Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Leverage Points

August 9, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

This week, we encounter Jesus and Peter walking on water and see two different outcomes. I am thinking about how outwardly similar actions can lead to very different results depending upon how well we understand the systems we seek to change.



Science & Nature

Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Donella Meadows

The Donella Meadows Project

Systems expert Donella Meadows outlines the critical role of leverage points in changing systems.

Open in a new tab


What can help you change a reality when you are pushing with all your might to no avail?


“And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. …He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”—Matthew 14:25,29-30

In the evening, after sending everyone away, Jesus was alone. He climbed the mountain to find a solitary place to pray. He spent the night there alone. The next morning, realizing his boat had drifted out to sea and seeing his friends in the water, he began to walk towards them. Who knows what he experienced–whether he even noticed that the water beneath his feet was solid ground or that his friends were terrified. While we often focus only on the moment when Jesus walks on water, that event is actually part of a much bigger picture to which Jesus was attuned—his solitude from the night, the warm sun, the drifting boat, the faces of his friends, the feel of the water between his toes.

All the elements of this scene work together. Jesus leverages the energy in the scene by taking one simple step onto the water. And when he does, reality shifts beneath his feet. He calls his friend to join him in this new reality. Peter steps out of the boat and walks toward him. Reality shifts beneath Peter’s feet, too. And then, the strong wind comes. The flow that was happening between Jesus and Peter and the water is broken. Fear takes over. Peter begins to fall. And we know the rest—he cries out; Jesus catches him.

Why do we have this account? What is it revealing to us? As with all miracle stories, we have numerous points of focus from which to choose. We could turn our attention to Jesus’ desire to be with his friends; we could focus on their terror upon seeing him walk on water; we could simply reflect on the act of walking on water; we could consider Peter’s lack of faith or his fear. Each of these offers some path for contemplation of mysteries.

This time, when I read the story, I am drawn not to any of its parts but to the flows of energy in the scene taken as a whole. From Jesus’ movement away from other people to his movement back toward his friends—to the energy between Jesus’ body and the water—all of these flows of energy conspire with the unseen Spirit. There were other times when Jesus was on the sea but did not try to walk on water. But now, he perceives the whole picture and sees that he can step out onto the sea; it is a moment ready to receive his action. And so, he takes a step. And the effect of that simple action is to shift reality in such a way that something truly new happens. It it a breathtaking moment.

And then, Peter steps out. Seeking to follow Jesus. And, for a moment, he does. But then, another energy flow—strong wind—pulls the new pattern that was beginning to emerge back to more familiar constraints. Peter can no longer stay in the energy flow that had conspired to allow the miracle. He begins to fall.

It is in this context that Jesus speaks of faith and doubt.

I wonder what might be possible in our lives, in this world as we know it now, if we could become more attuned to the systems in which we live and move. What might happen if we could be present and available to step into a flow that is ready to support a new reality just beneath our feet? What if we could hone faith to support a new level of attunement to the waters we inhabit?

Instead of being pulled back by the strong wind that elicits fear in us, what if we could turn our face toward that wind and keep on walking, feeling something solid beneath us where everything is telling us there is no support? Would we find ourselves on solid footing difficult to comprehend and clearly not of our own making? What if we could let go of the boat, despite our persistent fears?

We are learning new ways of loving. We are becoming aware of how old stories we only know in part have held sway over our souls for too long. We are at a watershed moment in which our familiar ways of handling our anguish, our fright, our rage, our failings may not be what is needed. As we reach for new patterns to support our longing to shift reality in this country and across the world, I wonder if we might not be well served by paying less attention to individual parts and more attention to whole systems.

We need to learn a thing or two about what Donella Meadows in today’s science and nature lesson calls “leverage points”–those places in a system where a small change can lead to a big shift in reality. And when we find leverage points, we must learn how to use them in effective ways. Simply knowing to step into the water is not enough. We need to know how to work with the strong winds, or we can be pushing with all our might in the wrong direction, as Meadows notes.

In our longing to be more connected one to another, perhaps the miracle we need involves seeing not just individual actors or parts of stories but rather, the whole flow of energies that move among us in the systems we occupy. Perhaps we need to take a few steps back and observe systems with an eye toward finding and working skillfully with leverage points.

Making noise about what we do not like is necessary. Making change requires a long-term commitment to studying systems–because every “it” we want to change exists not in a vacuum, but in vast, interconnected relationships. Things are not always as they appear at first glance.

If we can learn to move with the flows of our systems and look with inquisitive minds for the leverage points, we will be less likely to miss reality shifting beneath our feet. And more likely to walk on water.