Monday, January 23, 2012

Breakfast On The Beach

This is my re-telling of John 21, for those who have requested it. I left off the intro stuff and the actual scripture (you can read that for yourself here before you begin), as well as my closing remarks.

Breakfast on the Beach

It was just a couple of weeks after Jesus was crucified. The men who followed Him everywhere, the ones known as disciples, had their entire world in turmoil. Their leader had been killed, and they were sure they were next. And then three days later He was back. There was a wild day of rumors and uncertainties, a mysterious empty tomb, their friend Mary Magdalene telling them He was alive, and then… they SAW Him. That Sunday evening. He came into the locked room where they were hiding, without bothering to open the door.

Then eight days later, on a Monday night, they were together again. Thomas was the one who still hadn’t seen Him. He was, I think, understandably reluctant to allow himself to have too much hope. But then He came again. Again, through locked doors.

But then He went away. Things were different now, they knew, but they were full of questions and pretty short of answers. Was He going to start traveling around teaching again? Would everything be like it was before? He had been with them, spoken with them, eaten with them, but they had no idea what the Plan was. What were they supposed to do? The first two times they saw Him, it seems they were still in Jerusalem, hiding, afraid of the Romans, afraid of the Jewish leaders, afraid of a thousand things. Then somehow a few days later at least seven of them had left Jerusalem and walked the ninety or so miles north to Galilee. They were confused, but hopeful. Scared, but excited. In turmoil, but with a strange peace. They wondered what was next, but they were stuck in a holding pattern. They didn’t know what to do.

Finally, one evening, Peter looked out at the Sea of Galilee, a pretty good-sized lake where the fishing was good. He turned to the others and said, “I’m going fishing.” James and John were with him, and they were former professional fishermen as well. Thomas, Nathanael, and two other disciples were with them. They communicated in the way men often do in slightly awkward situations: they glanced at each other without really making much eye contact and wordlessly decided they’d all go too. Thomas and Nathanael and the others didn't know the fishing business as well as Peter and James and John did, but they were disciples, and they were all bound together now. 

They started putting together some gear, and by the time they were done they decided they’d go out for all night and see what they could catch. It was most likely late April. The weather would have been cool that night, maybe in the upper forties or lower fifties. Maybe they shivered a bit in the night breezes while they pushed the boat out from shore and lifted a sail. They warmed up a little as they got into the rhythm of the work, casting nets, pulling them in, casting again. They weren’t finding the fish somehow, but this was work they knew – casting, pulling, casting, subconsciously watching the stars for clouds to roll in, feeling the wind and watching the sail for signs of change in the weather. 

Maybe Thomas sat watching, lending a hand where he could. Feeling a little chilled and sleepy, but enjoying the slow lift and settle of the boat in the waves. A little ashamed to be glad that here in the middle of the lake, he didn’t have to look over his shoulder in fear of being arrested. 

A few days before, when Jesus had appeared for the second time, Thomas wasn’t allowing himself to believe that Jesus’ resurrection was real. He wanted it to be true so badly, but he had seen Him die. His heart had been broken. If he believed Jesus was alive, and then it turned out not to be true, he wondered if that would be enough to crush him completely. But then, on that Monday evening, hiding in that room in Jerusalem behind locked doors, suddenly there He was. Jesus. Alive, real. Coming toward Thomas, showing his scars, inviting Thomas to touch the scars, as if any of that mattered now. Saying, “Thomas, don’t be faithless any more. Believe.” Thomas’ eyes filled with tears, his chest tight and his hands shaking. He wanted to say, “No, Jesus, I’m sorry. I see it’s You. I should have believed in You if I believed in anyone. I don’t need proof. I know You’re the Son of God!” But the words weren’t that important any more. He fell to his knees and his voice was choked, but he managed to say, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus gently replied, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who haven’t seen me and believe anyway.” Thomas was ashamed, but he knew Jesus cared enough for him that He was willing to let Thomas see the scars. His fears of believing in something and being disappointed were gone. 

