I crouched on a short wooden pier by the boat launch. Something shiny had caught my eye, something moving in the murky, shallow water.
It was a fish. More accurately, the corpse of a fish. Dead, about 10 inches long, laying sideways on the surface of the water – but twirling and jerking in a very un-dead way. I peered down into the water, curious as to what was causing this commotion. As my eyes adjusted, I recognized the tiny bodies of smaller fish, repeatedly attacking the silvery carcass. There were maybe 20 of them, poking and prodding and thrashing in a frenzy.
It was an odd scene, and yet it was completely normal. This is the way of the world, is it not? There is life, and there is death, and we return from whence we came. The circle of life. A dead fish is no big deal in the grand scheme of things, and the fact that its remains became food for those still alive isn’t unusual. It’s nature.
But I was captivated by this scene; it stirred something in me, and I felt disturbed. Unmoored. And, as has become my custom these days, I took a moment to sit with that feeling. The dock swayed gently as I watched the frenetic nibbling in the water; within moments, I realized why I was so drawn to the scene.
The frenzy felt personal.
Not that I am a dead fish; not that I’m being attacked. But the non-stop, agitated spasms, the tiny bodies hurling themselves around the carcass poking and nibbling, and the way that incessant biting set the dead fish twirling and spinning through the water – there was some bizarre resonance in that moment.
Let me pause to say: These days, I am walking out my spiritual life in ways unique to this moment in time. There is much happening in the space called ‘Christian’ that confounds me, disturbs me, unsettles me. I feel slightly unmoored from some of the safe assumptions that have surrounded my place in this tribe. It’s disruptive, and for somebody who has lived in a place of privilege in a country founded on principles of freedom and justice all my life, it’s challenging. In a way I’ve never experienced before, my heart and soul and my mind are confounded by the boundaries of what has, thus far, felt like a safe place of agreement and alignment.
God is love.
Love God, love people; these are the two greatest commandments.
Humility, as modeled by Jesus, is virtue.
I recognize that there have always been culture shifts and power struggles, and often the Church has been right in the middle of it (not always by choice). There’s a long history, for sure; but the cumulative effect of what we’re experiencing here and now, in this current generation, has been disorienting. Christian faith co-opted for political gain and triumph feels wrong to me, and, lately, it feels like a truck careening downhill without any brakes. It just doesn’t sit well with my soul, in the still, small places where I’m trying to follow Jesus, trying to be an apprentice to his life and his way of being. He said, The kingdom of God is at hand; we are called to a gospel of peace. We are called to love one another, to lay down our lives for each other, and so much of what I’m seeing feels like it is moving in direct opposition to what my soul senses to be true, what the Spirit of God seems to be whispering over and over again.
So – back to the fish, and the confession: What struck me was the imagery of a body tossed and turned at the mercy of the crowd, darting in and out to feed on the remains. And call me crazy, but these days I am living my life open to metaphor, open to the natural world, fists unclenched, ready to receive wisdom from the Creator whenever it comes. Seek and you shall find. And Job’s statement: “…Ask the animals what they think—let them teach you; let the birds tell you what’s going on. Put your ear to the earth – learn the basics. Listen—the fish in the ocean will tell you their stories…”
And so came to me, in that moment of unsettled disturbance:
My soul cannot bear the incessant nibbling of the crowd.
And lest I sound like a victim, let me say this, which is the point.
I fling open the gates to that crowd every day.
To be perfectly clear; it was one of those aha, lightbulb moments, when I sense God speaking in my soul – the kind of gentle common sense that my ears have come to recognize, with one final moment of awareness:
Beth, this is what you are doing to yourself. Every day.
Indeed, I am. And the result is an unbalanced soul, a sense of spinning and twirling through what once felt like safe territory.
Allow me what might be a little too much vulnerability here; one would think this wouldn’t be a problem. I assume that many of you reading these words are better than me, and have conquered this insidious temptation to dwell upon social media and news feeds. Yet here I am, a supposed “spiritual leader”, confessing my struggle. It seems the more pressure I feel when the world is on fire around me, the more I look for answers in words. The Jesus Juke is obvious: Of course the Word of the Lord will supply your answers! But, honestly? That’s not where I always look. I love to read and I love to learn, and I’m looking to see what everybody else is saying in the hallways and classrooms of the internet. And I recognize the problem: I’m allowing cheap substitutes for knowledge to captivate my time and attention, and impact my emotions.
