In 2017, the “Terrible Loyalty” I Owe You (and You Owe Me), by Leslie Leyland Fields
“We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”
On Christmas Eve, the north wind tried to break in. The walls shook, the windows bowed under the knock of its hand. The rain struck with such force we thought we’d be sucked from our beds and swept away in a river down our stairs.
Some years on this faraway island of Rock in Alaska are like this. Last winter, El Nino delivered to us four months of nearly unceasing storms, some of them with hurricane force winds that timbered trees and tore roofs off. This is my home, where gales and hurricanes hand out and practice their dark arts.
But we all live here, don’t we? We all live in a time and a place where one storm follows another, and there we are, out on the sea in small boats. Sometimes we can barely hold on.
Now another year is swelling and breaking upon us. How do we greet this new year with joy and innocence and hope? How do we pretend we are not sea-rocked and sick, tired and shaken from the old?
Come with me into another stormy night.
Twelve men were crossing the sea that night, twelve friends. It was just a lake, really, but the winds could barrel down and stir that coin of a lake into an angry ocean in minutes, and could blow for hours. There they were, men with just oars in their hands, with just muscle in their arms and shoulders, only flesh against the wind and waters. All night long they leaned into the oars just to keep the bow into the waves, to save their lives. But their strength waned with each hour. And not two miles had passed.
You know what happened near morning, how Jesus came to them upon the waters, feet on the tops of the sloshing waves. And you remember how one of them, Peter, our darling impetuous Peter leaped overboard into the waves to walk toward Jesus. And for a few miraculous moments, there he was, tight-wiring on the sea itself, a man aloft on the tumultuous waters, Peter the Triumphant mastering gravity, mortality, and inadequacy! How spectacular! How dramatic!
He’s our patron saint, this Peter. Since that five second walk on water, we have all been urged to “get out of the boat” so we too can “walk on water.” We are told that if we have the faith of Peter, we too can leap out and tread on stormy seas, victorious! And, if we only keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ll never sink beneath the waves!
But maybe we’ve gotten this wrong. I doubt that Peter leaped out of the boat because of his great faith. They were terrified, these men, thinking this form in the storm was a phantom, a phantasm, the Greek says. Of course it was a ghost! Didn’t all the men know the ancient stories of the sea, that it harbored the spirits of the dead? Against their fear, Jesus identified himself clearly to his friends in the storm: “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.”
This is what we forget about this story. That it was Peter’s idea to walk on water, not Jesus.’ Jesus never intended for Peter or any of them to walk on water. There was no need. Jesus had already given them a boat. And companions, each other, to row it. And he had given himself, there upon the waters, with them. That is enough. More than enough.
I write this now because another year is coming, swelling and breaking upon us. I write this because this last year I have seen people jump overboard—abandoning their families, their faith. I have seen people choose politics over people, choose anger over love, choose conspiracy over truth. This new year, we will not escape, any of us, the brush of death, the terrors of love, the tides of fear, the crushing graces of a life we do not deserve. The waters will rise, and there will be wars and rumors of wars; there will be bombs among the innocents, guns among the young; there will be family fights and difficult reconciliations; there will be feasts and singing among broken hearts. Babies will be born, fathers will die, weddings will break out in the streets, while the seas rise and fall, while the waves whisper and roar.
We’ll tire at the oars, we will. We’ll see the water filling the boat, we’ll bail for all we’re worth, we’ll think we’re going to sink.
But the words he spoke to those terrified men that night, exhausted by the storm, terrified by a ghost, are words for us now at the end of 2016.
“Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.”
What’s going to happen this year? No one knows, but we’ve been given a boat—-our church, our family, the Words of God, Jesus himself, the body of Christ. And I believe there is no storm, no wind, no dark, no sea that can keep him from us. He will always find us. He will come to us as the King and Lord over all of creation, striding on the very waters that threaten us, and he’ll call to us, gently and strong, from inside every storm,
“Take courage. It is I. Do not be afraid.”
Let us keep rowing, dear friends, beside one another.
We will not be afraid.