Ebb and Flow

Beth A. Faeth August 20, 2017

Scriptures Psalm 46; Matthew 14:22–33

My daughters and I have enjoyed quite a bit of travel this summer. It has felt rather decadent, because travel was something we sacrificed long ago as a family, unconsciously protecting a secret we couldn’t yet name. Those of you with addiction as part of your family system may know something of which I speak. Home was the safest place for us, even though it wasn’t really, but it sheltered the fragility of our public family persona. As my husband sank deeper into the depths of isolation and disengagement, my girls and I didn’t stray far from our front yard. We were afraid, but we didn’t know really what of, except it seemed the only antidote was to not veer from our comfort zone. Fear can be paralyzing, and sometimes it keeps us from facing the truth even when all the clues to understanding are right under our nose, or in our case, right out in the garage. Now, as we tread the waters of grief and reconcile the mysterious puzzle that has the name alcoholism and addiction, we are also in the midst of creating our new normal. Rediscovering freedom. Knowing joy, even in the midst of pain and loss. And my goal is to provide for my children a myriad of experiences that will open up for us the world that for so long we pretended just didn’t exist.

Armed with a newly identified wanderlust, one girl discovered the mountains of Colorado with her beloved aunt while the other explored a bit of the East Coast with me. And two weeks ago we traveled together to Minnesota’s North Shore, a favorite destination of mine. Not surprisingly, it had been years since I had visited, and returning was like a beautiful reunion with an old friend. We hiked and played, skipped stones and explored. For long stretches of time we simply stared out into the expanse of Lake Superior, grieving and dreaming. I informed the girls that my goal was to find a different waterfall every day—because, for me, there is just something simply awesome about a waterfall. With moderate enthusiasm our first day they obliged, but when we reached Cascade Falls they soon understood the desire behind my quest. We stood mesmerized, mouths agape, the roar of the water so loud we couldn’t hear one another speak. Each day brought a different discovery, each waterfall containing its own personality but the elements consistent . . . the strong yet manageable current flowing toward a rocky cliff, the force of the water jettisoning over the edge, creating a deafening roar of turbulent waters plummeting into the irony of a serene pool of water. It’s that abrupt transition that captivates me most: the fierceness of the cascading waters finding their home in this peaceful, still pool of water. The waterfall reminds me of life’s path. It has been my experience that life is a series of crises bridged by brief moments of calm and peace. We travel along, doing what needs to be done, moving swiftly like a water’s current until something happens—a diagnosis, a job ends, a relationship breaks, a terrorist strikes, hate becomes personified, an elected leader fails, a child hurts, a loved one dies—the list is long and varied, but suddenly we are rocketed over the cliff, tumbling against the roar of the turbulence in our lives, sputtering and gasping for breath. We have lost our footing and we cannot hear anything over the roar of anger and pain and struggle and sadness and disappointment. We can do nothing, it seems, except surrender to the intensity of the experience and wonder if we will ever know solid footing again. These are waters of rage, waters of grief, waters of chaos, waters of fear.

And then . . . the calm. The waterfall’s mystery and majesty is that all the intensity of the falls lands in peaceful waters. It is as if the falls themselves take a deep breath, relax and relish the conclusion of their long, exhausting journey. And when we look back on our life’s turbulent falls, we too can name the pools of calm, the water of clarity, the times when we could breathe a little easier because the intensity of emotion had ebbed just enough to let something else through. In that pool of calm, we can hear other voices besides the roaring in our heads, we can look forward knowing that life will not always exist in turbulence, we can float for a bit without having to struggle to keep our head above the water. We can let go of the fear that tends to paralyze us.

There are no waterfalls in our story from Matthew’s gospel today, but there are some mighty rough waters. Jesus, again modeling to us the need to be “be still and know God” as our psalmist writes, has sent his disciples off in a boat, following the feeding of the multitudes, while he spends time in solitude, prayer and discernment. The disciples, most of whom were professional fishermen, know what to do. But the weather changes, a magnificent storm brews and suddenly the sea roars and foams. And sometimes even professionals encounter elements with which they feel powerless. Time passes and Jesus, seemingly oblivious to the weather, finally makes his way to his disciples in his given style—he walks on the water. Of course. The disciples, now cowering in fear, think they are seeing a ghost, and their fear escalates to near-hysteria. Jesus offers the assurance he does over and over in the gospels—do not be afraid. “Do not be afraid,” he says. But when the winds are raging and the water is turbulent and life is uncertain, we can’t hear or heed that command; we are simply too focused on not drowning. This is the disciples’ experience. This is our experience, too. Except Peter, I guess, who was always up for a good challenge and demands to walk on the water, too. Jesus issues the invitation: Come. And Peter—bold, brave, belligerent Peter—actually steps out of the boat. Rising above the storm, putting aside his fear, Peter steps out of the boat and starts walking on the water. However, this moment of victory is cut abruptly short when Peter looks around and realizes what he is doing, feels the angry wind on his face, loses focus on his savior and submits to fear. Peter sinks, Jesus saves and eventually they all wind up back in the boat wet, weary and wondering where the ebb and flow of the strange tides of life will take them next.

