Have Yourself a Compelling Little Christmas

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pond5.com

The gospel is compelling, not coercive.

Is there a statement that more fully embodies the Christmas story?

In a time when Christian denominations offer a fragmented picture of the body of Christ, when self-appointed gatekeepers impose narrow definitions and restrictive requirements for what is and is not acceptable, and when fear is wielded as the primary motivator of faith, we as the church would do well to be reminded of the compelling nature of God’s entry into our winner-take-all existence.

The ancient Hebrews spoke of God’s hesed love. Hesed is most often translated as “loving-kindness,” eliciting mercy, loyalty, faithfulness and compassion.

Hesed love is not conditional. It is not a love that wavers with our commitment or diminishes in the face of our disobedience. It is not love that pushes us to change in order to be acceptable.

Hesed is love that comes to us in a story of the poor and oppressed, of the despised and reviled. Of a baby born in dirt and filth to an unwed mother, whose coming was announced not to kings or religious leaders but to untrustworthy field workers and immigrant astrologers.

It is no coincidence that hesed is by its very nature incarnational. It is love that comes to us not as a warm and fuzzy feeling of attraction and excitement but as something that comes alive and takes shape in us and through us.

It is not just something that is delivered to us, but produces something in us, something new and surprising.

Something faithful and compassionate and merciful and just and beautiful.

There is nothing coercive about this kind of love. Nothing about it screams, “accept me or else!

But could there be anything more compelling?

Is there anything else, any other power in the universe that so captivates us? That grabs our imagination and makes us ask, what if life could REALLY be like this?

That’s the answer that Christmas gives us.

The compelling story that life really CAN be like this. That there is a love that reaches past our sorry commitments and our disobedience. That brings the incarnational beauty of hesed alive in us and unites us.

This Christmas, may we truly embrace the hesed loving-kindness of God through the incarnation of Jesus. And may we, like him, become a compelling force for mercy, love, justice, and compassion.

Happy Christmas!

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Excerpt from An Ecological Eschatology

MontanaSkyIs the church waiting around for God to bring about his ends? Or, perhaps, is God waiting for us to get on board? What if our mandate for creation care is more than simple stewardship? What if our call is to be agents of redemption?

If those questions intrigue you, you might be interested in my latest Benthics column over at The EcoTheo Review. Here’s a snippet:

“In the broad sweep of scripture, an overarching story unfolds. And that story is one wherein God’s ends are achieved through the activities of human beings in history.

The elect people of Israel come about because of Abraham’s faith and obedience. The line of Judah (from which Jesus is eventually born) is carried on through the long-suffering faithfulness of Joseph. Rahab shelters Joshua and Caleb so the Israelites can conquer Canaan. Ruth lays on the threshing floor with Boaz, and a couple of generations later King David is born. The heroic actions of Esther and Mordecai preserve the Jewish race during the exile.

Again and again, God uses ordinary people to unfold his redemption plan. A plan which, as Romans 8 reveals, includes not just human salvation, but rescue for all of creation.

It seems that waiting for God is not so much a passive thing.

In fact, it seems like something we get to participate in.

God’s plan, it seems, is not so much something that magically reveals itself in a flash of light and a puff of smoke. Rather, it appears to come to life as human beings actually live into it.”

You can read the full article here.

A Declaration of Peace

istockphoto.com

istockphoto.com

 

My good friend Jeff Johnson has posted a brilliant and evocative piece over on his Our Human Life blog. Jeff raises some important issues that all of us trying to follow Jesus and seek shalom need to explore.

Will we continue to pay lip service to a nebulous concept of peace, or will we be the generation willing to take the hard path of nonviolent response that is the only way to a world where war will be no more?

I invite you to read Jeff’s brilliant and beautiful article and join the conversation. Click the link to begin:

A Declaration of Peace

Here is the church, here is the steeple…

steeplefingers

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“…Open it up, and see all the people. … Hey! They look just like me!”

I’m in the middle of a seminary class this week on leading change. “Change” is a big word in church circles these days. It seems like everyone is either dying for it or dying to avoid it.

