Archive for February, 2007

You don’t think Jesus expects us to take this stuff seriously, do you?

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

For many people, these are amongst the hardest words in the Bible. It’s hard to believe that Jesus meant us to take these words seriously. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, treat well those who treat you badly. Even the most devoted adherents to the idea that every word of the Bible is supposed to be taken literally chafe at the notion of taking this passage of Scripture literally. This leaves them in a tough position, though. How can you argue that passages like the creation story, or Jonah in the belly of the whale, or scriptures condemning homosexuals must be taken literally, but this passage doesn’t really mean what it says?

As I mentioned in a sermon a couple of month’s back dispensationalists divide the Bible into different dispensations. Their claim is that various sections of the Bible are meant for different time frames.

So their argument is not that the words of Jesus aren’t supposed to be taken literally, just that they aren’t supposed to be taken literally by us. They are meant for a different dispensation, after the rapture, which is another issue I have lots of problems with but we won’t deal with here. With this mind set they are able to both uphold the literalness of every word of the Bible, but comfortably reject those parts which make them uneasy.

It’s an interesting system that is held strongly by many of the most popular Christian personalities on Christian TV and Radio. The Left Behind books are built on this understanding of the Bible and they, of course, have been read by many millions of people.

If you listen to these people and read their books, they don’t offer much support for notions like loving your enemies or turning the other cheek in the international relations arena, at least. They have been the leading voices supporting the current and just about every war the United States has and will fight. They support the current administration’s use of torture. When one of them, John Hagee, heard that the President might encourage the Israelis to stop bombing Lebanon, he called and warned the President that the President would lose support in the evangelical community if he did such a thing. They aren’t really into taking Jesus’ call to peacemaking and non violence seriously.

Those folk, though, have only made more complicated what most of the rest of us do without the theological smoke and mirrors. We just look at what Jesus says and scratch our heads. We might sort of like to believe it, but it all seems so impractical and beyond what we know others and ourselves capable. Jesus may have been able to live this way, but not us. And what about those really bad people and nations out there? Does Jesus want us to give in to them? Isn’t that being irresponsible?

This is not easy stuff, but I do think it is something we do need to take seriously, to imagine that Jesus really meant what he said. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote, though, that “if we are going to learn how to love our enemies, maybe it’s not best to start with the Gestapo.”

Where we do start, I believe, is realizing that what Jesus is saying here isn’t some kind of advanced section on the SAT (Spirituality Aptitude Test). He’s not suggesting loving your enemies, blessing those who curse you, turning the other cheek, is a spiritual goal that only a few can hope to attain. Rather, he’s telling us it’s the only way things are going to get better for us and for this world and we need to start doing it yesterday.

For Jesus this is not a matter of being a spiritual high achiever, but living better lives. Now, as then, we are addicted to violence in this world. We have so much hopes for violence. We believe violence is what will solve things for us. Violence is our drug of choice. It gives us a feeling of security, it gives us a rush. There aren’t many better highs than when the enemy, the person who has hurt us, or the rival gets what they deserve. Retaliation feels wonderful.

Like all addictions, though, violence begins to control us. We need more and more of it. I am amazed sometimes at the commercials about the incredibly violent TV shows and movies there are. I don’t even watch the shows, but the commercials are loaded with violent scenes. Violence has hold of us.

Eventually, violence like other addictive substances, becomes our god, we think it is what will save us. Every junkie is looking for the next score, every alcoholic the next drink, every gambling addict for the next roulette wheel, because that’s what is going to make life better.

The Death Star gets blown up and thousands and thousands of storm troopers are killed. We cheer and feel really good. The terrorist gets shot up in a hail of bullets. The guy in the white hat wins the gun fight while the guy in the black hat writhes in pain in his final minutes of life. Sadaam Hussein gets hanged. Our side wins the war. We call it redemptive violence. It’s the violence that protects us, that saves us, that makes everything right in the world. Violence, we believe, is a good thing in the hands of good people. It saves us.

And this addiction to violence makes us crazy. We’ll do anything for its sake, for another fix. We’ll lie, we’ll doctor intelligence reports. We will dismiss the death of innocent people as unfortunate or question how innocent they really were. We will put the blame on the victims of violence and exonerate the perpetrators. We will kill the killers in our execution chambers, and be crazy enough to say it was for the sake of life.

Here is how crazy this addiction gets. Those Left Behind Books and way too many preachers have turned Jesus, the Prince of Peace in the Gospels, to the Warrior of vengeance in the Revelation. It doesn’t make any sense until you start to realize what addictions do to us.

So Jesus comes along as asks us if we want to keep living this way. Does violence, redemptive and otherwise, deserve what we are willing to offer it? Are we ready to understand what Jesus was saying the way Martin Luther King, Jr. understood it, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and pretty soon we are all blind and toothless.’ Or as Dr. Phil would say “The way you are living now, is that working for you?” And to paraphrase Coleman McCarthy who was just in town for the Peace And Conflict Studies Symposium, “wouldn’t we rather learn peace?”

Jesus wants us to take him seriously, not for his sake, but for ours. He wants us to give up our addiction to violence for the life he brings us; a life based on love not retaliation, a life based on forgiveness not revenge.

These weren’t the words of some idealist. He knew how really and awfully violent the Roman Empire could be. He felt it’s oppression every day, he saw it at work. He knew they were going to kill him. He knew how violent anyone can be. That’s why he gave us not only the vision, but good ways to resist violence.

He says here, ‘if someone takes your cloak, give them your shirt, too.’ He isn’t asking us to be wimps, but to creatively resist violence without resorting to violence. That shirt Jesus suggested you hand over voluntarily, wasn’t actually a shirt, but an undergarment. When corrupt landowners and business people had cheated people out of all they had, they would demand the only thing left, the person’s cloak. What Jesus is saying here is ‘sure give them the cloak, but give them your underwear, too.’ Then everyone watching would be not so much offended by your nakedness, but by the oppressor who left you in that state. It then is up to the oppressor to give you back all your clothes, or suffer the public shame of, literally, leaving you exposed to the elements.

In the Sermon on the Mount, which is Matthew’s version of this section of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘if someone forces you to carry their pack one mile, carry it two,’ Jesus is, again, talking about a very specific act of non-violent resistance. The someone is actually a soldier. Soldiers were permitted to force a person to carry their packs. But they could only make you carry for them for a certain distance, say one mile. It was a serious penalty for the soldier to make anyone carry their pack any farther than the proscribed distance. So Jesus says when you get to the end of the mile you’ve been forced to walk by the soldier keep going. Again, you are not being a wimp. Suddenly, you have a rather odd scene of a Roman soldier forcing some poor peasant to surrender the Roman soldier’s pack so the soldier can carry it himself. It kind of messes with the image of the big, bad soldier.

The most famous of these sayings is, of course, ‘turn the other cheek.’ Here is what is going on. This all comes, by the way, from research of first century laws and customs done by Walter Wink.

When someone from a noble class wanted to punish or humiliate a slave or someone from a lower class, they would give that person a backhand across the cheek. For sanitary reasons, you weren’t allowed to use your left hand to strike an inferior, nor could you strike an inferior with an open right hand. But you were allowed to use the back of your right hand. So when you strike the slave and she turns the other cheek, you are suddenly confronted with a quandary. You can’t slap her other cheek with either your left hand or your open right hand. To do so would bring about social ostracism. You realize that the slave who has turned her cheek has not wimped out but changed the situation to her advantage. If you slap the other cheek you are in big trouble, if you walk away you have lost face before your peers.

It is courageous to do any of these things, not a cowardly response that it sounds like when you first read it. Jesus wants us to stand up to the oppressor, but he doesn’t want us to use the oppressors methods of violence. He wants us to break the addiction.

There are some people who have not ignored this passage at all, but used it to their own blasphemous advantage by suggesting that it is against God’s will for an oppressed person to challenge her oppressor. Throughout its’ history the Church has often endorsed such an abusive take on this passage, siding with the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

Jesus doesn’t say anything of the kind, though. He’s not coming anywhere close to suggesting we don’t challenge the oppression that is taking place. He is just suggesting we don’t challenge the oppressor on his home court. Make him come to ours. It’s no guarantee of victory, but the odds are a lot better. And it’s no worse than what we are doing now.

Loving our enemies seems like such a radical, impractical idea. But is it any more radical and impractical than God loving us? How much sense does that make for God?

Concluding Thoughts on the Peace and Conflict Studies Symposium

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

Thanks to everyone! Particularly, Sheera, Sarah, Jong, Melissa, Kara, Maia, Judy, Tom and Don. And to all the organizations that donated time, funds, and coffee pots. Our little pickup crew of students and community members, self-described as the Oberlin Peace and Conflict Development Group, believed that Oberlin badly needed Peace and Conflict Studies program and worked to bring it about. They had the confidence that they could make a difference, and believed on Tuesday that the snow wouldn’t matter much on Thursday? Thanks to David Orr and the Environmental Studies department for providing us with this beautiful space.

As Colman McCarthy said Thursday night, this PACS program is about the longer-term future. It is important for everyone to be involved in the issues of the day, somehow ending the war in Iraq, reducing CO2 emissions to slow down global warning, dealing with crises in our schools and our communities. This is where we all can gain experiential learning. But we all need a solid academic founding to deal with the crises that are in future. I have often wondered how we might stop the next war before it ever started? If the millions of protestors around the world had been successful, would we really miss those daily TV shots of yet another burned out wreck of a car bomb and the 53 innocent people killed? It is more important and more difficult to be pro-peace than anti-war.

As our group has talked with members of the Oberlin academic community, we often are asked how important is it to add another program to Oberlin’s very large and diverse academic menu. Well, here is my answer. At this point I get a little emotional, as we physicists are wont to do. The future is very hard to predict, but I find it very scary. I was trained and made my living as a nuclear physicist, not related to weapons but with enough knowledge to understand them. My father worked in chemical warfare in WWI, and my auditing of a neuroscience class showed how potentially dangerous biological and chemical weapons could be to the human nervous system. So there are a lot ways that the human race might become an extinct species. The very important environmental concerns are directly tied into this, because the tight resources that arise from global environmental changes are among the most likely cause of conflict. Somehow, the survival of the human race seems to me to be a reasonable academic subject. When I want to imagine how scary the future could be, I think about George W and Dick Chaney in the White House during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. We are discussing the lives of our children and grandchildren

Violent, military solutions have been amazingly horrible as we have heard repeatedly from Colman and Hardy.. The best ways to deal with these future crises is known, as ably demonstrated in Hardy’s talks. . There are very successful nonviolent methods for dealing crises at all levels from intra-personal, to community, to international. But nonviolence demands leaders who understand them and more importantly, believe in them, and then work hard to convince and motivate the larger population. Gandhi and King were well-educated men. Oberlin should be turning out as many graduates from every academic discipline with the belief in nonviolence and the knowledge and leadership skills for their use. Peace and Conflict Studies are for politics, history, English, mathematics, and science majors. People trained in nonviolence are nicer to be around and we need lots and lots of them! Movements that are planned, succeed.

So how do we bring this about? My opinions. There are four groups within the college. President Charles Finney in 1848 turned the Oberlin academic program over to the faculty. They decide these questions. It is essential that the faculty (starting with Steve and Steve) are now taking the lead in getting approval of this concentration. A concentration is the necessary first step in these financially tight times. And we need to get started NOW! The administration under Nancy Dye has been very supportive. Financing through their offices has made this symposium possible. We will need to work skillfully and quickly to convince Oberlin’s next president. As McCarthy said, the student body are the paying customers and they are the ones who can demand Peace and Conflict Studies. Community members, particularly those who are retired, have more flexibility in their time. They can be the support people of all the activities necessary. For this symposium, they showed the willingness to contribute time and financially. One essential technique in advancing programs is to carve out an hour of each week to meet regularly. We need to find that time for students, faculty and community members.
Can this be done? Of course it can! As the panel said, “This is a low cost, no brainier.” We are talking about a very modest, but very important addition to Oberlin’s curriculum. This Environmental Studies building where we have been meeting is a testament to how bold vision and persistence can lead new programs. Start Now! Finish soon!

Becoming an Evangelical, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ‘Fearless’

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

For several years now, I have asked myself off and on whether or not I’m an evangelical. As a youth, I thought evangelicals were the preachers on TV and at Christian rock concerts who talked about Christianity and Christ in terms of a one- time acceptance of Jesus into your heart as the one way of avoiding eternal damnation and hellfire. They showed at best pity and at worst contempt for anyone who disagreed with them. As someone who’d been raised in the church and had grown into faith rather than converting to it, this presentation of Christ was completely foreign to me, and it didn’t seem loving. If this was spreading the gospel, then I couldn’t buy into it. I just didn’t feel the need to cajole other people into thinking the way I think.

When I got to college, I came in contact with the writings of man named Jim Wallis, who spoke out against the war, the government’s environmental policy, and corrupt government. More than many Christians I know, he unabashedly cited the Spirit of Christ as the force that drove him to speak. In Atlanta, I met more people who followed this model, including my cousin Jimmy Allen, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who spoke out against the church’s exclusion of homosexuals and people with AIDS after his son was fired from his church position and turned out of every church he subsequently visited because his wife had gotten AIDS from a blood transfusion. These people speak wisely and audaciously, while embodying the loving spirit which I had found lacking in the evangelicals I encountered as a youth. And yet they also called themselves evangelicals. I thought if they were evangelicals, then maybe that’s what I wanted to be, too. But first, I had to know for myself what it means to evangelize.

That question, at first, was easy. To me, evangelizing is preaching the gospel (And agrees with me). The hard part was figuring out what the gospel is, and how exactly one goes about preaching it. Last month, the lectionary reading was from Luke 4, the Scripture you just heard. You may not remember this part of it because I think Steve’s sermon was more about throwing Jesus over a cliff. Anyway, I realized that this passage, which cites the prophet Isaiah, contains the gospel in a nutshell. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” That’s what Jesus did. In two sentences and fifty-three words, this is the good news of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection. When I decided that, the question of whether I am an evangelical or not resolved itself. Good news to the poor, freedom to the captives and the oppressed- this is a piece of good news, a lifestyle, a demand, and a mission that I already hoped to spread, because it needs to be spread. I called David Reese on the phone one night, and I said to him “David, I think I’m becoming an evangelical.” He replied, “Oh, I’m totally already there.”

As many of you may know, Oberlin’s public image recently got a makeover from a bunch of advertising types, and part of that makeover was to change Oberlin’s motto to Oberlin: Fearless. As probably would have happened with any motto they would have thought up, this attempt to characterize an entire school in one word was met with no small amount of disgruntledness. When I left the doors of the airport and stepped out into Atlanta, my first thought was “I’m definitely NOT fearless!” My first thought when going to volunteer at Hagar’s House, an ecumenical non-profit organization that offered temporary shelter to single women with children who’d been recently evicted, was “Definitely, DEFINITELY not fearless!” But over the course of the three weeks, God’s answer to that slowly came to me: “Well that’s too freaking bad.” In Atlanta, I realized that perhaps the most fundamental, most often repeated call for one who is a minister- and in the Baptist tradition, that means every Christian- is the call “Do not be afraid.” And even though I may never be completely fearless, that is what I have to strive for if I’m going to preach the gospel. This fearlessness is in part the chutzpah I saw in the Rev. Joseph Roberts when he preached at Ebenezer Baptist against the war and militarization while behind him sat the entire US Naval Academy Gospel Choir. But it also goes beyond that.

I have to be fearless because preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives is a very demanding task. The thing about the gospel is that if you preach it without doing anything, it’s just crazy talk. Idle foolishness. In order to preach the gospel, I have to live the gospel. And to do something about poverty and injustice generally involves a lot of risks. Not the least of these are the risk of failure and the risk of being hated.

Oakhurst Baptist Church put out a collection of stories, and one of those stories written by an ordained woman named Amy Greene begins like this: “Our tradition at Oakhurst of ‘sounding the call’ for a new mission is a fine one. The three basic requirements are solid: The idea must be incredibly good news, it must be almost impossible to accomplish, and there must be a good chance that it will fail.” She goes on to tell the story of a chapel that Oakhurst created in downtown Atlanta for the people who lived in the streets in that area. The chapel failed to survive its infancy. She related the shame she failed, and how it had taken her years before she was willing to tell the story. It was relieving for me to read, because until then there was a part of me deep down that found the prospect of failure to succeed in a mission very unsettling. A woman preaching to a congregation of Divinity students at Candler Theological School named my fear. I, like many of those students in that sanctuary, feared that if we failed, it means we’re not called by God. When your call is being assessed by denominational figures looking at whether or not to give you a job, this fear is very real. 

But I think there’s some wisdom in the Oakhurst criteria for a mission: there are very few missions worth taking on that don’t come with a large possibility for failure. I have a drawing hanging on my dorm room wall that was made and given to me by a man in the Oakhurst Recovery Program for men recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. He failed out of the program the day before I left. I realized then that most of the men that I had met in the program would most likely follow his example. And yet the program is counted among Oakhurst’s most successful missions. And it has changed lives, and not just those of the men who live there. It changed mine. I now understand that failure is not only a risk of evangelical outreach, but an inevitable part of it. “Do not be afraid”, in part, means “Do not be afraid to fail.”

Another risk of evangelism is unforeseen personal sacrifice. I used to think that the whole notion of “bearing the cross” was a pretty melodramatic way to describe following Christ. But I’m coming to understand that reaching out to poor people, physically and mentally ill people, criminals, and drug addicts, even to the church with the most liberal and inclusive covenant, can be uncomfortable to the point of being painful. At Oakhurst, I learned that even the best of us can get mean if we’re being pushed to do something extremely uncomfortable or put up our money for something that might fail. Back in the 1960s, the neighborhood in which Oakhurst is located became an area of white flight. The pastors at that time refused to allow a vote on whether or not to integrate, because they said that if a church does not include everyone it ceases to be the church of Jesus Christ. Oakhurst went from 1,700 members to fewer than 200. When I met with the chair of the Board of Deacons at Oakhurst to talk about how they do the Deacon thing, I mentioned how impressed I was with the number of potentially risky endeavors Oakhurst had taken on. He replied that he believed the church had become satisfied with its level of inclusiveness and had stopped seeking new ways to reach out. He was grateful for the pastor, Lanny Peters, who continued to push the church to not become self-satisfied, but look for new frontiers in outreach. For Lanny, that new frontier was bolstering interfaith dialogue and action. 

The lure of self-satisfaction is a recurring threat at every church, even “progressive” ones. I remember David once saying in one of his Hurlbut sermons that part of being Christian is being uncomfortable. This is because of the nature of the gospel that we preach. If one is being called to assume a prophetic role, which I suspect happens more often than you might think, “Do not be afraid” means “Do not be afraid to be contradicted, or even attacked.” 

Perhaps the most frightening of all aspects of evangelism is also the most vital: unconditional love. A key part of evangelism is a deep awareness of the ones to whom I am reaching out. One pastor that I spoke to explained developing this awareness of the other as earning the right to preach the gospel to that person. He said that earning the right to preach the gospel to someone takes time. It generally cannot be accomplished on someone’s doorstep. I would disagree with him only in that I think developing trusting, accepting relationships is not a prerequisite to, but rather a part of sharing the gospel. 

Since my Modern Religious Thought professor, who sponsored this project, is going to be reading this reflection, I’m now going to drop the name of a philosopher that has a lot to say on the subject of deep involvement in other people: Martin Buber. Buber talks about what it means to meet another human being through grace. In this meeting, I come to the other person open to receiving them as they are, without judging them or breaking them down into categories of race, gender, or class. This is unconditional love. I don’t believe analyzing someone as a potential convert is truly loving. 

I learned about this completely open and unconditionally loving evangelism in a public hospital in Atlanta. I met with Robin Booth, the director of chaplaincy at Grady Public Hospital, who introduced me to the work of hospital chaplains. Robin had attended New Orleans Seminary, a famously fundamentalist school, after which he had gone and done mission work in Venezuela, including door to door evangelism. He told me that that work wasn’t real evangelism. This work of sitting with people whose lives have been turned upside down and who are going through incredible pain and loss, standing with them as they tried to reconcile their experience with what they had previously believed about God, that was real evangelism. This form of evangelism is based on seeing the other with a divine gaze and holding all of their fears and their pains in divine love free of any selfish agenda, including conversion.

By striving for this openness to the other in my work in Atlanta, I learned that another important call to fearlessness is “Do not be afraid to be evangelized yourself while you evangelize.” I met several people who told me their faith stories in terms of “getting saved” and the change it made in their lives. One of these people was a recovering drug addict participating in the Oakhurst Recovery Program, a nonprofit organization that housed and provided counseling for men recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. He told me that accepting Christ had transformed his life, and studying the Bible had led him to become clean and fix his act. He said that he tried to adhere to how Paul advises husbands to relate to their wives, and his relationship with his wife got better. Now little red flags that said something like “WARNING: PATRIARCHY!” immediately went up in my head when I heard that. But when I thought about it, it occurred to me that the model for husbands in the writings of Paul, while not egalitarian in the modern sense, isn’t really that terrible. 

This man challenged me. He had had an incredibly difficult life, and through it found his hope and the possibility for change in a theology that tends to put me on my guard. If this theology sustained him, who was I to say that it was invalid? In him, I saw Christ “preaching good news to the poor” and freedom to the addict, and I was hearing the good news back to me using words that I normally associate with loveless evangelism. You could say God was speaking to me using the language of my adversaries. This was an incredibly uncomfortable gospel that I was receiving, but it was gospel nonetheless. 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” That’s either foolish, or mind-numbingly terrifying, and quite possibly both. But then we have a constant biblical reminder “Do not be afraid.” If the Spirit of the Lord is really upon me, I think the leap into that dark abyss of striving for social justice is no longer something I can choose, but something I desperately need. That’s the only way I can explain how my life in the past three years has slowly reformed itself around this bizarre new urge to empower the disempowered. I am only now coming to appreciate the challenges and the risks that involves. But I have also learned that it is somewhere mid-air, after taking that leap, that I meet Jesus. The very last pastor story I received before coming back to Oberlin came from a pastor in Madison named Andy Davison. It is a story of meeting Jesus in mid-air, so I’m going to end with it.

Back in the 1970s, Madison, WI was a much more violent place then it is today. There was a lot of unrest about the war in Vietnam, among other issues. On campus, Sellery Hall, which housed the Army Recruitment Center, was bombed, and this resulted in a pervasive and jumpy police presence in the downtown area. One of the especially violent areas of town was Mifflin St., home to a lot of young adults with unstable incomes. The war protests became so frequent that there were police cars constantly patrolling the area. This increased the amount of violence, as residents began turning over police cars. The police would respond with tear gas. This became so common that there were persistent traces of tear gas in the air.

At this time, Andy Davison was the senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Madison. He joined with a bunch of other professional types, including doctors, lawyers, and professors from the town, and they held a meeting with the mayor. They asked him to call the police out of the area, because their presence was only increasing the violence. The mayor agreed, and they in return agreed to patrol the area themselves. Every night, all night, a group of thirty people or so would walk Mifflin St. wearing white armbands. They carried big yellow pads of paper, and if they ran into anyone they would strike up a conversation and write down that person’s complaints, whether about the war, the price of food, or anything else. 

It was the middle of the night, and Andy was getting hungry so he went into the Mifflin St. Co-op to try to find some food. It was dark, because it was past normal operating hours, and quiet. As Andy looked around for food, a large man came out of the shadows. He was shirtless, with long black hair, and he carried a loaf of French bread. It was a somewhat unnerving encounter, but Andy had agreed to talk to whomever he ran into so he said to the man “How’s the price of bread?” The man looked him over and responded, “Man, you look tired.” Then he broke the bread in half, and said, “Here, have some bread.”

It’s not that I mind new paradigms, but do they always have to shift?

Sunday, February 4th, 2007

Disciples, not decisions? Anybody have any idea what that little bumper sticker like phrase might mean? You have to come out of the background I did for it to make sense.

My beginning days with the church were spent in a conservative evangelical context where making the decision to follow Jesus was at the core of what church was about. Granted in those days conservative evangelicalism was kinder and gentler than it often is these days, but it was the ground in which the seeds of my faith were planted. When I was 15 years old I walked down the aisle, as so many others had, at Big Walnut Baptist Church to accept Jesus as my savior.

What I didn’t understand fully at the time was that the walk down that aisle was the beginning of the journey, not its end. And it’s not that the folk at Big Walnut misled me. It was easy, though, for me to imagine that making that decision for Christ was what it was all about, that once you had done that you had arrived at where you were meant to go.

That idea was constantly reinforced by the evangelists I would see on TV, and who would come to my church, making such a big deal about making a decision for Christ. How many of you have ever been in a service where you didn’t even have to walk down the aisle? You know, where the preacher asks every one to bow their heads and close their eyes, and then those who want to make a decision for Jesus only have to raise their hands. Nobody else but the preacher even has to know.

So that was my context when I left for seminary. But more and more, I was developing a discontent with the church. It was like that old New Yorker cartoon where a couple is in an art museum and the man says to the woman, “I may not know art, but I know what I don’t like.” I was figuring out what I didn’t like about the church, but I wasn’t sure what the alternatives were. Or to put it in the post-modern context, my paradigm was shifting, but I was in the middle of the shift. 

