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Interfaith Encounters Day 4

Our day began with outdoor gardening work at the aptly-named urban oasis, Girarden, so named because of its location on Girard Ave. in West Philly.

Muneerah and Sue, our two wonderful hosts, walked us through the work to be done–weeding, trash detail, prep for planting.

The group got a lot done and we enjoyed the beautiful sunshine!

After that, we traveled to Interfaith Philadelphia to meet up with Andrew, Communications Director and overseer of the Alternative Break program. Andrew shared a bit about Interfaith Philadelphia and some upcoming programs, including Civil Conversations.

Then, I led a workshop about pluralism with the students. They had such great insights and shared some of the obstacles to embracing active engagement in interfaith work. We reflected on Eboo Patel’s passion for pluralism in place of tolerance and what we can do to truly know our neighbors and to work with them side by side.

Soon after, we journeyed to the NW suburbs of Philadelphia to
Bharatiya, a multi-deity Hindu and Jain temple.

We were incredibly fortunate to be there for the Holi Festival.

Holi Festival

The festival of colors is vibrant and considered one of the major festivals in India. It is celebrated in the month of Phalgun on full moon day according to the Hindu calendar. It takes place at the start of spring. This festival also celebrates the eternal love of Radha and Krishna. Holi teaches humankind to transcend above caste and creed. It is a festival to forget old grievances and to meet others with great warmth. Celebrants light a bonfire on Holi eve and then the next day, people greet each other with Happy Holi and the colors fly!

We were fortunate enough to experience this all in one night! What fun it was! Such an amazing experience! So much community and celebration!

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Interfaith Encounters Day 3

Our third day began with service-learning at SHARE Food Program in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Share Food Program

The SHARE Food Program is a nonprofit organization serving a regional network of community organizations engaged in food distribution, education, and advocacy. SHARE promotes healthy living by providing affordable wholesome food to those willing to contribute through volunteerism.

SHARE relies on volunteers and donations to help pack boxes and organize the tons of food that arrive at their warehouse so they may distribute the food to the thousands of food pantries, shelters, and soup kitchens in the region.  Sadly, malnutrition and food insecurity are serious problems in Philadelphia.

The students from Messiah College joined a student group from Lincoln HS in Philly and a group from the University of Connecticut.

And…don’t underestimate the satisfaction that comes from using the box crushing machine…

Thanks, SHARE, for all you do! Thanks, Messiah students, for giving your time and energy!


Tuesday night ended with a wonderful experience at Won Buddhist Temple.

Won Buddhism is considered a reformed Buddhism in that it embraces the original Buddha’s teachings and make them relevant and suitable to contemporary society. It revitalizes and modernizes Buddhism, so that an ever increasing number of people can use Buddha’s teaching for practical and useful purposes.

The name Won Buddhism (Won-bul-kyo in Korean) is a compound word meaning the universal truth, enlightenment, and teaching. Won means unitary circle, which symbolizes the ultimate truth; Bul means enlighten to the Truth; and Kyo means to teach the Truth. Won Buddhism is a religion that teaches the ultimate Truth so that people can awaken to this Truth and carry it out in their daily life.

The members of the Won Buddhist community embrace and accept those of other faiths and have made a lot of effort in inter-religious dialogue.
Strikingly, Won Buddhist temples do not have a statue of the Buddha inside the prayer space. Instead, they have, at the center of the temple, the Il-Won-Sang, a circular symbol representing the origin of all beings in the universe, the truth that all buddhas and sages enlighten to, and the original nature of all living beings.

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Upon entering the temple, we participated in chanting for 5 minutes, seated and silent meditation for 25 minutes, and then walking meditation. A leader of the sangha then gave a dharma talk about fear and mindfulness and then there was a Q & A time.

Looking forward to Day 4!

Interfaith Encounters Day 2

On Monday, we journeyed to Bartram’s Garden in West Philly to work with City Harvest at Sankofa Community Farm.

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Our service-learning session was organized and led by Repair the World.

