Rev. Kit Billings
October 17, 2004
Last week I had the pleasure and the challenge of once again participating in one of our national church committees called the Committee On Admission Into The Ministry, otherwise known as “C.A.M.” It is the committee within our church that both supports and helps evaluate every student and candidate seeking ordination in our church. Thus, as I'm sure you can imagine given the amount of weight this committee pulls, following their meetings with us one might actually hear a seminarian expressing to her or his fellow student, “Wow, I've just been CAMed.” This was the phrase that my fellow seminarians and I used back when I was a student in seminary—and believe you me, it was a much more pleasing sound than what might have potentially been uttered, “Oh no, I've just been canned!” Indeed, life does have its stressful, yet important, situations.
Well, there was another kind of student I had the pleasure of visiting with several times during my four and a half day visit to Berkeley, and he is none other than our very own Ed Sylvia, that good friend of our congregation, who once served our chapel as board president many years ago if I'm not mistaken. Ed is on his way to one day getting his Master's in Theology, and he's doing very well to use his education out there to further his work with his second book, which is titled, Proof of God, which is a terrific undertaking to carefully explain how Swedenborg's science predicated and explained both quantum physics and string theory, but also how God's Divine Love actually is the connecting thread that conjoins the various modern theories of quantum physics into a unified whole! So, in other words, assuming that Ed's nearly finalized book project, Proof of God, makes the kind of gargantuan SPLASH! upon modern science as I think it will, the name of Swedenborg may well become the next household “buzz word” in the 21st century. Time will tell.
One of Ed's Fall classes deals with New Testament theology, and it was neat to hear Ed talk with me about how wonderful it is to experience an expert theologian slowly unpack the historical and social underpinnings that exist within the literal stories and accounts we read about in this great book of God's we call the Bible. I remember Ed saying, “It's really amazing how much meaning can be unpacked without even getting into the deep correspondences (or spiritual symbols) that live in those pages.” Ed continued, “The socio-historical level itself is loaded with great meaning.”
And this indeed is true. How marvelous it is that we can open up the Lord's Holy Word and find within its pages a special story and unfolding narrative that, when given enough patience and time to research it, opens up like a great treasure chest once the right sort of key is used to gain entry. And this is exactly how God's Word functions—it is not dead, but alive! It is a great conduit of divine truth that forever has the ability to enable God to reach you right where your spiritual journey is…right where you are in need. This quality of the Bible reveals God's ability to feed you right where your spiritual hunger or thirst exists.
Our true story in Luke this morning has several important messages within it, and one of them is how the Lord wants to deal with those two common bedfellows within our minds: failure and discouragement. Peter and his companions had fished most of the night and came up empty. Then Jesus came along and said, “Go out again and let down your nets into the deep waters,” and Peter's initial response was one of disbelief and incredulity. One could almost hear Peter expressing, “No Lord, I've lost my patience and I'm feeling discouraged.” And yet Peter still had the presence of mind to trust enough to follow the Lord's command; we must be willing to do the same.
One of many forms of spiritual hunger and thirst is our regular need for the Lord to help us to deal with discouragement and inward bitterness, the kind that surface after we've put out two or three attempts at serving others on God's behalf, or with trying to help the church to grow, perhaps, yet visible success appears to have run the other way. There are many ways in which we may try to reach out to another person (or even a group of people), putting us in the role of being a fisherman for God, and our efforts seem to fall flat. There can be various ways that we really try hard to be a good and useful person, or a faithful helper serving the organized church, and yet more than one of our best efforts just don't seem to reel in a “great catch.”
Sometimes, in the external degree of success we will simply run into failure; sometimes growth and development do not happen according to just how we would like them to take shape. Have you ever encountered such times, either in your own personal spiritual growth or in serving the Lord and the church? What can you do when several of your best efforts do not turn up concrete results? What can you do when you feel discouraged? The wisdom of God in Luke's Gospel would answer: “Go out and fish again, but this time do so in deeper waters. Move more intently into the waters of deep faith.”
