casting out into the deep, venturing into the unknown at Christ’s word

Once while Jesus was standing beside the Lake of Gennesaret and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to burst. So 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. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’s knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were astounded at the catch of fish that they had taken, and 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.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Luke 5:1-11

This is an interesting, even amazing story at a number of levels. What I would like to dwell on is just one aspect of it. Jesus’s words to those he would subsequently call to be his followers. Telling them to cast their nets into the deep, even though they had just caught nothing after being at it all night. It surely made little to no sense to them. But they did it, and the rest and all that follows is history.

This is akin to what I’ve experienced in the last few years right up to the present time. I’ve been wanting to find a Mennonite fellowship, but none in the area where we moved a few decades back. At a certain point I was informed that there was a new fellowship which had met for some time but had recently become Mennonite. So I looked them up. They were clearly in the activist strain, which was okay to me, but took a strong stand of affirming LGBTQ+ for membership, leadership and marriage. Even though I had questions and tensions with the traditional view, that is where I still landed on that issue at the time. They also take a clear stand in regard to support for the riddance of systemic racism, and I and my wife were totally on board with that.

After getting together with them one Sunday online due to COVID, I decided we just couldn’t go through with this. Deb was leaning on me for the decision during that time, surely praying. And I had a great peace, I take it as psychological now, and slept like a baby. But oddly enough I had a strong sense, it is almost as if the Lord were appearing to me in my imagination, and telling me, You don’t have to come, but I’m very much present here. And so we showed up the next Sunday, and we’ve never turned back.

Around the same time, probably shortly after, it was as if the Lord told me that I need to be in the book of James. And I have ever since, and it has been amazing, even life changing, though of course that is incremental. I’ve come a way, and certainly have a long way to go.

Now something similar is happening to me with regard to anxiety. If you know me, or have read this blog much at all, you’ll realize that anxiety has been an ongoing, nearly always an issue with me. I’ve struggled with it, virtually lived in anxiety for years and decades. Although I think I’ve made some progress in how I deal with it, it still could set me back on my heels and worse. Well recently I think I’m beginning to hear the call to launch out into the deep and simply refuse to worry, to be anxious. And to see the newest thing that comes to mind that would have always made me anxious before, to simply be a new opportunity to refuse anxiety.

Of course, I do so dialing in to what God has provided in Scripture through Christ. We can do none of this on our own, it’s only God’s grace. We’re a part of a small group which has a strong emphasis on grace, and that has helped much. But paradoxically it will require effort on our part. We have to let go of all our strivings and devices, and make ourselves sit at Jesus’s feet.

This is all about launching into the deep at Jesus’s words. The difference maker is Jesus. Not our interpretation of Scripture, which by the way in regard to the LGBTQIA+ issue I think is suspect and is a door slam shut in the face of true Christ followers. Only Jesus. But we have to listen, really listen. And then we have to follow and keep following. Thankfully Christ is always ahead of us and with us. We’re not on our own. And that together. In and through Jesus.

wisdom from God requires full engagement

…the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.

Job 42:7b

Job, a classic story, is part of the Hebrew wisdom literature we find in our Bibles. It is steeped in a kind of deep, profound wisdom different from the more straightforward directives and maxims we find in the book of Proverbs. And the book of Ecclesiastes is more akin to Job, looking reality square in the face while simply trying to make the best of that with the strong word in the end of that book to keep the reader and hearer squared.

What I want simply to say in this post is that wisdom from God to us is not only passive in our reception of it, but it requires our full engagement. We need to be active, even proactive, but working through all the present in accord with the wisdom we’re seeking to discern from God. This requires each one of us to be engaged, but it’s best done in community. We necessarily must grapple with it every day in our lives, but we’ll understand and know what to do on a whole host of things much better through other’s wisdom, as well as from those so committed trying to sort through issues together.

This is one major occupation of my life. I am nearly constantly grappling with this and that. Life doesn’t let up, one thing and another will hit you in your face or will become something to keep in mind. Like Job, God doesn’t want us to be passive, thinking that we simply need to keep our mouths shut, and our ears open to receive what God will give us. There will be times for that, but much of the process of receiving wisdom requires our full intelligent, interactive, heart-felt engagement.

Part of the reality in which we now live, as we seek to discern and receive all of God’s help for us. In and through Jesus.

in process

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:2

I take it that we’ll be in process until the day we die. In other words, we’re always sorting out things, the good from the not so good to the bad, what is fitting and what is not, what we should and shouldn’t do. Where we need to grow in whatever ways we’re deficient. I’m thinking now individually, but this certainly is not solely an individual endeavor. And it’s definitely grounded in real life, which is the point of it all, since that’s where our faith is lived out.

