Hello readers, I’ve taken a look at my calendar of the next few weeks, and the crazy schedule is going to make blog writing impossible. I have placed higher priority on finishing a book, so that project is getting my best writing hours in the morning. Right now, as mentioned last week, my afternoon free time is taken up with various medical appointments—all routine check-ups— and procedures (including the removal of my vein access port, authorized last week by my oncologist). I just wanted you to know that my silence is for positive reasons, and that I am doing well and thriving.

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I was walking the 1.5 miles home from my doctor’s appointment this morning, along busy Treat Boulevard, when I came upon a goose and her four goslings. Mama apparently wanted to take the kids out for a walk—water nowhere in sight—and chose to parade down Treat Boulevard. Two lanes of traffic were blocked by motorists either enthralled or frustrated with the slow-motion chase I was on. I tried to herd the birds back onto the sidewalk, but Mama was getting mad at my interference. I even called 911 for traffic help, but the dispatcher said, “We don’t dispatch police officers to help geese.” A kind-hearted gentleman in an SUV figured out a way to herd the gaggle with his truck, and we finally got them safely to a side street. But darn it! I saw them heading in the wrong direction toward danger, and all I could say was “No, no! Follow me! Don’t go that way!” One of the goslings fell down a drainage grate! We—a nearby construction worker and I—managed to rescue the other three before they fell in. But that pitiful squeak five feet down was enough to tug at anybody’s heart. We worked the grate free, lifted it heavily, and the man jumped down in to retrieve the baby. Family reunited and safely ushered out of harm’s way.

Mama was not too happy that someone (me) got so close and was so insistent on changing her route. She sounded a little like me when, before knowing Jesus, I was wayward. Following my own path, fiercely independent and self-satisfied, and not following directions I now know God was giving for my good. Or like C. S. Lewis, who described himself in Surprised by Joy: “the most dejected, reluctant convert in all of England . . . drug into the kingdom kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.” Sometimes we really do not know what is good for us.

Fundamental to our Christian faith is that God is good, and that he wants for us that which is also good. We say God is benevolent, having the desire to benefit us. The Scriptures are full of references to God’s basic good nature. My favorite (excerpts from Psalm 145):

8          The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

9          The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
. . .

13         The Lord is faithful in all his words,
and gracious in all his deeds.

14         The Lord upholds all who are falling,
and raises up all who are bowed down.

15         The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.

16         You open your hand,
satisfying the desire of every living thing.

17         The Lord is just in all his ways,
and kind in all his doings.

I circled all the adjectives describing God’s character in this excerpt, and doing so, I am overwhelmed that this God is looking after me! And yet, I sometimes live with the illusion that it is I who is protecting my little charges, my interests, and my future. When I get mad at God’s interference, I am only revealing how little I know of the Big Picture, which is God’s to know and mine to trust.

 

 

Every six months, I go through the medical surveillance that tracks the signs of health and/or disease in my body. Last Wednesday, I underwent the CT scan, and six hours later my oncologist called to tell me, “It looks great! No changes! All is well.” When all my testing is done next week, I fully expect the all-clear and won’t have to think about cancer for six months, heart disease for maybe five years, skin cancer for a year, colon cancer for five years, female cancers for two years, yada, yada . . .

But there is one dumb thing that plagues me and probably will until I die. On Ash Wednesday, February 9, 2016, I began a serious recalibration of my food intake to address my significant weight-gain during cancer treatment, plus the extra twenty pounds of “too much Mary” already present before that. It has been one year, two months, and twenty-three days of logging my meals, mixing protein shakes, chopping vegetables, carefully navigating through parties and holidays, and otherwise changing habits. I have lost about 38 pounds, and have four (or six) to go. I feel terrific and have experienced many health benefits along the way. I can even say I love the way my body has turned out! Please note that last sentence, because I don’t want you to get the impression that I hate my body or have a body/spirit duality thing going on here (that’s a theological position that says anything of the body is “evil” and everything of the spirit is “good”). But after all of this success, I am still frustrated—on a plateau since Christmas—about that last four to six pounds that keeps my body-fat-percentage above 25%.