I’ve been part of church change conversations in a variety of contexts over the past several years. I’ve been part of internal change movements and have tried to help others either facilitate or manage change.

There are a few things I’ve noticed about change in churches:

1) Almost everybody seems to know they need to change. The alternative to changing is to fade into non-existence.

2) Almost everybody is terrified to actually implement change. They understand the consequences but simply can’t bring themselves to endure the uncertainty that comes along with it. By doing so, they essentially choose a slow but sure diminution into non-existence.

3) Those who want change generally want something specific. And what they want is for the church to change to be more like them.

It’s that third thing I want to focus on.

When I was part of a change movement in my church several years ago, I had a vision. At the time, I thought that vision was for a more vibrant, more lively, more “relevant” expression of the church.

In hindsight, what I now realize is that what I wanted was a church made in my own image. One to suit my wants and desires and perceived needs.

I arrogantly assumed that everyone would (or at least should) want the same thing. And even if they didn’t know it yet, that was the kind of church that they really desired to be part of. Once they could experience it, they’d surely come around.

Now that I’ve spent some time seriously studying the church in its various expressions and various movements, both historically and contemporarily, I’m coming to the realization that that’s pretty much what everyone wants.

The best church, we assume, is the one that’s most like us.

And so we embark on these Quixotic change missions, trying to make the church what we want it to be, laboring under the assumption that what we want is really what everyone wants. More hip. More traditional. More welcoming. More stable. More conservative. More progressive. More evangelical. More missional. More straight. More gay. More “biblical.” More “spiriti-led.” More diverse. More homey. More young. More multi-generational.

What you seldom see or hear in these conversations is probably the one thing that maybe we should all be striving for.

Instead of a church that’s more like us, maybe we should be seeking a church that looks more like Jesus.

Of course, our immediate response to that is to say, “That is what I want! JESUS WANTS EXACTLY WHAT I WANT!!”

Really?

Here’s the thing: The church of Jesus almost never looks like what we think we want.

Because Jesus is dangerous.

Jesus calls us into those places that make us uncomfortable, that challenge our preconceptions, that stretch our imaginations. The church we think we want, the one that looks and thinks and acts just like we do, does none of those things.

And do you know why?

Because Jesus is all about LOVE.

Sound oversimplified? Think about it. Really think about it.

Love is anything but simple.

Love makes us uncomfortable. Love challenges our preconceptions. Love stretches our imaginations.

Love—real, authentic, unconditional, life-giving love—is the hardest thing we can do.

Love calls us to die so that it can rise up in our place.

We cannot continue to box ourselves into our labels and categories and preconceptions and preferences, and love like Jesus loves. It’s not until we abandon all of those things that we can even begin to glimpse what that kind of love is like.

It’s only in utter surrender that we can find true freedom.

In Wesleyan theology we talk about the idea of “Christian Perfection.” That’s a pretty hard concept to get your head around. We all know instinctively that we can never be “perfect.” But because of that instinct, we never really give the idea an honest try.

What John Wesley meant by “perfection” wasn’t an error-free existence. What he meant was that we could—at least conceivably—actually love other people and the world around us the way Jesus does.

Bob Tuttle, one of the most brilliant professors I’ve had the privilege to study under, defined it like this:

“Love devoid of self-interest.”

The love of Jesus, the love he calls us to as individuals and as his church, is a love that does nothing for its own benefit and everything for the sake of others.

Everything.

So whatever our agendas are and as noble as they may be, unless they are founded on that kind of utterly self-sacrificing, thoroughly generative love, they fall short of the best life Jesus calls us to.

So what kind of church do you want. Really want?

If you want one that’s just like you, I guarantee you’ll find it.

I hope we can choose the riskier path.

Where moth and rust consume

Moth

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Nobody ever believed in Jesus because they lost an argument.”

I wish I could remember the name of my seminary colleague who said that in class one day. I’d gladly pay him royalties for the number of times I’ve quoted him.

In today’s contentious church environment, I think it’s a salient reminder.