Repair the World
The PA Horticultural Society City Harvest program taps into the skills and energy of urban gardeners and entrepreneurial growers to make fresh, nutritious produce more widely available to neighbors in need.

The program is creating an infrastructure of agricultural supply and education centers, as well as expanding fresh food production, distribution, and consumption in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, thereby creating a healthier future for thousands of city residents.

First, Alex led us through a walk-thru of the outdoor space around us, asking us to listen to the sounds we heard and to experience the place.

He then connected gardening work and the natural world to expressions of faith traditions like Judaism and Christianity. He shared about this week marking the start of Purim for Jews, a time of costumes and the story of Esther and when many Jewish people reflect on the revelation of what is hidden–discovering new things that have always been there, even the discovery of the presence of Yahweh. Alex did a great job of also connecting the natural world and the experience of the seasons of winter and spring to the Christian season of Lent. He asked the students from Messiah to reflect on what Lent means to them. Then, we headed into the greenhouse to start prepping the seeds that City Harvest folks had planted in pots to germinate; now they had grown into small, green vegetable plants.

Great attitude and enthusiasm on the part of the students! Looking forward to a packed but amazing day 3!

Interfaith Encounters Day 1

This week I am facilitating an alternative break program with students from Messiah College students through Interfaith Philadelphia. During the week the students and I will visit five faith communities, participate in four service-learning projects, and learn about religious pluralism, interfaith cooperation, and identity.

On Sunday [day 1], we were fortunate enough to visit Philadelphia Sikh Society.

There are over 20 million Sikhs around the world today. Sikhism began over 500 years ago in the Punjab area of South Asia, which now includes the vast territories of Northern India and eastern Pakistan. Guru Nanak, born in 1469, founded the Sikh religion on the principles of love, understanding, and the rejection of blind rituals. Sikhism is about devotion to and remembrance of God at all times in life–behaving truthfully, embracing the equality of humankind, standing for social justice, and cooperating with people of all faiths.

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As with any religious tradition, a few paragraphs cannot adequately inform you. I encourage you to read on your own or visit a Gurdwara to learn more.

Upon entering the Gurdwara, we were warmly greeted by various leaders in the community. We put on head scarves, took off our shoes, and then washed our hands and wrists in the large basin just outside the prayer space. We sat with others in the prayer hall, listening to beautiful prayer songs in Punjabi.

Then, we were led into the kitchen space for the langar meal.

langar

Langar is a community meal that Sikhs offer to all people, free of charge.
It is an expression of equality, as all people sit together on the floor and enjoy the food as one communal experience.

After a great meal we headed over to their educational building for an overview of the history of Sikhism and the day to day life of a Sikh. Q&A followed. the Messiah College students had some great and curious questions, including how Sikhs are committed to non-violence and how their scriptures encourage non-violence.

Afterwards, we headed to the offices of Interfaith Philadelphia for the opening workshop. We had the chance to get to know each other a little better and to share why each of us decided to participate in this program. I was impressed with the students and their commitment to learning and interfaith cooperation. After that, we defined what “curious” questions are and what “judgmental” questions are. We thought about the various communities we will visit throughout the week and what types of questions we may have.

Day 2, here we come!

True Love is Golden

Luke 6:27-31      

Have you heard of the law of reciprocity?

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How about the golden ratio?

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In essence, the law of reciprocity is the social norm of responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. Reciprocity means that in response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative. Conversely, in response to hostile actions, a person is frequently just as hostile and in some cases, even more brutal in response.

This idea of Reciprocity is old. It’s possible that it is even part of our human DNA. Well, at least it’s something that human beings developed socially thousands of years ago. We do know that in the time of Hammurabi (c. 1792–1750 BC), the 6th king of the Babylonian Dynasty, there was the Hammurabi code, a collection of 282 laws and standards for citizens’ conduct. You’re probably familiar with the “eye for an eye” principle. That’s this code, specifically Law #196.

These laws of reciprocity showed up in the Torah and the ancient Israelite culture, and were the cornerstone of ancient Greece. In fact, you can look around the world and throughout history and find the rules of reciprocity. They seem to be a social norm for us as humans.

