We did a retreat a couple months ago, and Heather wrote a new story for it, but I forgot to put it here. It's from the perspective of Andrew...
When he called us, we had just spent two days repairing our nets.
Not storm days, either; we had just spent two good fishing days sitting on the shore tying knots. We had to. Our last net had torn the day before, the big one; we'd been trying to make it through on that one till the next chance to make repairs, and then it caught on a rock deep under the lake and tore a long gash all through it. Simon claimed we'd caught some strange creature that had thrashed its way loose through our net; I told him we were lucky that rock hadn't been any higher, and he'd better remember the place so we could avoid it from now on. We had plenty of time to argue on it, sitting there tying hundreds of little knots, watching Zebedee and his sons out there on the water hauling up gleaming loads of fish.
And I have to say Simon never stopped tying, even to gesture about that creature of his, though anyone who's met him knows Simon scarcely has the patience for a job like that. But he'll do what he has to do. And if there's one thing a fisherman has to do, it's care for his boat and his nets. A fisherman's roof can leak, his door can hang broken for months, but his nets and his boat, they're his life. He depends on those to fill the bellies under that roof.
So as I say, we were fishing that evening with our new-mended nets; an early start, out on the water as soon as the sky'd grown dark enough so you couldn't see a shadow. Fish'll flee from the shadow of a boat, and we couldn't afford to go without a catch after two days mending. We had just found a good place and were laying out our biggest net, spreading it through the water in as wide a circle as we could get with just the two of us. It's delicate work; you can't let the net fold down over itself, or it'll tangle instead of spreading, and the fish will flee while you haul the thing out to start again. We were almost done, and a neat job too, when Simon turns and looks at the shore.
“Simon!” I say. “Look to what you're doing!”
“It's him,” he says. “Over there.”
Him? I glanced over. And it was him, and my hand lost all sense of how the net was meant to go, and Simon dropped his end, and the net folded instantly and tangled. Because it was the man himself, Jesus, out on the shore in the dusk light, and his hands were cupped around his mouth, calling, and it was plainer every second he was calling to us.
I hadn't even been certain we'd see him again. John the Baptizer had pointed to him and told us he was the Messiah, and we'd thought the time was at hand, and then he'd left and gone home to Galilee and John had been killed for a stupid king's pride. So Simon and I had gone home to Galilee too, because what else do you do when things fall apart? We came home and found our nets still there where we'd stored them. When nets fall apart, you can mend them with your own two hands.
Simon turned the sail and tacked into the wind, trying to get near enough to hear what the man—the Messiah!—was saying. He was making broad gestures now, beckoning us in. I pulled on the net, trying to set right the tangle, but the sudden turn made it worse. It was in such a snarl now it was all I could hope to haul it up without another tear. I could see another hour wasted, sitting on the shore untangling the thing. I got most of it in the boat, till something snagged down near the waterline; then I turned again to the shore, where the wind was carrying Jesus' words to us over the water.
“Come with me!”
With him? I looked at Simon, who didn't look back at me, his hand on the tiller and his gaze locked on the man. Did he really mean come with him—not just—
“Come with me, and I will make you fishers of people!”
He did mean come with him. Him. Us to be disciples of the Messiah? Fishing for people. To bring people in to follow him, did he mean—the Messiah—
Simon didn't take his eyes off him, but me, I looked back at the nets. This wasn't like going off to the Jordan for a time to be baptized and hear what John had to teach. If the Messiah wanted us—the Messiah!—well, then we'd mended our nets for nothing, that's what.
The boat beached in a crunch of sand and slap of waves, and Simon jumped out into the shallow water and began to run up the sand. I gave another tug on the nets, my eyes picking out the mended places, all those knots we'd tied. The end of the net still trailed in the water, and I couldn't bring it up over the side. What was going to happen to our boat? Who would take it—would they care for it? Would they scrape the hull over rocks and fail to mend it? What would we live on without our nets to pull fish from the lake? We had no other skill. Only fishing.
