October 21, 2020

A Long Way from the Lake

The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew, Tissot

The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew, Tissot

As Jesus walked along the shore of Lake Galilee, he saw two brothers who were fishermen, Simon (called Peter) and his brother Andrew, catching fish in the lake with a net. Jesus said to them, “Come with me, and I will teach you to catch people.” At once they left their nets and went with him.

He went on and saw two other brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They were in their boat with their father Zebedee, getting their nets ready. Jesus called them, and at once they left the boat and their father, and went with him.

– Matthew 4:18-22, GNT

* * *

I like James Tissot’s painting of this Bible story. Though I think the artist overdid it when it comes to Jesus and his clothing, I find his depictions of young Peter and Andrew delightful.

Tissot made visits to the Holy Land in the 1880’s and saw then that fishermen used their nets in the shallows next to the shoreline to catch fish. Believing that the same method would have enabled Peter and Andrew to hear Jesus calling them from the nearby land, he portrayed them in similar position. He also observed that the fishermen wore nets around their waists in which to put the fish they caught so they could carry them easily, and so he included that in his depiction as well.

What I like most about this painting is the way James Tissot has captured the realistic physiques and body language of the two young disciples. You can see their boyish vigor as well as a bit of their eagerness and awkwardness, and you get a sense of their youthful curiosity about the Stranger calling to them — the One who is on the verge of changing their vocation and setting them on a new course for the rest of their lives.

And now I feel old.

I well remember the season when I splashed to shore as a young man, casting my nets aside for Jesus. At that time (believe it or not) I was trim and fit. I was also eager and awkward, ready without question to try anything, to walk any road. With lots of zeal and a little bit of knowledge, Jesus and a lot of gracious people gave me a chance. They didn’t laugh at my youthful appearance, they put up with my childish mistakes, and they were somehow willing to affirm my vocation as a minister. With feet still wet from the lake and a lot of wet behind the ears, I tromped into the church and into their living rooms and we talked about Jesus.

It all felt just as simple as that.

That was over 35 years ago. There are many days now when I wonder if this “follow me” business is strictly a young person’s game. Whatever eagerness I had then too often feels like “been there, done that” now. The awkwardness I currently exhibit is not that of a young athlete coming into his game, but of a man who increasingly looks for the railing to hold on to when descending the stairs. I’ve got shoes on now and they are dry and comfortable, and I tend to be cautious about someone — anyone — trying to change my life out of the blue.

I’ve been thinking these thoughts lately in a kind of mid-life fog. The kids are grown and out of the house. They have climbed up out of the water and are starting to walk their own paths. A lot of our friends have moved on to other things in other places. Our daily work goes on, and though the work is satisfying and meaningful, I can’t help but feeling there must be more out there for me, for us. Perhaps my recent efforts toward being ordained in a different church tradition will make clear a new path, but for now I wait.

This is turning into an unexpectedly difficult transition. I am finding the reinvention of one’s self that accompanies mid-life much more challenging than I ever thought it would be. It used to be pretty clear to me who I was. I was one of those young men in James Tissot’s painting. I heard the call. I looked up. Eagerly, awkwardly, I splashed to shore and went on an amazing journey.

But we’re a long way from the lake now.

I keep waiting for Jesus to pass by this dry and weary place.


  1. Travis Sibley, aka BigLove says

    Thanks for sharing, Mike. It isn’t just you and it isn’t just those of us in the faith.

    This is a stage in life when we have more time to reflect, a time when a lot of the “doing and going” is already done and gone. Divorce peaks during this time as do so many of the other issues people have at this stage.

    Our roles and perceptions change but life rolls on. I think that a bit of restlessness is to be expected and can be a great chance for us to focus if we can get through the haze.

    Hang in there!

  2. CM,
    Perhaps there is a sense that the Jesus you heeded and followed in your awkward, eager youth was equal parts real and illusion. Perhaps the brothers on the shore also were following Jesus from a perception equally real and illusory. This Jesus was relatively easy to see, or so it seemed, and hear, or so it seemed, and understand, or….

