Discomfort, Inadequacy, Fear, and Jesus

Started by Matte Downey, Mar 13, 2018, 1:51 PM

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Matte Downey Quebec Regional Leader

Christus und Petrus 1.2010.jpg.k.jpg

How are you doing? All good? I am doing pretty well, thanks for asking. Well, to be honest, I do have a bit of discomfort. Not so much externally, but inside. I am sitting at my desk, staring at a calendar mottled with deadlines, meetings, events, and tasks. None of that screams relaxation. Quite the opposite. Putting myself out there on a regular basis as a teacher and writer means that much of the time I experience some level of discomfort.

Also, I have to admit that I feel inadequate a lot of the time. I have a good set of skills, but that is never enough when one is encountering people who need real comfort, real wisdom, and real friendship. What can I say or write that will be relevant? That will make any difference? That won't be the same old trite words? That won't be bordering on heresy? Many times, I feel like I am in over my head.

One more thing. I am a tiny bit afraid. Afraid to fail. Afraid that no one will like me or what I bring to the table. Afraid that I will hurt people and say something stupid. Afraid that things will go horribly wrong somehow. Afraid that I will disappoint those who are counting on me.

So, I have discomfort. I have inadequacy, I have fear. But I also have Jesus. And that's good. More than good. That makes all the difference. That's why I am still writing and teaching and pastoring and trying to love and not hiding in a closet, crying. I have Jesus. Or should I say, Jesus has me.

Jesus makes everything better. Well, yes and no. You see, all the things I just described, those things we don't like to experience, are part of what it means to learn, to change, to be transformed. Ten years ago, I decided to pursue graduate studies, and from the very first day, along with a lot of excitement, I experienced discomfort, inadequacy, and fear. And that didn't change much throughout my studies. If we are students and disciples, learning the way of Jesus, we will experience these things as well. There is no change without discomfort. If you have ever learned a new language, started a new job, tried to master a new skill, or become a parent, you know this. The feeling of "I can't do this." The sense of being in over your head. The fear that you will make a mess of it all.

When we answer Jesus's call to "Follow me," we find our lives completely reoriented. We embark on a transformative journey, a learning journey. And it should not surprise us that the presence of Jesus in our lives triggers some discomfort, some feelings of inadequacy, and a bit of fear. The disciples are prime examples of how disruptive and unsettling the presence of Jesus can be. Just look at these three stories about Peter and Jesus.

DISCOMFORT: A rich man came to Jesus, asking how he could receive eternal life (life in the presence of God). Jesus replied that in addition to keeping the commandments, he should give away all his riches to the poor. The rich man couldn't bring himself to leave his wealth, his way of life, so he walked away, saddened. Peter responded: "'Look, we have left everything and followed you.' Jesus said, 'Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.'" (Mark 10:28-31, NRSV)

Jesus reassures Peter that those who have left everything to follow him will not be destitute. As a follower of Jesus, I can testify that this is true. I have enjoyed the comfort of familial bonds and cozy guest rooms and tables of bounty due to the generous hospitality of the larger church of Jesus Christ. But Jesus also promises persecutions, and that means discomfort. Being a disciple of Jesus means leaving what is familiar or feels safe in order to enter a new way of being and living. Jesus likens this transformation to being born again, and if you know anything about giving birth, you know that this is not a comfortable transition. Being a disciple of Jesus also means reorienting our priorities. The first becomes last and the least becomes most important. This counter-cultural shift is a crash course in discomfort.

INADEQUACY: In Matthew 16, Jesus asks his disciples, who have been with him for some time now, who they believe he is. It is an opportunity for them to articulate their belief and trust that their teacher, though not entirely who or what they expected, is indeed the promised Messiah. Peter, always quick to reply, answers with: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." He receives high praise from Jesus for this declaration. Peter seems to be nailing the discipleship course, but things change rather quickly. Jesus begins to explain that his journey is leading toward Jerusalem where suffering and death and resurrection await him. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, obviously not wanting these horrible things to happen to his beloved master. I can picture Peter standing directly in front of Jesus, blocking his path to Jerusalem. Jesus says to Peter, "Get behind me, [adversary]; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns."

How could the star pupil so quickly become the fool? There is a clue in the way Jesus addresses Peter. Jesus calls Peter a rock (petros), and indicates that on this rock (petra) Jesus will build the church. Petros indicates a small pebble, totally inadequate as a building foundation. Petra is a solid mass of stone, such as we see in the city of Petra in Jordan. Jesus knew what Peter was made of, that he was not up for the task of building this new community called the church, but he invited him to be part of it anyway. Even though he would make horrible blunders all along the way, like directly opposing Jesus immediately after acing the test. When Jesus said, "Get behind me," he was telling Peter to stop blocking his way and become a follower once more (reorienting himself to be behind Jesus), not an adversary (standing in front of Jesus). Being a disciple of Jesus means we are always learning and growing. Eugene Peterson writes, "There are no experts in the company of Jesus. We are all beginners, necessarily followers, because we don't know where we are going." Inadequacy is part of walking with Jesus; it reveals where we need to learn and grow and be reoriented.

FEAR: Early one morning the disciples were in a boat crossing the sea. Jesus came walking toward them on the water and they were afraid, not recognizing him. Jesus said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid" (Matthew 26). Peter, star student that he was, wanted to emulate his teacher, so he asked Jesus to invite him onto the water. Jesus said, "Come," and Peter stepped out of the boat. Things started really well, but Peter saw the strong wind and the deep water and the fear returned. He started to sink, but Jesus caught him. Because that's what teachers do when their students are flailing. While some read this account as another one of Peter's great failures, I see it as one of the many learning encounters between Jesus and Peter.

Fear happens. We will encounter the unknown. We will find ourselves in scary situations. This will not diminish when we follow Jesus. Remember, Peter found himself in this precarious situation precisely because he was with Jesus. Being a disciple of Jesus means that we try new things when Jesus bids us to. We get to practice being unafraid, practice not responding to the "fight or flight" impulse. Not surprisingly, Peter did both, chopping off a soldier's ear with a sword when they came to arrest Jesus, and running back to his fishing job after Jesus's disgraceful death and surprising resurrection. Peter and his messy learning journey are such a gift to us.

Like Peter, we have to practice looking at Jesus and not at every scary detail and situation around us. An encounter with the divine causes many people to be afraid, and people who encountered Jesus were no exception. But Jesus always responded, "Don't be afraid." Jesus was not there to incite awe or fear, but to show the way of love. And love is always greater than fear.

If we are in any way involved in learning, in discipleship, in a journey of transformation, we will encounter discomfort. Jesus invites us to enter into the suffering of the world, just as he did. He also invites us into a new way of living, and that will chafe at us in many ways. Jesus also invites us to embrace humility, to recognize our need for grace, and to learn how to co-labour with Christ. This means we will feel inadequate a lot of the time. That's normal. Finally, Jesus invites us to become people of courage through trusting that his faithful, loving presence is more real than all our fears.

Discomfort, inadequacy, and fear are simply the road noise that lets us know we are on a journey. They remind us that we are not stuck, not standing still, not in a rut, but on an adventure. Our focus must remain on Jesus, our trusted companion and guide, not the noisy clamour of the journey. So here we go. Crank the tunes. Get those car dancing moves ready. Turn your eyes upon Jesus.

Image from icons-interfaith.blogspot.com


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