Sunday, 24 July 2016

The other side of the boat

The end of spring, and start of summer always makes me feel slightly unsettled. I have hard-wired memories of anxiety over exams, and their results, which pop up every year with the warm weather. Or perhaps memories of moving from a familiar teacher and class, and a predictable weekly schedule, into the unstructured summer holidays and whatever the new academic year will bring. My studying days ended half a lifetime ago, but I still occasionally get those same sensations in the pit of my stomach on a sunny morning.

And now that’s partly because I’m starting to relive it all again through my children. This week Immy left her primary school, where she has been, with the same 1-1 helper by her side, since she was 3 years old. She literally can’t remember a time before she started there. From September everything will be unfamiliar. So far she’s coping with the change with her usual optimism and good humour but there have been some wobbles.

I doubt any of us has avoided feeling a bit unsettled by the pace of political change over the past few weeks. Since May we’ve had a new Government in Wales. Then Brexit, which I think most of us were completely unprepared for. In my place of work almost everything we have been working on for years is affected by our EU membership and is up in the air now with uncertainty about the underpinning of laws and funding. Questions left hanging … shoulders shrugged …

And then the dramatic daily changes in Westminster politics. I get a newspaper delivered and I’ve been amazed by how out of date each day’s edition has been when it drops through the door - with the whirlwind of people coming forward, and then stepping down, as leadership candidates and stabbing each other in the back. Add to that the increasing frequency of terrorist attacks. And the racist and anti-foreigner rhetoric making its way into mainstream discourse here and in the US, political instability in countries not very far away and war and mass migration continuing. I’m sure many people, like me, are feeling unsettled by it all. This blog is about equality, and I can’t shake off the feeling that we are moving rapidly further away from that dream…

I was invited to give a short reflection at our church this evening and as a result I have been pondering, for the past few days, on how Jesus’ followers might have felt after he died. The exact ordering and pace of events leading up to his execution isn’t completely clear from the different gospel records, but it clearly was a dramatic, fast-moving, unexpected and frightening time. Many of Jesus’ followers would have been expecting him to lead them to an uprising against the oppression of the Roman occupation. They would have been terrified by how quickly events changed from his triumphant ride into Jerusalem to the shouts of “crucify him”. They were perhaps feeling horribly guilty about abandoning him at his time of need, whilst also feeling disappointed and let down by him. They would have been left with profound uncertainty about what to do next, in fear for their own lives as a result of being his associates, and in deep shock and mourning too - for the leader they had loved, and served, and followed. Nothing would ever be the same again and they didn't know the end of the story at that point. Everything they had believed and expected for the past few years had come crashing down. 

What they did was to quietly return to their earlier lives, probably feeling exhausted and empty - meeting together in secret, setting out on journeys, trying to get on with their day-to-day activities, heading back to their old professions to make ends meet, and trying to pick up the pieces.

What did they need at that point? Some very dramatic display of resurrection power? Flashing lights, earthquakes and voices from heaven?

What follows is nothing like that. We have a series of simple stories in each of the gospel records describing the disciples in their daily lives encountering Jesus but not recognising him. 

One story is about some of the disciples out on the lake trying to catch fish, unsuccessfully, all night, and in the morning seeing someone walking on the shore, who suggested that they should throw their nets to the other side of the boat. At that point the nets suddenly filled with fish and they recognised the speaker to be Jesus. They met him on the shore - he had already made a fire - and ate a simple breakfast of bread and fish with him.

After the fast-paced passion narratives, we have quiet stories like this breakfast on the lakeside, an encounter on a walk to a nearby town, Mary’s early morning visit to the garden. They evoke an atmosphere of calm and stillness. They take place in the peace of early morning and evening.

Afterwards we have the coming of the Holy Spirit with fire at Pentecost, the dramatic conversion of the apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, the persecution of the Christians and the early days of the Church - again fast-paced, exciting, and full of energy. But the disciples needed this interlude, and Jesus recognised this in the way he approached them.They needed to regain their strength.

So, at times of deep uncertainty or loss, perhaps we are most likely to encounter Jesus in the everyday events of our lives, in the people we meet - the gardener, the fellow traveller, the fisherman by a lake. We can ask God to open our eyes, as the disciples’ eyes were opened, to recognise Jesus and to receive blessing from him. To wait and be renewed before it is time, again, to go out and make a difference.

Perhaps we just need to stop struggling with our nets on one side of the boat, fighting to make sense of things and worrying about how we can sort everything out. Instead we can lift our eyes, turn around, follow our master’s words, and find the abundance of life and blessing on the other side of the boat.