On Turning Forty 


Chapter Two: Vague, but insistent eccentricities 

My parents both come from hardscrabble backgrounds. Dad in Detroit, Michigan; Mom in Urbana, Ohio. They had been born into a time that came to define “first one to go to college” for more people than ever in the course of American history. My Dad and Uncle Fred, who committed suicide when I was one year old, both earned PhDs. Mom, an MA and distinguished coursework in two doctorates; my maternal uncle, a JD. He is a well-respected lawyer in his hometown. I’ve known money problems, but never like my grandmothers and grandfathers; my parents made a life through the power of their minds. I am one generation removed from the farm. 

I have found that people who live a life of the mind tend to be eccentric. This is a gross generalization, of course, and I don’t want to draw too many distinctions and lines separating myself from others. But as fervently as some people work out their bodies, I work out my brain. I develop my mind. And a lot of people I know and spend time with regularly do so as well. In my experience we’re…a particular, quirky, somewhat esoteric people.

I learned all of this by watching my parents. 

I don’t know how the word “eccentric” first tripped across my transom, but it did. It is possible that it was one of the words that daily my father would require me to look up, write in a notebook, define, and craft a sentence for; he paid me $.25/word and put it into a college account. Years later, after saving my own money throughout high school from working at the Little Art, I bought my first computer: A PowerMac. It cost me $2000. That’s a lot of words. A lot of popcorn sold. A formidable vocabulary for a sassy little bi-boy coming out of the Springs, already well on his way to becoming eccentric. But I learned the word before I became it. It is also entirely possible that it was my brother who first said it, as we huddled together in his room listening to Fishbone and Big Audio Dynamite in-between U2 and AC/DC. Stephen had banished Zeppelin from the house after Melissa moved out and he took the big bedroom. Their stereo wars used to drive our parents crazy. I, sharing a room with Stephen, colluded until he hit me too hard. Then I would run down the hall safely into the confines of Sis’s room, asking to listen to Jethro Tull or Jesus Christ Superstar. 

But I think that “eccentric” becoming part of the vocabulary, a designate that we could brandish upon our parents like a  papal seal on an excommunication decree, most likely came later. After the move to Yellow Springs. In the last good period Stephen had before schizophrenia gripped him. The salad days. I have this vague, but insistent memory of gathering in the room we now call “Mimi’s room” and establishing, through dulcet tones, that Mom and Dad were just so eccentric. They read books all the time; they had “tea time” every Saturday. They liked to have long, boring conversations about things we didn’t care about and they made us stay at the table. Ugh. They were just so…weird, we thought, with family trips planned around museums, or  Bob Dylan concerts.We agreed that it was pretty cool to work in a movie theater the family owned, and getting to see films before they even came out was neat, but Mom and Dad were totally squaresville. 

I know, right?! I want to reach back in history and slap myself on the head and say, “Shut up you little shit and fucking appreciate the incredible exposure to art, literature, culture, and music your parents are giving you!!!”But at the time I remember why. I have often said that I would live through my brother’s suicide; the miscarriage and eventual divorce that occurred in the first marriage; and pretty much anything else on the long list of bad shit that has happened to and around me, before I would ever go back to middle school. It was, without question, fucking hell for me. I wanted a family like The Huxtables. I wanted to live in some idyllic world where my brother and sister did not have a different father; where I did not feel so horribly insecure about myself; where my emotions were not always so topsy-turvy, my heart so ever-on-my-sleeve. A world in which I did not feel like my body was the enemy.

Two years ago, I did not have any tattoos where people could see them unless I removed my shirt. I think I am slipping into the “heavily tattooed” category, at least for my profession. There are more of us, to be sure, than there were in the past, but we are still outside the norm. The locks are a rather new addition, too. While we are broke now, I once had expendable income that I spent on clothes that make me feel comfortable; I like suits. Waistcoats. Ties. Shoes. Hats. And I readily admit that it is born of insecurity. I have spent most of my life hating my body. Wanting out of my head. Wishing that I weren’t so…Yeah. You guessed it. Eccentric. 