To be in process is to be in the midst of change. I always need to be willing to change on a moment’s notice, but especially as I see life unfolding and try to find and settle in and then live well in my God-given space.

Renewing of the mind is what’s needed. It is continuous, something that is not just done once, but is ongoing, a habit of life. Scripture and life and especially the example of Jesus in all of that is what we’re to consider. While at the same time being open to help from unexpected places. Humbly receiving that.

In and through Jesus.

be yourself (with all its foibles and flaws)

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

Ecclesiastes is in some ways the most fascinating book to me in the Bible, though others are as interesting in their place, and when considered together. This book reminds me of the great Danish philosopher, Soren Kirkegaard, and the book Kirkegaard: A Single Life, by Stephen Backhouse is a great read. I am sorry to see it so high on Amazon. Get it from a library. It was one of the few life-changing books I’ve read, though every good book should help us in life.

As I recall (thankfully, I have my own copy) the book points out how Kirkegaard sought to live a radical life of following Christ within what he considered an entirely dead Christendom of which he wanted no part. He stood out for that reason, but also because of all of his challenging, compelling writings along with his peculiar manner of life which certainly ran across the grain of the culture of his place and time. Called “the father of existentialism” but at the heart of what he was it seems to me: a follower of Christ. But I’ll certainly have to leave it to many others to help us, though the book mentioned above is said to be the best introduction to him hands down, with a summary of all of his works in the back.

Kirkegaard like all the rest of us made mistakes, his share of them. But life was to be lived, not debated about or philosophized or even theologized. To Kirkegaard, what it means to follow Christ is the point of existence, and the only way that is understood is by endeavoring to live it out, to be authentic in the sense of being oneself, to move forward in reality, in real life.

For me I think along with being in Scripture and prayer, I seek to understand in the midst of living. And there’s no escape from life. There are so many aspects of it. Ecclesiastes is all about that, life under the sun, and all the experiences one passes through here. How on the one hand vanity accompanies everything, I would think especially if it’s considered an end to itself. But on the other hand how we must go on and be fully present in it all, not only present, but a full participant as well. As the book in the end reminds us from the one who was sharing Qoheleth’s (“the Teacher’s”) thoughts, doing it all in the fear of God seeking to obey all of God’s commandments, aware of the judgment to come.

We will make mistakes along the way, no doubt. But God will help us as we realize that we learn from Christ only as we seek to follow Christ in all of life, in everything. And in the midst of a world in which so much is vanity, a chasing after the wind, in which most all of the best endeavors fall short of the goal, and even those which succeed at least in some sense don’t last.

I take heart in this. I have my foibles and flaws (just ask my wife). But I want to go on just as I am, but also with others who are attempting to do the same just as they are. We’re in this together for better and for worse.

And we have wonderful enigmatic books like Ecclesiastes to go back to again and again, along with the rest of Scripture, as we keep trying to make sense of what’s in front of us, and how we’re to carry on. Being each one of us our own unique God-given selves.

In and through Jesus.

Christlikeness: turning over the tables and driving out the money changers (consider with caution)

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’
but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.

Matthew 21:12-14

There seems to be an understanding of Christ as the one who was meek and mild, and always nice. And that if we’re to be like Christ we’ll also always be nice. We should always love everyone including our enemies. But what does love look like at times?

At the very least, sometimes we need to say the hard things. This may not be true of most of us, although all of us on some scale will need to do this even if the truth spoken is only with reference to ourselves. Jesus did and said the hard things in “the cleansing of the Temple.”

We are not Jesus so that if we ever depart from the general way of Christ-like love: humility and gentleness with a deference to all, then we’d better do so with much caution. Our default should always be to have a love which accepts all just as they are, but sometimes we have to challenge the systems, authorities and powers. Even attempt to throw a wrench in them to stop the works.

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It’s my own opinion that Christ is not that much present among those gathered in his name who are really not that much about Christ’s business. Usually taking in more of a personal application of Scripture which is often good to that point but stops there. We as followers of Christ have to be willing to take the hard stand at times, to do and say the difficult thing. Although again for most of us, we simply live in a way that is counter-cultural, in contrast to all the wrong, and leave the direct confrontation to those gifted or set apart for that.

We have to think through this with the utmost caution. For some, including myself, there’s a strong inclination and temptation to see confrontation as a default. If something is broke, we want to fix it. If it’s wrong, we want to call it out in no uncertain terms. It’s better for people like myself to stop in our tracks and pray. And pray some more with others and give it time. But after that it might be good for us to gently yet firmly step in and speak the truth.