I just got home from the weight-loss doctor visit, and am working out my frustration here. The other reason I am sharing this with you is that weight loss offers one of the best illustrations of the struggle most Christian face against residual sin. Those who have embraced Christ and received his forgiveness have, Scripture tells us, been made alive in Christ, are new creatures, and possess eternal life. The Holy Spirit has moved into our hearts to work out God’s purposes from within. The Christian life is a journey toward Christ-likeness, and discipleship helps us practice the new habits consistent with belonging to Christ’s household of faith. For some of us, the transformation is dramatic; for others more subtle. But in Christ, we are new creatures.

We have eternal life now, but we are still residing in this body, which—if I may stretch theology a bit—has a mind of its own. There are things that happen in our bodies that we did not cause: I think of my friend with diabetes who can have a perfect diet/insulin day and still crash in the middle of the night. I think of another friend who has ups and downs of blood pressure that are not correlated to stress in her life. How about the person, like me, with no risk factors present (family history, smoking, exposure to pollution) who gets lung cancer? No, really, our bodies represent great mystery sometimes, and no matter what we do, things still happen.

I cannot answer the question on the physical level, but what this struggle illustrates in the spiritual realm is important. Until we prevail over the Last Enemy (physical death), we are going to struggle with sin. The Apostle Paul gives us two insights, first by venting his frustration in Romans 7:

14For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Paul is saying that there are forces at work within our mortal bodies, minds, and souls that oppose the good that God wants to do in us. We need the redemption offered in Jesus Christ! Our daily struggle reminds us of our complete dependence upon the grace of God.

Paul’s second insight helps us rest in God’s help:

7 . . . a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

I would be so happy if God would help me lose these last stubborn pounds, but at least I see the potential for blessing and spiritual fruit-bearing in the heat of the struggle. That stupid scale reminds me that I must remain vigilant against temptation. I must push back the human propensity to deceive myself. Who knows? If I reached my goal weight tomorrow, I might say, “Whee-e-e, now I can eat whatever I want again!” But that most certainly is not true. There will still be great need for discipline, healthful choices, and denial of self. Denial of self and life unto God are simultaneous dynamics that get to the heart of what it means to be a child of God.

So I accept the struggle and resign myself to my weakness, not by “sinning” but by renewed resolve to work with God’s purposes for me that include healthy discipline. God must be strong in me. This will be God’s work in his strength, and may my submission to God’s will be empowered by the Holy Spirit!

What If You Asked?

May 2, 2017

I spent the morning at the dentist being “crowned.” Nothing traumatic to report; in fact, Dr. H. did a great job numbing my lower left jaw with three Novocain shots. This is why I am known in her office as the woman with nerves of steel. Afterwards, I delayed going to work at the hospital, since I did not want to drool on patients while my mouth was anesthetized. Just as that tingling sensation of tissues waking up started, I jumped in the car for the five-minute and 1.25 mile drive to John Muir Hospital for my Monday shift.

Within a half hour, the pain was throbbing and I bemoaned the fact I did not have any ibuprofen with me. So it was a long afternoon, and I was beat when I finally got home at 6 p.m. [Another reminder of how much the experience of pain exhausts a person.] I looked for the Advil, and finally discovered that I had a bottle of it with me all along, in the purse my kids call my “Mary Poppins bag”! Sheesh.

Isn’t it just like us mere mortals to miss the reality that what we need has, in Christ, been given! We already possess what we need in order to thrive: as Peter wrote in his second letter: “[God’s] divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, . . .” (1:3). But as my sad tale today proves, it is possible to have something important in our possession but not know it.

The Apostle Paul introduced his letter to the Ephesians with the affirmation, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places . . .” (1:3). Yet, here we are, moping around with a throbbing spiritual pain or emotional ache or even physical sickness, forgetting to tap into the supply of God’s provision.