It hit me last night when Miriam sent me a text asking how I was doing and I typed out: “Reading an article in The Atlantic Monthly about the necessity of humanities education in a digital world. And watching The Office. You?” I hit send and then thought, You’re an odd bird, Saari. An odd bird, indeed. Later, Mimi would say that she didn’t even bat an eye. “Of course you were,” she quipped this morning. “That’s the kinda stuff you do. I figured there was some documentary on and you were playing Scrabble.” I thought, Huh.  Just a few feet away is  the spot where Stephen and I collaborated, calling Mom and Dad eccentric. If I had only known. 

They heard us. Well, Mom did anyway. I know because it came up a couple weeks later–or a year; time is abtract–during an argument, when my mother hissed at me: “I know you and your brother think we’re eccentric! And that you’re embarrassed about us. Well you know what? I. Don’t Care.”  Which, of course, is the best answer that someone could possibly give, especially a strong, intelligent, loving mother to her sensitive, almost cowering son. I was on my way to letting fear of my peers and deep insecurities totally control my life. If mother isn’t afraid of them, I started to reason, maybe their opinions don’t matter so much. And it has taken me decades to get to a place where I feel like myself. Oh, it’s a shitstorm being me, sometimes. Bipolar is a wild ride, often exhilarating and sometimes exhaustingly terrifying. And I’d like to lose some weight. But in the main, I’m okay being eccentric if it allows me to be loving, compassionate, intentional, understanding, loyal, good, and true. 

So, that’s me.  At forty. A little quirky, a  little weathered. But standing. Surrounded by love and purpose. My life is totally different than how I pictured it when I was 18. And that’s okay.  Even though I scramble to find money, I don’t scramble to find meaning. Significance. Joy. The stuff of life that Jesus told us would lead to our true treasure. 

Or maybe I’m just being eccentric. 

   

Zealotry or Zealousness? 


My first introduction to religious zealotry was through Jesus Christ Superstar, which will surprise exactly no one who has known me longer than 5 five minutes. In our high school production, a female portrayed the part as Simone Zealotes, which was just all kinds of awesome, but to me Simon has been and always will be Larry Marshal. His Black Church vocals and the masterful choreography always communicated to me the depth of passion and belief Simon had for Jesus. Sure, his theology was wrong; Zealots often believe that if they draw enough blood, God will respond. It is like a twisted take on Field of Dreams: “If you spill it, He will come.” But my initial feelings about zealotry were positive. 

Once I got to college and started seriously studied religion, I began to understand the damaging impact zealots can wring; women can lose their autonomy and agency; outsiders can be targeted for persecution and violence; human rights can be abridged or nullified; education can be skewed or denied. Religious zealotry is rarely good, at least as it manifests in public. And this makes sense because religious zealotry draws attention to itself. Religious zealousness draws attention to God and the work that God can do through servants. Servants who work for God without having to push their beliefs on others; servants who give of themselves, even to those they may not like personally, but love because it is what God commands. What God offers. What God is. 

And so I have found myself, since returning from Baltimore, on fucking fire for God. I can’t quite elucidate it proximately, so I resort to that most guttural of words to model the intensity of my faith right now. I am in love with Jesus; I yearn to live into the fullness of who God fashioned me to be, to do so with humility and gratitude, erasing as much as possible the false Aaron that I have constructed through the impermanent things of life. At moments I can feel myself tapping into something almost completely outside of myself, as though I am aligning my energy with that of God, feeling the vastness of incarnation and the smallness of experience. In fleeting whispers, I hear the voice of Creation connecting me with the moment the light burst forth, setting into motion the miraculous birth of all that is, known and unknown, and all who have, do, and will live, until the fullness of time falls in upon itself and what we know is transformed into that which is promised. A cessation of suffering. The elimination of evil. The end that is also the beginning.

This zealousness can become zealotry, if I let it. If I feed my ego and do work for my own glory, the love I feel inside my heart will be a love of ego. It will be a love of what is manufactured. Impermanent. I pray that my zeal remain, and this is self-serving as well. I like how it feels when I am close to God, when I am focused on Jesus. It is like a controlled mania. I feel the energy but not the impetuousness. But I want the zeal to remain because it reminds me of what I am called to do: to serve, just as Jesus served. To preach the gospel at all times, but to only use words when necessary. To be.         

Dying Ego, Living Self


Christianity and Buddhism have many crossovers; Thich Nhat Hahn has explored them well in his twin books Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. A growing number of Christians find themselves incorporating Buddhist principles into their own Christian praxis. Purists will find this unacceptable; those on the outside might accuse us of cultural appropriation; but a larger number of people understand that both religious systems aim to orientatate the practitioner away from impermanent, constructed illusions and toward the true source of permanence. While this may not be the most nuanced explanation of both traditions, it holds true: Jesus and Siddhartha both saw the ways in which cultural forces can keep people in cycles of pain, suffering, and despair, whereas a dedicated change in perspective can help one see Truth. 

Both Christianity and Buddhism instruct us on how attachment to impermanence leads to desire that produces suffering. We want to change our circumstances (for a wide variety of reasons), and act without thinking of ramifications; we mistake the part for the whole; we assert a manufactured sense of self (likes, dislikes, desires, fears, hopes) as though it is permanent, and when we feel it is damaged, we lash out to avenge the hurt. The language used in both traditions may be different, but the underlying message is shared: you are not who you think you are, and that false you is the enemy.

This means that the dedicated religious life involves hours of reflection, meditation, study, and prayer. Who am I? The ideas in my head? The desires and aspirations I pursue? The feelings I have or relationships I establish? Why do my emotions arise in such a way that they trigger a desire to act in manners that might be destructive? Counterproductive. Painful. In pursuit of relationships and community, do I do so so that I can be praised? Am I asserting my will on others in ways that decrease their autonomy or impinge upon their personhood? Do I elevate myself, engaging in puffery? The work is real, yo. 

And it continues. Last night in discussing 2 Corinthians with the wonderful Bible study group I lead at the church, we were talking about what it means to be confident in Christ. Paul encourages the people in Corinth to understand that they can undertake any sufferings (for those sufferings connect us to the sufferings of Jesus) and be filled with confidence (not because of their own deeds but rather as a result of grace through faith) because they know that all things come from God. But Paul also understood that such wisdom is not achieved by simply declaring Jesus Christ as Savior. It is not magic. Paul wrote about the Christian life as requiring maturity; in order for us to grow up spiritually and to put away childish things, we have to think about what it means to be clothed in Christ. Jesus told us that we cannot serve God and Mammon; Paul tells us we cannot serve ourselves and Jesus. As Jesus declared himself a slave to humanity, so we must declare ourselves slaves for God. And what does God want us to do? To serve others. To love justice. To walk humbly on the path.

I find it hard to quell my ego sometimes. I’ll be specific: I think credentials matter. Education matters. There are reasons for why I underwent the training I did, and will continue to further my knowledge and skills. I find myself citing credentials with a startling regularity, and I often wonder if it arises from ego. I feel disrespected, especially when people with little to no formal training begin espousing opinions which are not based in any real understanding of the issues at hand, or act as though an unlearned opinion is equally valid simply because it is arrived upon earnestly. I feel pulled between a desire to affirm people where they are and a desire to stop the perpetuation of a culture that no longer recognizes expertise. It is especially tricky being a person responsible for spiritual life; disagreements that might occur in another context take on extra weight when spirituality and faith are involved. This is a real struggle for me.

Trying to eliminate ego does not mean that feelings are no longer hurt, or disappointment is no longer experienced. It means that the emotions can be experienced and understood differently, but the sting and discomfort remain. I have no desire to remove myself from human experience, but I do want to increase my patience and compassion, slow down my reactions, consider situations from different perspectives, and always to have compassion and love as motivators. Dying ego, living self. 

Consolidated Forgiveness


I have lots of student loan debt. I’m an Xer, so that is not a surprise. Our generation has the distinct honor of being the first to face total financial ruin because of how much it costs to go to school and gain certifications. Millennials seem to just assume that their lives will be defined by debt. It is a brave new world. 

Periodically, I get letters about consolidating loans or even applying for loan forgiveness. The language of this is striking. Consolidating our debts; seeking out ways of forgiveness. I don’t know if Great Lakes is in the business of sparking theological thought, but they did with me. 

I have decided to move to the Narrative Lectionary, and the summer begins with a six-week series on 2 Corinthians. For any Trump supporters who might read this, it’s pronounced second Corinthians. The opening chapter is about consolation.  Paul is dealing with a complicated relationship with the church in Corinth. The last time he was there, a member said something that really pissed him off. The congregation disciplined him, but when Paul canceled a trip to return it appears that all hell broke loose. Scholars have spent a long time trying to piece together the myriad letters (and allusion to letters) that are contained in 2 Corinthians, which is actually the fourth letter that Paul wrote to Corinth. He writes because of a previous letter. WHich was harsh. Very harsh. And people did not receive it well. I know how that goes.  To address it, Paul begins by essentially saying, I know that there are hurt feelings. And I know that I played a role in that. Paul offers words of consolation, not necessarily of apology.  He thanks God for God’s comfort. 

Consolation is different from forgiveness. Consolation is tending to a person’s emotions, trying to soothe and assure them that distress is temporary. No matter how devastating the blow, time will lessen the acuteness of pain. I hesitate to use a word such as recover, so perhaps adjust is better. Consolation is the promise that circumstances will once again change, and things will adjust. 

Forgiveness is investing oneself in the process of adjustment, either as the person who receives it or as the one who administers it. Forgiveness means taking responsibility for your actions, and owning your mistakes; forgiveness means working through your pain and recommitting to a relationship with a person who has hurt you. 

Sometimes we make the mistake of asking for forgiveness when we should be in the process of consoling. Sometimes the person seeking forgiveness needs consolation, too, even if the aggrieved are not ready to extend absolution.  Sometimes we can be so blinded by our own pain that we do not recognize the pain we are causing to others. Acknowledging that yours is not the only pain can go a long way in repairing relationships. 

Today, I set for myself a prayer project. I do these every now and again. I am praying on knowing how to separate who I am as a pastor and who I am as a follower of Jesus Christ. This may seem odd, but I am learning that it is vital if I am to be effective as a minister. To be fulfilled as a Christian. And as I was praying and reflecting, I realized that I need to be able to console even if I am not forgiven. Even if I have not forgiven. Consolation is essential to relationships and community. Consolation allows us to step outside of ourselves and even to gain perspective. God consoles us before God forgives us. Because the journey is the destination. . 

I think I sometimes seek consolidated forgiveness. I want to stack up all my sins and put them in a package, setting them before God–before others?–and say, “Here. Forgive this, please!”  Paul, in his letter, lets know that there needs to be some pain before forgiveness. God will console, and we should as well, but forgiveness without full investment in the process is not a forgiveness that will feel complete or livable. If we are too quick to forgive, or too quick to seek forgiveness, we might just be setting ourselves up for continued strife. Regardless, we should aim not to hurt people’s feelings purposefully, and remember that despite continued tensions, we still care for one another. We are still able to console.

Today, I am thankful for God’s consolation in the midst of being unforgiven. Unforgiving. Today I am thankful for the friends and colleagues who have reached out to console, to forgive, to express solidarity. I am thankful to the people who reached out to me for ministry help, still trusting me to be of service to them and providing the opportunity to offer consolation myself. Today I am thankful for a person who so powerfully empathized with me that she took on physical pain. 

All things in love, love in all things.    

What If They’re Right? A Progressive Pastor’s Fears Laid Bare

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I was not raised in the Church. I came to faith via a long and winding road and a tremendous amount of study. Like most highly educated pastors, I have thought through my theology. Deeply. And I do not separate my faith from any area of my life. It is all-encompassing. Grace is a wonderful thing, as I am broken. Wonderfully made and radically love, yes, but broken nonetheless.

I have made decisions about my understanding of community. I can give biblical justifications for why I support women’s ordination, the full inclusion of GLBT persons into community and religious life, and do not think that Jesus is the only way to God. Some fundamentalists stick around to hear my explanations, some do not. Some are fine with agreeing to disagree, and finding areas in which we have crossover to use that shared belief to propel us into relationship and meaningful collaboration to do God’s work. Some refuse to acknowledge my ordination and believe that I am leading a congregation to hell. In fact, the two denominations with whom I am intimately tied, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are two of the most liberal denominations. Add onto that the fact that the congregation I serve aligns with the More Light Presbyterian movement, and I am about as “Progressive” (meant in the categorical sense) a Christian as you can get.

To me, though, the most important word in that descriptor is Christian. I take the gospel seriously. I emphasize the things I believe Jesus told us humans to emphasize: compassion, justice, mercy, solidarity, and love. I leave to God the task of judgment and the state of a person’s soul. I take the bible seriously, but not necessarily literally. I have deep, abiding respect for the long tradition of our faith, but I think there have been many, many mistakes. I find that too often I have to spend a lot of time explaining those mistakes to people who are not necessarily resistant to the view of God my faith espouses, but who are so damaged, so wary, so weary of the Christianity that judges and casts stones, they are hesitant to even think about trying church.

But here’s the rub. Mainline, liberal congregations across the country are struggling. There are myriad reasons for this and if you want to learn more, just pick up any issue of The Christian Century from the past ten years and you are likely to find at least one article about it. Our detractors say it is because we have polluted the gospel. We have acceded to the culture and abandoned Christ. I have written many times about my view of the gospel and I feel absolutely fine claiming that I follow Jesus. However, non-denominational mega churches, which often have a blood atonement theology, a charismatic preacher at the helm who dispenses advice masked as scripture, and a financial statement that can rival those of entire denominations, are thriving. Growth may be slowing down, but the communities are sticking. People are leaving traditional denominations and are going to these churches. For years, we educated and discerning Christians (to our own minds) joked that offering designer coffee and house bands would not be enough to keep people. We misjudged what it was that sent people to churches such as these. The truth is, non-denominational mega churches might be the future of Protestant Christianity. And while they are not for me, for a wide variety of reasons, I am not interested in badmouthing another part of the Body of Christ. Not for addressing what certain people want and need. I know I couldn’t do it, but I don’t deny that there is serious commitment to Christ that emerges in these communities. I don’t agree with their vision of Christ, oftentimes, but the discipleship is real. That’s important.

So, here’s the deal. All the people who said that they’d come back to church if denominations were open to the GLBT community; people who said they would be part of a thinking church, a church that allows for questions; people who said that they want to be able to be in a space where their experiences and even admiration of other religious traditions would be respected; all of those people who motivated so many of us to push within our denominations, to be vocal and visible in social justice fights, we need you. Now. We need you in order to help congregations that are aging, that are struggling financially because they are trying to upkeep ancient buildings. We need you–even if you don’t come to worship proper–to offer to work with us, to help us staff committees, throw community events, create spiritual spaces that are utilized and respected.

Because we could die. And maybe that needs to happen. Maybe our vision of the Gospel is not correct. I reject that claim with every fiber of my being, but I need people to understand the stakes. I have so many passionate, talented, spirit-filled friends who went to seminary, accrued major debt, and are tasked with leading aging and financially-challenged communities and we’re frightened about what we face. Most of us will never be full-time pastors.  For me, the fear is not monetary; it is the prospect that a community that has been continuous since 1860, that has pushed the boundaries and been vital to village life, might end. On my watch. It would be a loss, not just to the Church but to the community as well. I imagine that many of you reading this who do not live in Yellow Springs probably have a few churches in your area that fit this description.