Just something to consider.

slow down

therefore thus says the Lord GOD,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
“One who trusts will not panic.”

Isaiah 28:16; NRSVue

There is so much to get done! But we can only do one thing at a time. And are we really meant to do everything? Yes, certain things, okay. But we’re limited. And often we take on more not just out of noble purposes, but maybe at times even ignoble.

Israel of old at large was not being faithful. They did not heed God, having their own agenda, and therefore did not care about God’s promises, much less believe them. Or at best their faith was weak and vacillating. When it came right down to it, they felt it depended on them, their agenda and program they were bent on fulfilling.

But life and we should add God doesn’t let people off the hook so easily. Real life presses in and challenges us, at least eventually, and at every turn. We can’t ignore it. In the case of Israel they felt pressed to be in a hurry, to panic (see NET footnote). They were left to themselves, or felt all depended on them. Eventually panic set in.

Faith rests in God and in God’s promises, God’s promise in Jesus. We need to slow down, to trust, to rest. I find that as I simply purposefully do that, I am much more inclined to trust. One might want to argue that we need to trust first, and then we’ll slow down. That’s true. But sometimes stopping what we’re doing when we’re recognizing that it’s not helpful, and doing what we ought to be doing instead can help us into a better rhythm, and gives us the chance to really hear and understand what God is doing and how we fit in that.

At any rate this is important for me. If something should be done, I find that ordinarily I need to do it deliberately, more often than not, slowly, seeking to keep in step with God, doing so in faith, and not as if all depends on me. Something we do ourselves and would do well to learn to do together as well. In and through Jesus.

the ongoing challenge of Scripture and life

 

…the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.

Job 42:7b; NRSVue

Scripture is so full, and we all know that life is. If there isn’t one thing, there’s another. Always something. 

Job is a great case in point. Avoid one way of looking at the book. Go to Jewish tradition and elsewhere. Even the way it’s translated is not set in stone. Job is just a great example of what is more or less true in all of Scripture. It points us to Christ, but the way it does is noteworthy.

Getting back to Job and the passage quoted above, Job is commended for challenging God. Job’s friends are rebuked, even humiliated (according to the NRSV heading) for stating the conventional doctrinal orthodox understanding of life, faithfully applying it to Job’s situation, indeed tragedy. There was nothing else to be said.

But Scripture and life is not like that. It is so much more open ended, not some closed system which we can set in stone in some kind of systematic theology. We’ll wrestle in life yes, but in Scripture too, and even with God if our faith is active and real.

Scripture is important but is never an end in itself. It mirrors real life and is meant to help us on. The point of Scripture and having to wrestle with it, is to lead us to Christ and to begin to understand all of Scripture in that light, really in a way that we can’t ever fully comprehend and capture. And so, the challenge goes on.  In and through Jesus.

 

prayer for a clean heart

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

Psalm 51:10; NRSVue

There are those who say that this prayer is not for today since God has given us a new heart and spirit in the new covenant. I can more than understand that thought, and I don’t really care to argue about it. It may well be true on a certain level. We indeed have a new heart and are partakers of the divine nature as believers in Christ. But that doesn’t mean that our hearts might not be carried away with something contrary to the goodness and righteousness that’s in Christ.

In John’s first epistle (as it’s called, or letter) we’re told that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). If that’s addressed to believers, and contrary to a few I think it plainly is, then it’s not a stretch to pray the prayer above from Psalm 51, and to benefit directly from that entire penitent psalm.

What we’re talking about here is real life. Yes, we’re forgiven in Christ through his once for all sacrifice for sins. But in God’s love and grace, God holds all of God’s children accountable. God expects more from us.

We may not be able to make sense of everything in Scripture, and that for a good number of reasons. It’s better to ponder than simply dismiss something as irrelevant to us. All of Scripture is written for us if not to us. It will benefit us if we give it the time and space.

In this case I pray that God will indeed give me a clean heart and a new and right spirit. God is always at work to bring us into a new experience of God’s love and what that means for every part of our lives and out from our lives to others. In and through Jesus.

take what joy you can, but live in reality

It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of everyone,
and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

Ecclesiastes 7:2-4; NRSVue

The title for Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 in the NRSVue is “A Disillusioned View of Life.” Probably Qoheleth, translated “the Teacher” is off the mark in at least some of what he (or she) is saying. We can say it’s all a matter of perspective. From their point of view, from where they were looking, they were telling it like it is, and trying to express wisdom. And there definitely is a measure of profound wisdom (see toward the end of Ecclesiastes).

