A species of writer’s block perched on my shoulder for recent weeks.
It nattered, “You make a fine sermon to the choir. But have you noticed that many people just don’t care? Some people regard your supposed insights as an assault. And you need a haircut.”
At the barbershop, I recalled the ebb and flow of a long-ago conversation....
I was driving the team back from a University competition. In the darkness behind me, a sophomore confidently pronounced, “Of course, there are no absolutes.”
I observed, “That sentence, ‘there are no absolutes,’ itself is an absolute.”
“Ah, ok,“ he amended. “Ok, there is one absolute, and that is, there are no other absolutes!”
The other students in the van pounced on this clumsier claim. They were mostly engineers. Of course they sided for absolutes in mathematics and science. Everywhere, said one, the sum of the squares of the shorter sides of a right triangle equals the square of the longer side. Yeah, said another, except in the land of Oz.
People do believe that great unyielding truths exist. The problem is that, having faced a tangle of mistakes and deceptions, many people have given up the hard work of finding the truth, or even the most reliable explanation. They are skeptical if not scornful of someone who claims outside the hard sciences to have captured a real live truth.
A weighty question arose: Is it not a truth, that there’s more than one way to skin a cat?
For several miles the engineers tried to count the ways: Knives of course. Compressed air. Explosives. Ultrasound. Centrifuge. Liquid nitrogen. One boy recommended marketing. What, marketing? we all exclaimed. He said, “Just tell the cat, all the cool cats are being skinned, you should be too.” I loved those outside-the-box thinkers.
When we move from mathematics and physics to how to scramble eggs, people see around them lots of ways to reach any given goal. This is often what people mean when they say, there are no absolutes: they mean there is no one best way.
“There's more than one way” becomes a tested truth, a primary truth. If someone claims a unique path, that claimant obviously is blind to the facts of life; at least naive, if not a crackpot.
As we bumped over the potholed Bagnell Dam Bridge, I asked whether the methods used to make the bridge made any difference, so long as the bridge worked. One student replied, “Sure. Whatever.”
Some people simply shrug off talk about what God has done with the constant drizzle of other advertising. They carry an umbrella called, “Whatever.”
But one engineer would not let that apathy pass. He excitedly admonished, A bridge might look ok now, but it could fall! You can't tell by looking! You can’t see inside the concrete! You’ve gotta use good materials from the beginning! You’ve gotta use good methods! You’ve gotta check each part as it goes in!
This is the engineer I want for my bridge, for my pacemaker, for my society.
I stopped the van at a McDonald’s. One of the students discovered a Christian tract at his table. He said, “I hate it when people try to convert me. It’s like I am some country to be conquered.”
These words stuck with me. His intractability was not about truth or falseness. It was about power.
Similarly, a few weeks ago a person requested my help but then said, “Wait. I don’t want this if you are trying to convert me.”
As many of you know, I do not wear a “God’s Gym” t-shirt or other assertive marks. I had said only, “How can I help?” I don't smell godly. Indeed, conversion has never been a primary motive for me. That's not necessarily a good thing, but it's a fact. I would welcome a response, “Oh, thanks! By the way, what must I do to be saved?” But I’ve never been this-for-that in giving. I give freely, because I have received freely.
So I said, “No strings attached! God has been good to me.”
I don't want to get praise that should go to God. Jesus is quite clear about this. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” But I haven't found a guaranteed way to direct praise to God.
In this case, mentioning God provoked a storm. “You are trying to convert me! Don’t talk to me about God!”
So this wimpy unintentional evangelist retreated. I plead, “OK, look at it this way. This is the right thing to do.”
"Hmf. Ok, just as long as you're not trying to convert me."
I would have counted this a weird incident, but I've found other people throw up such barricades at the teeniest hint of God-talk. Please use the comments below to tell me if this is a trend you've seen, or if this is just me. How might I do better?
Granted, people have reasons to expect from Christians manipulation and exploitation. Y’know, the Crusades, the Hundred Years War, Indian reservations, televangelists. Christian authors promote friendship evangelism, lifestyle evangelism, and worship evangelism. I know a youth worker who dreams of making a YouTube video that will go viral. We should not be surprised that people view Christians as using friendship, benevolence, and entertainment to gain some kind of dominance. Who wants to be a scalp on some congregation’s wall, a notch on someone's gospel gun?
Again, the touchiness is rarely about truth, but about power. Many people hold as dearest their ability to chose. Some pundits call this a post modern attitude. However, the worship of choice has been around a long time and holds genuinely heroic honors. Prisoners of war, when all property and freedom has been stripped from them, have clung to this one point of control. “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” wrote concentration camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning.
I have discovered that people are willing to hear an interesting story. They don't want my viewpoints, they don't want my conclusions, they don't want my judgments, but they will hear a story. Whatever conclusions they draw, these will be their conclusions, conclusions they own.
The last of the students returned to his dormitory, I drove the van back to the University lot. The team had performed well on the field. We had another trophy for the school.