Now what about the golden ratio? In mathematics, two quantities are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. Expressed algebraically: using quantities a and b: a > b > 0.

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Yeah, I’m not great at math and especially not algebra. For some of you who are, I bet you get this right away. For me and for others, however, it may be helpful to consider the golden ratio in architecture, art, design, music, and nature. It’s helpful for me to see the spiral arrangements of snails or the patterns of the veins of leaves.

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The golden ratio.

And it is both of these concepts—the golden ratio and the law of reciprocity, that lead us to something we’re all familiar with.

The so-called golden rule.

The golden rule, is of course: do to others that which you would want them to do to you. Pure, positive reciprocity.

The silver rule is the same, yet in the negative sense: do not to others that which you would not want them to do to you.

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Pretty much every religious or faith tradition, as well as secular and humanist traditions, claim some form of the golden and/or silver rule. In fact, in interfaith work I have come across the golden rule countless times, as it is seen as the one universal concept that we can all agree on, in spite of many other competing truth claims. So on the surface the golden rule seems like a perfect ethic for all of humanity. Like the amazingly beautiful and mathematically perfect golden ratio, the golden rule may just be the one thing that can bind us all together.

Right?

Not exactly. Don’t get me wrong—when I am with people of differing traditions, conflicting opinions, and even very opposite beliefs than my own, the golden rule can be a comfortable place for us to find common ground. And of course I would like people to treat me as well as I treat them, especially if I treat them well, right?

But wait—the golden rule isn’t perfect, and that’s been proven throughout history and all over the world. Consider whether the golden rule works in situations of adversity and struggle, and especially in contexts of marginalization and totalitarianism. Sadly, we can see in our human history when people who were pushed to the margins were subjected to the golden rule while those in power were not.

We see this today. I for example, I would never tell my black or brown or other non-white friends, or my gay, lesbian, or transgender friends, who have been mistreated, to turn the other cheek when they are racially profiled. Anytime someone’s humanity is questioned, or their dignity taken away, how does the golden rule apply? If you were being oppressed, how would you react?

Obviously, I’m not advocating for revenge or violence or vitriolic reactions. But when hateful things are said and done to people, I have a hard time telling them to be passive and to just accept what’s been done.

No, I think we sometimes overlook that the golden rule is nuanced and has layers to it, according to the context. And it was no different for Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew raised by the law of Leviticus in the Torah: love your neighbor as you love yourself.

But love your neighbor seems different than just “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Love your neighbor? It feels different than  “don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you.”

Love. Your. Neighbor.

Of course, Jesus posed the “who is your neighbor” question with parables, and it never turned out the way people thought. Their neighbors, as it turned out, were not the ones closest to them, and were often even perceived enemies like the Samaritans or tax collectors. And so that’s what I mean when I say we sometimes overdo it with the golden rule, because we hear these words in Luke’s Gospel:

Love: your enemies, do good to those who hate, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you; if someone hits you in the face, let them do it again; if someone steals clothes from you, give them more.

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Really, if you take your time and look at these words, they are triggering, are they not? There is NO WAY that I’m telling people I know who have been bullied to love the bullies and let them stay bullies. There is NO CHANCE that I’m telling anyone who has suffered abuse of any kind to just pray for their abusers. If a friend is cursed by another, I’m not telling my friend to bless that person. If someone steals stuff, they should be rewarded? If someone smacks you in the face, you should just let it go and say: “Please sir, may I have another?” And really? We have to do good to those who hate us?

Wow, Jesus, what was in that glass of wine you drank?

But remember that with Jesus there is always something subversive and contextual. Yes, preachers and churches and politicians have used even the teachings of Jesus to propagate misogyny, prejudice, racism, war, hate, and their own agendas.

But when Jesus said to LOVE it was not a feeling, it was an action, and it always circled back [or spiraled] to the reciprocal triad of love: love God, love yourself, love others.

Those three always went together and interchanged. If you love the Creator, then it follows that you love all of creation—all living beings. And you love yourself, and you love the other humans you encounter because you all belong together.