It seems everywhere we turn, church people are fighting. Not just with non-Christians but, even more frequently, with one another. Don’t believe it? Google “Christian blogs,” pick one, and go to the comment section.

In fact, let me save you some trouble. Just go check out one of my favorites, Rachel Held Evans’ blog. Pick any post. You won’t have to scroll down far before you see the vitriolic responses starting to fly.

Who’s selling out to who?

In a recent post, Evans notes that the most frequent argument levied against liberal/progressives from the conservative/evangelical camp is that we are “selling out” to the culture around us. We compromise the truth of scripture in order to win friends from the “world” so that we can appear to be “relevant” or even “cool.”

But, Evans pointedly notes, the very same people who voice those accusations are also very often the first to “sell out” to the “worldly” notions of retributive violence, economic elitism, racism, sexism, and secular class warfare:

“And I am concerned that the Church is indeed conforming to the world—every time it preaches violence as a way to achieve justice, every time it glorifies celebrity and success, every time it reduces womanhood to subordination and manhood to power, every time it justifies cruelty or unkindness in the name of proving a point.”

Treasures in heaven

Not surprisingly, Jesus has something to say about all of this. In addition to the rather obvious issue of splinters and planks (Matt. 7:4-5), there is a somewhat obscure and almost universally misunderstood passage wherein our favorite itinerant Galilean rabbi challenges his followers to a radically different perspective:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. […] No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

—Matthew 6:19-20, 24 (NASB)

Contrary to popular belief, Jesus really isn’t talking about money in this passage. Nor is he advocating some kind of pious “investment” in a distant, post-mortem future. Those interpretations take the passage out of its context as the climactic words of what we now refer to as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).

In the buildup to this statement, Jesus is encouraging the marginalized amongst his followers and admonishing the religious watchdogs of his day. He tells the oppressed and disenfranchised that, contrary to social convention, they are blessed. He tells the religious leaders that their scrupulous adherence to the law falls far short of its intent.

“Treasures on earth” doesn’t necessarily refer to wealth itself, but to the the trappings of power, influence and status. Because those things often accompany wealth, it becomes an apt metaphor for anything other than Jesus to which we attach value.

“Treasures in heaven,” similarly, are not good deeds which we store up in some sort of religious bank account to cash in when we…well…cash in. Instead, it is a call to treasure Jesus himself and to embrace his way of being.

Righteousness of the Pharisees

Early on in his sermon, Jesus informs his listeners that their righteousness must surpass “that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law” (Matt. 5:20, NIV). A bit later, he tells them to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).

Jesus is not laying down a new, more stringent legal code to follow. He is challenging his followers to integrate his life into theirs. In doing so, he directly contrasts that kind of life to that of the “Pharisees and teachers of the law.” The religious elite. The self-appointed gatekeepers.

The Pharisees were not evil people. They were convinced they were doing what God had commanded of them. They were adamant that legalistic morality, even at the expense of those who were thoroughly unable to achieve it, was the path to realizing the kingdom of heaven.

Unfortunately, they were missing the big picture.

Radical reorientation

Throughout his discourse, Jesus’ whole point is not for his followers to try to obey some set of behavioral mandates. It’s to reorient their lives around him and the kind of radical, unconditional, thoroughly inclusive love he displays…especially to those who seem to deserve it the least.

The “treasures on earth” Jesus rebukes are the systems and structures that oppress, objectify and dehumanize others at the altar of self-righteousness, exclusivity and superiority. Systems which, incidentally, the Pharisees had embraced in their behavior-management-based righteousness.

“Treasures in heaven,” then, are not deposits on some cosmic ledger, but an orientation toward love as the highest universal value. Not just love as a touchy-feely emotion, but as a radical, forgiving, inclusive force that rejects all manner of self-interest for the benefit of others.

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not a place or even a way of life. It is the ultimate reality, where love reigns and rules, and which he embodies.

Moths and rust

The Pharisees were sincerely trying to do what they thought was right. The problem was, they were misunderstanding the story God was telling. In their zeal to be holy, they had sold out to the worldly systems and structures of status and power.