I find the part quoted above most helpful for myself. Life “under the sun” and in seeking to follow Jesus and just considering our own weaknesses and limitations along with difficulties we face is indeed at least full of challenge. Life is hardly foolproof. We make many mistakes and hopefully keep learning along the way. If we expect a bed of roses here, we might as well forget that. Instead we’ll find some good, some joy, but much sorrow and possible hardship, even some possible danger along the way.

Paradoxically if we can just accept this, and choose to comfortably live in it or settle in it, then we can find not only a bit of joy here and there, but really joy even in the midst of sorrow. The Spirit helps us, but only as we accept things as they are.

“The Teacher” in Ecclesiastes is trying to help people steer a good course or if the title is apt, make the best of a bad situation. Yes, much is pretty dour in this book. Maybe that’s in part why I’ve been drawn to it over the years, because it does seem to line up with life in the real world, or at least much of my experience of it.

Our hope and expectation is in God through Christ, not in the circumstances of life itself. We receive all that God gives, and can enjoy some of that. But ultimately that we might live for others, even as Christ is teaching us by the Spirit together. Enjoying life even as “the Teacher” tells us in Ecclesiastes, but with our feet on the ground not in some make believe place, but in the real world where we all live. And especially with a heart and ear turned toward suffering, that we might help others. In and through Jesus.

keep going (walk through it)

Immediately he made the disciples get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 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!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew 14:22-33; NRSVue

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”

John 14:1; NRSVue

One of the most important things any of us can do who have struggled with anxiety is to just keep walking through life rather than allowing ourselves to be gripped with anxiety. That doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge the problems or situation we’re facing. We do, but our focus all along needs to be on Christ.

Peter was gangbusters with his faith, part of his personality, also probably in part why he often took the lead among the apostles. He made his share of mistakes, but learned in the process. We learn faith only by faith or one might even say by doing faith. It’s not just something good to store in our heads, but we have to do it, to work it out in our lives.

Peter accepted that it was the Lord walking on the water, and somehow thought that if Jesus could do that, then so could he. After all, the apprentice is supposed to learn to do what their master does. And when it came right down to it, it was a matter of faith.

Unfortunately Peter took his gaze off Jesus, instead quickly becoming captured with the reality of the waves being beaten by the strong wind. He began to sink, but had the faith to cry out to the Lord to save him.

The situations we face in life are real. The question is how to face them. When our faith is weak we probably are best to avoid considering them altogether, but instead to turn our attention to Jesus in prayer along with meditation on scripture.

Years ago our church group went to a ropes course. The first year I was terrified and couldn’t even walk across the first rope and got down. I am not fond of heights. Of course we were strapped well. As I recall it, I tried, but might have fallen, suspended in midair, and that was enough for me. I think I looked down that first year, a terrifying sight for me. I knew we were going back the following year, and decided to not look down, as I recall it fifteen feet or likely somewhat higher. That year I actually did the entire ropes course, never one time looking down which I knew would be my downfall. I wonder what would have happened if I would have fallen. I don’t know, though I’m not optimistic.

But when our faith becomes stronger, knowing that Christ will hold us, will see us through, then we can work on the problem, even giving our attention to it, yet all the while not letting our hearts become troubled since our trust is in Christ. What if in this story, Peter’s faith would’ve been stronger. He might have noticed the wind whipped waves and as I imagine of him, simply laugh, continuing on toward Jesus, then both of them walking to the boat and getting in.

The point is that no matter what we face, God is with us in Christ. God will see us through. But for this to take hold and make the needed difference in our lives, we’re going to have to simply be willing to keep going with our attention turned toward the Lord, receiving the Lord’s help to us as we stay in scripture. As we do that we’ll learn by experience that the Lord always upholds us through what otherwise would be nothing but being caught in the grip of our latest anxiety or fear. No, we just keep walking by faith, and refuse to let any circumstance stop us. And as we do, then in time and sooner than we likely think, we will be able to receive God’s help so that we have a better perspective. And part of that is receiving God’s peace in Christ Jesus which actually surpasses our understanding and lack thereof and indeed even guards our hearts and minds (see Philippians 4:6-7).

Life is full of trouble and problems, no doubt. And true faith does not simply ignore such or pretend it doesn’t exist. But true faith in following Jesus also refuses to give in to a troubled heart and mind. We’re told to not let our hearts be troubled, but rather to trust in God. In and through Jesus.