When I first discovered this idea of disciples, not decisions I began to see light at the end of the paradigm shift. The end of Matthew 28 is a big deal for many evangelists. The risen Jesus is with the 11 surviving disciples and says this, ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” But what most of those evangelists have missed is that Jesus says nothing here about getting people to make decisions for Jesus, he says to make disciples. And he told them you make disciples by teaching people everything he had taught them.

That, it turns out, is where my paradigm was going, disciples, not decisions. The thing I could get enthused about was learning what Jesus taught us. That’s when I was able to see that this call to follow Jesus began at the altar rather than ended there. The call in my life was not to make a decision for Jesus but to become a disciple, to learn what Jesus taught. And it’s some pretty crazy stuff. Just ask the disciples.

Speaking of the disciples, let’s take a good look at them because they are the only model we have in the Gospels of what it means to be a disciple. And it’s not what I think most preachers have in mind when they are calling people to walk down the aisle, raise their hand, call the phone number, send in the text message, to make a decision for Jesus.

We call them saints now, but they weren’t always what that title implies. In fact, when we read about them in the Gospels they were very little of what being a saint implies.

You don’t have to read too much of the story to realize the disciples just didn’t get Jesus. They couldn’t figure out most of what he was about, and the parts they could figure out, they didn’t like. His message was too radical, too inclusive, too contrary to their understanding of proper religion. They argued with Jesus. They contradicted him. Their lack of faith has become legend. They deserted him when he needed them most. But from the time they threw down their nets, left their tax collection booths behind, found Jesus along the way and followed him, to that hillside where the Risen Jesus commissioned them, they were disciples.

They were, it turns out, a pretty good model for us after all. And I don’t think we see that any more clearly than in the story we read about them today.

They had just come in from a bad night’s fishing. Crowds were following Jesus along the shore of the lake. Jesus sees Simon, who later gets a new name, Peter. Jesus asks Simon if he can get in the boat and go a bit off shore so more people can see and hear him.

After Jesus was done, he told Simon that he ought to push the boat further out and catch some fish. Simon said, “I wish. We’ve been fishing all night and there’s nothing out there. And we have just cleaned the nets.” But Simon got the nets and took the boat out anyway and had the biggest catch he had ever had.

That was enough for Simon. He knew there was something of God going on here, and figured it couldn’t include him. Why would it? He suggested that maybe Jesus should be going. But Jesus wouldn’t leave without him.

That’s the story of discipleship. Jesus comes along and says throw the nets out again. I know things haven’t been working out for you. You keep looking for more meaning in this life and the nets come back in empty. You work hard, you try hard, but no fish. But I think, Jesus says, we can find this thing we call life together.

And they did. But it wasn’t happily ever after for the disciples. It wasn’t as easy as making a decision and going back home. It was becoming a disciple, hitting the road with Jesus and figuring it out as you go. To me, that is a much more satisfying paradigm because it’s much more like life.

We don’t follow Jesus because we have it all figured out. We aren’t any better at this than the first disciples were. That’s the point. Jesus wasn’t looking for Apostles, he was looking for men and women who were willing to throw their nets back into the water, people who would take the risk to follow him and see what they came up with. Jesus was looking for people who were willing to walk toward possibility.

That’s the life of the disciple, walking toward possibility, the possibility that is in Jesus, possibilities for our lives and for our world. And we have those first disciples to learn from.

It is striking, of course, that these disciples, right after they make the biggest catch they can ever imagine, leave their nets behind to follow Jesus. That’s how crazy this discipleship thing gets. You find what you’ve been looking for and realize you are looking for more.

I do have to say that I am glad for that old paradigm that shifted into this new one. I began my journey by making a decision for Christ, I just didn’t realize at the time how much of a beginning it was, and the many decisions for Jesus I would have to make along the way. Would I follow his way of peace and inclusion? Would I decide to trust God in ever deepening ways? Would I let this radical message of Jesus seep in even when it contradicted my understanding and the understanding of others about what proper religion is?

This is the constant joy and struggle of following Jesus. It’s the same thing the disciples dealt with. Are we going to decide to be disciples, to live the way Jesus taught us to live? There’s always another decision around the corner.

The disciples sometimes made the right decision, and sometimes the wrong one. It was kind of a two steps forward, one behind, one step forward, two behind kind of thing. But they kept at it. They knew they wanted to be disciples of Jesus, his followers. They knew that life was in him. So they kept throwing out the nets in his name, and all these years later, we’ve been caught.