James, the Lord’s brother, put it this way: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Jesus himself said, “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Mt 7:8 with parallels).

I know, I know, you are thinking that it can’t be that simple. We all have a list of prayer requests that came back “No.” But even so, we are called upon to trust that God has our best interest at heart. The promise is repeated often enough in the New Testament, and by numerous human authors, that it must be true. Remember Jesus’ teaching on prayer?

11“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13).

If I had prayed for the Holy Spirit this afternoon, what sort of answer would I have gotten in my moment of need? First of all, the Holy Spirit dwells in my heart by faith, so I do not have to ask for him to come again. But I am urged to ask the Holy Spirit to act, and how does he do that? By filling me with spiritual fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Peace and patience definitely would have helped this afternoon. The Holy Spirit would also have helped me utilize spiritual gifts already given to me: wisdom comes to mind, for starters. Wisdom, if appropriated, would have moved me to search my purse “just in case.” But then, there are times when circumstances cloud our spiritual acuity or we forget what is available to us. It is a sure thing that if we do not ask, we will continue to suffer. But if we do ask, God has something helpful to give! This is not rocket science, and theological gymnastics are not required. We do not receive, because we do not ask. God is faithful to give us everything we need for thriving.

So today, don’t forget to ask God for what you need. Expect a fresh wind of the Spirit to guide you through your challenge, roadblock, or infirmity. Ask yourself the question, If God has already given me what I need for life and godliness and I have received every spiritual blessing, what do I have in my possession now that can help me at this moment? You might be surprised at what you find in your Mary Poppins bag!

In anticipation of a stellar 80° day, Andy and I headed out Saturday morning to explore the John Muir Historic Site. We toured a visitor’s center and the Martinez home where the famous “wilderness tramp” John Muir lived and raised a family for 24 years.

John Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 to strict Presbyterian parents, who immigrated to Wisconsin when John was still a boy. He showed promise as an inventor, an interest that motivated him to study at university. But before graduating—he dropped out in 1863—he made a tour on foot of Iowa, Illinois, and Canada and acquired a taste for the wilderness.

Later at age 29, employed by an Indianapolis carriage parts manufacturer, a factory mishap changed his life forever. A metal file broke in his hand, and a piece of it jabbed his right eye, blinding him. A doctor bandaged the wound and prescribed quiet rest in a dark room for four weeks.

During this recovery period, Muir began to evaluate his life and loves, and realized that there was a lot of world he wanted to see. He set out to discover the riches and lessons nature could teach him, first with a 1000-mile walk to Florida and then to California where he fell in love with what we now call Yosemite Valley. He lived in the High Sierra, tending sheep or operating a sawmill, but mostly exploring, for four continuous years. During this time, he began to journal his findings and to publish magazine articles extolling the beauty and grandeur of Yosemite. His writings drew attention to its vast natural resources, the necessity of its preservation, and his own exploits off the grid.

Muir’s remarkable story goes on, but I want to reflect on the fact that a brilliant man went off the grid at least twice: from 1863 to 1866 and from 1869 through 1873. In both instances, he came back refreshed and resolved to secure and preserve natural wonders. His most potent methods were to write about his wilderness observations and experiences and to relate to influential people, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and President Teddy Roosevelt. He is known as the Father of the National Park System and was the first president of the Sierra Club.

Four years off the grid in Yosemite, but writing and taking notes, became the seedbed for great ideas and a significant impact on American life. As I pondered the correlation between social withdrawal and public impact, I realized that Muir’s life runs somewhat in parallel to the Apostle Paul and to Jesus.

The Apostle Paul was confronted by the risen Christ (Acts 9) and brought into Damascus to be instructed by Ananias. After this dramatic conversion, he withdrew from public life for at least three years. When he emerged from this quiet learning period, he itinerated all over the Mediterranean region to proclaim the gospel, establish churches, and write letters comprising a good part of the New Testament.

