I entertain myself by spying on the hidden mystery of how the Holy Spirit shapes, purifies, and refines souls for holy purposes. This work of caring for souls has been my focus for over thirty years. I figure I have spent several thousand hours listening to people tell me about their lives in God.
In some cases I have been privileged to walk with individuals for many years, observing periods of suffering, impasse, joy, and growth. Trained in the practice of spiritual direction, I offer my presence, love, and attention to those, who share with me the intimate and profound desires of their hearts.
I have learned a lot about the way of God in a person’s soul and the way of a human being as he or she struggles, resists, and seeks the One beyond his or her control or manipulation. I have seen the common traps and temptations, and the unfailing grace of Christ. I have learned to recognize patterns of deepening spiritual maturity. What I have to give, which seems the most important at this point, are my prayers and my faith.
In this poem I explore Jesus’ final words to Peter on the shore on the Sea of Tiberius (John 23) and some of what I have experienced in feeding Christ’s sheep.
CHILDREN, HAVE YOU ANY FISH?
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” John 21:5
After breakfast -
did they push back the plates
brush away the crumbs
and leaning on their elbows
drain the last of the coffee?
when they had finished breaking
that knot that moored them
to the earth -
did they hear the crack
as lack was smashed
and denial strewn in shards
all round their dawn drenched faces
while Fullness rose before them,
a grinning fry-cook,
presiding at the flame?
So when they had completed that shattering
that breaking of self-imposed want
and self itself
and tasted, savored, chewed, digested
who had eluded their nets all night
then Feast asked:
Do you love me?
Feed my lambs.
A second time Feast casts the net:
Do you love me?
Yes, Lord. You know.
Peter turns, twisting in the webbing.
Tend my sheep.
And then the charm:
Do you love me?
Flailing, inextricably caught
flesh straining, tormented -
I am putty in your hands. You know me.
Why press me up against the edges of this love
to lie gasping, gills seared by sanctity
on the far shore of heaven?
You who have lured me here,
you know, you know.
the deft Cleaver
a swift slash of blade
and he is flayed open
on his soft underside
from gullet to dorsal fin.
And it comes:
Feed my sheep. Again.
O Peter, Peter
once you swam where you would
through silent green darkness
in and out of rotting keels among the stems
lying in wait for your supper
to enter your heart’s snare.
Now you are trawled
where you do not wish to go
where you will be filleted
in the bright morning sun
for someone else’s breakfast.
O Peter, Peter there may still be time
In some nook
you will lean across a table
and another’s hunger will tear out your entrails
and you will wash down your cheerios
with each other’s tears.
The line is forming, Peter.
Hear their cries.
See them coming,
heaving themselves out of the waters
like great sad whales
beached on this foreign strand.
Give them a poultice
for drawing out the poison,
a potion for a contrite heart.
Wipe their tears.
Sing their lament.
Carry their ache in your heart
long after they leave
and wake to it when you rise.
You will not wish to meet such suffering.
You will look for ways to turn its tide
to swim back to your ancient watery grave
where life eased slowly into you once removed
through gossamer wings you wore waving on each side.
Now your lungs screech
as the air
slams into you
as this picnic breakfast, Pete.
You have seen me
now you will be food for them to eat.
A woman stops on her porch at dusk.
Sifting through the branches
Grace greets her.
Dare she kneel?
What will the neighbors think to spy
her caught in prayer on the threshold?
Grocery sacks spill down the stair
crispy critters, wonder bread,
instant breakfast fill the air.
The man searching for peace
having lost his love
now paces through the word
hunting for the key.
The shy awkward magician
in a dazzling burst of courage
pulls out the hidden emerald of her heart
and bows triumphant
while drums roll and rabbits scamper all around.
The one who never stops talking
weaves his fear in rambling fables.
The one, awakening, sings possibility and promise
and perches on the edge of wonder,
enchantment, waiting to be opened.
All beached, scarred, encrusted with barnacles
thrust up against each other in the hush of dawn,
gasping, lungs laboring, gulping at the Spirit.
Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.” (John 21: 18-19) NKJV
In accompanying others on their journey into the heart of God –
making our way together through the clotted underbrush
the heavy growth of jungle foliage
trekking across the endless stretches of barren tundra
waiting out the storms in bus depots
napping in the meadows –
what seems most apparent now
is the oneness
the mutuality of laughter shared
and anguish felt.
I have seen myself hesitate on the frontier
keeping myself in reserve
Let’s have a nice holy talk and then we can all go home.
But Jesus never was much on talk alone
and like some mother determined to get her children off to a good start
fries up some fish for breakfast
and sees we must take in,
carry it in our bellies,
eat the pain of one another
feel it ease into our blood and bone
and, tasting theirs, so we embrace our own.
Fish out of water,
our task is learning how to breathe in two worlds
to walk the treacherous path
that cuts an ever widening swath in our hearts,
the gorge of sorrows where compassion feeds.
You there singing in your prayer
I do not know where the way leads
into what dark forests, what caves, what dizzy peaks.
I only know I go along
and where once I went alone,
swam girded solitary in the reeds,
charting a course myself
now am lifted
swept by this net of love
even as I carry you in me,
carried into bright and alien lands
carried toward the One
who ever holds our breakfast
in his hands.
Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn grey I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and I will save. Isaiah 46: 3-4
- How do Jesus’ words to Peter in John relate to you as you care for the souls of family, friends, clients, and others Jesus sends to you, or sends you to?
- What have you observed about how people develop their faith and love for God? What seems to be your role in that process? How do you feed Christ’s sheep?