In the case of an enemy, agape love isn’t about being a doormat or excusing terrible behavior. In fact, love of enemy can mean confrontation of evil and resistance. Cue Martin Luther King, Jr. who we often point to as a U.S. pioneer of non-violent protest and resistance to bring about major social change. This is what love of enemy looks like. Likewise, Jesus’ contextual view of hate was that some people hated and cursed others simply because of their nationality or ethnicity or their religion. Jesus was flipping over the tables of people’s prejudice and challenging their own biases.

And no, Jesus is NOT telling anyone who has been abused to just accept it. It’s the opposite. Take a look at the “turn the other cheek” thing. Context: the one striking you on your cheek would have been your master. Remember that slavery was alive and well in Jesus’ time. If a master wanted to discipline a servant, he would assert his authority by striking your right cheek with the back of his right hand. That was proper striking etiquette. Now picture this happening, and after you’re struck on the right cheek, you stand there and turn your head to show your left cheek. It would be impossible for the master to strike your left cheek with the back of his right hand. This becomes an act of resistance, as you break the so-called etiquette of acceptable violence and expose the master’s powerlessness.

Let’s get down to it. There is no perfect ethical code or moral law. This is what gets us into trouble and how we end up giving way too much power and authority to a small group of people. No, the power and universality is in the agape love-act itself. What binds us all together on this messed-up, chaotic, seemingly fragmented planet is agape love. It’s not a feeling, not some impossible dream or wishful thinking. Agape love can be resistance, solidarity, subversive, compassionate justice, prophetic, paradigm shifting, difference-embracing, counter-culture, and downright dangerous for the oppressors, the authoritarians, the haters, and the manipulators.

Love. Of the Creator and all creation. Love. For yourself as you are. Love for others.

These three great loves are one, and they truly are golden.

God’s Bias

Luke 6:17-26     

Recently I had the honor of attending the Unifying Our Communities in Response to Hate Conference at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

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This gathering brought together community stakeholders, government officials and law enforcement to discuss the “state of hate” and share ideas on how community members can respond to hate and bias. It featured: Rabbi Jeffery Myers from the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA; the Reverend Eric S.C Manning of Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC; Attorney General Josh Shapiro; and Pardeep Singh Kaleka & Arno Michaelis, authors of Gift of Our Wounds, from Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

I wish to focus on Pardeep and Arno, and their movement against hate.

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Some of you may remember Pardeep’s name. He is a member of the Sikh Gurdwara in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that was attacked on August 2012. Six people died at the hands of violence, the worst race-based attack in the U.S. since the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Pardeep lost his father in the attack. Since then, Mr. Singh Kaleka has been a voice for forgiveness and justice. 

In his own words:

I decided to respond to this tragedy with compassion. There is a saying in Sikhism, ‘Charhdi Kala’ which means ‘we move in relentless optimism’. Regardless of hardships in life, I’m optimistic about the future.

‘Charhdi Kala’ and compassion go hand in hand. Some people think of compassion as offering forgiveness and all is forgiven, but I think of it as a process, in other words I attach a purpose to what’s happening in life and appreciate the good things when they come.

On 5th August, there was a purpose to what happened. Someone came to our temple trying to divide us, saying that we didn’t belong and that we weren’t wanted in his country. With ‘Charhdi Kala’ the purpose of our response is to reach out, to include the other and say this will not happen again.

It was that attitude that led Pardeep to reach out to an extremely unlikely person: Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist who helped to start a gang back in the late 1980s that produced the August 5th Sikh Gurdwara shooter. Upon learning about Arno’s background and why he became a white supremacist, Pardeep was convinced that the two needed to work together. And so they have. The two co-authored the book The Gift of Our Wounds, sharing their stories and how such a hateful tragedy can lead to love, cooperation, and positive social change. Likewise, the two created the organization and movement Serve2Unite, a proven means of establishing a healthy sense of identity, purpose, and belonging that diverts young people from violent extremist ideologies, gun violence, school shootings, bullying, and substance abuse, along with other forms of self-harm.