Now, tonight, on the lake, Thomas still had fears. They were all still worried about being arrested by someone – they weren’t even sure who. Thomas wasn’t sure what was going to happen in the future, but as he sat there in the boat, he knew one thing for sure. Jesus was alive. Whatever happened, Thomas would follow Jesus anywhere and everywhere, forever.

A cold spray of water made him gasp, and he looked up to see James grinning at him in the moonlight, gathering up a dripping net for another cast, shaking water at him. John looked over and splashed some water at James in retaliation. The Sons of Thunder, these brothers had been called. Every issue had been argued at top volume, and sometimes with fists. But now they were relaxed, insulting each other’s casting technique, joking that the only thing they were catching tonight was a cold.

John cast his net again, the familiar motion letting his mind range freely, remembering. On the worst three days of his life, John had moved in a numbed haze. In a “last will and testament” kind of statement, Jesus told him from the cross that he was to treat Mary, Jesus’ mother, as his own mother. “John, this is your mother.” A plea from a dying friend. Over the next three days, it was what kept John going. Nothing seemed to matter anymore with Jesus dead. But John was determined not to let Him down. He took Mary with him, hiding with the others. They were two people with shattered lives, moving through a gray world without hope, taking care of each other because it was the only thing they could think to do. 

Then Sunday morning, there was Mary Magdalene, running up, shouting, confused, afraid, “His body is gone! I don’t know where they took Him! Why would they take Him?” John knew something had changed. He looked at Peter, and they both took off at a run. John didn’t know what he would find. He had to see. He outran Peter and got there first. He stopped, his heart pounding and his breath short. He looked in, and there was the empty burial cloth. The linen that had covered Jesus’ head was neatly folded and placed to one side. Peter came running up and went inside. John followed, and suddenly a thousand things came together. Prophecies Jesus had mentioned about Himself. Details John hadn’t thought about before. A wild hope came up in his heart. Standing there by a shapeless linen burial wrap, John knew. Jesus was alive. He and Peter walked back, and John wondered what Peter was thinking. He wanted to talk it all out, but Peter was wide-eyed and silent. John knew that Peter was ashamed of himself for what had happened on Friday, so he said nothing. Then that very night, Jesus was there, and John stood with tears streaming and his heart shouting a song of praise. Jesus was alive. The whole world was new and different and nothing would be the same.

John pulled in his net. Nothing. He wondered absently where the fish were tonight, but he didn’t really care much. The familiar motion was pleasant, and this cool night was perfect for hard work.
He looked to the stern of the boat where Peter had established himself, his stance wide, his expression almost grim and determined as he cast nets and made small corrections to their course. He had thrown aside his warm cloak, but he was sweating as he moved in a steady, tireless rhythm.

No fish yet, Peter thought. But he knew he wouldn’t stop until dawn at least. His muscles were tiring, but it felt good. Fishing was something he knew, something he was sure about. The rest of the world wasn’t so simple. He knew Jesus was alive. It made him joyful, but at the same time his shame was a cloud that darkened everything. 

That awful night when Jesus had been arrested, Peter had been fearless at first. When the soldiers came, he pulled a sword and decided to fight and die for Jesus. He swung at the nearest target, and when the man ducked, Peter’s sword cut off his ear. Peter got ready to fight as long as possible before they mobbed him and killed him. But then Jesus said, “Stop! Peter, put your sword away.” And then He healed the injured ear. Peter stood, confused, surprised, bewildered, standing still as the crowd swirled around him. Then they were gone, taking Jesus away, and no one was coming at Peter with a spear. He bolted, ran away, and then followed from a distance. But then when he tried to blend into the crowd and get close enough to see what was going on at Jesus’ trial, people started looking at him, pointing and talking. “You’re one of His followers, aren’t you?” a girl said. Peter was suddenly terrified. He yelled and cursed and kept repeating, “No, I don’t know him.” Then, a rooster crowed. At the same moment, over the heads of the crowd, the soldiers, and everyone else at the trial, Jesus turned and looked straight at Peter. Peter turned and fled, groaning and weeping, suddenly seeing the enormous, horrible depth of his betrayal. As Jesus was beaten and crucified, Peter’s agony grew more excruciating. He was a coward, a disloyal, false counterfeit.

