tapping the walls


    I love being married to a good preacher.

    Sunday, she knocked it out of the park – or at least knocked me around a little bit, prophetically speaking. My musings tonight owe much to what she had to say yesterday.

    I knew going in to church that her sermon was based on the Luke 5 passage where Jesus first gave fishing advice to the guys in the boat and then called them to drop what they were doing and follow him and “fish for people” instead. I don’t know the lectionary by heart, so I didn’t know the Old Testament reading was another favorite – Isaiah 6 – that begins with the sentence, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.” The verse intrigues me because of a sermon I heard many years ago (I cannot remember the preacher) that challenged me to see the sentence as more than a marker in time. Isaiah wasn’t describing a chronological coincidence; he was making a statement of cause: something about the death of the king opened his eyes. Though I hold no attachment to any dead royalty, something about the circumstances of my life right now brought me to the same sense of sight. These are days that rumble with the distant thunder of change.

    Ginger then invoked a third voice that made for a formidable trinity (small t, but powerful nonetheless): Annie Dillard, with this quote from The Writing Life:

    The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years; attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.

    From there, Ginger went on to paint the scene at the shore: Jesus calling out to the fruitless fishermen to drop their nets on the other side of the boat, they can hardly get to shore with their oversized catch, and then he says, “Leave your nets (yes, that would be the ones filled with fish), follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people.”

    Growing up Southern Baptist, I was taught this story was about evangelism, hook, line, and sinker. Jesus calls us all to catch people and reel them in. Fair enough. But Ginger took a step back from the whole fishing metaphor to look at what Jesus asked the disciples to do, which was, in Annie Dillard’s terms, knock out a load bearing wall. Fishing in Galilee was lousy work. I would imagine it was a career you were born into, rather than being a chosen profession. You went out everyday in your little boat (read that literally) and took your chances, unsure of the fish, the nasty little sea, and the storms. I suppose Jesus could have gotten them to follow quite easily had he asked when the nets were still empty at the end of a long night: “Your life sucks; come with me.” But he showed them what it felt like to come in with all the fish sticks Mrs. Paul could have wanted and then said, “Leave your nets and come on.”

    He called them to courage: come and see.

    I know my sense of God’s presence has been heightened by the courageous moves my friend Gordon has made over the past couple of weeks. He has heard Jesus’ call and he has answered. After twenty years, yesterday was his last day as pastor of his church. He resigned to see what God has next for him. He’s knocked down most every wall around him. I am proud of and challenged by my friend.

    Annie Dillard is actually talking about writing as she uses the metaphor of home deconstruction, the idea being that you can’t get too tied to any one sentence or paragraph. You have to be willing to lose them all and start over. Another writing book I read years ago suggested, when it came to rewriting and editing, to find the sentence you loved best in what you had written and discarding it to prove to yourself nothing you had written was sacrosanct. They’re right, unfortunately. Of course the other side of the page is being so self-critical that none of it feels worth keeping and you become paralyzed by even the smallest thing, unable to see beyond the minutiae that fill the page.

    When it comes to writing/telling/living our life stories, the metaphor works fairly well. We have certain things about our lives that we cannot imagine doing without, and some of them are things we shouldn’t discard. I have no intention, for instance, of spending my life any other way than married to the aforementioned great preacher. Beyond our defining covenants, though, we are called to be willing to leave our nets, to pull down the house, to do what it takes to go when God calls. In that year that King Uzziah died, the passage ends with Isaiah answering, “Here am I, Lord; send me.” We cannot let ourselves become so convinced that we are living our best life that we are not willing to see what else God might have for us. And we have to find a way to an “Uzziah moment” when the despairing details of life pull us to a place where we see only empty nets and long nights and have no ears for those calling from the shore.

    The other piece to Ginger’s sermon had to do with the four young African-American men who walked into the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina and sat down to be served at the all-white lunch counter, sparking a national sit-in movement. That happened fifty years ago this past week. The anniversary was marked by the opening of the International Civil Rights institute and Museum in the now renovated Woolworth’s building, and a group from our church drove up there after services yesterday. I had to work, but I did hear a piece on the radio that included interviews with a couple of the men. I was taken by this clip:

    “We were totally exhausted,” he said, spending time—as college students always have—discussing “society in general, specifically people we loved and admired.” They gave their parents a hard time “because of what we thought they had not done.” The young men couldn’t understand how they could live with segregation. “To us, that didn’t make sense. Why not do something about it?”

    Then they realized they were judging the wrong people. “Our parents didn’t do so badly; after all, look at us. All these months we had been talking and giving our parents hell,” he remembered. And with all the opportunity in the world, “I haven’t done one thing.” To walk away would be irresponsible.

    And the walls came tumbling down.

    If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m rehashing the sermon because I need to hear it again. I can hear the voice and I’m trying to figure out which wall needs to go, and praying for the courage to knock it out and the sense to duck.


    P. S. — There’s a new recipe.


    1. …and I too will quote this beloved preacher from Sunday’s sermon. (to the best of my recollection) “So we need to pray. Pray to let go and go beyond what we already know.” “We need to pray for courage to move that load bearing wall – even when it seems outlandish.”

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