John 21:3-5: “Simon Peter told them, ‘I’m going fishing.’ They said, ‘We’ll go with you.’ They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus. Jesus called to them, ‘Children, have you caught anything to eat?’ They answered him, ‘No.’”
Lately I’ve become rather fascinated by Peter. Of all the disciples he’s probably the most well-developed as far as characters go. We know a bit about his background and his family. We see him throughout the Gospels and Acts in situations where he shines and in other situations where he is a bit of a mess. He seems to be the most fleshed out, the most nuanced, and therefore the most human.
This story in John, the one quoted above, has captured my imagination. In John’s account, Jesus has been killed, the disciples locked themselves in a room for a while to hide out and then Jesus appears in the room with them. He breathes on them and gives them his Spirit and then disappears. Then he comes back again (because Thomas was missing the first time). The text says Jesus did many other miracles in the presence of the disciples.
And then they went fishing. Just…what? You’ve walked with Jesus for three years, you’ve seen the amazing things he could do and, when you acted like him the amazing things you could do. You’ve seen people kill him and them you’ve seen him alive after death. He’s given you the Holy Spirit and entrusted the mission to you and you decide that the best way to respond to all of this is to go back to the job you had before Jesus came into your life? Dude. Seriously? What are you thinking?
I had the idea that I was called to some kind of ministry starting around Junior High. For a while I thought that I was going to be a famous Contemporary Christian singer/songwriter (please stop laughing). As the strength of my call developed so did the voices around me reminding me that the limitations for people who were assumed to be women (as I was at that time) were vast. I could be a pastor’s wife maybe, or an assistant. I could teach Sunday school for children or maybe even be a children’s ministry director. But if I wasn’t called to any of those things I was mostly out of luck.
I went to a small, conservative Christian college that had a new youth ministry major and I decided to enroll in that program. I can’t really explain it, other than to say I felt called. I sat through four years of classes with professors telling us that women could not be youth pastors. And still, my calling grew. I found a United Methodist church that wanted me to be an intern. A church where, for the first time, I was encouraged in my calling. Then I found an American Baptist church near where I had grown up that was willing to take a chance on a fresh out of college youth pastor. I graduated with my youth ministry degree, packed up, and two weeks later started a full time job as a youth pastor. But here’s the tricky piece, shortly after I took the job (a job that they held for me for 6 months while I finished college), I realized that all of my years of praying that God would cure me of my queerness was turning out to be a failure. So I made a decision; I was going to stay closeted and stay celibate for as long as I worked at the church.
Three years later my plan was derailed when I met someone who I would eventually fall in love with. I didn’t know what to do. Here was this person that I was wild about, but I didn’t feel like I was ready to be out. I was still working at the church and I was still living at my mom’s house in an attic apartment. I had no savings and I had no idea that it was possible to be an out, queer, clergy person. (Especially not as someone who primarily worked with youth.) I felt trapped. So I went against my ideals and started living a double life. I was falling for this woman and keeping my day job. I hated it. I lived in constant fear that I would be found out and that it would ruin my ministry. I became resentful and angry. And exhausted and stressed.
In the midst of all of this the church was looking for a new minister. We had had an interim for at least a year at this point and people were getting anxious. They brought in their candidate and immediately I knew he was going to be trouble. He was a Southern Baptist trained minister and I could tell after only a brief meeting with him that he had a deep homophobic streak. I decided that if he was hired, then no matter what, I was resigning. Two weeks later a vote was rushed through with no time for discussion and he was brought in as the new minister. The next week I turned in my resignation but said that I would stay through the summer to help find someone else.
My double life was exhausting but I felt like I had no choice. Now that I was close to leaving the church, coming out seemed like more trouble than it was worth. But as I continued to fall in love, it was harder to balance what felt like competing interests.
And then I was outed by my myspace page. I had put a picture up online of my girlfriend and I kissing. This was before Facebook was even a thing, before I knew much of anything about privacy settings. I didn’t think any of the youth would search for me. I didn’t think at all. I was alerted by someone in the congregation (who was incredibly supportive and knew that I was queer) that this youth had found the page. I immediately went home and deleted the whole thing, but the youth had printed the whole thing out. Pictures and posts. And she gave it to the homophobic minister.
I got a call from someone that the minister wanted to see me. I immediately said that I wanted the pastoral relations council to be present (this was the committee tasked to moderate in these situations), but they said this was just a casual meeting. It was two weeks from my final Sunday. I was supposed to preach that last day. They called me into the office and I could see the printouts on his desk. I felt so small, so violated. There was basically a lecture that followed. I should be more careful. This could make people think I’m preying on kids. And the final blow: We don’t want you to preach your last Sunday because we don’t want you being held up as an example.
Three years of ministry. Lock ins and mission trips. Lesson plans and silly games. And suddenly I was a bad example.
I left that church and didn’t look back. I was worn out. Sick. Beat up. I had no idea what God had been thinking calling me to that place. I had no idea what God was thinking making me queer. It felt like a curse. Why would God both call me to the ministry and make me queer?
So I went back to working in a restaurant. It’s what I had done all through high school and college. It was something I knew how to do. It was safe. I waited on tables and waited on God.
Peter went back to fishing. It was what he knew how to do. He didn’t know how to lead a movement! He was a fisherman! He needed to clear his head. Jesus didn’t know what he was asking. Peter didn’t know what he was doing. He just needed some time.
Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’…After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, ‘Follow me.’”
And Peter did. He followed. Haltingly, making mistakes, not being inclusive enough, but he followed.
I waited tables for a year all the while hearing God say to me, ‘I want you back in the church. I didn’t make a mistake. Figure your shit out and get back in the game.’ And I kept saying, ‘I need time. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m tired. I’m hurt.’ God said, ‘Follow me.’ And so I followed to Union Theological Seminary.
Sometimes we need to go back to what’s safe before we have the strength to face the danger ahead. Sometimes we need to be reminded again what we’re called to do. Sometimes we just need to be told ‘Follow me.’