When all else fails (part 1)

Writers know the frustration of coming up empty.

It takes months, sometimes years, to write a book (I recently read a fascinating 800-page behemoth that took the author over 30 years to complete). It can even take hours to write a blog post. Not always, of course. There are those blessed times when the words and ideas flow, and I can write three or four posts in an afternoon.

But just ask my wife, who’s seen me at the computer for hours, days, or weeks on end. When writing a book, if I get out a page and a half that I’m reasonably satisfied with, I consider that a good day. Two to three pages? That’s worth a little self-indulgent celebration — though that’s not to say that those few triumphant pages will actually make it into the final manuscript. Oh, well.

Realistically, though, most days I spend more time staring at the screen than typing, trying to get my thoughts in order. It’s not that I doubt myself as a writer. But it can be arduous and frustrating to have almost nothing to show for a day’s work.

It’s like being a fisherman with an empty net.

The story in John 21 of the disciples’ miraculous catch of fish is reminiscent of a scene in Luke, in which Jesus invites the fishermen Peter, James, and John to a ministry of “catching people” instead (5:10, NRSV). There’s no similar precedent in John’s gospel; we are not even told that the disciples were fishermen (though most of his readers surely knew). But the story resonates in other ways with what comes before. Here is another post-resurrection appearance in which Jesus’ followers fail at first to recognize him. Here too is Jesus providing bread and fish to his followers, providing for their needs.

Chapter 20 left off with Jesus’ second appearance in Jerusalem to the gathered disciples, at which an astonished Thomas had blurted out, “My Lord and my God!” (vs. 28). Sometime later, they were home again in Galilee (where in Matthew and Mark they had been told they would see Jesus again; see Matt 28:8-10 and Mark 16:7).

One might imagine their restless state of mind. They had seen and rejoiced over the risen Jesus; he had told them he was sending them out as witnesses. But then what? It may have been several days since that last electrifying encounter. Where was Jesus? What were they supposed to do next?

N. T. Wright imagines that they may also have been under a bit of social pressure. Okay, guys, you’ve had your fun. You’ve had your adventure with Jesus. Now it’s time to come back to the real world. You have families to provide for, remember? Don’t just sit there; get back to work.

So Peter, not surprisingly, took the initiative. “I’m going fishing,” he announced. Lacking anything better to do, the other disciples who were with him — James, John, Thomas, Nathanael, and two others — answered, “Yeah, fine. We’ll go with you” (John 21:1-3). At least that would feel familiar, a comfortably constructive use of time.

They put out onto the Sea of Galilee and fished all night.

And in the morning, they had exactly nothing. Not even the tiniest of tilapia.

You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve reached the limit of what you know to do, and your net is still empty.

Sometimes, the question isn’t what new thing you can do to make something happen. The question, as we’ll see in the next post, is whether you’ll know it when Jesus shows up.