Leaving Our Nets Behind

The Fisherman

Matthew 4:18-22 tells the beautiful story of Jesus calling two sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew and James and John, to drop their fishing nets and follow him. This reading is one of the gospel stories I remember most distinctly from my childhood. Not because I liked the story—although I did enjoy it—but because something about it made me supremely uncomfortable. It always boggled my mind how quickly those men dropped everything to follow Jesus. Twice Matthew uses the phrase “at once,” suggesting that they didn’t stop to think about it for even a moment.

As a kid, I wasn’t prone to doing anything spontaneously, preferring to think things through before making my move. And so I marveled at how these brothers were able to do that. I often wondered…what else did they leave behind? Their mothers? Sisters? Were they married? Did they have other commitments? If they weren’t fishing, who was providing food for their families? All of these musings really pointed to the one question I couldn’t bring myself to ask—the question that was at the root of my discomfort with this story:

If I was one of those fishermen, and Jesus called me to follow him, would I drop everything “at once” and go? There was a part of me that always wondered if perhaps I wouldn’t be able to do it. That I just didn’t have it in me.

Have you ever felt the same way? That you might be one of those people…clinging to your fishing nets, unable to let them go and follow Jesus. What holds us back? What are the nets that we’ve become tangled up in…that tie us down and prevent us from being free to follow Jesus? It’s important to reflect on this question, for if we can’t identify these nets, we can never be free of them.

I believe the answer can be found not in where we cast our nets, but in where we cast our eyes. Imagine for a moment, you are standing on the shore. The air smells of salt and seaweed, a warm breeze flits across your skin as you drag your net along the water’s edge. Jesus approaches you and says, in a quiet yet compelling voice, “Come along with me.”

Where do you direct your gaze when Jesus speaks to you? Are your eyes cast downward, unable to look directly at His face? Do you feel too ashamed or too unworthy to look him in the eye? I believe this feeling of unworthiness can be the single biggest impediment to living a life with meaning. And it’s absolutely without foundation. God loves us and accepts us exactly the way we are. The fourth Psalm says, “O God, you have declared me perfect in your eyes.” Does this mean we’re perfect? Of course not. Only God is perfect. So what does this line from Scripture mean? Years ago I attended an evening retreat where the presenter said the following: “God has a plan and a purpose for you, and He made you exactly the way He needs to you to be.” You can disagree with that statement, feeling you have far too many flaws for God to ever want to use you for much of anything – but you’d be wrong.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” (And if you saw my garden last summer, you would know how wholeheartedly I embraced Mr. Emerson’s theory about weeds!) You may think of yourself as a useless weed, unworthy when you compare yourself to the beautiful flowers around you… but God knows who you truly are, and what you can accomplish, if you would simply drop your net and follow Him.

Psalm 139 says: “O Lord… you made all the delicate, inner parts of my body, and knit them together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! It is amazing to think about. Your workmanship is marvelous – and how well I know it.” If God made each and every one of us so wonderfully unique and flawed and complex, why wouldn’t he want to use us for an important purpose? I believe if you stood on that seashore and told Jesus you couldn’t follow Him because you weren’t good enough, He would laugh gently and say, “Silly child, my Father made you this way for a purpose. Come… let’s see what you can do.”

Finding God in the Construction Zone

construction zone
For the past few months, I’ve had to pass through a major construction zone on my way to work in the morning. The road is being torn up, sidewalks are temporarily gone, and the two lane road is funneled down to one. It’s a huge hassle that has the potential to start my day with stress and irritation.

Each morning, as my car is inching its way past this road work, I see a woman bravely walking through the mess. Wearing a bright pink track suit and a big smile, she weaves her way past bulldozers, police cars, traffic cones, and broken chunks of asphalt. I can see that this morning walk is part of her daily routine, and she’s not going to let a little construction stop her. I admire her. If it were me, I would immediately use this as an excuse to stop walking for the 8-10 months it might take to finish the road!

Does your life ever resemble a chaotic “construction zone”—filled with mess and upheaval? What happens to your faith life during this time? Do you find it difficult to pray, to find quiet time to be alone with God? Or maybe you’re so focused on the problem at hand that you forget about God’s presence in your life.

Last year I was scheduled to go on a weekend retreat with some women from my parish. Some unexpected things came up at home and I felt I couldn’t “afford” the time away. At the last minute I cancelled my reservation in order to stay home and take care of things. In doing this, I was failing to take care of myself. It resulted in my feeling more stressed and overwhelmed. I often wonder if I had gone on the retreat, would my approach to solving those problems been clearer and more effective?

Unlike the determined woman I see each morning, I think I would be quick to put off my morning walks until the construction was finished. How often do we set aside our faith until a time when conditions are more ideal for prayer and communion with God? Once things have calmed down in my life, I’ll get back to praying. Right now I just have to get through this.

What a silly, backward approach to life! It is precisely our faith that will sustain us through those “under construction” times. A few minutes of quiet prayer can make all the difference. Inching your way through the chaos with Jesus by your side can make the journey less burdensome and arduous.

God is here for us, waiting to guide us safely through to the other side. We only need to lean on Him.

I think of Jesus, facing the sick, hungry, and needy…believers numbering in the thousands. He would often slip away from the crowds, to retreat into the wilderness to pray. But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Luke 5:15-16)

Jesus knew that he needed time to be alone with God. I imagine he would come back from those moments of stolen prayer refreshed, with a renewed sense of purpose, confident that he walked this journey with his Father. It was vital to the continuation of his ministry. We can and should follow his example. Keep on walking. Bring Jesus with you. Let God guide you.

Eventually they’re going to finish repairing the road I travel to work each day. I look forward to seeing this woman walking on a smoother path. It gives me hope that she persevered through the muddle and will now have an easier road to travel.

It gives me courage to keep on walking.

God Picks Us Up When We Fall

girl on bike
For three years my office window looked out over a church parking lot. People used it for all kinds of things. A practice course for school bus drivers in training, a path for neighborhood walkers, an unofficial commuter lot, a place for truckers to park and eat lunch. But my favorite thing to see was parents using the parking lot to teach their children how to ride a bike. What a sweet distraction from my day’s work. I could see the fearful looks on the faces of the young riders. I could hear the parents’ promises floating up through my office window.

“I won’t let you fall!”
“I promise you won’t get hurt.”

I remember my husband and I saying these exact words to our boys when they first learned to ride, and I’m very sure my dad made the same promises to me. It’s what you have to say to get past the fear in your child so they can take that leap.

If we’re being honest… these promises are not exactly iron-clad. It’s likely our would-be cyclists WILL fall. There’s a chance they COULD get hurt. Not too badly, you hope, but anything could happen.   What you might more honestly say is this:

“If you fall, I’ll be there to pick you up.”
“If you get hurt, I’ll be there to soothe your pain and dry your tears.”
“I will ALWAYS be there, no matter what.”

For me, there’s no better way to describe God’s role in our lives. But it took me some time to come to that realization. I used to pray exactly like those scared kids teetering on a bike for the first time. “Please, dear God, don’t let anything bad happen to me… EVER!” I was so afraid of getting hurt that I held myself back from new experiences and new challenges.

Life has taught me that it doesn’t work that way. We all fall. We all get hurt. It’s part of engaging in the world around us. Living up to our potential involves a certain amount of risk. This knowledge could easily leave us paralyzed with fear. Afraid to lift our feet from their firmly-rooted spots on the ground and peddle like mad.

But the beauty of our faith is that God is ALWAYS there for us. To offer comfort. To dry our tears. To ease our pain. To pick us up no matter how many times we fall.

This knowledge is what frees us to get on that bike and go. To fly. To take a leap of faith. To push ourselves toward our sacred destiny. It’s what God wants for us.

One beautiful spring day my son took his brand new bike out for a ride. A run-in with a nasty pothole landed him in the emergency room with a broken wrist, a mild concussion, and many cuts and scrapes. I smothered him with love for weeks after that, giving him all the comfort and gentleness a mother could give (which is a LOT!) His wrist healed, his bruises faded, and his headaches went away.  His worst fears (and mine) about getting hurt had been realized…and overcome. And so, too, we heal from the potholes and pitfalls of life. And we do so with the strength of an amazing God who will never let us fall so far or so deep that we can’t get up again… and keep on riding.

Unanswered Prayers

piano
Please, dear God, don’t let him make any mistakes.

This was my hastily whispered prayer three years ago when my eleven-year-old son sat down at the piano to perform in the spring recital.  He was playing a difficult piece – one that he had been working on for months.  I knew he was nervous.  I held my breath as he began to play.

Despite my plea to God, there were several noticeable mistakes in his performance, including one heart-stopping moment where he seemed to lose his place in the music before picking it back up again.  My heart fell.  My son is a deeply sensitive boy and a perfectionist.  I knew he would be devastated by these mistakes.  And he was.  No matter how many times my husband and I told him he did a great job and we were so proud of him, he would not hear it.  With choked back sobs and tears of frustration, he could not get past it.

He wasn’t the only one who was frustrated. I had a bone to pick with God.  “Come on!!  It was a simple request!  You can move mountains and part seas!  Was it really so impossible to help a boy get through one piano piece?!?”  I felt rejected and a little bit betrayed.  I couldn’t understand why God refused to say “yes” to this simple prayer.

Fast forward two years.  We were back at the same music studio for another piano concert.  My son had chosen an even more challenging piece to perform.  He knew it by heart and he was ready. Before he began to play, his teacher got up to say the following words about my son: “When he chose this piece to learn, as his teacher my first instinct was to talk him out of it, because I thought it would be too difficult for him. But he was determined and he worked hard. And he taught me a valuable lesson. Never again will I tell a student what they can’t do.”

The lights dimmed as my son began to play. He did a beautiful job…his fingers flying over the keys as the melody filled the room and my heart. His performance wasn’t perfect. There were some wrong notes and another prolonged pause as he tried to find his place again. I sighed deeply. So close! I guess we’re in for another rough afternoon.

When the recital was over I rushed over to my son to give him a hug. He hugged me back, smiled, and shrugged his shoulders. “Did you notice I lost my place for a few seconds there?” To my surprise, he wasn’t upset. He was ok with it. What a difference from the wrecked little boy of two years ago! My mind jumped back to that moment when I believed that God had denied my prayer. With sudden clarity, I realized how wrong I was. This was God’s answer. This year, this moment, this beautiful evidence of growth in my son. God had been holding him and shaping him and working in him all this time.

I understood. God didn’t say “yes” to my prayer that day. But he didn’t say “no” either. Instead, his answer was “grow.” A lesson in faith to be learned not just by my child, but by me.

God is always loving us and working in our lives, even if we can’t always see it in obvious ways. Think back to the “unanswered” prayers in your own life. Was God really saying no? Or was there a greater plan He had in mind for you?

Jesus’ Last Lecture

Jesus Last Lecture

A college professor is invited to give a hypothetical “last lecture” in which they answer the question: “If this is the last lecture you would ever give to your students, what would you say?” The professor is challenged with the task of packing in decades of wisdom and life lessons into one hour. In 2007, Randy Pausch, a professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University was invited to do just that. What was uniquely moving about this lecture, was that Pausch was dying of pancreatic cancer. His talk, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” was delivered to a packed house of over 400 colleagues and students. This lecture became the basis for the New York Times best-selling book, The Last Lecture, co-authored by Pausch and published in 2008. It became his legacy to his children before he died in that same year.

As we move into Holy Week, I invite you to spend some time reading Jesus’ “Last Lecture.” (John 13-17) It was the day before Passover and Jesus, knowing that the hour had come for him to leave this world, gathered his disciples one last time. He washed their feet, in a beautiful example of how they were to minister to one another after he was gone.

And then he began to speak.

“Dear children, how brief are these moments before I must go away and leave you!” (John 13:33) I imagine the sense of urgency Jesus must have felt as he tried one last time to impart everything he wanted his disciples to learn before he would leave them.

For four and a half chapters of John’s Gospel—often referred to as the “Last Supper Discourse” or the “Farewell Discourse” —Jesus gives his disciples instructions, life lessons, and final words of wisdom. There’s so much rich and wonderful content in his words, it could never be covered in one short blog post. (It reads like a “Greatest Hits” of Bible quotes!) So I’ve chosen 7 lines from Jesus’ Last Lecture—one for each day of Holy Week—for you to ponder and pray about

MONDAY

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) This is it…really. The entirety of Jesus’ ministry and message summed up in one commandment. Love one another. During this holiest week of the year, how will we choose to love one another?

TUESDAY

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) One of my favorite lines in all of Scripture! Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. Thomas replies: “Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?” The answer is simple and profound. Jesus is the WAY. Our guide and our bridge to God and the Promised Land. All we need to do is follow Him.

WEDNESDAY

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (John 14:15-17) In this passage we learn about the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises his disciples that they will never be left alone, a promise that still holds for us today. The Holy Spirit is an Advocate or Helper that dwells within us forever…to comfort, guide, and lead us.

THURSDAY

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Yet another beautiful gift from our Savior. Peace, not as the world gives—based on outward circumstances—but peace from within. Peace that is rooted in absolute trust in the faithfulness of God. A gift that becomes ours only in the act of receiving. How will we receive the peace of Christ this week?

FRIDAY

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) In these beautiful words we see Jesus’ message of discipleship. We are meant to bear fruit…to spread the love of Christ like branches stretching out from a vine. But we must remain connected to the source of our creation. Our dependence on God allows us to become an instrument of His love and peace.