Jesus lived an obscure life for thirty years before changing the water into wine in Cana and becoming a locally known figure. After his baptism, he was sent by God’s Spirit into the wilderness for forty days. He returned to civilization and began calling disciples to himself and launching his ministry. His public life was punctuated by forays to quiet places for contemplation. His creative “product,” unlike Muir and Paul’s writings, was relationships and public teaching. He never wrote a book, leaving that task to the four gospel writers, but established his earthly legacy through the development of many disciples as preachers, teachers, and church planters.

For several years, based on what I still think was “a word from the Lord,” I expected that my contribution as a Christian leader to the church would be more prominent and influential than it has turned out to be. What form that leadership would have taken was never fully revealed, though I felt I was inching closer a couple of times. I felt the Lord preparing me for a leadership role of some impact.

But like Jesus’ Messiah-ship, which turned out looking a lot different than Jewish leaders of his day expected, the path God set for me has involved hardship and ridicule and failure (especially the 2012 PCUSA legal defeats that led to the sea change in that denomination). It has included life-threatening illness that took me out of full-time work, and academic forces beyond my control that truncated a future as a seminary teacher. These setbacks and redirections have channeled my energies into part-time hospital chaplaincy and into writing a memoir about my experiences. It is not easy for me to say this: I was disappointed and even shaken that I misunderstood God’s appointment.

Nevertheless I affirm that God knows what he is doing with my life. I am at peace now with the call to live as faithfully and excellently as I can within my present context and to remain open to his continued direction. Power and influence take many forms, some of which I may not actually want anymore. But writing something true, worthy, and thought-provoking may become my means of leading people to Jesus’ calling in their lives. As my dad used to say, “The one who has the pen has the power” (Naegeli’s Law #3).

The stories I have shared today—of John Muir, the Apostle Paul, and our Savior Jesus Christ—remind me that good things come out of quiet obscurity. I can expect to thrive and be joyful and do some good as long as I stay closely in tune with the one singing the melody in my life. For now, that means (in part) transcribing the music I hear onto the written page, from which others perhaps can sing the lead and be heard.

 

 

Great narrators have a way of keeping the audience’s attention all the way to the end of the story, and gospel writer John is no exception. His carefully organized account of Jesus’ life and ministry left some loose ends. The great climax of the story is the resurrection, of course, and afterwards John breaks our suspense with satisfying details.

In chapter 21, John relates Jesus’ appearances to his disciples in various settings. Late in the day of his resurrection, he visited his closest associates to confirm what they had heard after finding his tomb empty. Thomas (the Twin) missed the meeting and, when told later of Jesus’ coming, would not believe it unless he saw the Lord with his own eyes. . . . a loose end left dangling for a week until Jesus came back to present himself to Thomas specifically.

In chapter 1, the disciples were curious about the new Teacher, who invited them to come and see what he did for a living. One by one, they responded to Jesus’ invitation, “Come, follow me.” Throughout his ministry, the twelve accompanied him on his preaching and healing mission. But now, after the resurrection, with Jesus out of their sight (most of the time), they are looking for something to do and decide to go back to fishing. The Man on the Beach calls out to them, gives them some fishing advice, and then invites them back to the shore for breakfast. Peter is already in the water, swimming the 100 yards to the beach, because it can only be the Lord who provides the miraculous catch of 153 fish! And what is Jesus serving? Bread and fish, just like on that day he fed five thousand people with five rolls and two sunfish. And very similar to the Last Supper. Another theme comes full circle.

But there was one more loose end to be tied up, and that had to do with Peter’s denial of Jesus during the night of the trials and scourging. Three times, Peter claimed to strangers that he did not know the Man being tried before Pilate. He was bitterly reminded of Jesus’ prediction of his denial when the cock crowed three times. Peter was not present for the crucifixion. He hid in the Upper Room in fear and confusion. He was paralyzed by what we now call an epic fail. Guilt. Shame. Disqualification.