    But then came all the changes and the trauma, and the Jesus who is real, the one who taught and prayed and made his way irreversibly to that cross, revealed himself as one unspeakably elusive, impossible to pin down, hard to see and, when seen, hard to recognize. Most of all he became hard to follow, because he was there and not there at the same time, which is the way he had always been, but now that truth about him had become visceral and inescapable.

    At the end of the gospel of John, Jesus calls them again, from the shore in the darkness of early morning, after they have returned to their fishing boats, trying to resume normal life, to go back to the old routines and occupations. He is the one they know, the one who has changed them, but he is also the stranger they have never known and who will not be known except in the following along a path that plunges them ahead into a darkness and unknowing that is also light and peace.

    On the shore by the fire he has made, in its warm illumination, he sends them yet again, into the darkness of a world that will, according to legend, martyr almost all of them. In that dark world they will follow him in darkness by the dark knowledge of faith, and know him more certainly in darkness than they ever knew him in the daylight years of his earthly ministry, because he will live within them and make them into living icons of himself.

    He will call you again, too, he already has. Your life may not be filled with the same kind of drama and trauma as the apostles, but the same pattern of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation must recur again and again either at the surface or in the invisible depths of every believers life. To draw us more closely to himself, he must divest us of the illusions we have about him, even the illusions that have grown as we thought to follow him. And as we are drawn closer to him, we will be drawn into that darkness ahead, where he is both known and unknown, both a familiar friend and a stranger, both absent and present.

    This is what it is to lose our lives and be restored. This is what the mystics tell us he is like, and though we may not be mystics, the patterns of our more quotidian lives will reveal the same mysterious character, the same shaping of Jesus, to us as to them, if we are paying attention.

    Fare forward fellow traveler and brother; the mystery is ever ahead. The Lord is ever calling from the very depths and darkness of our lives.

    • Good words, Robert. Thanks.

    • So helpful, your insights. In transitions and growth – we call it becoming mature – there are seasons of upheaval and uncertainty which we often don’t want to address or even look at within. “There be dragons!” But looking into the darkness with Jesus, pushing ahead faithfully into each day’s challenges, we discover ourselves and come to peace. Great post and reply.

    • Thank you CM and Robert F. for your words, I too find myself in this very same place. It’s good too know one is not alone.

    • Robert F.
      This is quite beautiful. Alot to think about. Thanks.
      (and never pass up an opportunity to use quotidian in a sentence)

      • flatrocker…I don’t think I have ever written or said the word “quotidian.” It is a good word, though.

        • flatrocker says

          Ah yes, leave it to the imonk community to ever expand our elocutionary elucidations.

          • Oscar,
            None of the words are my own, although I did arrange them in sentences and paragraphs of my own design.

      • I learned to think the word “quotidian” a few years ago from repeatedly and obsessively reading David Bentley Hart’s essay “Christ and Nothing,” in which Hart, who is an even better, though sometimes show-off-y, literary stylist than theologian, deploys the word with such natural aplomb that it sunk deep into my inner lexicon. This is the first time it has presented itself for my use while I was writing. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the temerity to speak the word in public, unlike Hart from whose lips I’m sure such gem-like words naturally fall.

        I think it’s a very good word, when used judiciously and sparingly.

        • David Cornwell says

          I’ll be getting Hart’s book “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies” in a few days. That is if the mail can get to my house. Right now pretty much snowed in.

    • Robert, if these are, indeed, your own words then you rate a chance at making an iMonk post once in a while. Very eloquent and poignant.

  3. Yes.

  4. Mule Chewing Briars says

    The part of you that Jesus calls doesn’t age.


  5. “With lots of zeal and a little bit of knowledge, Jesus and a lot of gracious people gave me a chance. They didn’t laugh at my youthful appearance, they put up with my childish mistakes, and they were somehow willing to affirm my vocation as a minister.”

