed Simon to Rock, declaring that the entire movement known by his name would be built upon this Rock. I can envision the crack of a smile on Jesus’ face as he announced that his movement would be founded on a sinking Rock – one that is held above the watery chaos by a power that is at once greater than the Rock itself yet brings that Rock into its greatest, most majestic form (“I knew God still cared about me. So I decided to hang around a little longer to see what he wanted me to do.”). I believe that this is also why Jesus declares that, “not even the gates of Hades will prevail against it.” After all, when we discover that our failures can become the very channels of our triumphs, we realize that we are more gifted than cursed, even amidst the greatest storms of life. What do we have left to fear? Not even the gates of Hades …