It was Descartes who said, “I think, therefore I am.” Who am I? I’m the one thinking my thoughts. Well, that seems clear enough.
But if we can slow ourselves down enough in order to spend a little time simply observing ourselves thinking, this “I” who is thinking our thoughts shows itself to be quite puzzling. In our limited control of them, our thoughts resemble wild horses, or perhaps more accurately, wild squirrels in that they jump so quickly from subject to subject. In the course of a few seconds of observation we will likely notice contradictory thoughts running through our heads.
For instance, the thought “I want to lose weight” may exist in close proximity to, “I’d really like a bowl of ice cream right now.” Or the sincerely expressed thought, “I want to be an instrument of God’s love” may be followed closely by some petty, mean-spirited thought regarding somebody we know.
All of which points to the difficulty involved at trying to define this “I” who is thinking all these thoughts. We might attempt to identify our self with the aspirations of our more noble thoughts, but we realize that any description of this self that fails to acknowledge the whole range of thoughts that race through our minds isn’t really telling the whole truth.
The good part of this, however, is that, on the positive side, there is also always more to us than our self-limiting definitions acknowledge.
When we hear this morning’s Gospel lesson, the thing that many of us latch onto is the walking on the water. Did this really happen? Did Jesus really do that? Frankly, I’m not sure. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. I don’t know that it matters, though, and if we focus on this question, we may miss the larger point being made here.
What we do get in this story is a pretty accurate depiction of the mind at work, specifically the mind of Peter the apostle. First, you see his capacity to hold contradictory thoughts in close proximity. There is Peter’s trust of Jesus — his desire to follow Jesus wherever he leads. But there is also Peter’s fear — his compulsion to focus on the wind and the dark, cold water beneath him and his feeling that he is in way over his head, so to speak.
What we also see here is a portrayal of how the mind creates its own reality, for better or worse. In this case, there is the reality that has formed in Peter’s mind regarding his expectation of what will happen if he steps out on water. Ever since he was a little kid, Peter has believed that to do so will result in his getting drenched. His repeated experience and his repeated interpretation of his experience have reinforced the pathways in his brain that correspond to the thought, “I will always sink.”
Brain scientists could tell us in much greater detail how this all works with brain synapses and the organic chemicals involved. But the point here is that having thought these thoughts repeatedly, it becomes mighty tough to stop thinking them — to see reality in a different way.
So it is to Peter’s credit (especially given we don’t see any of the other disciples willing to question their pre-existing view of water reality) that he is open to at least give this new possibility a try, which is what he does when he steps out of the boat. For a brief shining moment, he experiences this new way of being in the world before the wind picks up and triggers all his old assumptions back into place.
And it was the presence of Jesus that made this new reality possible.
Now it would be a waste of time, I think, to give much thought to the possibility of our walking on water. There are, however, plenty of other assumptions that all of us carry around inside our minds that limit us and our capacity to live in the kingdom of heaven even while we are yet here on earth; beliefs we simply assume to be true which might not necessarily be so, at least always, at all times.
Consider, for instance, the beliefs we hold about our families, which our Old Testament lesson this morning calls to our attention in describing Joseph getting sold into slavery by his brothers. What is a family? Well, we could say it is a network of relationships that follow blood and marital lines. But that doesn’t tell us much, because in reality, families can be experienced as wonderfully good or terribly bad, and sometimes both.
And so let’s say a particular family comes to be defined over time by strong negative emotions, for instance anger, jealousy, resentment, and a desire for revenge. If we remember that in a certain sense our minds create realities, what we are saying is that the experience and interpretation from past moments of these particular family relationships have come to define the experience of the present moment. Which, the story of Jesus walking on the water, and Peter stepping out there with him, suggests doesn’t necessarily need to be so, especially if we acknowledge Jesus’ presence in the present moment.
In the present moment, for instance, forgiveness could be the new reality, where holding onto a grudge has been the unquestioned assumption.
Or speaking the truth in love could be the new reality, where shared denial has been the governing supposition.
Or feeling strong and capable, where it fell to one person to always play the part of the helpless one; to be the leader, where before one family member was always the passive follower.
The possibilities are endless, and what we’re describing is not only applicable to families, but to workplaces, to classrooms, to churches, wherever, not to mention our experience of ourselves in our solitude.
It needs to be acknowledged, however, that these kinds of changes to our personal realities can be mighty tough to pull off; indeed, sometimes it can seem pretty near impossible. Having thought and rethought those old self-limiting thoughts so often the grooves in the highways of our brains seem darn near unavoidable for the tire tracks of our consciousness.
But to quote Jesus, “with people, it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.”
So keep an eye open to visitations from God — those moments when Jesus comes walking on the water to us — making changes possible that didn’t seem possible before.
This past week I was up at the hospital, trying to visit June before she went into surgery, but fortunately, or unfortunately, depending how you look at it, she was taken into surgery early, so I didn’t get to see her. But because I was there I did bump into a friend who was at the hospital at the cancer center having just finished a yoga session. (Did God arrange this?) We sat and talked. She described how during the past year her world was turned upside down with the diagnosis of cancer. The striking thing, though, was how, like Joseph getting sold into slavery by his brothers, the un-asked-for obstacle brought about possibilities that might not otherwise have been recognized. She described finding herself able to change in a positive way on the level of her moment by moment thought processes.
Realizing that her priority now was life and health and staying focused on that which nurtured these gifts, she was finding herself better able to keep her focus, choosing not to pursue dead end thought processes that led her into fear and worry and despair, choosing instead to keep her attention on thoughts that embraced hope and love.
Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Whatever affirms life and love and wholeness is aligned with Jesus. There he stands on the dark waters, bidding us to come. And in response we suddenly find the ability to step out of our old boats, and, at least for a moment, experience something of our birthright — the glorious liberty of the children of God. We catch a glimpse of the wholeness to which Jesus is leading us.