Over time I have found that of all the people in the Bible, with the exception of Jesus of course, Peter is my favorite. He screws up way more often than he gets it right but Jesus loved him and more importantly believed in him anyway. I look at it this way: If I was going to trust my church on earth to anybody, would I really pick the guy who betrayed me three times, cut off a guy’s ear, and babbled at all the important teaching moments throughout our entire friendship? That Peter guy? Not my first choice.
Obviously, Jesus knew all of Peter’s failings. So what did He see in Peter? Pure faith and pure love. Peter would do anything for Jesus. When the disciples saw Jesus walking toward them on the water, they were afraid. Peter was the one who had the faith to say “If it’s you Lord, tell me to come to you.” He had the faith to get out of a boat, in a storm nonetheless, and walk across the water. There is no way I would be getting out of that boat! I’d be cowering with the rest of them and thinking Peter’s finally flipped his lid. After a few steps, Peter faltered. The wind was so strong and the waves so large that the “real world” around him distracted him from his focus on Jesus. As soon as he started to doubt the wisdom of walking out of a boat at sea in a storm, he started to sink. But still Peter believed in Him, even when he doubted and started to sink. He still believed, calling on the Lord to save him. Peter was a fisherman so I’m willing to bet he knew how to swim. He didn’t try to swim back to the boat on his own. He trusted Jesus to pull him up out of the waves. That is faith: trusting that Jesus isn’t going to lead him into a stormy sea and then let him drown.
Can I doubt and believe at the same time? Sure, I do it all the time. It’s called faith. If I believe in something I can see there is no room for doubt or faith, only fact. To believe in the power of Jesus Christ takes faith in something I cannot see, or even truly comprehend, which leaves room for doubt. Doubt is merely the fire that refines faith.
I describe myself as a cradle Catholic but more precisely I am a clumsy Catholic. I grew up in the religion. That does not guarantee faith however. I have staggered and stumbled along my whole life and every time I think I might almost have a clue, I find out I don’t. I go to Mass several times a week and on the holy days. I receive the sacraments and, being a Vatican II baby, I read scripture. None of it is a sure ticket to true faith, only to religion.
But I know what that kind of faith looks like. I saw it in my father’s eyes right before he died. He was dying of lung cancer at the age of fifty-four. I was only fourteen then and the last time I saw him, he couldn’t say more than a few words at time. He was suffocating slowly and I knew it. It was unthinkable to me that this big, loud, boisterous Irishman, who was always singing or telling some tall tale was about to be silenced forever. I was staring out the window with my mind racing. This was not the way life was supposed to work. He was supposed to see me grow up. He was supposed to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. He was supposed to hold my children and read them the same poems he’d read to me. But in God’s plan, he was supposed to leave me at fourteen with an unforgettable image of trust and faith. I had received the sacrament of Confirmation ten days earlier but this moment was truly the confirmation of my faith.
Daddy called me away from the window to sit on his bed. He struggled to sit up straighter so he could look me in the eyes. He was so gray, so haggard looking, and yet there was a light and a peace in his eyes unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was a struggle for him to breathe, much less talk. He had to keep stopping every few words to catch his breath.
Taking both my hands, he said to me, “Well Nudnik, I think you and I both know that I’m not going to be here much longer. You know how much I love you and how proud I am of you. You’ve been so strong and so brave through all this, but now I want you to stay home. I don’t want you to come up anymore. I don’t want you to remember me like this. We had a lot of really good times and that’s what I want you to remember. And a day is going to come when you are going to get angry, really, really angry and when that day comes, you don’t get to be angry with God. You get angry with me because God never bought me the cigarettes and God never passed me a lighter. I did this to myself. God gave me a gift and I abused it. I just didn’t know back then and even when I found out how dangerous smoking was and I quit, it was just too late. The damage was already done. I’m so sorry that I have to leave you like this but I promise you I will see you again someday. Do you believe me?”
I had tears streaming down my face and I couldn’t do any more than nod. But that wasn’t enough for Daddy. He took off the oxygen mask and leaned into my face saying, “Tell me what you believe.” How I managed to say anything at all when it felt like my throat closing I will never know. But I did tell him that I believed him. I told him I would see him again and he would be whole again. In that moment, we let go of each other, trusting that God would sustain us both, I in this life and he in the next. In that last moment we had together, I could see Jesus in Daddy’s eyes and He called me out of the boat into the storm and for just a moment I walked on the waves. In that moment, I understood what faith really was about. It isn’t about what you hang on to, it’s about what you let go of and trust that God will be there to pull you up when you start to falter, when it’s all just too much to take.
My father was right of course. I did get angry but even at the worst of my anger with God, I could hear not my dad’s words echoing, but my own. I believe that God will bring us together again, that He will heal my wounds no matter how deep and how awful they seem to me. I believe that I will still have times when I doubt that power but those are the times when He will stretch out His hand to me before I sink beneath the waves. He will never let me drown. And every time I doubt, every time I start to sink, every time He pulls me back up, my faith gets stronger and purer. If I learn nothing else from this life, I will learn to trust Him, eventually anyway.