Did I mention this was a collegiate computer programming team?
My arrival disturbed a mockingbird. It ran through a few other birds’ calls before croaking its own harsh remonstrance.
I had the privilege of writing a series of creative explorations of scripture this year involving the idea of "sifting." These are times where suffering (often caused by our own actions) brings opportunity for growth and change. The idea was to explore how biblical leaders would have been shaped by scenes of sifting - and to write these in the first person.
My gut reaction was "nope." But as I considered the project, it came to life in my heart.
I am a purist and I think we add to Scripture not at all with our cleverness and modern point of view... in fact our additions in that vein are often simple vanity and based on the notion that we are smarter and better than previous cultures, and I'm not convinced that is actually true.
The heart of this was to put on the shoes of Elijah and Abraham and Esther and walk with them a bit... personally, viscerally and allowing the stories they share with us to become understood from a human point of view. Not expanding or elaborating scripture... but meditating on it deeply and sharing that meditation through expression.
It was a fascinating exercise that, frankly, went better than anyone expected it to (including me)... so we published it in an ebook. It's free - go download it now - I'll wait.
Thanks! Because we have the coolest blog of any church meeting in the State Theatre, I'm going to post a story a week, for your reading pleasure. If you get half as much from these reading them as I did from writing them, we'll be in good shape... first up is Peter.
Called to Follow
Mark was working on his account of Jesus' life again and asking me for stories of the time we spent with Jesus. He asked me why it was so easy for us to leave everything and follow Him.
I smiled. It wasn't easy at all. It took me a long time to be ready for that step. I had met Jesus a year before the night He called us. My fishing business was doing well. Even though I was aching for a change, that final decision to sacrifice it all was the hardest thing I'd done to that point.
Success is difficult to set aside. I had worked hard to build a life, but was increasingly finding that my life and investment lacked something important. It was becoming a question of significance and legacy. I didn't want my gravestone to read, "He sold a lot of salted fish." Even so, it was comfortable and I knew what to expect. I was longing for the risk I was afraid to say, "yes" to. Somehow He knew my heart. I was about to be faced with the biggest choice of my life, with no guarantee that I wasn't making a huge mistake.
I drifted into memory and heard my voice recount the story to Mark of the days we became His disciples ...
It was going to be a long night.
As the waves lifted and fell in gentle rhythm, my hands again found their resting place. The wood was worn smooth from the sheer volume of times I had touched the railing in this exact spot. I loved this time of night, even when the fish weren't moving. It was beautiful stillness. It was peace.
That was on the outside. Inside, I was boiling, desperately looking for things to change. Somehow I knew that a new chapter was beginning, but it was frustrating to not know my next step. It was a discontent that had no anchor, no lines mooring it to anything I could point to as real.
Calling out commands to stop, our boat slowed and I motioned for our team to throw the net. Their calloused hands, full of grace and synchronicity threw out the lines over the darkness into the sea. As it slowly fell into the deep in practiced silence, my thoughts descended too, sinking into darkness where I couldn't see.
There was nothing in my life that merited this level of unease, but I was surrounded by it nonetheless.
Is this all there is?
I had success in business, owning one of the largest fishing operations in Galilee. I spoke and dreamed and traded with partners who respected me. I ate and lived with a good family, and I had known love. Somehow I was still adrift. My life was worn smooth from the touch of years, bringing no comfort.
I wasn't in focus. Something just had to change.
We waited. So much of fishing is the waiting. The men spoke of their children in quiet tones and, like all stories of children, the exploits were completely ordinary, except to the fathers who loved them. The night stretched on as Andrew told me stories of the Baptist and the time he had spent with him these last few months.
We pulled the net for the first catch of the evening, and I murmured under my breath when it was empty. Not a single fish! That happens, but it's been years since I've seen an empty net return. I looked to the east and tried to pierce the darkness by the sheer force of my will. It didn't feel like a storm was coming.
My oldest team member barked a laugh at the dismay of the younger men and offered to let them sit and rest while he continued to work for a living. Shame isn't always a good motivator, but this time it worked pretty well. Again I watched the practiced motions of a thousand throws, on a thousand nights, their legs and arms coiling and releasing in the carefree motion of a thousand memories, just like this one. The net flew, extended and sank for the second time.
Andrew was telling me again about the Carpenter and the amazing things God was doing. I'd met Jesus about a year before, and I'd heard him speak. Andrew was right. There was something different about him. He spoke with a power and a love for God I'd never seen, and the stories about miracles were growing. John the Baptist was saying that he was the One. It would be perfect if Messiah came and sent the armies back to Rome. Israel was long overdue for her coming King. I would love to be a part of that revolution. That idea was exciting and scary all at the same time. I had a lot to lose.
We pulled the nets and caught a boat full of nothing. It was time to move. We set for our second location, and I could see that the men were becoming discouraged.
Glide. Gather. Throw. Sink. Wait.
Still no fish.