The charcoal fire Jesus has ignited on the beach reminds Peter of the charcoal fire in the courtyard of Caiaphas’ home, where the trial was held. The site of Peter’s test is transported from courtyard to beach in an instant, and the Lord has some questions for the disgraced disciple.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Three times Peter is asked, Do you love me? And three times he says yes, erasing the record (so to speak) of his three denials. His hurt feelings indicate that Peter doesn’t yet perceive Jesus’ questioning as an offer of grace. In fact, Jesus is clearing the air with a particular purpose in mind, so that Peter can go into action to “feed my lambs, tend my sheep.”

At the heart of the gospel is forgiveness. The Lord gives second chances when we fail. He verifies our loyalty and commitment, and asks us, “Do you love me?” If our answer is “Yes,” then Jesus says, “Get to work on the job I have given you!”

If only we could do the same for each other. Despite the universal need for forgiveness and restoration—a fact that should induce empathy—we still have trouble forgiving and moving on with a person who has not lived up to our expectations. We are not sure we can trust a person’s expression of remorse and resolve. In the polarized climate of present-day America, the public shows little tolerance for mistakes or errors in its leaders. Business and political figures are forced out of office after one offense, with no time or opportunity to make something right. Neither the judged nor the judge in this case is perfect, and wisdom must prevail as we organize and govern ourselves. I wonder what difference it would make if we followed our Risen Lord’s example in the evaluation and support of our leaders. Can we discern their intentions, verify their loyalty and commitment to the good, and define what we expect of them? We should try!

As we inch forward in John 21, I wanted to look at the developing story from the point of view of the Man on the Beach.

9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Notice in all the post-resurrection appearances that Jesus initiates every interaction with his disciples: he appears in the Upper Room without an invitation, he “reveals himself” in Tiberius, he hangs out at the beach making breakfast and calls out to the fishermen. The guys are heading back to the old life, but Jesus beckons them to re-enter his story and to connect some dots in the plot. [John has brought a few loose threads into chapter 21, which we shall tie up in upcoming posts.] Once again, Jesus is calling them out of the old life and into something new.

What does Jesus say? “Children, you have no fish, have you?” (Jn 21:4). I have suggested that this was a gentle tease aimed at proud fishermen after a bad night. But Jesus is also bringing up a lesson he had demonstrated before. Could it be that he was initiating a review of a previous teachable moment? Hear the story as Luke tells it:

4When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 10:4-11)

Jesus commanded Simon Peter to go out into deep water and let down his nets. The professional fisherman said, “Hey, we’ve been at it all night and caught nothing. But if you insist . . .” [Can’t you just hear the sarcasm?] Peter had failed in his area of expertise, coming up empty after a full night’s effort, but he did as the Lord commanded and put down the nets. This time, to his shock and awe, they filled to overflowing! [Is the story sounding familiar now? Is it possible that the Man on the Beach is dropping hints that today’s post-resurrection lesson is a review of that earlier one?]

In both Luke and John, Jesus performs a miracle to make the point that without him they can’t catch fish. Both accounts end with a spectacular haul of fish leading to a confession of faith. In both cases, a disciple is responding to Jesus’ demonstration of power over nature, which for a Jew is definitely “God” territory!

But Jesus turns the attention back to Peter by saying, “From now on you will be catching people,” or in the more familiar translation, “from now on you will be fishers of men.”

Ah, so do you think (as Dale Bruner does in his commentary The Gospel of John) that the post-resurrection beach party is an evangelism lesson? Here is what Jesus says to the disciples on the beach:

Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some [fish] (Jn 21:6). Jesus is teaching them that if they follow his lead and go where he sends them, they will find people who want to know the Savior. Jesus is teaching us that there are still people out there in our world who want to know Jesus, and we may very well be the ones who introduce him to them! I was summoned to the hospital awhile back by a gentleman who’s health crisis had turned into a faith crisis. Raised by an atheistic mother, he had no faith. And yet, in the last five years of her life, his mother had professed faith in Jesus Christ, and her life was transformed. He wanted to know how he could learn more about what she believed.