Our own finite, limited perception of what our good efforts accomplish fall short of seeing everything God sees. And when we approach anything without faith in the Lord's movement and unstoppable power to bring good out of every situation, then discouragement is likely to follow. As Swedenborg discovered, most of the time people are looking forward in life only as far as a few days, weeks, or months, while God is constantly looking at every individual moment in the scope of eternity. The Lord sees into more minute aspects and levels of the good we are doing, and what the long-term effects will be of what can seem to us a rather insignificant thing or conversation; and many times the only thing we can see or sense is that some kind of mental or spiritual seed gets planted when it comes to making use of the truths in God's Word, whose future growth we may never see. But such seeds still, nonetheless, when planted can produce critical inner growth in someone else's mind when love and more truth are added later on.
Sometimes we simply lose a spiritual degree of patience, not to mention a conscious-living faith in the Lord and His constant work and providence. But especially when it comes to being a “fisher of men” using the truth found in the literal sense of the Bible, as well as good doctrine, often times immense patience is needed. In short, there is no excuse for not reaching out to people, as well as toward the thoughts within your own mind, with the truths God provides through the church. In fact, it is fair to say that the Lord is truly counting on you to do so, for you are His fisherman, you are His faithful worker. And many times it can take more than several tries with doing God's work before some outward positive result happens. In fact, outright external failure may be primarily what we are given to see, which can seem disappointing to our natural level of the mind. But disappointments are no reason to give up with that which is really important, especially when a deeper degree of spiritual faithfulness is simply what Christ is calling for, as we see revealed to us this morning in this great “fish tale” in Luke 5.
The Lord reached out to a band of fishermen as part of his first assembly of disciples; this was an easy symbol that they, as Jesus expressed, would become fishers of men and women. After preaching to the crowd from Peter's fishing boat, the Lord bade Peter to cast out to sea again and let down their nets. But after toiling all night for hours and not catching one fish Peter complained; he complained about his seeming failure to catch the fish he wanted to find. Here is represented the discouragement of those who have tried and have seemingly failed. But God reminds us that what can appear hopeless may well be an opportunity for success and growth. For as Scripture reminds us, “With God all things are possible.”
As with many things in life, reaching out to others regarding the good news that Christ brings is certainly an endeavor that will make us encounter seeming failures time and again. Yet even with deep discouragement, the kind that Peter encountered that day when Christ was walking upon the Galilean seashore, we can hope again in God—we can remain hopeful because God is really in charge of the universe, and His unbeatable will is always going to draw all of life toward what is good, even though there are going to be some people who will ultimately choose hell over heaven.
It is hard to toil through life, though, without getting caught up in the natural degree of our minds, as we move out of the deep waters of life back into the shallows. And when we do toil too long away from the depths of living faith in the Lord things get much harder all around and we can then begin doing good deeds without being connected to faith in the Lord no matter what outward circumstances are. Peter and his companions kept on toiling hour after hour in the wrong depth of truth, which was useful to teach them what happens when we work without much faith. Our pain and discomfort can remind us to get back in the path of the Lord's words, which we find in the Bible, not unlike when those pilgrims chose to listen to Christ sitting in Peter's boat, preaching the Word of God to them. We must be willing to put ourselves in the path of the Lord's words, and let them reach our spiritual ears. And we must also be willing to cast our nets of mental understanding beyond the shallow areas of thought and discussion and prayer-work, and instead cast our minds out into the deeper waters of internal openness and hearing—out, you see, and down into that spiritual love-soaked region of life we call “living faith,” where the outward, external appearances of things are less important than the deep, internal movements and forces where God works His miracles for us all…that region of reality where the Lord is simply unbeatable!