And Jesus’ message to them is that their earthly treasure—as noble as they believed it to be—was ultimately unsustainable. In fact, he tells them, it will consume and destroy them.

The church should pay attention.

When we obsess over our arguments and the defense of our particular beliefs, we are falling into the same trap. And eventually, it will consume us. And we’ll miss the kingdom reality Jesus is offering.

Confessions…an excerpt

fencerow

A few weeks ago my friend Darren Bouwmeester posted here at The Awesomeness Conspiracy as part of a blog exchange project. Today, my article, “Confessions of a non-sustainable carnivore” appears on Darren’s site, Composting FaithHere’s an excerpt…

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I don’t garden. I shop at Wal-Mart. I drive an 8-cylinder Jeep. I only recycle about a third of what I should. I eat a LOT of meat. And I like it.

In fact, for all my talk about conservation and protecting wild places, I’m not really very “green” in my own home.

I don’t say those things pridefully. In fact, there’s a good bit in those statements that I’m not at all proud of. Some of them I even feel a little guilty about. Except the meat part. I do like meat.

So why would I tell you all of this? And why, of all places, would I write these statements for a blog devoted to practices I’m admittedly not good at following?

Because it is what it is. I’m human. I mess up. I’m lazy. I’m stuck in a lot of patterns and habits.

But also because I care. I care about our planet and our society and our cultures.

I care that my impact means something. That the things I do (or don’t do) don’t happen in isolation.

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You can view the full post here, and while you’re there I encourage you to check out some of the other awesome content and conversations going on at Composting Faith.

When I heard the voice…

campfire

I remember the first time I heard it.

The voice.

I remember exactly where I was and exactly what I was doing.

And I remember what it sounded like. And how I knew it was real.

It was by a campfire. And I was listening to a story.

It was the story about the two disciples leaving Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion, making the long, dusty walk back to their home village of Emmaus, and how this stranger came alongside them and told them another story.

It was a story they’d heard before.

But this time it was different.

Instead of being about what they’d always heard the story was about, it was about something else.

Instead of being about guilt and shame and vengeance, it was a story about brokenness and healing and love.

It was a story about hope.

It was a story that turned their former story on its head. Upside-down. Inside-out.

And it turned out the stranger was Jesus.

The one whose story they thought was over came and told them the real story.

The one about hope.

The one about him.

And he invited them into it.

And in the midst of their story, I heard it.

The voice.

And I knew the voice was real.

Not because of what it sounded like.

But because of what it said.

Because it said something I’d never heard before. Not really, anyhow.

It said something that made me know the story was true. The one about brokenness and healing and love.

The one about hope.

It told me something I needed to hear more than anything I’d ever heard before.

Something I didn’t dare believe.

“I know you’ve fallen. I know how many times. And I know you’re going to fall again.”

“But know this…no matter how many times you fall, no matter how often you fall again, no matter why, I’m here.”

“I’m here.”

“I’m going to pick you back up, get you back on your feet, dust you off, and help you start again.”

“No matter how many times.

“No matter how many times.”

And I knew, in that moment, that the story I had been believing before wasn’t true. The story about how I wasn’t good enough, about how messed up I was, about what a failure I was.

I knew the story I’d always heard, the one I’d always believed, the one about guilt and shame and vengeance, was a lie.

And in that moment, I knew everyone else I knew was believing the same lie.

And they deserved to hear the truth.

And then I heard it again. And I’ve heard it countless times since.

The voice.

“Tell my story. The one about brokenness and healing and love.”

“The one about hope.”

Maybe you’ve heard that same voice.

Maybe, like me, you’d been hearing it for a long time, but you didn’t know whose voice it was or where it came from, because it got blended in and garbled up with all the other voices and all the other stories.

Maybe, like me, you just need the time and the space to listen. To sit quietly somewhere and hear the story.

Or maybe you just need to hear that the other story is a lie. The one about guilt and shame and vengeance.

Maybe you need to hear the story about hope.

