Twice a year I lead a group of men from the church on a four day backpacking excursion. It is the single greatest format for a men’s retreat that I have encountered, and it is my favorite thing I get to be a part of in ministry. The pages of Scripture are replete with episodes of God meeting men on a mountain, and we walk in that rich heritage.
Prior to the most recent hike, however, I was walking around with an extraordinary amount of anxiety. It was all the same stuff you face—job stuff, family stuff. Questioning, is this going to pan out? how’s that going to get paid for? how many balls can I keep in the air? . . . There’s no magic pixie dust for clergy that shields us from life. Several times during the weeks leading up to the hike I noticed a tightness in my chest or huge involuntary sighs.
One of our traditions on the hike is that we hand out Bible verses for reflection. They are drawn randomly, and, for the most part, each man pulls a different verse. The verse I drew was from Luke 9:18-20, Peter’s confession of Christ:
And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
Now, I’ve done this enough to know that you can’t draw the wrong verse; somehow God just always gives each man the verse he needs. Nevertheless, when I drew this verse, I thought, perhaps smugly, “That’s strange. This verse should have been given to someone who is considering Christianity. I’m the priest—I know who Jesus is.”
I hadn’t hiked fifty yards before the weight of this verse hit me with far more force than it ever hit me as a new Christian many years ago. My whole career is about who others say he is. I spend lots of time and energy making sure my sermons, classes, and writings are theologically precise so that others may have the right answer about who Jesus is.
But what about me? Who do I say that he is? Well, I know the answer. But what did my intense anxieties indicate that I really believed? Do I really believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who spoke the world into being, by whom all things hold together, who died for my sin and rose again?
Do I believe that Jesus is bigger than the things I worry about? Do I believe he cares about them? Do I believe that my worth is not tied to whether I succeed or fail? Do I really believe that, because of his messianic and substitutionary death and resurrection, all things work to the good of those who love him, including me?
With the drawing of this passage, I was confronted with the lack of continuity between what I knew and what I believed. Despite a biblical doctrine of who Jesus is and what he accomplished for me, I had taken the burdens of my life off the Cross and tried to carry them myself. My self-salvation project was crushing me.
On that hike I spent a lot of time confessing my lack of faith and offering back to Jesus the things that were causing me anxiety. In that place I found again his kindness and grace.
No promises that I won’t take those things back, but it was a lesson writ large to me that the question “Who do you say that I am?” is not answered once, but daily; that it is not a question that is answered only mentally, but from the very core of one’s being; and, finally, that the correct answer comes only by grace, through faith.
The Rev. Canon Joe Gibbes is Canon for Christian Education at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama.