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Getting back into the boat

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“Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side” (Matthew 14:22).

Even if it is at Jesus’ command, there are few places as miserable as being in a crowded boat during a storm. That is where the disciples would soon find themselves. The terror of a storm at sea is bad enough, but combine that terror with a tightly crowded mix of personalities struggling to stay afloat, and you have something you will give anything to escape.

Boats, of course, come in all shapes, sizes, and settings. This summer, we took our annual family holiday with our children and grandchildren. We now number 15, including five children under four years old. We spent a week in this boat. Good and bad moods, sleepless nights, and testing of boundaries were shared experiences. We discovered that, having spent several years as empty nesters, the tolerance Janet and I have for being with young children 24/7 has noticeably diminished. It is a rich experience in every sense of the word.

Somewhere during this time, the story of the boat in the storm filled with Jesus’ panicked disciples came to mind. I imagined myself, like Peter, stepping out of my boat and its crowded chaos, and walking on the water beside it for a time. Peter’s decision to take the chance on his famous walk across the water did not sound as daring in these moments.

We, however, were on a holiday we plan to repeat next year, and soon Janet and I would return to the tranquility of our empty nest. We would be out of the boat.

Tough “boats”

The really tough “boats” we find ourselves in are not like this, though. They involve sickness, job loss, conflicts with family or co-workers. The list is endless. They don’t have end dates. They are seasons of stress with the highest possible stakes.

Often there is no way out of these boats unless one is willing to step out and take the risk of drowning. But, make no mistake, people regularly step out of their “boats” during times of stress. The natural centrifugal energy of a crisis drives people to desperate measures.

Peter was not the first biblical character to get out of the boat during a storm. This is also what Jonah did with somewhat different and yet profoundly similar results. In the case of both Jonah and Peter, a miracle kept their exit from the boat from ending in tragedy. Going over the side of boats in storms seldom ends well.

The fantasy where we step out of the boat and walk on water through the storms of life has a visceral attraction for all of us. It is another version of the eternal quest for a surreal tranquility in the midst of chaos.

And isn’t Peter’s journey across the water the ultimate model of the life of faith?

As this story and my experience marinated together, it occurred to me that Peter stepping out of the boat is not a model of kingdom faith. In fact, the conclusion of this account is not Peter stepping out of the boat and taking a few furtive steps across the water to Jesus. The conclusion of the story is “when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down” (Matthew 14:32). Only after Peter gets back into that crowded boat does the storm calm.

And Peter will discover that kingdom life is lived in “boats,” not walking on water.

Life in a boat is both far more pedestrian and even more stressful than walking on the water. But it’s worth remembering that in all of biblical history Peter is the only one who actually walked on water after he stepped out of his boat and Jonah was the only one for whom “the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow” him after he exited his boat (Jonah 1:17).

That realization changed my view of the “boat” I was in and also caused me to think of far more serious “boats” I have stepped out of.

It also occurred to me that the process of getting back into a boat is both mentally and physically challenging. Anyone who has ever tried to enter a boat from the water knows how hard it is. Anyone who has tried to get back into an emotional boat after checking out knows it’s just as difficult.

And there may be the ultimate challenge to this reading: allowing Jesus to help us back into the “boats” from which we have jumped.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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