Bring some of the fish that you have just caught (21:10). Jesus expects that the disciples—charged with going out to preach, teach, and baptize (Matthew 28:19f)—will gather to Jesus those who believe and want to be part of the fellowship. Jesus is the one who empowers the catch, but their participation in the process is essential within God’s plan. Jesus expects that we, too, have a contribution to make toward Kingdom fellowship. Whom are we bringing into the Lord’s presence?

Come and have breakfast (21:12). Jesus invites the people his disciples “catch” to have fellowship around the table where the Lord presides. The sacramental act of sharing a meal—bread and wine, or bread and fish, or maybe a hamburger and beer—as friends around Christ’s table is sacred. We should do it more often! For the last ten years I have worshiped and assisted in a church that celebrates communion every week, and now am in fellowship at a church that conducts communion monthly. My spirit is hungry for more of the sacred meal.

4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. (John 21:4-8)

Yesterday’s post stopped the action in John’s post-resur- rection storytelling, in order to appreciate the fact that Jesus’ disciples found themselves wanting to get back to “real life.” So they set out fishing; bobbing on the Sea of Galilee they are in their comfort zone and earning a living. But these professionals are unable to catch any fish this night.

So, tired and discouraged, the fishermen see a figure on the beach. They don’t recognize him, but he calls out teasingly, “Bad night, huh? You caught nothing?” I’ve seen and heard fishermen josh each other like this; you have to have thick skin to withstand the humiliation of an empty net. But it is always wrapped in empathy, because every angler has been there.

The Man on the Beach calls out again with a suggestion to cast the net on the other side of the boat. I wonder what Peter and his crew were thinking: Gee, why didn’t we think of that? or Who does he think he is? or Really? You think moving the nets five feet is going to make a difference? Apparently the suggestion is accepted, as the disciples haul the net up and over to the other side without verbalizing any resentment or doubt. Immediately, the net fills with fish, and the catch is so heavy they can’t even lift it into the boat! At this moment, John recognizes the Man on the Beach as the One who had fed the five thousand souls with five loaves and two fish, as the One who had turned water into wine, as the One who was raised from the dead. “It’s the Lord!” Forget the fish! Eager Peter dives into the water in order to greet the Savior face to face.

This passage contains several gentle reminders of the surprises that await us from the Risen Christ.

  • Jesus is present, whether we recognize him or not. The mist may obscure our view, or our expectations may be low. In any case, Jesus is closer than we think! He can see what is happening and recognizes our struggles. He is not compelled to jump in to fix our messes or correct our techniques, but he is watching and is quietly available.

  • Jesus can do anything better than we can, despite our expertise. It is so important for us to appreciate how competent Jesus is. Dallas Willard says it best:

Our commitment to Jesus can stand on no other foundation than a recognition that he is the one who knows the truth about our lives and our universe. It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent. We cannot pray for his help and rely on his collaboration in dealing with real-life matters we suspect might defeat his knowledge or abilities.
And can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived? (Divine Conspiracy, 94).

  • When Jesus does something, the result can be spectacular. I have had occasions of writer’s block, analysis paralysis, and obvious incompetence, but as long as I insist on doing a task myself without help, God actually steps back. But if I ask for help, Jesus enters in with aid, ideas, energy, and power. The outcome is significantly better than I could have expected on my own and therefore God must get the credit!

  • We (sometimes) recognize Jesus after the fact of his intervention, but forget to ask him for help beforehand. How many times a day do I muddle through an issue or problem without asking for God’s help? When I finally remember to pray, and God answers in some observable way, it is face-palm time. Why didn’t I ask earlier?