How-to-join-a-community-of-young-peacema

The organization has helped thousands of students from over 30 schools who have experienced human kinship while addressing a host of social issues, including homelessness, veterans’ issues, human trafficking, police-community relations, gun violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, Holocaust remembrance, and genocide prevention.

I mention this powerful story of hate leading to learning, compassion, and justice, because hate crimes are on the rise and sadly, many Christians do very little about it. And in some cases, Christians are even complicit in the hateful acts.

So allow me to ask two questions:

Who are the poor in spirit?

How do we respond to hate?

​See, here’s the thing. Jesus of Nazareth, in Luke’s Gospel, was healing people. Who was he healing? Those on the margins. Those who were called unclean. Those who felt left out, targeted, forgotten, abused. And Jesus got flack for it. It wasn’t religiously kosher. It wasn’t religious enough. But why? Why did people, including Jesus’ own colleagues, criticize the healings? Because the system itself was unjust. Because priests and scribes and politicians and rich people benefited from the system. And they didn’t want to lose power.

So you can imagine that these words were inflammatory:

Blessed are those who are poor, hungry, sad, hated, excluded, defamed.

Woe to you who are rich, abundant, privileged, included, spoken well of.

Yes, wrap your minds around THAT.

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Mind blowing for most. For Jesus though, this was justice.

The Sikhs and Jews and Black Christians and Muslims who are constantly attacked and targeted—they are blessed. The ones who are not—the U.S. White Christians, for example–woe to you.

This is Justice.

So who are the poor?

They are anyone on the outside—marginalized, oppressed, without food and basic necessities, forced out of their homes, refused work, abused, forced to deny their true selves, denied basic human services and rights, mistreated because of their gender, shunned because of who they love, ostracized because of their skin tones, defamed for simply how they look or how they live their lives. They are the poor in spirit.

And when they are attacked by hate and fear and ignorance, God always favors them. This is God’s bias. Because God is on the side of those on the margins.

And so, the second question. How do we respond to hate?

Well, for someone like me who is NOT the poor in spirit, my response is different. I have not had such horrific things happen to me because of the color of my skin, my religious background, sexuality, or gender. I am privileged. And so, my response to hate must look different. It is not enough for privileged people like to me to just not be hateful or to not participate in say, white supremacy or racism. No—I must do more. I must respond to hateful words and acts with compassionate words and acts—for those on the margins. I must stand with them when they are targeted, I must help them to pick up the pieces to heal when they are attacked. I must join hands with them to say: NOT IN MY TOWN!

I am moved by what Pardeep shared:

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“We may not choose what happens to us, but we surely choose how we respond.”

Yes. We do choose how we respond. So how will we respond to hate? We cannot be paralyzed by it; we cannot be silent; we cannot be apathetic. We must, as Pardeep and Arno did, unite together to work for justice and peace and compassion. To paraphrase Arno from The Gift of Our Wounds:

Hurt people do indeed hurt people. When suffering is not treated with compassion, it spreads; when fear isn’t met with courage, it lies to us and disconnects us from our humanity; when ignorance is not countered with wisdom and understanding, it grows and solidifies.

Hate is only overcome with long-term kindness.

Casting into the Deep Water

Luke 5:1-11   

As human beings, do we remember that we are part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space? We often forget. Instead, we often experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of our consciousness. And this delusion can be a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. So said Albert Einstein, the Physicist & Nobel Laureate. And he also said that our task then is to “free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

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This is what I would call a paradigm shift—a movement away from what society conditions us to believe about ourselves.

See, most of us are socially conditioned to believe that the family we are born into is where we belong and it defines who we are. We also are conditioned to view others who look different as the other—not related to us. And, as we grow older, our personal desires [or individualistic impulses] can dominate our thinking and living. We also tend to show the greatest care and affection for those who are in our small social circles—particularly those circles in which people look similar and behave in a similar manner. We may wade in the waters of diversity and difference a bit, so to speak, or dip our toes in the water, but we won’t actually dive in to immerse ourselves in difference or diversity.