And fishing for people—perhaps we had that skill. He seemed to think so. He himself!
“Should we come with you now, Teacher?” Simon was saying. “Where are you staying? What are you doing?”
“Yes, come with me. I am going round Galilee preaching the good news. The kingdom of God is among us now.”
The kingdom of God. The Messiah wanted us, to join him, to fish people into the kingdom of God. If his kingdom was among us, God must have these things in hand. What are you so afraid of, Andrew? Do you still think it will all fall apart? So many things do, in this world. For a moment I thought of God's hands tying knots. Hundreds of knots.
Millions of knots.
I left the end of the net trailing in the water, and jumped out of the boat.
I’ve been feeling pretty down on myself these past few months. Partly because of the experience of being a new parent, I think, and partly because of growing older. When things go badly with a baby, you pretty much have to admit it’s not the baby’s fault. It’s not always my fault either, I know. But it often has been. And I’m seeing more and more my limitations and faults with the perspective of my forty-plus years. This is probably a good thing, seeing myself more honestly, truthfully. But it hasn’t felt the greatest.
So, appropriately for the season, I’ve been really appreciating the meaning of forgiveness and grace lately. It’s much simpler, and more powerful, than I had previously realized.
God’s forgiveness and grace allows us to be with God in the present moment. That’s all, really. And everything.
As I’ve been painfully aware recently, fear and shame tear us away from God and away from the present. Fear throws us into a future we are not ready for. Shame drags on us from the past, a past we cannot change or erase. But it’s only in the present moment that we can act. And it’s in the present moment that God exists. To have our attention continually diverted from the present keeps us both isolated from God and incapable of acting rightly.
What God’s grace and forgiveness offers is a reconnection with God, now. Not just once in our lives, at a unique moment of conversion, but at every moment. We no longer have to be driven by fear and shame but can exist with God in the present moment, act with God’s love in the present moment. And it doesn’t matter if our lives up to this point have demonstrated that we do not have the strength or the wisdom or the love to do the right thing. Of course we don’t. God has the strength and the wisdom and the love. Is anything more than that needed? Can anyone possibly add anything to that? What we are offered is God’s strength and wisdom and love in this present moment, to live, to act, this moment.
That is the essence of hope, no matter what our life has been, no matter how little of it is left here on earth. And that is what life really is. Not the sum of our past experiences or accomplishments, or even relationships. Life is to exist and love and act with God, in this present moment.
Funny to see this today, after yesterday's entry...
“Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.”
I suspect that when Leon Bloy wrote that famous line, he was not thinking of himself as a hero. Perhaps the other one. If so, it might have been of some comfort to him to discover that actually there are no heroes in the kingdom of God.
At least Jesus didn’t seem to think so. That is, if “hero” is taken in its common sense: a great person who we can look to as a model and source of hope. Jesus resisted even being called “good” himself. “Why do you call me good?” he said. “No one is good but God alone.” (Mk 10.18) And Jesus taught his followers to respond the same way. Should they expect admiration for living the life he taught them?
“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (Lk 17.9-10)Jesus turned our attention away from heroes, people we’re inclined to admire, and away from the admiration of other people, and directed our attention towards God. No one is good but God alone. You have only done what you were ordered to do. It is not the servant but the master who is the source of any goodness, and the source of hope. Later, Jesus used imagery of vine and branches to present this even more clearly:
“Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15.4-5)
It is God who is good, and who brings good into the world. Not heroic people. The apostle Paul taught the same thing when some in the early church started choosing heroes for themselves:
When one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Cor 3.4-7)God even intentionally chose servants who were not great, wrote Paul, not admirable, not heroic:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1.27-31)
What matters is not human greatness or heroism. Those are more of a hindrance than a help to the followers of Jesus. What matters is the God who is the source of goodness and life. To live as a child of his kingdom, inspired by God in our actions big and small, noticed or unnoticed, this is all that matters.