  • Sometimes, we can be casting our nets in the wrong direction, investing in a course of action that cannot bear fruit. Jesus wants to redirect our efforts to those that will be successful. We may have been praying for something that is not God’s will. We may have attempted a logical career path, but Jesus had something unusual in store for us. The fact is, in our fallible state, we do make mistakes. We’re not referring to moral error here, just plain mistakes. I mean, there was nothing wrong with the disciples fishing from one side of the boat. In this case, I think Jesus was having a little fun with them and wanted to teach them a lesson about his ability!

You and I may not need fishing lessons, but we do need life lessons. The Risen Christ is present, teaching us those lessons, inviting our trust in his abilities, and is ready to act for his glory and our benefit. Just a reminder: if Jesus had died and not risen again, nothing I have written here would be true. But Jesus is alive, hearing our prayers, helping us, teaching us, and loving us!

 

How Can Jesus Top That?

April 25, 2017

For fifty days following his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ continued to interact with his disciples and appeared to hundreds of people. More detail is given in the gospel of John than in the synoptic gospels, so I am going to take a leisurely pace through the last chapter of the fourth gospel. I’m interested to know how our Teacher and Lord could possibly top his “performance” on Easter Sunday. What can disciples expect after such an amazing feat, Jesus’ mic drop moment of all time?

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

1After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. [John 20:30–21:3]

The fourth gospel writer, putting pen to parchment a few decades after the other three had rendered their accounts, summarizes his purposes in verses 30-31. He first states that Jesus did lots of other things—miraculous demonstrations— that John has not included in his account. Mentioning this fact suggests that John had picked the best stories to share, but they were only the tip of the iceberg. Regardless of what you have heard in people’s Christian testimonies, it is likely that Jesus has done even more to make himself known and present in a person’s life! Keep that in mind the next time you share your own testimony or hear how Jesus has made a difference. And that is not even taking into account all the secret and invisible blessings God is imparting without our knowledge. No one book can contain it all.

John then writes that the stories he related in his gospel account were included to convince his readers that Jesus is nothing short of Messiah, the Son of God. This is the lens through which one should read the entire book: how does an event or this particular episode demonstrate Jesus is divine and sent to us on the messianic mission of salvation? John would not be satisfied if your conclusion to his writing was that Jesus was a very good man, a great teacher, a rabble-rouser who spoke truth to power, or a particularly effective physician. Of course Jesus was all these things, but John’s message is, “But wait! There’s more!” Jesus wasn’t just anybody; Jesus was God’s Son who took on flesh and lived among us (Jn 1:14) in order to do what was necessary to save the world (Jn 3:16). Notice how John points us back to his book’s introduction: “See, here is what I wanted you to know, and I think I conveyed it convincingly.”

It might feel like chapter 20 is the end of the story. But John goes on to relay some natural encounters that might even seem a little common to be included at the conclusion of his book. After all the resurrection excitement, we see the disciples decide it’s time to get back to fishing. Peter leads the stampede to the boat, showing leadership even then. The fish of the Sea of Galilee are caught at night, so that evening they rig their boat and prepare their nets, and then row out to the perfect spot for a good catch. They are pros at this and have full expectation that their nets will fill. Alas, they catch nothing all night.

I’ve stopped the action at this moment just to give us a taste of what that felt like. I’m not sure they expected to catch fish every time they went out. (I know my husband has high hopes when he goes out in his kayak to fish, but there are too many variables for him to assume that he will catch anything.) Here they are, coming up empty after losing a full night’s sleep trying. I would not be happy about that outcome at all, so I expect these guys were pretty disappointed.

My thought, in light of this fruitless foray onto the lake, is that life after knowing the risen Christ is still going to carry disappointments. As “life goes on,” circumstances will be imperfect, even mundane, and success may be elusive. Believing and knowing Christ does not guarantee that struggles desist. It is important for us to modulate our expectations about what salvation accomplishes in our life. We may still have financial strains. We may still get sick. Our car might still break down. Those things happen to everyone, even Christians.

