Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Boats, Danger, Fortitude

I read this to my 6th graders today and had them draw a symbol of fortitude to tape in their lockers. Most drew anchors. xoxo I think I might be their teacher after all.


Once upon a time, my sisters and I got in a canoe. We were staying down on the Gasconade River, on a little slough off the river, a side stream without much current. The owners of the property kept canoes down there, and we pushed one into the water and began to paddle around in the still water under the shade of pretty late spring trees.

Bevin was in the middle, sitting on the bottom of the canoe. She’s 8 years younger than me. Colleen, 11 years younger than me, was in the front.  We paddled around and chatted and then suddenly Bevin stood up.

Bevin stood up in the canoe.

You don’t stand up in canoes. It isn’t really a thing. You stand up in a canoe and you’re gonna wind up in the water.

But there she was, standing up in the middle of the canoe.

“Bevin, I swear to God, if there is a spider in the boat and you’re freaking out--” I started. I imagined us all in the dark water because she was scared of a spider.

“No Bridgett!” she yelled back. “There’s a snake!”

There was a snake in our boat. A dark snake. Small. But not like a little garter snake. Nope nope. It was a snake. And we were together in a boat with a snake.

Have you ever seen a bee? And you think, aww, a bee, and you watch it go from flower to flower? Now, have you ever been in the car and realized there’s a bee with you? And you freak all the way out and panic and have to pull the car over because that bee IS GOING TO KILL YOU IN YOUR CAR?

Multiply that panic by a zillion and that’s what was happening in our canoe.

Colleen started screaming. Just imagine it the whole time: “I can’t steer the boat! I’m too weak!” repeated again and again. Bevin, in the middle, stirred the snake with her paddle. We couldn’t pick up the snake. We couldn’t tip us into the water.

“We have to kill it,” I said, realizing I was standing as well.

Bevin agreed. But I wasn’t sure how I would kill it with a plastic end of a canoe paddle. And then Bevin reached under the snake with the paddle, like a scoop, and lifted it up. I got it. I yelled at Colleen to keep the boat from hitting the log, from hitting the shore, from capsizing, while Bevin scooped the snake, and then I caught it on my paddle, and then on hers, and then on mine, all the way into the water.

The snake dropped into the river and we watched it swim about six feet away.

And then turn, lift its head out of the water, and come back at our boat with its mouth open.

With its white cottony mouth open.

The three of us stared.

“That’s a water moccasin,” one of us said.

We paddled the canoe back over to the shore, thinking about this. Thinking about how we were a half mile straight down from our cabin. How, once we were to reach our car, we were 45 minutes from the nearest hospital.

One of us would have died. Probably Bevin. Maybe me. There’s no cell service on the river. There’s no first aid kit. No antidote. We would have died. If not for Bevin’s clear thinking and Colleen not keeping us from capsizing and my cooperating and all of it--if we hadn’t bravely tried to get that snake out of the boat and keep us in it, we wouldn’t have survived.

We walked up the hill, the adrenaline draining from our bodies. Reached the cabin and crashed hard. I’m pretty sure I cried from the what-ifs. So many what-ifs.

But I have another story about a boat.

The apostles were on the Sea of Galilee, fishing, which is what they did, when suddenly they saw what they first thought was a ghost, but then began to realize was Jesus, walking on the water. I’m sure that some of them were in deep denial about what was happening--you can’t walk on water, silly, I must be seeing things. I’m sure that some were terrified. Perhaps all of them were terrified. But Peter saw Jesus and knew who he was and got out of the boat, starting to walk towards him on the water.

If you know this story, you know what happens next. He begins to realize what he’s doing, how crazy it is, how impossible, and he begins to fall into the sea. Jesus saves him and asks him why he doubted.

Lots of preachers and writers criticize Peter because of his lack of faith. If only he had believed more fully, he could have walked all the way across that sea to Jesus. Right?

But think about it. Peter got out of the boat.

We’re not talking about a boat parked on somebody’s driveway. This isn’t a rowboat sitting on the shore of a lake and you have to put your foot down into the mushy sand to push off the shore. This is a fishing boat on the sea. On a stormy sea. The best place to be when you are in a stormy sea is IN A BOAT. There’s not a single reason to get out of the boat. Nothing.

We are all in our boats. In our comfortable places. We all look around us and are comforted by strong walls and routines and expected things and knowing what comes next and being able to do what we need to do. Peter was a fisherman, had been his whole life. He knew boats like you know the soccer field or your mom’s SUV or your classrooms. It was familiar, comfortable, easy.

And he got out of the boat.

That is fortitude.

His 11 friends still in the boat? They were careful, sure. They were maybe afraid. Curious. Intimidated. You could say that perhaps they were wise to stay in the boat. I can imagine Thomas turning to Andrew and saying, “No way that is Jesus.” And then Andrew shaking his head and saying, “Actually, I’m pretty sure that is.” And the two of them standing on the deck staring out at the sea, unsure of what was happening, baffled, confused, amazed. But they stayed on the boat.

Peter was always the first apostle to see clearly. He denied Jesus, he wasn’t perfect. None of us is. But what he did that day in the boat was SEE what was going on. He saw Jesus there on the water. And he wanted nothing more than to follow him. To be with him. To do as he was doing.

And so he got out of his boat.

“Look at crazy Peter, he’s going to drown,” James shook his head.

“I wish I had thought to get out of the boat,” Simon thought to himself. “But I just can’t.”

“I still don’t think that was the right idea, I still don’t think that’s Jesus,” insisted Thomas to himself.

But Peter knew. Perhaps he acted without thinking it all the way through--perhaps he’s not the best example of Prudence, which is a virtue for another month--but he knew. And he tried.

God revels in weakness that tries, a Benedictine once told me. Fortitude is the virtue that lets us try. It lets us get out of our boats and into the water with all the messiness of the sea, of life. With the danger and the potential loss and risk. But with Jesus, with Fortitude, we can try.

We might slip under the waves. Peter did, and he was the rock Jesus built his church upon. But he tried. He didn’t stand on the boat just marveling at what was happening in front of him. He participated.

That is what we are called to do. To participate in life. In its messiness and sadness and glory and hard truths and losses and trials. We are supposed to get out of our boats. Roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. Keep trying. Stand up for what is right. Stand up for those who have no one to support them. Reach out to Jesus. Reach out to each other.


  1. I think you might be their teacher, too. And they are SO lucky that you are!!

  2. If you were a pastor, I'd come to your church. Just sayin'.