My prayer for you is that you will find that time and space. That quietness.

That story.

The one about hope.

And in hearing the story, the true story, you’ll hear the voice. The one you heard before but couldn’t dare to believe.

The voice.

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A guy I know named Jake has a blog, and on his blog he’s telling and looking for new stories about God. Because we’ve heard the wrong stories for far too long. We need new stories. This one you just read is one of them. If you want to experience these new stories, I encourage you to share this one. Then, go visit Jake’s site, and read the stories, and share those, and maybe even tell one of your own.

Shalom.

The Voice of Silence: An excerpt

rocksofa

The latest entry in my “Benthics” column at The EcoTheo Review is online today. Here’s a brief excerpt:

As wide path gives way to twisting trail
through swatting branches and stinging nettles
and malevolent knots of vine and laurel
opening into stunning views
that rob the lungs
of breath itself

It speaks.

And at day’s end
with throbbing feet and aching backs
and phantom pack weight still yoked
on exhausted shoulders

We repose on luxuriant recliners of flat river stone
and remember distant memories
of beds and blankets and pillows
and love.

And It speaks.

You can read the entire poem here.

Enjoy!

The Path of Most Resistance

tangledpathI confess, I’m a bit irritated with myself for taking so long between blog posts.

Actually, I could have ended that sentence about seven words earlier.

I’m a bit irritated with myself.

Come to think of it, that’s still too much.

I’m a bit irritated.

For the past two-and-a-half years I’ve been working toward a Master’s Degree in Christian Ministry at Asbury Theological Seminary. Up until now I was taking a limited part-time course load, trying to balance work and life and school without unnecessary overload.

But I added an extra class this spring in hopes of finishing by December, slightly ahead of my pre-determined, self-imposed schedule. Half of my 60 hours’ worth of classes are online; the remainder must be completed on campus in the tiny rural village of Wilmore, Kentucky, about 25 miles south of downtown Lexington.

So, yeah, things are a little busier than usual. Juggling course assignments with work, family and church life can be hectic. Add to that a series of four-hour drives to Wilmore for weekend classes on campus, toss in some additional duties I’ve taken on in ministry, and there just hasn’t been any time to write.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. There’s time to write. There’s just no time to think. To concentrate. To focus. To process ideas.

And I find it all a bit irritating.

When I can’t concentrate, when I can’t focus, when I feel like I don’t even have time to think or sort or process ideas, I get stressed. It’s one of the few and very rare instances when it sucks to be me. Sure, things get done, but it’s just an exercise of pinballing from one priority to the next, waiting to hit the flapper and get flung up into the game again, bouncing aimlessly from bumper to bumper.

But I’m starting to think all of this irritation, this lack of focus, this inability to concentrate, is actually a symptom of something else.

When I enrolled at Asbury for the Fall 2011 semester, I had no idea exactly what I was going to do with a seminary degree. I was certain I was being called into some type of vocational ministry. I had been preaching for about six years as a lay speaker, filling in for pastors who were on vacation or accepting invitations to appear as a guest speaker at various church functions, and I was receiving a ton of encouragement and affirmation from people that it was something for which I had a gift.

So while I was sure I was doing what I was supposed to do, I never really had a clear picture of where it was all going.

And now, with the end in sight, I still don’t know.

To be honest, I’m a little anxious about it.

Maybe even a bit irritated.

Now, I know I still need to be patient. I’m as convinced as ever that God placed me on this path for a purpose, and that at the right time the right opportunity will come along and it will all make sense. I’ve been down that road before. That’s the great thing about faith. The more you experience it being rewarded, the more confident you become in it.

But the closer I get, and as I start entering into the “system” of United Methodist ministry, and the more I see that I don’t really fit into any of the boxes that exist in that system, the more I find myself pushing for an answer. And the less I find myself able to really focus. On anything.

And the more irritating it becomes.

Of course, it doesn’t help that perfectly well-meaning people, folks who are genuinely interested in me, keep asking those questions: “How long do you have left?” “What is your degree in?” “Are you going to be a pastor?”