When Jesus was asked about John the baptizer, he acknowledged that John was a hero of his time: “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John.”
“Yet,” said Jesus, “the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Lk 7.28)
After a rerun last year, I managed to come up with a new haiku for Christmas this year. How I see the story from where I'm at this year:
A dirty shepherd
stumbling through the stable door
Our cat died last night, a victim of a neighbor's stray dog. We're sorry to lose her. We talked about memories of Claire today and buried her in the flower bed behind our house (where she liked to lay in the summer). And I remembered this entry from six years ago:
I think Heather finally convinced the cat to make our back yard her home. Claire (the cat) used to live in the valley, but her owners are moving to the city and can't take her along. So we've been trying to lure her up to our place. But even with our feeding her only up here, Heather had to bring the cat up at least ten times. She's a skittish cat and kept wandering back down to her old home, where she felt secure, even though there was no food there.
With patience, though, and a lot of coaxing and stroking, I think we convinced her that we'll take good care of her up here. She even caught two mice the other day, which probably makes this place more attractive as well. I think it will be a much better life for her here, with more attention and care and more territory to explore (without trucks and tractors roaring through). I was beginning to think we'd have to give up, and was frustrated that she seemed to prefer to starve rather than move to a new territory. But she's spent the last two nights here now.
It made me think, too, that we're usually a lot like that cat. We're being offered a life that is much better for us but we cling to our comfortable habits and places that make us feel secure just because they are known. We are so slow to trust. Especially when we are so used to just scraping by, and the offer seems too good to be true.
But God is patient and persistent with his offer.
I think I’ve distilled a little more about our glorification of the “adult,” productive part of life. It starts early, that seems clear. Partly because children have a distorted view of their parents’ capabilities. It seems to them as if their parents are all-knowing and all-powerful, and that’s what they expect of adults. And they yearn to have that kind of power themselves. By the time they are in their twenties, people usually don’t see their parents as all-powerful, but this is often because they are flush with their own growing capabilities and think they can correct the failings of the generation before them.
Again, it’s a mistaken view of how capable or powerful adults can be. When we’re kids we admire and long for it, as young adults it seems to be coming to fulfillment, and it’s not until maybe middle age that our limitations become undeniable. Relative to children and the elderly, yes, people in the “prime” of their lives are more capable. But we still can’t solve all the problems (sometimes it seems like we can solve very few of them). And we can’t just do anything we dream, anywhere we dream of doing it. There’s lots of frustration and burnout in trying, and everyone experiences lots of failures in life. But we don’t usually see clearly how limited we are until quite a way down life’s road.
And even then, there’s reasons to keep up the illusion of heroic “adults.” The next generation is now looking up to us with admiring eyes. And people are looking for role models to inspire them. I suspect the inspiring picture presented of most role models isn’t quite the whole truth, but it’s for a good cause, right? And society as a whole promotes the idea of capable human beings, able to overcome our problems, especially if people work together. It helps people to hope, right?
The big drawback is that the hope is directed towards a mistaken image, rather than the truth. So there’s confusion and frustration and guilt when we don’t become the heroic adults we believed we would be (or should be). And when many of the problems of our lives persist despite all our efforts.
Then there’s the spiritual side of this. The image of capable, heroic adults focuses our hope and trust on them (us). It doesn’t help us direct our hope towards God and encourage dependence on him. It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus wasn’t like the usual image of a capable hero. And that he said we must turn and become like children to enter the kingdom of God.
If we expected to be “like children” our whole lives, not heroic or even “in charge” but continually looking for guidance and help our whole lives, then we’d be a lot closer to the truth and closer to God. And there would be more of a continuity in our lives. Not a pre-life and post-life tacked on to our prime “adult” years, but practicing the same dependence the whole way. Learning to turn that dependence towards God, and to never turn away.