Fear and faith often walk hand in hand. In these strange days it would be insensitive, I think, to tell you all not to be afraid. We watch racists shout obscenities and our president commending some of them as nice guys. We mourn another terrorist attack in Spain and shake our heads in despair over stabbings at a Finland market. In a bizarre set of circumstances, six police officers were shot in three separate incidents in one night. Yesterday, I found myself holding my breath as I continually tuned into the news to see if and what kind of violence might have erupted in the smattering of protests around the country. Fear pervades as we question our news sources and wonder what version of the truth is real. Fear escalates as we wait and wonder why white supremacists aren’t held accountable by the president of the United States. Fear consumes as we wonder if anywhere is truly safe. Fear is a part of our daily life as we wrestle with personal trauma and tragedy and then try to reconcile the events in the world that tear down and destroy the fabric of relationships we thought were based on mutuality and peace. Even here, in our beloved church, fear is festering. We wonder what the future holds. We seek common understanding.

But our scripture lesson reminds us that fear is not the only response. In faith, we can step out of the boat.

Not long ago my life was cloaked in fear. Trying desperately to break free from the embrace of my husband’s addiction while also trying to provide for my children who wanted so much to feel loved by their father left me with a pretty consistent simmer of fear in my belly. One day as I was shopping for necessities I saw a wooden block with a kitschy saying of the type that are seemingly all the rage. It said “Let your Faith be Bigger than Your Fear.” Cliché? Maybe. Simplistic? Maybe. But it was a message I needed in that moment and have needed in just about every moment since. So I bought the kitschy block of wood. And I read it every day. And I try to live it. And I know you do, too. Let your faith be bigger than your fear.

I believe it is faith that encouraged Peter to get out of the boat. I believe it is faith that prompted 15,000 people to show up in Boston yesterday to stand in the face of evil personified. I believe it is faith that prompts us to act for love, to seek justice, to proclaim the possibilities of peace. Even when we are shaking in our boots, it is faith that gives us the courage to take the next step.

I believe it is faith that keeps our heads above the turbulent waters.

Faith in God, faith in justice, faith in hope, faith that we are better when we embrace our differences, faith in compassion, faith that even when people spew hate-filled words and threaten with clubs that we can take hands and speak peace. Faith that, as one peacemaker’s sign from Charlottesville stated: “If you can learn how to hate, we can teach you to love . . . again.” Faith that love always wins.

We, as a community of faith, are in the midst of some turbulent waters. We feel unsettled in the pews today perhaps because our personal lives are in turmoil, the world at large is fractured by white privilege and hate, and here in this place we seek to reconcile the sadness and confusion over the departure of our senior minister. We have catapulted over the cliff and have a ways to go before we plunge into the calm waters at the base of the falls. Waterfalls, in their loud, lively beauty, are active. They are constant motion; they are bodies of wild energy. The only way for us to eventually land in the calm waters is to keep our heads up and engaged. To be active. To be involved. To be present. We must call out racism and hatred wherever it lives, even when it exists in the very people we love. We must not hide from the conflict in our own lives but find the courage to ask for necessary help. Believe me, I know how hard that is, but trust me when I tell you that, when we face the difficult truth of family secrets, the world opens to us in life-giving ways. And we must remain a faith community rooted in compassion, tenderly caring for one another through difficult seasons of our church life together, believing that the mission of faith, love and justice on which Plymouth is founded continues to be God’s will for us. I will not say to you “Do not be afraid,” because fear may be exactly what we need to get ourselves out of the boat. However, as the ebb and flow of our lives continue—our individual lives and our life based in spiritual community—I will encourage you always to “let your faith be bigger than your fear.”

Let your faith be bigger than your fear.

Let your faith be bigger than your fear.

Amen.