But then Sunday morning came, and the breathless run to the empty tomb. A day of unbearable confusion, wondering, questions. Peter pacing around the room like a man obsessed. And then that night, there He was. In the room, standing there. The same as before, and yet more. “Peace be with you,” Jesus said. He looked at each of them in turn, and for a moment Peter allowed himself to hope that even for him, there might be peace. He wanted to run to Jesus, to tell Him how sorry he was, to beg forgiveness. He wanted Jesus to come to him and confront him, rebuke him, even shout at him, but he also feared it. He stopped, uncertain. And then the evening was over and Jesus was gone. “Peace be with you,” Jesus had said. Peter had desperately wanted that peace. But he couldn’t accept that it was for him. Not yet.

The fishing is terrible tonight, Peter thought. Maybe we’ll find some fish yet, though. He was ashamed that the others in this boat knew about his denials, but hadn’t been angry. They hadn’t confronted him angrily or even silently avoided him. When he had decided on a night of solitude on the lake, he had half wondered if they would be relieved to be rid of him for the night. But then they had all come along. Even Thomas, who had received the forgiveness and reconciliation that Peter wanted so badly. Peter noticed suddenly that the sky was getting lighter in the east, and the breeze was dying as they sailed slowly along parallel to the shore, a few hundred yards away. Dawn was coming, and not a single fish to show for a night’s work. He straightened and stretched, realizing how weary he was.

Peter watched the shore slide past in the growing light, dim shapes materializing into trees, rocks, shrubs. Suddenly he realized there was a man standing on the shore, watching them. He turned and saw John, stopped in the act of pulling in a net, looking at the man as well. Then they were all staring at the figure on the shore, waiting for something. The man spoke. “My friends, have you caught any fish?” He called. 

They glanced at each other, their nets trailing idly down the left side of the boat, and then James found his voice. “No,” he said, a question in his voice.

Then the man on the shore said the oddest thing. “Throw your net on the right side of the boat, and you’ll get plenty of fish!” 

James glanced sharply back at Peter, who shrugged. With a self-conscious grin, James pulled up the largest net and began to gather it up. Peter and John dropped their gear and moved beside him. They cast the net, the same motion as hundreds of times before that night. The ropes ran out through their hands, and they began drawing it in. Peter knew immediately something was different. There was a resistance, then a weight, then a living, bucking, wild tension on the ropes. They braced and pulled hard, looking at each other with expressions that shared the surreality of the moment. Thomas and the others jumped up to help. They pulled together, but Peter stopped them. “We’ll have to drag it to shore,” he said. “It might tear otherwise.”

John suddenly spun and stared at the man on the shore. His eyes wide, he looked at Peter. “It’s the Lord!” he said, his voice tight with excitement. Peter dropped his hold on the net, and the boat lurched. James chuckled and braced himself for the added weight. 

Gazing at the shore, Peter grabbed his cloak, pulled it on, and on a sudden impulse he ran the length of the boat and dove into the chilly water. John and Thomas yelled, and James and the others were laughing. Peter swam strongly, straight toward the man on shore. He came out of the lake, his clothes streaming water, shivering and splashing through the shallows. He ran up… to Jesus. They stood for a moment, Peter staring, Jesus smiling.

Then Jesus turned and walked to a campfire. There was fish frying, and bread. The wind changed and Peter smelled the earthy, delicious smell of breakfast. He suddenly realized he was starving. The boat pulled up to the shore, the other disciples shouting and laughing, straining to pull the net out of the water, counting all the huge fish in the net. “Bring some of those fish!” Jesus called. Peter remembered his manners enough to go help pull the net in. Jesus tended the fire and then called, “Now come and have some breakfast!” They all came, grinning and nodding, tired but happy. 

Jesus served them fish and bread. They talked a bit at first, but mostly they sat there and ate with the contentment that men share eating a well-earned meal around a campfire. Thomas smiled to himself, thinking, everything tastes better cooked over a campfire, and when it’s cooked by the Son of God, it’s unbeatable.