What does change, for sure, is our attitude toward the difficulties of life and discerning whether they have any meaning. It should also prod us to pray and ask God for help, rather than rely solely on our own expertise—these guys were professional fishermen, after all— and Jesus will intervene in this particular problem shortly. We’ll explore how and to what end tomorrow. For now, let us appreciate the fact that our having difficulties does not disprove or discredit our Savior’s accomplishments, teachings, resurrection, or power. This may seem like a tough sell, so we will keep exploring this theme through John’s eyes this week.

I’ve been on the road, driving alone in our little Sprinter van conversion RV, to meet Darling Daughter A in Ashland, Oregon. It’s a drive one can easily accomplish in one day, but I left Wednesday afternoon to get the first three hours under my belt. Without really planning it this way, I have had a mini-retreat. Driving in the quiet, enjoying the scenery, occasionally listening to music, stopping every once in awhile to stretch. It’s good for the soul! I recommend it.

Sometimes a person just has to get away, into the quiet, in order to gain perspective. The daily discipline of “quiet time” allows us to listen to God and examine our lives. One need not go on a road trip to accomplish this task, but every once in awhile an extended “time away” (even at home) refreshes the spirit. I have experienced significant spiritual breakthroughs in times like this and am open again.

In the silence, I realize one question is a trigger for my anxiety: Am I spending my time on the most important things? I often wonder if today’s precious hours are being spent properly. “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). Am I doing what God wants me to be doing? Doubt that I am has plagued me for a few years, from a career perspective. It seems to be coming to a head as my husband and I discuss retirement (some time in the future). Like, Wait, I’m still working on, “What do I want be when I grow up?”

It is possible for me to get quite tied up in knots about this, and I know full well it is a form of obsession, diffuse in its focus, and therefore in the category of anxiety rather than worry. Worry tends to be focused on more realistic, specific concerns. I face the Life Question every day, because of course I have a long list of unfinished projects, home improvement tasks awaiting attention, four books to write, and relationships to maintain. Which is the most important to work on today? Half the time, I don’t know. I recognize that I can suffer from analysis paralysis, otherwise known as “overthinking.” Throw in a little perfectionism, and you have a recipe for emotional gridlock.

But wait, there’s more: experience a life-threatening illness that carries with it an abysmal 5-year survival rate. [I just celebrated Year 3 of those 5, and expect a full lifespan.] The tension surrounding the time question builds. Could it be that one of God’s purposes in carrying me through lung cancer was to explore this particular growth area? God has invited me to re-learn how to live in the present, make the most of every encounter, and consider the value of what I used to dismiss as trivial pursuit.

A corollary to the fear of Time-Wasting is the Bucket List idea: what’s on my list and how much time do I have left to fulfill those dreams? I was speaking with a patient earlier this week, and he told me, when asked how he was doing in his spirit, “I’ve done everything on my bucket list, and I no longer know what the purpose of my life is.” Wow! What a great entry into a meaningful conversation on the Purpose of Now.

I realize that most of my anxiety has to do with the future. My daughters laugh at me as dinner winds down and conversation gets goofy, and I change the subject to “What’s up tomorrow?” or “Here’s tomorrow’s plan.” Over decades time I have under-appreciated what is going on right now and often have not been present to it. It’s odd, because when I do actually rest in the present, I feel safe and secure, led by God. I have the capacity to put my heart and soul into whatever I am doing and get lost in time. Not very often do I do this, but I can.

Those who are overwhelmed by the present cope by diverting their attention to something fun or engaging: needlework such as counted cross-stitch is excellent for requiring concentration, and I have found backpacking does the same thing for me. You either center down and concentrate in a very small circle of activity, or you do something repetitive and concentrate on breathing. I know people who find their refuge in gardening, in making music, in fly fishing, and in painting. These activities are calming because they put us in touch (whether we realize it or not) with our Creator, who is saying right here and right now, “Peace be with you.”