This will be my last doom and gloom blog. I am focused on solutions. I am focused on community. But I wanted to be clear about what drives and motivates me, and what is at stake. I’m looking to try new things and to gather people together in ways that are authentic and meaningful, but also in line with the gospel that is at the center of my heart, sinner that I am.

Community Concerns

 

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When Dr. King graduated from Boston University, he had opportunities to pastor churches or even teach up North. He and Coretta prayed on it fervently, and concluded that they were called to return to their native Southland. History would have been much different had they not gone first to Montgomery, and then Atlanta.

Lewis V. Baldwin, in his seminal work There is a Balm in Gilead, traces the intellectual and cultural influences of Dr. King’s life, from the South to the Black Church. King’s father and mother were both educated and deeply rooted in the church, so he knew no other life than one centered in Christianity, community, solidarity, and suffering. He knew the language and the rhythms, the traditions and the concerns. He was invested in the larger community because he understood the connection between secular systems and the ability to follow God; if laws or culture keeps you oppressed, your religion of justice cannot be practiced. King was a disciple of Jesus Christ first, a civil rights activist second. The two just happened to overlap quite a bit. We often forget that in our watering-down of King’s radical work.

It is always dangerous whenever a minister, especially a White one, starts talking about Dr. King. I’m not comparing my own path to his; that would be asinine. But I do understand what it means to be so closely attached to the place where you serve. Yellow Springs has been my home for nearly all my life. There were years in which I lived elsewhere, but my family home has been here for 30 years. I grew up playing in Glen Helen. I am a product of the schools. A big part of my sense of self is wrapped up in this place.

But the center of my life is my identity as a Christian. As a Jesus follower. As a servant. As a person committed to being in relationship with anyone who seeks me. A person who is not that concerned with rules regarding who gets Communion and I don’t believe I have the ability to save a soul. Frankly, that doesn’t even make my list of top 500 things I think being a pastor is about.

This village, historically, has been intimately concerned about justice. I think that is still there, but it is being pushed to the periphery. Our demographics have changed and our median income has risen, pushing out some of the weird, creative, passionate people that once found refuge here. I look around and I think that there is a need for a spiritual place that provides sanctuary and freedom simultaneously; a place that is safe but encouraging of questions. Of skepticism. Of a desire to push deeper to bring our words in line with our actions. A place that is hospitable and invitational, but is also radical and on fire. A place where art, theater, music, and spirituality find expression inside and outside of worship. A community that comes together in commitment and trust, exploration and sharing; a community that dares to believe that God is too big for labels, but that traditions can give us purpose, direction, power, and peace.

But people have to want it. They have to see the need and feel that this place is worth the risk. The time. The vulnerability. The messiness of relationships and community. I will do everything I can to continue the invitation; the congregation will continue to be welcoming; we will try to show our love in the things we do and the words we say. We hold on to the prayer, If you love them, they will come. 

I love this village, and I love the Church. I fear for both. I fear that if we do not pay attention to the needs and concerns of people we will fail in our charge to pass on the legacies to a new generation. If we do not commit ourselves to taking risks, to allowing for the possibility that change can bring about new life, to caring enough to reach out to our neighbors and invite them along on the journey, we may see something beautiful slip away. If we do not remember who and what we have been in the past, but strive toward the future, we will see our opportunity slip away. If we don’t talk seriously about our declining non-White population and our growing economic divide, we could see the chance for authentic diversity die. If we don’t listen to the concerns that people have about the practice of Christianity, if we don’t affirm the hurt of those who have been pushed away by organized religion, if we don’t stop to think that maybe God is calling us to a new form of ministry we’ll be staring at a corpse that cannot be raised.