After breakfast, Jesus came to Peter. He sat beside him and looked at him. Peter was apprehensive. Jesus looked at him, and then said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

James, sitting across from them, wondered what the “more than these” part meant. Was Jesus asking if Peter loved Him more than he loved the fish? No, that was too weird. Did Jesus mean to ask Peter if his love was greater than the other disciples’ love for Jesus? Whatever He meant, Peter seemed to understand what He was asking. 

Peter’s voice was tight with emotion and he said, “Yes, Lord, You know I love You.”

“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus said. 

Peter thought he understood. Jesus was giving him a commission. He was to care for the new group of people who were coming to believe in Jesus. Peter would do it. He would give it his all. There was still the cloud of his shame, but Jesus was giving him a job to do anyway. It was his chance to prove himself.

But then Jesus looked at him again, and asked again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” 

He had Peter’s full attention now. Peter looked him in the eye, and thought, He wants me to be totally sure. “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know I love You.”

“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said. 

Peter knew then that his responsibility would be to care for all of Jesus’ followers to the best of his ability. It was an overwhelming task, but Peter would do it. He would give it his all. He would prove himself.

But then Jesus asked him quietly, a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter’s eyes filled with tears. His shame came crashing down. His denials came back in full force. He felt the anguish of that night again. He cried bitterly for a few minutes, wondering if he really could say that he loved Jesus, when he had turned away from Him. But Peter realized that whatever awful things could be truthfully said about him, he couldn’t help loving Jesus. There was no life for Peter outside of loving Jesus. He knew he wasn’t good enough to love Jesus and would never be, but he couldn’t help it. He spread out his hands in a helpless gesture.  “Lord, you know everything,” he said finally, his voice trembling. “You know I love You.”

Jesus reached out and gripped his shoulder. His voice was warm as He smiled and said, “Then feed my sheep.” He looked into Peter's eyes. “The truth is, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” 

Peter understood. This was a passage from selfishness to selflessness. Jesus was warning him that he would eventually have to give his life for the sake of Christ. But Peter’s joy was surging in spite of the sobering words. The cloud was gone. He was looking into the eyes of his friend, his savior, his Lord, and he was loved and forgiven.

Peter didn’t know what to do or say then, so he resorted to his old habit of running his mouth before he could stop himself. He looked at John, who was smiling like an idiot. Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?”

Jesus raised an eyebrow. “If I want John to stay alive until I return, what is that to you?” He pointed at Peter and said, smiling, “You follow me.” 

Peter ducked his head, embarrassed. But his heart was warm, even in the cool breeze.

The sun was up now, orange in the eastern hills. The men cleaned up the last bits of breakfast, and then got to work on their fish.

This is the end of the story for Thomas in the Scriptures. Tradition says that after the Jewish diaspora he traveled east, sailing down the Red Sea and eventually to the West coast of India. There in India there are several ancient Orthodox churches which trace their lineage back to the work of the Apostle Thomas. He followed Jesus anywhere, everywhere, forever, and was martyred near Madras, India, killed by a lance.

John preached in Jerusalem, in Asia Minor, and other places. He also wrote one of the four Gospels and three Biblical epistles. Under Nero or Domitian he was exiled to Patmos. There he became the Revelator, and was allowed to see a vision of Jesus at the end of time making "all things new."

Peter led the early church, first from Jerusalem and then from Rome, until his martyrdom. The Acts of the Apostles records much of his early leadership of the church. He wrote the two epistles that bear his name, and probably served as a major source for Mark's writing of his Gospel. He was crucified in Rome under Nero's rule. One tradition has it that he asked to be crucified upside down because he was not worthy to share the same death as Jesus. Whether this is true or not, his death by crucifixion fulfilled Jesus' prediction: " will stretch out your hands, and others will take you where you don't want to go."