    This. Pass this on to the next generation. We need it.

  6. CM sez, “I think the artist overdid it when it comes to Jesus and his clothing.” Yeah, if you call a tradesman to give you an estimate on building a deck and he shows up dressed in a bedsheet, you might want to give it some extra thought. And if you are out fishing and that same guy in a bedsheet shows up shouting, “Follow me!”, some folks would be calling 911. I bet in the reality it was blue collar workers recognizing each other just like today if a carpenter and a commercial fisherman are standing next to each other in line at Walmart.

    I’m thinking, CM, that you today are being called out of the lake you were in by Blue Collar Jesus to follow him into this next field of learning, both vocationally and agewise. I’m moving literally 130 miles further north after 25 years here, and moving into old age at the same time as I hit 75. The geographical move I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, the life age lesson, not so much. All the best to you!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I think the artist was just continuing a Medieval artistic convention where Jesus is given a unique appearance to make it easy to see who’s who. Doesn’t mesh well with the realistic (and researched) appearance and wardrobe of the other figures in the pic.

  7. For me, getting older is allowing me to look back and see what needs to be jettisoned from my younger days and what should be kept. There’s so much I was taught about following Jesus that just was not true and was more culturally based than biblically based. I’m not as gung-ho or outwardly passionate, but it’s deeper and I believe truer. I’m also realizing mow far I still have to go.

  8. I woke up this morning thinking about the the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son. There is a way in which we must all settle precisely into that role, but to do it well and better than the brother in the story. Our Father loves us always and everything that He has is ours so there is no need to slay the fatted calf on a daily basis. There is a certain ‘comfort level’ if you will. There is a knowing and an acceptance of course and routine without fanfare. The doing it well part means holding onto our first love at the same time. It’s both and, not one or the other. Much like a warm and lengthy marriage.

    • P.s.
      He finds a level with us. It’s not just us finding a level with Him. That is to say, silence is where the deepness swirls and we sometimes have to stop asking for conversation. It’s a pain of age.

  9. Charles, sometimes I wonder if the people who knew Jesus ever drew a drawing of what he looked like, perhaps for someone who had never met Jesus and wondered what he looked like. If you figure a generation is 30 years, then only 67 generations have gone by since Jesus walked the earth as the person born of Mary. That’s 67 times for a drawing or painting to be passed down from one person to the next. Hey, it could be that somewhere on the earth the drawing exists. (Not that it really matters, Jesus living on within us now. But still…)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Good thing there IS no physical description of Jesus in the Gospels. If there was, we might have a Godly hairstyle, a Godly beard style, and a Godly color and manner of dress, anything else being Satanic and/or Sin.

      For instance, Medieval Russia elevated men wearing beards into an Eleventh Commandment, from the idea that God has a beard and shaving your beard off was Rejecting God’s Image. Islam did something similar because Mohammed wore a beard (as was customary for Arabs of his time). I heard once that Extreme Islamic types could get so strict they even had a single Islamic sleeping position — on your right side supporting your head with your right hand — because Mohammed was once described as sleeping in this position.

  10. I greatly appreciate your insight and authenticity. Richard Rohr’s, Falling Upward, has been extremely helpful as i continue to navigate this passage.

  11. Your words and the artwork…good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Chaplain Mike,

    You are older now and full of wisdom and experience… both of which I appreciate more than energy and know-it-allness. I hope in your tradition that your not expected to champion all the ministries and causes. Yours is the liturgy, yours is the flock and the wisdom you express here at IMonk will lead them. If they’re looking for the next best sermon or rock your world presentation, then pray for thei rability to grow past the glitz. You have been with many people in their hours of greatest need from a soul perspective, you are their leader and preparer to the new life… you got the credentials!

  13. CM, thank you for this -meditation? I do agree about the portrayal of the figures. I also agree with Radagast.

    If you can stand another book recommendation, may I put forth “The Life of Moses” by St Gregory of Nyssa? It’s not very long, and what you wrote made me think of it.


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