“What are you going to do?”

It also doesn’t help that the UM ministry hierarchy is a fairly tangled and complex one which is difficult to explain. Most people who have been Methodists their entire life don’t understand it. Which makes it that much harder to relate to someone from a different faith background.

And so when I try to answer these good, interested, well-meaning people, it takes me half an hour to just explain the difference between an elder and a deacon and a local pastor, and how all of those different options play out, and how you need an M.Div. for this and an M.A. for that, and how none of them really seem to fit what it is I sense God calling me toward.

They say the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

My line is anything but straight. I have chosen the path of most resistance.

And while I’m absolutely convinced it’s the right path, and while the end of it is in sight, the destination is still unclear. The trail is obscured.

So I hope you’ll excuse my infrequent posts and my self-indulgent little rant. But at least I’ve written something.

And even if nobody reads it, at least I’m a little bit less irritated.

It is what it IS: The story of a story about a story

notesA couple days ago I sat down to write my regular column, “Benthics,” for the EcoTheo Review web magazine. I had it in my head to share a story about backpacking into the wilderness, and how solitude is not necessarily a solitary experience, and how in certain places and times a kind of clarity takes hold that transcends the collective components of everything that’s a part of it.

I thought I had a pretty good idea to work with and had about five or six hundred words on the page, but somehow I couldn’t figure out how to tie it all together. It was ironic that in a piece ostensibly about perspective, I almost literally couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

If you’ve read my contributions to EcoTheo you know they’re a little different than what I usually write here for the Awesomeness Conspiracy blog. I tend to be a little more whimsical, a little more literary and metaphorical in my attempts to relate my experiences of encountering something of the divine in nature.

It’s a chance for me to flex my creative muscles a bit, to work out some parts of my writer’s brain that don’t get used quite as often.

And so as I was trying to conjure images and memories and emotions and sensations in words and prose, I kept having this feeling that I was missing something, some hook or element that would unify it all and make it less rambling and more focused. I edited sentences, re-arranged paragraphs, deleted things here, added things there, and generally ran the gamut of writing strategies to make the whole thing work.

Frustrated and flustered, I decided to take a lunch break, get out of the house for a bit, and just let it sit for awhile. Sometimes you just need to put some space between yourself and what you’re trying to write so you can see it with fresh eyes a little bit later.

It didn’t work.

I read it, re-read it, edited some more, and eventually just ended up starting at my computer screen, pissed off, about ready to scrap the whole thing.

And then it hit me.

The thing I was writing didn’t want to be a story.

It wanted to be a poem.

I realize that may sound a bit strange or esoteric at best and downright nutty at worst. What do you mean it wanted to be a poem? How can an idea want to be anything?

I have to admit, it’s hard to explain. But there’s something about the creative process that has a mind of its own, so to speak. It’s as if, even though it’s a part of you, it’s somehow mysteriously apart from you. And so you have to honor what the idea or the image or the sculpture or the song or whatever it is, is.

Because if you try to make it something else, if you try to manipulate it into something it’s not, to suit some preconceived notion you have or to make it more palatable or comfortable or easy or just to fit into some kind of box, you dishonor its nature.

And so I wrote a poem. Using many of the same words and imagery I had started from in the narrative form, I rearranged it and reformatted it in a way that had rhythm and cadence and pace.

And it just flowed. I mean it came pouring out of me effortlessly like my brain and fingers and keyboard and laptop were just a vessel from which this idea could find life and breath.

It’s a powerful thing to let something be what it wants to be, what it was made to be. There’s a freedom in surrendering to a thing’s true nature. In submitting to that power that’s a part of you yet somehow apart from you.

And I think, if we’re open to it, that’s how we experience God. Not through static and sterile doctrines or constructing belief systems or moral imperatives.

But just through letting him tell us what we are. Who we are. By letting that something that’s a part of us but mysteriously apart from us have its say. By releasing the categories and boxes and limitations, by jettisoning the prejudices and preconceptions and comfort and predictability we often so desperately want but somehow can’t quite find ourselves in.