Friday, January 06, 2012

Doubt, My Old Friend

The truth is that none of us is immune to doubt. Overall, I like to think of myself as a confident guy. I have admitted to myself, though, that in the difficult times I have sometimes had serious doubts. But I have always consoled myself by claiming that I didn't doubt God - I just doubted myself. Anyone who works with youth will probably recognize the feeling. It usually comes after a disappointment: you hold a youth event that was supposed to minister to fifty or more, and five showed up. It's humbling. This time of year is the customary time to plan for the year ahead. In light of what I see as past failures, I tend to let my doubts rein in my planning. I pray for guidance, but then too often pull back short of God's calling because of "humility."

There's a tricky thing about that kind of thinking, though: doubt of God often disguises itself as humility about oneself. I doubt that I'll be able to be the man God has called me to be, forgetting that when He calls, He promises to provide, equip, and empower.

I've cleverly disguised my doubts as doubting something other than God, but disguises are worthless under the penetrating gaze of the Author of Truth. Moses, for one, tried this disguise method unsuccessfully once in regard to his lack of public speaking ability.

But if you're feeling guilty along with me for your own doubts, keep reading.

There is good news about doubt. That good news is that when we recognize doubt and have a frank discussion with God about it, He gives us more grace. He helps us to keep taking risks and working for Him even in the face of that doubt; sometimes even when the feelings of doubt are still hanging heavily around our necks.

Last week I worked hard to prepare a message for our Wednesday junior high youth group. I thought I had some good material, and it was going to be great. Before I could even get going I had to break up a fight and suspend two students for a week. (Suspend students from coming to CHURCH?!? Yes. Call me if you have a better proven method for corralling students who show all signs of being future convicts.) During the message two of the most influential older students were a constant distraction. I left feeling like I needed to quit. I just couldn't do this any more. I didn't have the ability. No offense, God - it's not you; it's me.

Then Thursday I got a message from the middle-school counselor at the public school. She wanted to talk to me. I drove to the school with a sinking feeling, which was remarkable in that I didn't know I could sink much deeper. I waited outside her office on the same bench where (the secretary told me) several of my youth group students had waited to be called on the carpet. I felt a certain affinity for those students' feelings while sitting on that bench. 

Finally I was called into the office. I hadn't met this particular counselor yet, although I knew who she was. She shook my hand and introduced herself as I prayed desperately for strength and hoped this wouldn't be as bad as I was imagining it might be. Then she said something surprising: "I wanted to meet you, because I keep hearing your name from students - you're really doing something right over there at the church."

I'm so glad there's no video recording of my facial expression at that moment.

She went on to say that even some of the most troublesome students would mention our youth group as something that was helping them to do better. She also quoted one student as saying to another, "Hey! Jim would bust you for talking that way about her!"

He gives more grace - sometimes in the form of appreciation from a public-school counselor.
Some of you who work with youth may be in need of more grace. I hope these words will supply a bit of that: God has called you because He designed you for this task. Your past failures and your present imperfections do not matter - in fact, God may use them for His purpose. I AM has sent you; now go do His work through His strength.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Learning My Lesson Again

I'm very humbled and grateful this week for many reasons. One of those reasons is that through the generosity of a couple of individuals, Jeremy Oehring, Darrin Griffin, and I got to go to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Worship Music Conference last week in New York. It was just what I needed in several ways.

There are several other things in my life right now that make my humility and gratitude increase all the time. But there is one thing that happened last week that sticks out to me.

I met with a young man last week who wanted to talk about his soul. He had lots of questions. (His biggest question was about the "unpardonable sin." Google it if you want to see a confusing maelstrom of opinion, dogma, heresy, and fanaticism. It's understandable that anyone would be freaked out about it. Pastor Joe and I talked to him and listened to his story. In the end, we assured him that it was highly unlikely that he had committed blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.)

But after this conversation, the young man came back to my office a few days later and we talked for some time about his desire to commit himself to God completely and break some addictions he was dealing with. As part of this very candid conversation, he revealed that although he had dealt with anger, bitterness, addictions, and other things, he had not been sexually active with the girl he had dated for several months. He said, "She was more than that to me."

This gave me a shock. Here's why.