Luckily for us, we have a resurrection hope.

 

Practicing Resurrection: Hearing the Unspoken No

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

In Jewish tradition, a rabbi is required to refuse the request for conversion three times before answering in the affirmative. Each time, the potential convert has to face rejection, doubt, introspection. Only through perseverance, it is thought, can one understand what it really means to be a Jew.

The structure of this pericope is rather genius. Gathered together–whether by swimming or by boat–a simple charcoal fire organizes the make-shift community. A familiar scene. Jesus producing a miracle and then demanding that all be fed. There is no absence. Nothing is bereft. Bread in abundance; fishy aplenty. All has been prepared by God. And like they have during the feeding of the 5,000 (reported by all the gospels) and the 4,000 (reported by Mark and Matthew, but not Luke and John), and the last supper (not reported by John), they gather again. The author of John notes that Jesus’ grab and gab is the third resurrection visit.

Reclining after the meal, Jesus turns to Simon Peter. Do you love me? he asks. No matter how many times I read it, Jesus’ voice will always be that of Tevya (preferably voiced by Topol) from Fiddler on the Roof; do you love me?  When Peter says yes, Jesus responds: “Feed my lambs.” No explanation. No qualifications. “Feed my lambs.” One can imagine Peter’s thoughts: What does it mean to feed? Who are lambs? How often am I to feed them? Before he can muster a question, Peter is faced with Jesus doubling down: “Do you love me?” Now I hear Golde from Fiddler: “Do I what!?” With the second question, one imagines what might be going on in Peter’s mind. Do I love you?  Of course. Of course I do, but why do you keep asking? Peter assents, and Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” Again, the questions: What does it mean to tend? So am I to only tend to the sheep and feed the lambs? Do the lambs not need tending and the sheep not need feeding? What’s going on here?

“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Each time. Each time Simon Peter is forbidden to forget the face of his father. Each time he is challenged to bring his whole self. Do you really understand what it means to love? Do you understand what it means to love God through Jesus Christ? Because this love is not just about you. It is about others. It is about the sheep and the lambs. It is about feeding and tending.  

Sometimes we have to hear the unspoken “no.” Sometimes we have to be asked the same question several times to assure others we really mean what we say. The movement of this passage is beautiful. They all know who Jesus is as they eat with him on the beach, but none of them dare ask. They don’t give voice to their questions. They shovel pieces of fish and bread into their mouths, looking awkwardly from face to face. Do we talk about the fact that we’re eating with a dead man? Or at least a man who was dead but now is not? And what does this mean for us? We can imagine that all of these issues are racing through their minds, but Jesus is not concerned about that. He wants to make sure that Peter (and here we could go into a whole discussion of apostolic succession and how this passage parallels Matthew 16:19, but let’s not and say that we didn’t) understands the depths and requirements of love. Like rabbis who will follow for centuries, he wants to make certain that those who wish to follow in the ways of the Jewish God fully understand what is required.

 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

I cut out that line about death. That is the author of John speaking to us, and with all due respect John gets it wrong. This is not about Jesus’ death. I mean, maybe it is but I think it is about so much more. This is about the requirements of love. Love does take us where we don’t wish to go. At least the love Jesus teaches us. But the promise is that we won’t be alone. God will be with us. And others whom God animates will be there, too.

We have to hear the “no.” The no to doing what is easy or comfortable. The no that comes with realizing that we most likely will not be the persons we hoped we would be, but if we follow God we will be the persons we are meant to be. We have to hear the “no” that God gives to shallow or empty love. We have to hear the “no” to certain questions that God simply will not answer, because God is more concerned with how we are loving. How do we practice this love, this resurrection?

Follow me.

Well, fiddlesticks. Yeah. I will. I’ll tend and feed and eat and love and follow and swim and take boats and be confused. Keep asking, though God. Because eventually I’ll hear the unspoken nos as a final “yes.”