A friend of mine asked me if I had any advice for someone considering going to seminary to become a pastor.
"Yes," I said, "run screaming the other direction."
"That's exactly what you said to me twenty years ago," he reminded me.
"Keep running," I said.
"If God is truly calling you to be a pastor, God will chase you down and you'll know, and you'll be a great one."
"That's also what you said to me twenty years ago."
Why would I say such a thing?
One of my responsibilities in my letter of call from you is "to encourage persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel."
There are plenty of other letter of call provisions at which I'm also failing, being a man of unclean lips ... unfit to be called an apostle ... I am a sinful man.
But you know this already, and I thank you for showing me far more grace than I deserve.
You probably also know why I advised my friend to resist: God's call is not only reliably irresistible, it usually operates between unreasonable and impossible.
God sends people into the deep water.
In my twenty-fifth year of this, I'm still in way over my skis.
But that's not just ministry—that's teaching, that's front line health care, that's politics, that's relationships, that's navigating a pandemic with no roadmap, that's life.
Even our greatest achievements—the massive temples we successfully build—are too tiny to
hold the hemline of God's bathrobe.
When we realize that we are in the presence of God—because we always are, but we cannot bear the weight of awareness of it very long—we are utterly overwhelmed.
Glory and grace decimate us.
What we see as so big and important—our egos, our worries, our successes, our fears, our plans, our problems, our idols—become laughably puny when we stand in the temple with Isaiah, in the boat with Simon, or in the sand beside the vast ocean that is swallowed like a raindrop by the sky.
Going to work for God begins with a withering humility, then gets worse.
Simon and his friends worked all night, and now they are washing their nets, which is to say both cleaning and repairing them, scrubbing, mending, retying them—arduous work after a long night of wasted effort.
Let down your nets for a catch, Jesus says like a clueless idiot, with no regard or appreciation whatsoever.
Sure, if you say so...says Simon Peter, smh.
Of course, he is then cursed with success: the business almost goes underwater.
Our nets and boats and temples are not built to handle God's glory.
If we started casting our nets in new places, and a huge haul of people arrived, worship might break and our manicured campus might crack—children being loud and reckless,
people not speaking English, hands clapping during hymns, strangers needing food and care, chaos and disorder and funny smells and no time to clean up or catch up.
Or, we could be called in the footsteps of Isaiah, who was in a different boat altogether.
Lips on fire, he said yes to God, and then the lectionary committee chopped off the story.
What did God send Isaiah to say?
Eugene Peterson paraphrases it powerfully in The Message:
Go and tell this people:
Listen hard, but you aren't going to get it; look hard, but you won't catch on.
Make these people blockheads, with fingers in their ears and blindfolds on their eyes, so they won't see a thing, won't hear a word,
So they won't have a clue about what's going on and, yes, so they won't turn around and be made whole.
Astonished, I said, "And Master, how long is this to go on?"
He said, "Until the cities are emptied out, not a soul left in the cities—
Houses empty of people, countryside empty of people.
Until I, GOD, get rid of everyone, sending them off, the land totally empty;
And even if some should survive, say a tenth, the devastation will start up again.
The country will look like pine and oak forest with every tree cut down—
Every tree a stump, a huge field of stumps.
But there's a holy seed in those stumps.
The seed is hiding next to the fish.
It is impossible to see.
There is hope for this world.
There is hope for our society, our schools, our country, our gridlocked politics, our church, our climate, our future, just like there is hope on every deathbed.
The fact that we cannot see it doesn't mean it's not there.
And we may never see it until we give up and trust the nonsense of God.
Empty the cities.
Tell the truth.
Put out into the deep water.
Let down your nets.
And most absurdly and insanely, Do not be afraid.From now on, you will be live-catching people.
Jesus invented a word because what Simon Peter and his friends would be doing had never been done before.
He didn't even tell them to do it, he promised them they would, and we're here because they did.
They caught people alive with the story of the God the world caught dead.
They shared the story of the God who set aside glory and grandeur that dwarfed a temple to sleep in a feedbox, sit in a boat, and live on the road until he was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.
The one sending us into emptiness has been there.
The one calling us into the deep water has been there.