Not if we buy into the identity that society assigns us.  

And this is where we are today, is it not? We live in a world [and society] in which people are afraid of other types of people. People have a different skin color—someone else fears them. People live out their sexuality or their gender identity or expression differently—someone fears them. People practice different religions or no religion at all—someone fears them. Rather than seeing all of these human beings as part of this thing we call the universe, of which we are also a part—we end up being afraid of each other and seek isolation in our small, homogeneous social groups. And by doing that we are unable to empathize with other’s feelings and hopes and dreams and fears. We only see, hear, and feel our own. And eventually, we de-humanize those who are different.

And in the process we de-humanize ourselves.

That is why Einstein’s words are completely relevant today, about widening our circles, embracing all living beings, and the whole of nature and its beauty. In essence, we need to go much further than just testing the water of diversity, but we need to immerse ourselves in it.

We need to venture out into the deep water.

Now consider an interesting fact about water. If a body of water is shallow, it’s loud. Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean? Well, you know that closer to shore it’s tough to swim. The waves are crashing again and again, tossing you about. It’s fun, of course, to ride those waves, but not great for swimming. But have you even ventured out a bit further? If you have, then you know that the deeper you go the less you are tossed about. In fact, I have been in some oceans where the water was calm. I could swim easily. I didn’t feel the undertow. I glided across the water. It was quiet.

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There is a well-known phrase which I’m sure you’ll remember.

Still waters run deep.

It originated as a Latin proverb and lives on in English as an idiom.

Do you know it?

Still waters run deep.

Simply put, it means a mild exterior manner (“still waters”) may hide a more passionate or dangerous internal nature (“run deep”). For example, it can mean that someone who is quiet still contains great wisdom or a deep understanding, or that someone who seems so passive and shy is instead plotting world domination.

What you see on the surface doesn’t tell the whole story, in other words. 

Stay with the mental imagery of a body of water that sinks to great depth—it shows no flowing movements on the surface. You don’t see it moving, but it’s deep.

Let’s stay in the water and invite Jesus into our conversation. Luke’s Gospel tells a story about Jesus and the lake of Gennesaret. By this point in the story, a crowd was pressing in on Jesus. Luckily, he was able to get on a boat that was on the shore of the lake. He used the boat as his podium to teach the crowds, asking a man named Simon to push out a bit from the shore. Distance from the crowds. Jesus needed space. And after he taught them, he then engaged the local fishermen in conversation. He asked Simon to cast out his nets into the deep water.

Simon wasn’t convinced that this was a good idea. They had already worked all night long but hadn’t caught any fish. Notice he didn’t say that they had cast out into the deep water yet. He just said that they hadn’t caught anything. But eventually, Simon agreed to give it a try.

So he cast his nets out into the deep water.

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And they caught so many fish that their nets started to rip. They had to call the other boat to come out and help them haul the fish in. Even so, the two boats were so full of fish that they started to sink. The people were amazed.

See, I know that oftentimes this story is used as some kind of evangelical tool. Go out and catch people. Convert them—that’s what Jesus was telling us.

Well, I’m not sure. What I see here instead is Jesus using extremely symbolic water as an invitation to a big paradigm shift.

Because society conditions us to stay on our side of the lake, to stay in our lanes, to not reach across lines of difference.

Don’t venture out to the deep water. The self-fulfilling prophecy we are given is that we should limit ourselves before we even try. We usually ask: what can or can’t I accomplish” meaning that we’ve already accepted the boxes we’ve been given. The fisherman only saw themselves as fisherman. And so they went through their routines and caught nothing. They assumed that this was their lot in life. This is who they were. But the paradigm shift came and they were challenged to cast their nets into the deep water, into places unknown, and to discover a part of themselves that was there all along but was never fully embraced. Jesus was pushing them to stop asking limiting questions like “what can we accomplish or not accomplish” and instead to ask “What do I want to accomplish?”

They moved from “I can’t catch any fish after a whole night’s work” to “I really want to catch fish so what avenues have we yet to explore, can we go deeper?”

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