SATURDAY

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13) After once again repeating his central commandment, Jesus foreshadows the great act of sacrifice that is to come on Good Friday. Jesus dying on the cross is an act of profound love. One that transforms the disciples to such a degree that they passionately preach his message, even to the point of their own death in martyrdom. How will we let Jesus transform us during this Easter season? How can we “die” to our own self-absorption in order to live renewed in Christ?

SUNDAY

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The sorrow of the crucifixion and death of Jesus give way to the victory and triumph of Easter morning. We are a Resurrection People, born to new life in Christ. Alleluia, He is Risen!

Psalm 23 – A Psalm for the Living

dark valley Psalm 23
God is our refuge and our hope.

This was the topic I found myself writing about when preparing for a retreat several years ago. In looking for some Scripture to use, I went straight for the Psalms which contain dozens and dozens of references to this kind of loving and protective God. I was immediately drawn to Psalm 23. You know this one:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me…

After considering it for a moment, I quickly rejected it for the purposes of my talk. For most people, this Psalm is too closely associated with funerals, death, and dying. I can still remember the scene from the movie Titanic when a priest recites these lines to a group of terrified passengers as the ship sinks further and further into the ocean. As beautiful as it was, I wanted to talk about life… I didn’t need a Psalm for the dying. Continue reading

God’s Work in Progress

potter clay
Christians often refer to the season of Lent as a second chance at our New Year’s resolutions. Our broken January promises are renewed as we vow to give up unhealthy foods, to take on healthier habits, to change in some significant way. For the most part, I love this time of year because it ushers in a season of transformation and renewal, as we embrace growth and progress. But there are some “side effects” of this approach than can actually halt our progress in two significant ways if we’re not careful.

  1. A constant focus on all the many ways we need “fixing” can become a roadblock on our spiritual journey if we hold ourselves back from God because of this belief that we are not good enough.
  2. Our efforts to do it all ourselves as we choose and control our own path to change can get in the way of God’s plans for us.

On both January 1st and Ash Wednesday, I always used to say: “I’m a work in progress.   There’s a LOT of work I need to do.” Somewhere along they way I reframed this statement

I am God’s work in progress, and he is working in me. Continue reading

Prayers from a Night Worrier

digital clockAre you a night worrier? My mother has never had any trouble falling asleep at night. But once in a while, if she’s unlucky enough to wake up during the night, that’s it for sleeping. She calls them “racing thoughts.” Turning, churning, and tumbling in her mind at a pace that won’t stop.

What is it about the middle of the night that things always seem so dire? We awake with a feeling of dread. A worry that seemed small during the day seems to blow up in the dark of our bedroom. Taking on a menacing shape. Like that monster from our childhood, threatening to creep out and grab us in our sleep. Larger problems seem insurmountable, even hopeless.

In the dark we are scared children again. We’re alone and helpless. We forget everything we know about God’s love and faithfulness. We let fear take over. It becomes impossible to place our trust in God. We focus on the darkness (the metaphorical absence of God’s light) instead of the quiet.

But remember…the quiet is the best time for hearing. Listen to what God is whispering to you: Continue reading

Mary’s Yes

tanner_annunciation-sm

“The Annunciation” H. Tanner 1898

True confession time. For most of my life I did not pray to Mary. I wasn’t in the habit of saying the Rosary. And I did not have any statues of the Blessed Mother in my home or garden. Mary had always seemed a lofty ideal to me.   A heavenly image of perfection that I could not live up to or relate to.  I once heard a priest say that our Church hadn’t done Mary any favors by putting her up on a pedestal. The higher she was raised up, the more remote she became.

Years ago, a friend recommended that I read a book called Two From Galilee by Marjorie Holmes, a dramatic account of Mary’s story—a teenage girl chosen by God to bring Christ into our earthly world. The Mary depicted in this story was one I found infinitely compelling: young, scared, and facing an overwhelming responsibility. Discovering Mary through the prayer of imagination was the moment she became real to me.  And now I pray to her all the time.

Who was Mary? What was her life like? What was the historical context in which she lived? Only by learning Mary’s personal story can we find our own story. And the Advent season is where Mary’s story begins. Continue reading

Show Me the Way

 

road
I hate driving to new places.

Anytime I have to do it I follow the same procedure. I look up the directions. Write them out in giant print so I can read them in the car. Try my best to memorize them. And head out, still a bit nervous.

This is not a good way to be. And I’ll admit this fear has kept me from trying new things and seeing new places. Lately I’ve been trying to pinpoint the reasons why I’m so reluctant to venture out to places I’ve never been. Two reasons stand out to me.

I like to know where I’m going. And I hate getting lost. Continue reading