(I do take some solace in the fact that it’s not new. Centuries ago, Paul wrote about the struggle of “…this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but [find myself] pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.” So it’s not just me…but it is me right now…)
It’s the news. It’s the hot takes and opinions. It’s the podcasts. It’s the blog posts and twitter sound bites and the unholy, incessant, self-indulgent proclamations of thousands of voices on social media feeds, seeking to make sense of what we fear and what we don’t understand. Everybody’s just got to have an opinion, and everybody’s just got to make it known.
And I’ve allowed those gates to swing wide, until I’m like the carcass of that dead fish, being poked and prodded and turned a thousand directions, trying to process it all.
But here’s the truth: It’s impossible to process it all, and it’s incredibly difficult to hold on to the mast in the midst of a storm of buffering winds. The end result is despair, a state of being in which I’ve lately found myself far too often.
Back to the fish; watching that scene in the water brought a bit of clarity.
Number one: Unlike the dead fish, I have a choice. I can literally close the door, batten the hatches, stop listening, put down the phone.
Number two: My righteousness (or lack thereof) will not determined by an alignment with any particular perspective. I don’t have to have an opinion, nor do I have to choose a side. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.
(On that note: There are many who claim certitude of faith as a definitive accomplishment; the ‘word of God; is perfectly clear, the truth to be obvious and absolute. The issues we face in our culture – from racism to liberal drift to voting rights to poverty to abortion to lying politicians to Christian nationalism to gender to sexuality – present the opportunity to pick a side and “put on righteousness” like a badge of honor – to be right, as opposed to wrong. Right, as opposed to left. Right, as opposed to whatever or whoever is on the ‘other side.’ I’m going out on a limb here, but I gotta say: For the most part, there’s no one devil, no singular demon, no simple bad guy out there who can be framed as the guilty party, although many would prefer it to be so. It’s so much easier to frame everything in a binary right/wrong, good/bad, us/them context. I get it; I lived with a very conservative, fundamental worldview for a good while, so I understand the appeal. Those sorts of strict, easy to understand boundaries were exactly what I needed in that season of my life; it felt very safe. But I’m not sure it was true.)
(This is not to say that I don’t believe there are definitive truths; only that everything is much more nuanced than we’d like to admit when we are focused on simply being on the right side of an issue…because people are complicated. People are messy, and prone to wander, and in need of grace – from God, and from one another.)
It would be so much easier to live in such a binary world. But time and again, I see Jesus Christ – the one I follow, the one whose name I bear because I seek to emulate his life – I see Jesus living in the mess. Leading with kindness. Allowing humility to dictate his choices; listening well, seeing people, understanding the complicated way of being that comes with our humanity. Sitting in silence, choosing solitude – but fully present when the moment called for it.
Jesus was expansive, unthreatened, comfortable with paradox. The biggest moment of his life encompassed a refusal to claim privilege and power, but a walk, instead, to his own execution. He chose humility and a life fully present with the people he encountered. He taught with grace and love. That is the way I want to live. I want to lead with compassion for the unbearable challenges that come with simply being human.
But too often, in my angst, I place myself in the shallow water and invite the mob in, allowing unfettered and open access to my brain and my heart. It’s simple scrolling and reading, but the content is too often hollow and harmful. I invite anonymous voices to shape my heart and mind, and the end result is despair. Hordes of faceless voices nibbling at me have captured too much of my attention, as I seek to find my way in a changing world.
This is not the way I want to spend my days.
Is this too honest, particularly for one whose vocation is that of ‘pastor’ – a role that implies wisdom and spiritual leadership? Perhaps, for some. But, again: I seek to follow Jesus, who modeled vulnerability and humility, and I believe, with all my heart, that he calls me to do the same. And truth be told, the older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know. With every passing year comes the invitation to relinquish more – more certainly, more accomplishments, more knowledge – and to embrace uncertainty. I have become increasingly comfortable with the Mystery of God, even as it goes against the grain of the aspirational American success story. I think of John, who said of Jesus, He must increase – I must decrease. I think of Paul, who declared, Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life…everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant… I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness. (Philippians 3)
So here is the final point of clarity from a dead fish:
Number three: I am called to love God and love people; that is Christ’s command. Here is a clear definition of what that should look like, in clearly understood terms:
This is how I want to live my days. It involves humility, and a quietness that doesn’t fit easily on any social media site. It requires intention and the fortitude to resist. And I know, deep in my soul, that this is the way of Jesus; and, in that there is supernatural power in his presence, I can continue to be transformed to living this way – every day.