There was an essay written by a public school teacher for a programme on the Public Radio network in the United States. In it, he stated that he dreaded his approaching High School class reunion. He feared the inevitable comparisons that these events bring, where people compare jobs, families, cars, anything in a desperate attempt to say, “I’m worth something to someone, or at least I’m worth more than you.”
There is a musical called, “Rent” which has been running on Broadway for over a dozen years. It is loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème. It tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and be creative in New York City’s East Village. One of the songs is about the way the hours, minutes and seconds make up a year and asks the question, “How do you measure the meaning of a life?”
How do you measure the meaning of your life? Is it worthwhile? So many times, when I am at a funeral, I hear a family member give remembrances about their loved one and I thought I knew about the person, but I learn all kinds of new things, things that I wish I had known about them while they were alive, because I would loved to have heard about their experiences first hand. Strange, that in death, we put such high value on life, but what about while we are living? Do we value the lives we are living?
For many people, their identity, and that of those around them, is caught up in what they do, or the way they dress, the cars they drive, the houses they own or their stock portfolio. CBC was interviewing people about the stock market this past week and it struck me how a number of people tied their self-worth into their worth on paper. When the stock market goes down, the effect of having less dollars, made them think less of themselves and their accomplishments – a change all in the space of a few days. When it goes up, they think better of themselves. Are we defined by our possessions? Some people see themselves as being defined by how busy they are. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that the busier we are, the more valuable we are. It is any wonder that books such as the “Purpose Driven Life” become so popular. Every day, people are asking themselves what their life adds up to.
The disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John, led a physically demanding career. They were fishermen and in the ancient world, it was, as long as the fish were plentiful, a lucrative trade. They were probably so busy mending their nets, hoping to catch enough fish and to get them to market on time, that they didn’t have a great deal of time to ponder the purpose and meaning of their lives. As their father’s had been, they were content with their identity as fishermen, after all, they had known nothing else and it never occurred to them that they could do otherwise.
Then, one day, Jesus comes walking along the lakeshore. He says simple words, words that are now famous to us, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” It wasn’t much of a recruitment speech, so the amazing thing is that these words inspire in these men something that makes they leave their boats and nets, their career and families and follow after Jesus. What did Jesus say to them? How did he reach them? Did Jesus tap into some inner turmoil they were experiencing? Did his Messianic message stir within them patriotic so that suddenly they wanted to be in God’s army rather than fishermen? Did Jesus just offer his presence, feeling that would be sufficient for them? Or was it a combination of all of these? Somehow in these few short words, Jesus conveys something about our human identity and purpose as well as about God’s love and grace and workings in the world.
“Follow me…and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus knew that Simon and Andrew, James and John knew how to fish. They knew how to cast the net out across the water and pull in what is trapped beneath. They knew which fish to keep as good and which ones to toss back into the water. They knew how important it was to keep the nets taunt and how to haul it in arm over arm. They knew fishing. Jesus is telling them to take these skills, to apply the knowledge that they already have, to the task of caring for God’s creation and to work among all the peoples of the earth sharing the Good News of God’s love.
Speaking of fishing, you might have heard this story: It was a cold winter day, when an old man walked out onto a frozen lake, cut a hole in the ice, dropped in his fishing line and began waiting for a fish to bite. A young boy walked out onto the ice, cut a hole in the ice not too far from the old man and dropped in his fishing line. It only took about a minute and WHAM! A Largemouth Bass hit his hook and the boy pulled in the fish. This went on and on until finally the old man couldn’t take it any more since he hadn’t caught a thing all this time. He went to the boy and said, “Son, I’ve been here for over an hour without even a nibble. You have been here only a few minutes and have caught about half a dozen fish! How do you do it?” The boy responded, “Roo raf roo reep ra rums rarm.” “What was that?” the old man asked. Again the boy responded, “Roo raf roo reep ra rums rarm.” “Look,” said the old man, “I can’t understand a word you are saying.” So, the boy spit into his hand and said, “You have to keep the worms warm!”
To be honest, I’m quite glad that God doesn’t call me to be a fisherman because quite frankly, I find fishing rather boring. A number of years ago, I was invited to go and fish on the private lake of the naturalists John and Janet Foster. Surely, there would be fish. I sat there in the boat with the pole propped between my legs for ever without even a nibble. Perhaps Pacific Ocean fishing is more exciting than the pursuit on an Ontario lake. God doesn’t call us to fish, but to use the talents and gifts that we have already been given. We see that God’s purposes in our world require an entire potpourri of gifts and talents as we reach out with talents from the sciences, the arts, from many different careers as Christians become a “doctor for people” or a “waitress for people” or a “volunteer for people.”
As we do so, we are called out of a world and a mindset where we use our talents for ourselves and our own enrichment. We now use them, together, for the enrichment, for the nourishment, for the building up of others and God’s kingdom and purposes in our world. This is a very high and holy calling. All around us, our culture asks us with increasing urgency, “What do I get out of this?” God, in turn, asks us to ask ourselves what we can give for God’s purposes. The call is to use our skills and talents for others. This is the secret of finding a place and a purpose in this world.
A number of years ago, a fellow came to me, saying that he believed his life was pointless; that it had no meaning. Over the course of a couple of counselling sessions, I could see that he never did anything for anyone else. He lived solely for himself. If only this young man could have learned to live for others, then he might have found joy.
Around this time, I was talking with another young fellow, who had it all. He was an up and coming Bay Street lawyer. He also felt that his life had very little meaning. I jokingly suggested that he go off to Africa to find himself. A couple of months later, I had a phone call from him saying he was going with the Church’s overseas department to help set up a legal clinic in Malawi. A few years later, I received a letter from him saying that it hadn’t all been smooth sailing, but it was the most meaningful thing he had done with his life.
Think of the disciples leaving their trade, their families, the comfort and safety of the well known, to head out with Jesus. Notice that they break with what society expects them to do. They are going out there on a limb for Jesus. No guarantee of success, just a tremendous cost.
There was a young theologian during the Second World War who spoke out against the atrocities he saw the Nazis doing in his country. He was dismayed that many Christians in Germany took the easy road by being passive towards the Nazi regime. Was he thinking of Jesus meeting these disciples on the shores of Gallilee when he penned these words:
If we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer the question we shall have to go to him, for only he knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy.
In the musical from “Rent” we finally hear that love might indeed be a better way to measure a life. In the PBS audio essay, we hear from the public school teacher that he has a way to answer those people who want to measure his life by what he makes. “I make students think that Shakespeare can be both fun and interesting. I make students who never before could read and write marvel at their newfound abilities. I make young men eager to see how poetic words can affect a young woman, and I make young women adept at reading between the lines. I make young people love language and what they can accomplish with it. In short, I make a difference. Tell me again what it is that you make?”