Monday, March 11, 2013

Pulling Through the Rough Waters

 "The surf that distresses the ordinary swimmer produces in the surf-rider
the super-joy of going clean through it."
(Oswald Chambers)

Once when I was getting a life-insurance quote over the phone, the sales rep found out that I worked for the Catholic Church and asked: “How does it make you feel that your first pope denied Christ three times?”  Inspired the Holy Spirit (and by a desire to get back to business!), I said that knowing the first pope was a repentant sinner made me feel like there was hope for me too.  He dropped the topic, and we moved on to finish the quote.

One of the many indicators of the authenticity of the Gospels is precisely the fact that St. Peter is depicted with all of his failings and faults and character flaws:  What kind of start-up religion would paint its first earthly leader in such a compromised light?!  When I came across the painting and quote above, however, I had a newfound appreciation for Peter’s heroic virtue, his "surf-rider" temperament, and his “all-in” attitude.  Rather than focusing on his initial brashness in asking the Lord to call him to walk across the water, or his well-documented fear of the rough water and failure to keep his eyes fixed on Christ, I found myself imagining how the Apostles must have admired Peter precisely for letting the Lord pull him through the rough waters.  Like any good fishing story, the tale must have gotten better and better, and the waves bigger and bigger, the more they looked back on it!

If you’ve ever somehow made it through a particularly challenging time, or overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, you know the feeling.  In retrospect, as we look back, we can almost see the providential hand of the Lord leading us across the wild waters and through the danger. 

The turbulent sea is an image of the powerful forces which can create turmoil for our frail human hearts.  Traditionally, Christians have identified three main threats to our spiritual well-being: the world, the flesh, and the devil.  "The world" refers not to creation itself, but to the temptation to live our life without God; the lures of "mammon," or worldly comforts, threaten to limit the very horizon of our life and reduce us to mere producers and consumers.  "The flesh" implies no denigration of the goodness of the body, but rather calls our attention to our fallen human nature and to the tendency to for us to be swallowed up by lust or gluttony or greed or sloth or envy; we are all drawn toward at least one of these deadly sins, and failing to identify it and address it is perilous.  "The devil" is of course a root cause behind all the troubled seas through which we must pass, but his expertise is the alternate whispering of pride and despair: strive to become "like gods" and live by the motto "my will be done"; then, when the waves of such self-absorption threaten to swallow you, despair that God could ever want to save such a wretched soul.

Of course, for almost two thousand years the Church has taught that there is one remedy to whatever seems poised to sink us.  It is the outpouring of divine power in Christ--the gift of his grace, his ever-ready and outstretched hand.  Sometimes when we look at our lives or our communities or the church universal, what catches our eye is the rough water or the wavering faith. 

To the credit of the sales rep mentioned above, he thanked me before we hung up and said I had given him a lot to think about.  I like to imagine that he was a bit less focused less on the turmoil or the perceived failures, and more struck by the hand of our Lord pulling broken and humble souls through various trials in life. The Church, after all, is a divine institution made up of sinful people like Peter and you and me.  The holiness of its members comes not from the member themselves, but from their willingness to let the Lord transform their doubts and fears and failures into triumphs of divine mercy. 

That's what the "super-joy" of the Gospel is all about.