In the Summer of 2001, the American television network NBC released their first season of the hit show Fear Factor. It always began with the following narration:
“Imagine a world where your greatest fears become reality. Welcome to Fear Factor. Each show, six contestants from around the country battle each other in three extreme stunts. These stunts are designed to challenge the contestants both physically and mentally. If the contestant is too afraid to complete a stunt, they’re eliminated. If they fail a stunt, they’re eliminated. But if they succeed, they will be one step closer to the grand prize, $50,000.”
Sadly, we don’t have to imagine a world where our greatest fears become a reality.
We live in a world of spiders, snakes, heights and small spaces. We live in a world where the Sharks beat the Stormers and your next payslip is one week too far away. A world where the minds of our parents are stolen by diseases, and the teenage sons and daughters of our friends are captured by addictions. Children are abused. Marriage promises are broken. And, in case you’ve just returned from Mars (where you probably should have stayed), the worldwide spread of a virus (Covid-19) is now a thing not just reserved for apocalyptic Brad Pitt movies and Dan Brown novels.
Welcome to Fear Factor 2020.
Fortunately, you’ll be teaming up with Peter the disciple whose been there and got the ‘wet T-shirt’ when it comes to facing fear.
A STORY ABOUT FEAR
There are many passages of Scripture and stories in the Bible which deal with the topic of fear. I spent some time this past week watching Peter climb out of the boat again, amidst a storm, walk on the ocean towards Jesus (with Oceans by Hillsong United playing in the background), start drowning (he would have been eliminated from Fear Factor), and get rescued (again) by Jesus.
It’s a familiar story. A familiar story which also follows a familiar structure. It has a beginning, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. A structure followed by all the greatest stories. Even the story of your life.
The sun is out, and the ocean is calm. Jesus said cross the lake, so the disciples set out to cross the lake.
Remember your world before Covid-19? Go back to life just before Christmas. Before we heard of a little outbreak in Wuhan China. A world of handshakes, hugs and toilet paper on the shelves.
Remember how it was before the tests for Cancer came back, before the call about the accident, before the ‘boss’ let you go? Remember how it was in the beginning when ‘all was good’?
We love the beginning of a story. It’s ‘how it should be’ we say. A world without pain and suffering. In this part of the story we don’t ask where God is, as he’s walking with us in the Garden.
A strong wind rises. Heavy waves threaten to overturn the boat and night falls. It’s about three o’ clock in the morning and you’re awake, battling to keep the boat afloat.
5 March 2020. Dr Zweli Mkhize, the Minister of Health, announces South Africa’s first positive case of the Coronavirus.
That was just two weeks ago! Have you checked the numbers today? Have you observed the varying responses?
People deal with fear differently.
What storm? It’s just a few clouds. A light breeze. We’re fine. (As they frequent malls, hang out with friends and shake hands).
Yup, this is quite a storm, but we’ve faced storms before. We’ve got this. (As they wash hands and practice social distancing).
We’re all going to drown! This is the end! (As they spend hours on social media soaking in every worse possible scenario).
Jesus appears, walking on water. The disciples mistake him for a ghost, believing they are about to die with the veil between this life and the afterlife so ‘thin’. Once Peter finds the courage to believe Jesus is who he says he is, he gets out the boat and walks towards Jesus. Peter is then gripped by fear. “When he looked around at the high waves” (v.30). He starts to sink, cries out to Jesus, and Jesus, “reached out his hands and grabbed him” (v.31).
Because we know the end of the story and because we know who Jesus is, we read this part of the story as if we’re taking our next sip of tea.
Peter could have died. The rock which Jesus planned to build his church upon, could have sunk.
These stunts are designed to challenge the contestants both physically and mentally.
There is much we can learn from the climax of this story. My learning for this week, began with a question, “Why did Peter get out of the boat?”
Surely if Peter had any chance of surviving the storm, staying in the boat, the one thing which can float, makes sense. Why ask to go to Jesus and not just ask Jesus to come to him? Why not wait for Jesus to get to the boat?
Because getting through the climax of the story asks something of the main character.
Peter is a participant in his story. His part is not passive. It’s not about sitting tight and hoping someone else is going to make it all better. Jesus standing on the water, surrounded by the storm, is an invitation to Peter to participate. I think Peter sees that something ‘other’, something holy, is happening on the water and wants to get there.
So, he chooses the only possible means, faith.
I think Peter gets out of the boat not as an act of courage but with the plea, “I do believe but help me with my doubt.” (Mark 9:24). As always, Jesus is teaching. Jesus is ‘signing’ the kingdom of God. Hinting at the ‘now’ but ‘not yet’. He’s planting a garden in the ocean of Peter’s fear.
You see, (I think) the miracle is not the thing. What use does Peter have to learn to walk on water? What Peter is learning is that when fear rises, faith is given to help us experience what Jesus has promised, whether it’s a storm or a broken world.
As fear rises in our neighbourhoods and communities, I’m holding onto these two specific promises from Jesus. I’m getting out the boat and walking towards these two truths.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
Wisdom and Peace. I’ve put these two right next to my hand sanitizer.
Casually but definitively, almost like a Cheslin Kolbe side-step, the wind just stops as Jesus and Peter climb back into the boat.
Perfect love drives out all fear.
What I love about this story and the story and our story is how it ends. The final scene is not “the storm is over we survived!” It ends with a ‘learning’, with a reflection, with an acknowledgement. It ends with the Storyteller.
“Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
God has a habit of turning places of trial into places of worship. Of turning stories soaked in fear into stories of triumph.
To be clear…we’re not talking ‘If you’re happy and you know it…clap your hands’ faith.
We’re in the arena of real world faith which has been forged on the anvil, and chooses to declare that every time we walk towards Jesus in a storm, drawing on faith, fear will be driven out and the promise of the living God will break through into our daily circumstances showering the shadows of anxiety and despair with the glorious light of hope.
THE GRAND PRIZE
“If the contestant is too afraid to complete a stunt, they’re eliminated. If they fail a stunt, they’re eliminated. But if they succeed, they will be one step closer to the grand prize, $50,000.”
Grace rewrites the story of Fear Factor 2020. It reaches out to our moments of doubt, grabs a hold of them and pulls them onto the boat of hope, so that we can receive our prize.
Wait, did you say prize…
These are hard economic times Xav, I’m all for a little water-walking if there’s a pay-off.
There is a prize but (as much as we all need it), it’s not a monetary one, in fact its not even for you or about you.
Sure, for those who drink deeply from the well of faith and love, letting the living water drive out their fear, there is the ‘prize’ of peace, but I believe there’s even a greater prize.
It has to do with your neighbour.
You know the one who once went to church. Who gave up on Jesus some time ago. The one who is feeling overwhelmed by all this. Who doesn’t have the means you do. The one who was already drowning before the wave of Covid-19 broke over their life.
As we, all these years later find encouragement and hope in Peter’s story, which wasn’t about him either, so too will those around you, find hope as they see you climb out of the boat in faith, and walk towards Jesus despite the waves and wind.
Their story, needs your story just as much as our story, needs His story.
(Click here to read Scripture Union South Africa’s official response to Covid-19)