Uncharted Waters

When in grade school, I was fascinated with 15th-16th century nautical explorers and the ships they sailed into uncharted waters. I was particularly fascinated with Columbus and Magellan and the courage it took to sail off into the wild blue yonder, not knowing what awaited them on the other end of the journey. In their travels they had a general idea where they were headed (or, at least, where they thought they were headed). However, they were at the mercy of the elements that tossed them to and fro, often driving them off course.

I have often heard the phrase “we are navigating uncharted waters” to describe our world as we know it today. Uncharted indeed! We don’t know exactly where we are headed, we are tossed about daily as news changes, and we have no idea what is on the other end of the journey. Uncharted waters and we feel a bit overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed.  A few years ago I wondered, “If one can be overwhelmed, is it possible to be whelmed? Is there such a word?” I discovered there is such a word as whelmed! It’s a nautical term that basically means to engulf or submerge.  Its root relates to the overturning of a vessel in a storm.  As bad as being in an overturned vessel might seem, we might still be alive and rescue still possible.  Overwhelmed, on the other hand, implies complete defeat. We are on the way to the bottom!

One of my favorite gospel stories is found in Matthew 14 where our friend Peter walked on water. If Mathew’s narrative is chronological, then this is what led up to the event…

John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod, the puppet Jewish king set up by the Roman empire. John was the prophet that called people to repentance (including Herod) and prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. He was also Jesus’ cousin. When Jesus heard of his cousin’s death, “he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” The people figured out where he was and his solitude was interrupted by 15-20,000 people! Filled with compassion, he healed people all day long. He wrapped up his interrupted day by feeding all of them, then sneaking off to continue his time of solitude, sending his disciples by boat to the other side of the lake.

So off sailed the disciples, into the wind, beaten about by the waves. Sometime between 3:00a and 6:00a, after struggling to get half-way across the lake, Jesus approached their boat walking on the water. They were terrified (an understatement!) and cried out in fear, to which Jesus reassured them that it was he and they need not be afraid. (Have you ever noticed how often Jesus told people not to be afraid, to “fear not?”)

Peter, as he was wont to do, spoke first asking Jesus if he, too, could walk on the water.  So Jesus (I’m sure with a twinkle in his eye) said “Sure.” As Peter walked on the water toward Jesus, he looked around at the waves with fear and started to sink. He was whelmed by the waves crashing around him (not overwhelmed yet – his head was still above water) and cried to Jesus for help.  “Lord save me” were his exact words. Jesus extended his hand which Peter wisely grabbed before he became overwhelmed!

As we navigate the uncharted waters of a world-wide pandemic, we might be feeling a bit overwhelmed. Truth be told, as long as we have our head above water, we are simply whelmed, able to see Jesus’ extended hand. This is where trust comes into the picture. Can I trust Him in my state of whelmness? Or do I double down – work harder, try harder, tread harder? No doubt, there is certainly hard work for us in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather navigate uncharted waters from on top, rather than the ocean floor.

Which Jesus do we “Follow?”

Over the past 15-20 years, many people have preferred to refer to themselves as Christ-followers rather than Christians, of which I am one. However, what following looks like has everything to do with who we understand Jesus to be and what he is up to in the 21st century.

In the last post, I suggested that there is a significant difference between “believing” and “following.” I would further suggest that we consider the difference to be related to who we understand Jesus to be, rather than a mere definition differentiation of the two terms. It is important that we distinguish between cognitive belief, typical of 21st century western thought, and pisteuō, the Greek New Testament word often translated as “believe.” It might have more to do with who we want Jesus to be in our day-to-day lives.

What if I view Jesus in a transactional manner – meaning, he came, died and rose for the forgiveness of my sins with my acceptance of his action as a completion of the transaction? How might that affect who Jesus is to me? How might that affect daily life? I would propose that a transactional understanding of faith leads to a ‘static’ Jesus – he came to earth, did his job, and returned to heaven awaiting our arrival (unless he comes back to get us first). It’s the Jesus of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism! Consider what a static Jesus looks like…

In truth, the “Jesus card” (above) that we gave the confirmation kids depicts a static Jesus – he’s not moving. Since he’s not moving, I can move toward and away from with ease and regularity. If I need him, I know where to find him – he’s right where I left him (i.e., I can leave him at Church and come back to see him the following week(s)). A static Jesus is safe and predictable and will not mess with my world. This is the Jesus of western cultural Christianity, the one we manipulate* so we can live a nice, civilized life. His job is to make us happy. With this Jesus, it’s mostly about me and sometimes about him. This Jesus won’t ask much of me. This Jesus will randomly ask us to serve others to appease him and to feel better about ourselves. I can’t follow a static Jesus (he’s not moving!). I can only “believe” in him. This all begs the question: “How can I have a dynamic relationship with a static Jesus?”

In reality, Jesus is on the move, advancing the kingdom work he inaugurated 2000+ years ago. As confirmation classes progressed, we helped the kids understand this. What changes for me if I see Jesus as present and on the move? Everything!

The Jesus depicted above is not static. He invaded our world 2000 years ago and turned things upside down.  This Jesus is on the move and has invited me to join him in his movement – the advancement of his kingdom.  If I choose to walk away from this Jesus for a while, he moves on without me because it’s not about me – it’s all about Him.  This Jesus asks for a lot – all of me.  This Jesus says that our primary purpose on earth is to serve others.  This is the Jesus of Christ-followers.  This Jesus is worth following and makes my following worthwhile.  This is the Jesus of scripture.  THIS IS THE REAL JESUS. Oh, and I can have a dynamic relationship with this Jesus!

I would suggest that if we find ourselves with a static Jesus, we don’t really know him. We have built a faith primarily on knowing about him. Consider that the Pharisees primarily had a static view of God. We certainly don’t want to align our theology with the Pharisees, but many of us have. How we follow is affected by how we view Jesus. Which Jesus do you “follow?”


For Your Consideration:

“It was the good (and extremely dangerous) news that the living God was on the move. Jesus came to Galilee as a wandering prophet, not a stationary one. Jesus’s contemporaries trusted all sorts of things: their ancestry, their land, their Temple, their laws.  Even their God – provided this God did exactly as they expected him to” (my emphasis). (From NT Wright in Mark for Everyone – comments regarding Mark 1:14-20.)


* The most accurate definition of idolatry is “conscious manipulation of God.”