COLUMN: Ed Olfert — Jan. 24, 2013

Ed Olfert
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In church last Sunday, the lesson was taken from Luke 5, a fishing story. The key line has Jesus saying to a rough lot of fishermen who have just loaded down their boats with nets bloated with fish, “from now on, you will catch people.” Or, in the more traditional and oft quoted translation, “I will make you fishers of men.”

It was my turn for conversation with the children during worship, so I asked the folks in the pews to create netting in front of their faces with laced fingers, with cheeks and noses oozing through.

The kids giggled and quickly agreed that looked pretty silly. Jesus must mean something different with his words, “I will make you fishers of men.”

A dozen or more years ago, I met “Frank.” Frank was reintegrating back into the community after a period of incarceration in Prince Albert, and I was part of a group that supported him. When things were reasonably stable for Frank, he left the city in search of more affordable accommodation and access to employment that suited him.

On rare occasions, our paths still cross, and we talk about directions and events in our lives. Frank tells fascinating stories. He does not have a faith allegiance, presents a bit of a rough and a “loner” persona. Because of how he is in the world, I catch important glimpses through his unique narrative that would otherwise be missed.

Frank told me recently about leaving Prince Albert those many years ago and moving to “Town A.” It was a progressive place, things were happening. “Town A” was well churched, a good number of worship options that were full of energy, I’m picturing church parking lots full of SUVs with chromed “Jesus fish” every Sunday morning.

And yet, Frank made this unsettling observation. “Your status in the community seemed to be connected to which church you attended. And if you didn’t attend any church, well, you couldn’t really find a way in.”

After some years, Frank moved on to “Town B.” Here, there were also several active churches, good energy, passionate folks, I assume more chromed fish. But “Town B” felt different from the start for Frank.

He commented, “Here, you could attend this church, or that church, or no church at all, or be a regular in the bar scene, and it didn’t really matter. You were made to feel welcome, you were made to feel appreciated.”

Let’s revisit the Jesus statement, “I will make you fishers of men.” Certainly that comes out of a less gender sensitive translation, but, that aside or adjusted, what are we to learn? How do you faithfully fish for folks?

Towns “A” and “B,” as experienced and described by Frank, had somewhat different spins on this fishing yarn. In Town “A,” a number of distinct nets were cast out. Choosing well, choosing correctly into which net you would clamber mattered somewhat. Choosing not to clamber at all made you irrelevant, invisible. The nets of Town “B” were of a different nature. They were nets of caring, of welcome, of affirmation. If I heard Frank’s story accurately, they were nets of non-judging acceptance.

Every faith community will go through times of hand wringing, budget tensions, times that invariably evolve into conversations about increasing attendance, increasing revenue. Church AGMs, typically around this time of year, become anxious. Strategies and budget are developed to fish for folks.

But if Frank’s experience has a challenge, it is to crank down our anxiety, crank down our need to “bring in” folks and resources, and to crank up our determination to do the opposite.

Go out. Go out into the community where you are, be that “A” or “B” or Prince Albert or globally, go out and offer welcome. Go where it’s not comfortable. Go where there’s risk. Ask new questions. Get familiar with squirming. Set down defensiveness. Make peace with rough words, because the most important stories are often framed in them. Stop it already with having quick answers.

There are absolutely no guarantees that our church woes will be addressed and solved, that our anxious questions will receive the results we’ve so coveted. Make peace with that. Maybe they were the wrong questions anyway. Maybe there are bigger questions.

Maybe Frank helps us discover them.

Organizations: Prince Albert

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