The night was an empty boat, and we were getting weary. I signaled the other crew to start for shore and joked with my men as we turned to the north. One of them mentioned in passing that since the fish were smarter than we were, it was just a matter of time before they were on to us.
The earth held its breath as the sky lightened from amber to the brilliant crimson of a new day. We hit the shore, secured the boat and started unloading. Andrew cut the men loose for breakfast, sleep and time with their families. We had one more night before the Sabbath, and I set a time for us to meet again before they doggedly walked away. I told Andrew to go as well, but he just gave me that look brothers give each other before pulling a section of the first net and starting to scrape it clean.
We were still cleaning the nets when the crowd started to gather. People were buzzing about him— Have you seen him? Is he really on his way? I heard he healed a blind man and now he can see ... .Their whispered voices slowly gained strength and echoed out over the water. I didn't see him approach, but suddenly he was there, drawing Andrew into a warm embrace. I stood and tried to wash my hands clean before greeting him, but he didn't seem to mind.
"Simon, can I use your boat to teach from?" he asked. I glanced at Andrew, who was grinning from ear to ear and of course I said yes. It was a good idea. Sound carries over water, and as the hundreds of people who had gathered at the beach sat, Jesus began to speak.
I was exhausted, irritable and resentful of the extra time being taken. It was the worst day my business had experienced in months. I hadn't eaten, slept or bathed in far too long.
But with the Teacher in my boat, speaking God's life and love to everyone around, my heart was energized. In some small way I felt like I was a part of something significant, a partner in ministry, at least for a few moments. It felt good. I felt alive in a way I hadn't felt in years.
When he finished and dismissed the crowd, I found myself wanting him to stay but was afraid to ask if he wanted to eat with us. I wanted to impress him, to make myself important in his eyes. I wanted to let him know that I was the owner of this small fleet of ships and that our salted fish kept people fed from here to Nazareth and sometimes all the way to Egypt. As I started to take him back to shore with unspoken rehearsed words on my lips, he nodded to the south and said, "Put out into the deeper water and let down your nets for a catch."
My thoughts came quickly, almost instantaneously and were, in no particular order:
- The fish aren't running this time of day.
- I'm tired.
- We just cleaned the nets; I don't want to scrape them again for nothing.
But there was something about the way he said it and my heart was beating faster. In spite of every reason and objection I immediately replied, "We've been at this all night and haven't caught anything, but at your word, we'll cast our net again." In the corner of my eye, Andrew was nodding in approval. It seemed that whatever was happening, he felt it too.
Our weary nets spread and splashed, froze, then slowly dropped and I experienced a moment of double vision. Part of me said, "This is pointless," but another part, a deeper part, said, "Watch this!" I glanced at Andrew as the line jumped out of my hands, and I had to scramble to keep from getting pulled in. The boat lurched and dipped crazily toward the sea. Our boat was being pulled toward the net.
That's not possible.
The net was already filling. I could see the schools of fish flooding into it, just under the boat and they kept coming. When we tried to pull the catch into the boat, the net started to tear so we eased the lines back into the water to keep from losing the fish.
I called to the shore for help and they immediately launched out to help us. We pulled our second boat alongside with practiced motions to capture and load the catch. There were so many fish, both boats swamped and we made our way carefully to the shore with a small fortune. Andrew was giving me his best, "I told you so" brotherly glance. We had more than 100 years of experience between us, and none of us had ever seen the like.
The weight of the morning continued to build until we got the boats upon the shore and I collapsed. The combination of the night's work and frustration, the path of my life and inner turmoil, the amazing words of our Teacher and the miracle we had just witnessed was too much for me to bear. This wasn't a story for other people, some rumor of God moving and doing amazing things far away. I was horribly present. God was moving nature itself to speak to me, and I suddenly felt very small.
In the very gaze of heaven I fell to my knees. "Lord, go and leave me here, I'm full of sin and not worthy to be in your presence."
His hand on my head and his touch raising me to my feet communicated kindness and purpose. Speaking to me, to my brother, to my partners and friends, he called us to service. "Don't be afraid." And somehow we felt peace. "From now on, you'll catch men." And we knew that it was true.
We looked at the catch, at our ravaged nets, at our boats overflowing with fortune ... looking at the success we had worked so hard for, it was hard to walk away. But that's exactly what we did, to follow Him.
When the chance comes to leave everything else for what God calls you to do, do it—without hesitation. You'll sacrifice more than you ever imagined. You'll lose everything. You'll question that decision a thousand times, but hang on with both hands to the day that He called you.
It's worth it.
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?"Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Peter answered Him and said, "We have left everything to follow you!" (Matthew 19:25-27).
At The Surge we love doing things together... that includes writing a blog! Here are a few of our main contributing authors:
Our fearless leader, Dwaine is the lead pastor at The Surge. His experience in counter terrorism with the CIA prepared him for ministry and he likes dogs and babies even more than E does.
E (short for Eric Reiss) is the Wingman at The Surge and likes dogs, music, Mexican food, his wife Karen and his little girl Evangeline... not necessarily in that order.