About every three weeks, I fantasize about starting a second career.
The details vary depending on mood and circumstance. Sometimes I go to seminary, receive my M.Div, and then go into the ministry. Sometimes (in the pre-COVID era) I open up a B&B or an artist’s retreat in a beloved spot in County Kerry, Ireland. Periodically I become an Oxford researcher, or become a full-time writer And in a few I am an itinerant artisan selling my wares.
In these imagined second careers, these alternate lives, I meet with God quite often and my relationship with Him is always profound and growing. I while away the days with my husband and my cats, who are all equally content. Absent the clamoring students and the thousand needs and stresses of my day job, I imagine myself with a surplus of attention and energy to devote to the Lord. I create freely and without struggle. I am fulfilled and satisfied, freed of the burden of everyone else’s demands. Ah, I often think, if only I could really live the life I’ve been called to, then…
But Jesus rarely calls us to such places, and during his tenure on earth was not called to such places Himself.
Jesus calls Peter and Andrew when they are in the middle of casting for fish; James and John are sitting in a boat with their father mending nets. Jesus first appears to these men who would later become the apostles in the most ordinary and likely trying circumstances of their daily lives.
Jesus met them in a moment that stank like fish.
Have you been near the water, near fisherman? In certain parts of Ireland my husband and I happened to be near the docks as the fishermen unloaded their catch and worked on their boats. The scent of fish and brine was overpowering, mingled with the smell of diesel and sweat. In a land of sea and stone and exquisite beauty it was impossible to escape the unmistakable scent of the working life.
Fishing is hardly an idle life. Fishing means sore shoulders, aching backs, long hours. When Jesus entered the disciples’ lives, the scent of fish and the callused fingers did not vanish. They remained. What makes the moment holy is that Christ appears—not that everything else disappears.
More than that, although it’s nice to think that Jesus ‘rescued’ the disciples from the terribly dull obligation of work and tedium—that Jesus took His followers on the Great Adventure so many of us seem to think we’ve been called to—the life they entered was not exactly secure. In Israel fishing at least provided a roof over your head and food in your belly, but the disciples became drifters following Christ, plucking heads of grain to eat, moving from town to town and away from any sort of stability or calm.
What God has for you is now. What God wants for you is right in front of you.
I have heard so many people wistfully plan life after the pandemic. Sometimes, I’ve been one of them. “Won’t it be nice,” people say, “when we can…[go shopping for leisure/go back to restaurants/attend sporting events/see a concert].” And it will be very nice if and when we get to do all of those things. But I am wary of the thinking that treats the pandemic, the now, as though it is simply a time to be passed before we get back to real life again.
This is real life. This is where God meets us. This is where the work is. This is the moment that stinks like fish. This is the moment of divine encounter. If we pass it by waiting for something more real, more holy, more something, we miss everything God has for us.
Thinking of this reminds me of a moment in Ireland that caught me off guard.
We’d chosen an unfortunate hotel for the second leg of our second stay in the country. It was an old building, amenities were not ideal, and we didn’t quite receive the room we expected. Spiders kept creeping in; the wifi and the television didn’t work; the bathroom had an odd smell and looked like it had last been used in 1972. While everything was at least clean, I mostly wanted to fall asleep as soon as we entered so I could forget this place ever existed.
But it was still early after a long day hiking and sightseeing, so my husband I opened up the fudge we’d purchased from a local candy shop and sat at a squeaky antique table facing our room’s lone window. The view, at least, was nice: from our room, when it was clear, we could see all the way to Inis Mor over the sea.
And something happened while we ate there, facing that big open window. Dusk arrived, and the sky caught fire over Inis Mor. We could smell the sea air. And in the distance, a lighthouse’s signal became visible. Beautiful. So beautiful we sat, rapt, and watched the sun set and watched the lighthouse long into the night, for several hours.
The hotel didn’t disappear during this period. It was there, and the bathroom was still bad, and there were still spiders, and nothing worked. But that place also became a place where God glorified Himself. The holy became apparent in the middle of the less-than-ideal.
Whatever this pandemic has wrought for you, don’t fall guilty to the thinking that God will you use you…someday, when all of this is over, or that your dreams about God and your life will come true…someday, when all of this is over, or that your ministry will really get going…someday, when all of this is over.
What God has given you is now. He will meet you in grit and drudgery of today just as he met the disciples in the salt and brine of the normal. He will find you in those ordinary, lacking spaces, and He will transform them.
The place you want to leave to get to the adventure is where the adventure actually begins.