At the beginning of the pandemic, it was inevitable that we’d all come to the ends of our ropes. By now, however, we’ve all come to the ends of our ropes over and over and over again—people continue to die, whether from police brutality or this deadly virus, there’s no safety net, no childcare for working parents, no school for kids or support for people with disabilities, there’s no security, no hope in sight, it feels like what we give is never enough, and then the day starts over.
What do you do, how do you live, when there is no rope left?
You know the story where Jesus is walking on water and Peter wants to do it, too? Jesus commands Peter to come, and Peter’s doing it, he’s walking on water until the wind comes along, he becomes frightened, and he begins to sink. Just as Peter begins to sink, Jesus immediately reaches out his hand, pulls him into the boat and says to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-33) We often read this story as a cautionary tale about Peter’s lack of faith, but I wonder if we’re too quick to judge and our judgment clouds what God is showing us.
After all, we have all been faithless before.
A few weeks ago, not being able to be with a few of my dearest friends who were experiencing death and life transitions and challenges, began to break me. I felt so helpless and worthless and horrible. If I’m honest with myself, maybe I felt as upset about not being a good friend as I did about being apart from them and watching them suffer.
You see, I wanted to swoop in — I get a lot of satisfaction from swooping in — from helping people, especially helping them to solve their problems. Take that away from me, and maybe I’m not such a good pastor, maybe I’m not such a good friend, or even a good Christian.
It seemed to take proud, self-sufficient, busy, self-important me a long time to get to the end of my rope, but eventually, because there was literally nothing left to do, I cried out to God in prayer. I sat on my porch, morning after morning and just because there was nothing else I could do for anyone, I prayed.
Isn’t it ridiculous that it took a pandemic for me to lay down my work, my ministry, my problem-solving abilities, and call on God to help?
Isn’t it ridiculous that it took me getting to the absolute end of my rope to see my need for God’s faithfulness? Isn’t it ridiculous that we often think that ministry as primarily about our faithfulness rather than God’s faithfulness to us?
I think we’re often very proud that we never get to the end of our rope, but isn’t that somewhat the same thing as not truly letting God rescue us? I wonder how many of us are there on the water—sinking, flailing, drowning—yet too resolved to admit our weakness, our helplessness, our need for God.
The point of this passage is not that Peter is faithless—we’re all faithless at times—but rather that God is faithful. And that no lack of faith on Peter’s part, your part, or my part can screw up God’s ministry. When Peter cries out, “Lord save me!” Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catches him.
He would never not catch him. God’s faithfulness endures even when ours falters.
But that is also not the end of the story. Out of heartbreak and helplessness, mercy ministers and hope is birthed. Out of the heart-wrenching book of Lamentations comes the promise, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
We’ve been cooped up like you all in quarantine, perhaps even a bit more because my daughter has multiple disabilities and is immunocompromised. But she and her nurse have also been walking the neighborhood morning and afternoon and by now, they’ve met neighbors who we never knew existed in ordinary times. The older man just down the street from us told us recently that now that he has to move, the thing he will miss most about the neighborhood is seeing Lucia everyday, especially her smile.
As we walked home from a short visit with our neighbor my husband mused, “I wonder why it is that so many people respond to Lucia that way, that they feel like they have a special connection with her even when they’ve only just met her.” Lucia neither walks nor talks: she doesn’t see well and she can’t really move her arms or legs purposively. I try on a few explanations for Lucia’s magnetism until I finally reply, “I think that when Lucia interacts, she doesn’t hold back. Like when she laughs, she chortles and cackles and carries on, and when she smiles, she’s not stingy, she gives you a huge, effusive, effervescent smile. She doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. And to feel like you can make someone that happy in an instant, and to receive that kind of abounding love from someone is something none of us can get enough of.”
The glorious truth of the gospel is that we don’t need to save ourselves: God’s already done that.
And although the human condition is depraved and arduous and painful and really sucks a lot of the time, there are these antidotes to it, these gifts of joy and hope that we know are from God, because they bubble up like laughter, the break forth like smiles from somewhere well beyond, outside ourselves. The faithfulness of God meets us in our most faithless hour, pulling us up and out of the water, where the steadfast love of the Lord engulfs us in seemingly impossible ways.
Who would have thought that in despair, God would meet me in prayer? Who would have thought that in a pandemic, my daughter would bring joy to the neighborhood? Who would have thought that God can restore us in our very helplessness, if we only let go of our own ropes and reach out for Jesus’s hand? Who would have thought that God’s mercies would be new, even this very morning?
“You of little faith,” I hear God saying. “Through it all, I am faithful. I will never, ever forsake you.”
The Rev. Dr. Erin Raffety
Erin Raffety is a Presbyterian pastor, a Cultural Anthropologist, and Research Fellow in Pastoral Care & Machine Intelligence at the Center for Theological Inquiry. She is currently working on a book on the ministry and leadership of people with disabilities in the church.
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