It is what it is. We are what we are.

My prayer for you today is that you will find a way to experience that kind of freedom.

A Radical Alternative

istockphoto.com

istockphoto.com

One of my favorite stories in the Bible comes from the very end of John’s gospel.

Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, and has appeared a few times to his disciples.

But at one point, it’s been awhile. The disciples are confused. They don’t know where Jesus is. They don’t know if they’ll see him again. They’re still not sure what to make of this whole affair.

And Peter, being Peter, decides to go fishing.

(I like this dude.)

And so Peter and the other disciples are out fishing, and they fish all night (you fish at night in Palestine because it gets pretty stinkin’ hot in the middle of the day), and they haven’t caught a thing.

Zero. Nada. Skunked.

And this guy appears out of nowhere on the beach, and he does what everyone does when they see people fishing.

“Catchin’ any?”

Now, the disciples don’t realize it yet, but the guy on the beach is Jesus. And Jesus tells them to do something very, very strange.

He tells them to try casting their nets on the right side of the boat.

Now, to us, that doesn’t seem all that weird. If you’ve been trying one side of the boat all night, why not try the other? If anything, it may seem a bit silly. What difference would changing sides make?

Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know that in Luke’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples, he does something similar.

So we put two and two together and assume Jesus is trying to tell them something. To remind them of a turning point in their lives.

And it’s true that’s part of Jesus’ agenda here. But there’s more going on.

The ancient Near East, like most pre-modern cultures, was a decidedly right-handed culture. Left-handedness was not just a strange anomaly. It was a weakness. It was something to be feared. Reviled. In some contexts it was even thought to be a sign of evil.

So if you were a fisherman, throwing nets into the water and hauling the weight of those nets back into your boat, you fished off the left side of the boat, enabling you to leverage the strength of your right arm and right side. Imagine pulling a heavy weight from your left to your right. Your right hand is on top, and your right arm is doing all the work.

When Jesus tells the disciples to throw their nets on the right side of the boat he’s not just inviting them to try something different.

He’s calling them to a radical alternative.

Now, it’s tempting to say, “Of course. Jesus calls us all to a radically alternative life.” Again, that’s true enough.

But remember who Jesus is talking to.

These are not just random fishermen. These are his closest followers. The people who know him best. The people who followed him everywhere for three years, saw everything he did, heard every word he said.

They were witnesses to the resurrection.

They are the ones who will lead Jesus’ church.

This call to a radical alternative is not just a cute anecdote or a way for Jesus to remind his disciples of their original invitation.

It’s a commission to engage the world in a completely different, completely unexpected way. To play to what they perceive to be their weakness rather than their strengths.

It’s a call to cast aside the “We’ve always done it this way” or “This is the way things are” or “This is what scripture says” arguments.

It’s as if the story in John 21 has less to do with the disciples’ actual fishing trip than it does with the challenge Jesus lays on their lives. As if it’s not really about which side of the boat they cast their nets to or which hand they use to pull them up, but about how they will stretch their preconceived mindsets to build and lead Jesus’ church.

Remember, these were devout Jews. Versed in Torah. Drenched in history. People of tradition.

And while all of those things are valuable and important, they all reach their epicenter in the stranger on the beach.

I wonder if in today’s church we’ve developed our own sort of “right-handedness.” If we’ve grown so comfortable with the way we do things that we can’t imagine really radical alternatives.

Have we become so accustomed to what we perceive to be our strengths (scriptural interpretation, tradition, doctrine) that we fail to hear the suggestion from the stranger on the beach? Have we forgotten that the only real value in our strengths comes when they are directed by the incarnated and resurrected Jesus?

Have we forgotten that he meets us all in the midst of our deepest weaknesses?

Have we forgotten that Jesus consistently used those who were perceived as weak, or feared, or reviled, or even evil, to proclaim the good news and expand his kingdom?

I wonder if we as the church today can embrace this kind of radical alternative. Can we trust Jesus enough to set aside our perceived strengths and play to our weaknesses?

Do we dare to listen to the stranger on the beach?