The following is a prison radio broadcast by Chuck Colson following the photo-finish presidential election of 2000 between then Vice President Al Gore and challenger George W. Bush:
As I record this broadcast, it's nearly midnight on Tuesday [Nov. 7, 2000]. I feel a little bit like the people at The Chicago Tribune in 1948, who sent the paper to print with the now infamous headline "Dewey Wins!" You may remember that President Truman held that headline high for one of the most famous photos of the twentieth century. You see, at this very moment, it is unclear who will be the next president. And it could stay unclear for days, since absentee ballots have yet to be counted in many states.
It's an amazing cliff-hanger election. And most of us are going to wake up tomorrow morning very tired from having sat in front of the television late into the night. So I'll make no predictions. But I do have some things that I would like to communicate to the BreakPoint audience. Whichever way things turn out, some people will be joyous, and some people will be dismayed. But one thing is absolutely clear. It should not alter in the slightest the course that we, as Christians, follow in our society.
One of my friends wrote me recently after a particularly discouraging situation and said, "Chuck, just remember. We have enlisted for the duration in service to the truth." I love that! As a matter of fact, I'm having that plaque made up and put in my office in Washington, alongside the one from Mother Teresa that says, "Faithfulness, not Success."
What we need to remember is, if you're disappointed in the election results when they're finally clear, that's understandable. All of us have our partisan choices. Maybe you'll be jubilant over them. If so, you're going to think, "Well, the culture war's been won." And if you're discouraged over the results, you'll think, "The culture war's been lost."
Cultures are changed from the bottom up. Fads start from the top down. Movements start from the bottom up. Remember when de Tocqueville came to this country -- the French statesman who wrote so brilliantly about American life and talked about our churches being on fire and about the peculiar characteristics of American life -- he said that Americans really had a sense of civic duty and civic responsibility. Tocqueville said that what moves America are the "habits of the heart." He was absolutely right! This is the genius of America. We are moved by the tastes and dispositions of the people. We're moved by the way we live with our neighbors around us. People need to see something better, something that they can long for in our lives. That isn't affected by elections. They're not going to look to Washington for that, they're going to look to us.
So we keep living in biblical faithfulness. Don't be overly jubilant, but don't despair. Take a cool-headed perspective and keep your Christian faith and your Christian witness strong. God bless you.
This prison radio broadcaster addressed a regular part of life, one that the Lord dealt with as well in our Lukan lesson this morning, choosing faith over discouragement.
Have there been happenings in your personal life, or in our country, or in world politics that sometimes get you down? With this miracle that Christ performed by helping those fishing nets to be overflowing with fresh fish that day, He reveals to us how these kinds of deep-down spiritual needs, the need for feeling deeply connected and in tune with the Lord's capability to move life everywhere in the direction of what is good (for example), will be fulfilled. We must let down our nets of religious doctrine and reflection into the deep waters of living faith; launch out into the deep; let your nets down into the depth of Christian faith, and your net of Christian doctrine and understanding will be fulfilled to overflowing! But this means, indeed, one must make time in life for spiritual and religious reading, prayer and involvement in church programming. And we read, “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.”
So it is within the Christian experience when the Lord is obeyed and his works in the deep are revealed. As it was written of old, “They that go down to the sea in ships, to do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.” Amen.
Unison Prayer of the People
Oh dear Lord, life is not always easy for me; sometimes I stumble upon failure and disappointment, and it is easy for me feel discouraged. If my heart has struggled with despair and discouragement lately, O Lord, I pray that you would help me with these feelings. Part of my struggle may be that I am swimming in a more shallow depth of faith in you; if this is my weakness, O God, help me to be brave and swim into a deeper degree of faith and trust. You have promised, O God, that in the midst of my brokenness and failures, there are signs of wholeness, hope, and resurrection. Keep me when possible in the deeper degrees of spiritual faith in you, O Lord, so that outward definitions of success are less of a concern than having faith in your Divine love and leadership through life. Thank you, Father, for hearing our prayers…amen.