In the news we learned that Matthew Warren took his own life this past week. Matthew was son of megachurch pastor Rick Warren. Matthew Warren had struggled most of his life with mental illness and at age 27 he finally succumbed to it.
One of the big questions we face in life is what to do with our grief. We can run from it. We can hide from it, but sooner or later it will find us. What do we do when we’ve lost what’s most important to us? The stories of this Easter season ask that question.
For example, what does the family of Matthew Warren do now? In the short-term the natural thing—maybe the most necessary thing—is to withdraw from public view. We who experience great loss, with the shock and grief that are part of it, appreciate the care and prayer of others but often we just need some time alone.
This is a normal response and it’s part of the Easter story. Following Jesus’ death his disciples, you may recall, were holed up in a locked room. We’re told that they were behind closed doors because of fear. And yet, I suspect it wasn’t just fear that drove them to that private place. Having just lost their beloved teacher they retreat from public view, trying to make sense of the tragedy. They need time alone.
But to remain closed off from the world forever would be to make the tragedy a whole lot worse. Eventually those who have sought solace in the company of a few people need to return to the outside world.
In last week’s story we remember the good news that nothing, not even a locked door, could shut out God’s love. Jesus stood among his disciples, and said—three times—Peace be with you. But right after that he said, As the Father has sent me, so I send you. In other words, it’s good to spend some time by yourselves. But now, he said to his friends, it’s time to get back out among people because I have work for you to do.
After a big loss—usually sooner rather than later—we need to return to the world we know. We pick up our routine. Last year, for example, my aunt died. Afterwards my uncle–her husband of many decades–kept busy. For many years after retirement the two of them had traveled throughout the country. He and my aunt had booked some vacations before she died. Instead of canceling those arrangements my uncle asked his kids and others to join him.
That’s similar to what we find in today’s reading. Still nursing their grief, Jesus’ disciples have left the locked room. I’m going fishing, Peter says. And the others reply, “We’ll go with you.” This is Peter’s way of saying, “I’m going back to work.” He and his friends are moving back into a familiar routine. They have to work in order to eat. But we also know that one way of dealing with grief is to keep busy. So they gather their neglected nets and climb into the boat. It was evening.
Those of us who are fishermen know that sometimes the best time to catch fish is at night. That night, John tells us, they caught nothing.
But eventually a new day began to dawn. In the dim, early light they could see a figure on shore but couldn’t make out who it was. This person called out to them, “You haven’t caught any fish, have you?” Still overwhelmed by grief, their empty nets may have been a reminder of the emptiness they felt inside them.
“Cast your net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”
Here is the turning point in this story. Up to now Jesus’ friends have done everything by the book. After the shock of his death, they withdraw from public view. Eventually, they venture back outside and even return to their routine. But the routine by itself isn’t enough. A routine can help with the healing process but by itself it doesn’t have…saving power.
So there they are in the boat. A stranger calls out to them from shore and says, “Cast your nets on the other side.” Well, they’ve tried everything they know and still haven’t caught anything. To the stranger they could have said, “We’ve already tried everything.”
It seems so simple, doesn’t it? What difference could it make if the nets are on one side rather than the other side of the boat? And yet, when they do cast their nets on the other side they can hardly drag to shore all the fish they’ve caught. All because they were willing to try something outside their routine. Human nature drives us to choose what’s familiar, what we think we know. The only time we’re likely to try the opposite of what we know is if our nets are empty and there seems to be no other choice.
Matthew Warren, the young man who took his life this past week, thought he was out of options. He thought he had only one choice. But we always have options. Sometimes it’s the very opposite of what we think is the right thing to do.
Jesus’ disciples, for example, had caught no fish so they had nothing to lose by trying the opposite of what they’d been doing. Imagine how it could have been different. What if they’d caught a few fish before seeing Jesus? How might they have responded to that stranger on the beach? Cast the nets to the other side of the boat? “Nah. Why bother? We have enough. We can take care of ourselves. We’ve always done it this way before.” They would’ve settled for a little but missed out on the miracle. Although it’s a risky place to be, sometimes it’s easier to hear and obey God’s voice when our nets are empty, when we have nothing.
Which makes today’s story from the Book of Acts all the more amazing. The man known as Saul had everything: wealth, power—there was no reason for him to cast his nets to the other side of the boat, no reason for him to change his routine, no reason for Saul to change anything. And yet, for all his comfort, wealth and power—for all his conviction of what he believed to be right–Saul remained angry, anxious, outraged, joyless.
Only when he was knocked to the ground, only when his world was turned upside down was Saul able to hear and obey the voice of the God he thought he’d known but who in reality had been a stranger to him. Something happened to Saul that we still remember today. It was only when the world he knew completely fell apart that something like “scales fell from his eyes.” It was if Saul was fishing on one side of the boat and all of a sudden started fishing on the other side.
We’re left to ask: When we experience some great loss–when the familiar world we know falls apart–what will we settle for—empty nets, or, abundance? Despair, or, transformation?
If we pin our hopes on the familiar world we know, we skate on very thin ice. Because, what happens if all that disappears? Jesus comes to us, as he came to his disciples, and offers something rock-solid, something that doesn’t depend on circumstances. Peace be with you, he said to his disciples in that locked room—not once, but three times. Do you love me? he asked Peter, not once but three times. Even when we’ve lost what’s most important to us—especially then, God desires for us an abundance of peace, joy & love. It may mean fishing…on the opposite side of the boat.