A few months ago, I saw this teenaged couple together, and I thought, "Well, I've been working with teens for a while, and I know the signs. They're sleeping together." I thought long and hard about this, because I cared pretty deeply for both of them. At the time the girl was much more open to talking to me than the young man was, and she would occasionally ask me to pray for something. I thought I saw signs of her at least considering drug use as well. I was very concerned. So I wrote her a letter. It was a long letter, handwritten. I tried to say in as compassionate and caring a way as possible that it looked to me like she was making some wrong choices in her life, and urged her to reconsider those choices. I finished the letter, and showed it to Cindy and asked for her honest opinion. She very wisely said, "Wow. That's a really heavy letter. Maybe you should sleep on that before you give it to her." I told her that I thought that sounded like a good idea, and we prayed about it together. In the end, the letter sat on my bedside table for a month or so, and every time I saw it I thought about it. I never could find a peace about which way to go with it, so I eventually threw it away.

I've been doing this job for a while, and I think I'm generally a pretty good judge of teenagers. I can usually guess who is doing what, and how clued-in their parents are. But this last week I was humbled because of how wrong I had been. (I wasn't totally wrong - there had indeed been some unhealthy things going on in that relationship, including codependency.) I was also extremely grateful for the wisdom of my wife and for what I believe to have been the leadership of God in not sending that letter, which would probably have closed the door for any future influence in that young woman's life.

Last week at Brooklyn Tabernacle the emphasis was on following the leadership of the Holy Spirit in leading worship. (Not much there on technical aspects of worship music. It was just what I needed.) I've always been pretty cynical of people's claims that the Holy Spirit told them to do this or that. So many times it was obvious to me that He hadn't told them anything of the sort. But I'm so glad that He led me in this situation, and in a thousand others.

I tend to depend too much on my expertise sometimes, or my experience. Then something like this comes along and shows me that I really don't know that much. I'm humbled. And grateful.

Monday, February 07, 2011

You Have No Idea....

You know a line I think should be outlawed in all future movies and TV shows? This one: "You have no idea what i'm capable of." It's usually spoken in a low, tough-guy sort of voice, and can either be by the good guy or the bad guy. But it's always a lousy writing device. Why does any character, EVER, need to say that to any other character? It's a cheap way to say to the audience, "Wait, don't walk out of the theater/change the channel yet. This guy gets more interesting later!" It's intended to create a sort of ambiguous menace and mystique around a character when they can't find a way to just give him a mystique the honest way.

Recent sightings include the first episode of the new show The Cape and the trailer for the new movie I Am Number Four. (That's not to say I didn't sorta like both otherwise...)

According to a quick Google search, it's also been used in the movies The Dark Knight and The Hulk.

But my favorite usage of the phrase comes as a quote of yet another usage thereof:

Got any other sightings of this phrase for me?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

This Is About As Patriotic As This Blog Has Ever Been

Today, on my lunch break, inspired by what Congress did this week, I read the Constitution all the way through, including amendments. I had somehow never done that before, all in one sitting like that.

It's mostly not too boring, and in some places quite a beautiful work of literature.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Urban Exploration

My brother-in-law, Kevin Carlson, and I like to get on top of buildings, towers, etc. I also like exploring old places.

Therefore, this website was fascinating to me.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

A Poem I Like, But Can't Quite Decipher Yet

This is a poem by a guy named Christian Wiman. I got it here. I love the flow of the verse, and its circular continuity and searching wistfulness. I don't think the guy is a Christian, for those who may be wondering. I'm interested to see what you poetry fans make of the meaning.

Every Riven Thing

God goes, belonging to every riven thing he's made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he's made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into the stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he's made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made.

This is a poem from Mr. Wiman's newest book of poetry, titled Every Riven Thing.

EDIT: Wow. Read this article by the same author. It gives quite an interesting insight into his thought process.

ANOTHER EDIT: Double wow. Read this essay as well. GOOD writer, this guy.

Disclaimer: If anyone with rights to this poem arrived here via search engine and objects to my posting, please let me know and I'll delete the text and just leave the link. I'm definitely not claiming any rights or permission to post this, and I'm not making any money on it since I have like five readers total. I just liked the poem and wanted to share.