Fish Out of Water
The thing about being a fish is that you don’t know that you’re swimming in water.
The thing about being an American is that you don’t know you’re addicted to success.
For the fish, the water is its whole world.
It does not even register on whatever primitive consciousness the fish may have that it is in this liquid medium, and that there is another whole world of air and space that exists outside of it.
Unfortunately for the fish, he can’t survive outside of the water, so he’s probably better off not knowing about the world of air.
We humans are in a similar situation.
From virtually the day we are born, we are taught to orient ourselves toward success.
As we learn to walk and talk, we receive praise for each new word and each new step.
As we grow up and go to school, we learn how to get the affirmation and attention we need by conforming to the expectations of adults and peers.
And as adults, we climb the career ladder, try to make more money, get a bigger house, take more impressive vacations, get more promotions.
We count each trophy our children earn and tick off each box on their college prep resumes.
There’s nothing wrong with this orientation toward progress per se.
In fact, it helps us accomplish a lot of good things in our lives.
If we didn’t value and strive toward success, we never would have learned to walk and talk and read and get into college or get a job.
We need success to get the basics of life taken care of.
But just like the fish, there is a whole world outside this water of success orientation that we don’t know about.
And unlike the fish, instead of dying when exposed to the air, we thrive in it.
We enter a whole new world of spiritual growth when we realize that, as useful as success can be to accomplish the basics, it will not bring us lasting happiness, and it will not teach us to love.
This is the raw oxygen of the gospel, and if you’re going to breathe it, you have to get out of the water.
And to get out of the water, you have to first see how deeply you’re in the water.
The success trap dogs us even in our spiritual lives.
“I’m going to sit down and formally pray and meditate seven days in a row this week,” we say to ourselves.
“I put my time in as a volunteer at this church, unlike so many others I could name,” we say to ourselves.
“I increased my pledge this year, congratulations to me!” we say to ourselves.
Again, these are all actually objectively wonderful things.
But if we’re still breathing the water of success, letting our spiritual “achievements” prop up our ego, we’re not learning to love more deeply.
We’re still climbing the ladder, only now it’s twice as dangerous.
Because the career ladder only promises more money and more prestige.
But the spiritual ladder promises heaven, the very favor of God, and the higher we climb, the more we believe we’re above everyone else.
The same simple litmus test applies: does climbing the spiritual ladder and thinking you’re more “advanced” than others in the ways of the soul help you love more deeply? Probably not.
Here’s the raw truth that is so difficult for us to accept: Jesus lived and taught downward mobility.
Jesus was born in poverty and he died in poverty.
He spent his childhood as a refugee and an illegal immigrant.
He lived his adult life as a homeless person.
His very Incarnation tells us the path that we are to follow: going to the bottom.
He came from heaven to earth, and he spent his time with everyone who was rejected by society.
Sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen who could never seem to get the point—if you were an outsider, considered useless and a failure, Jesus would find you, share table fellowship with you, and bring healing and truth into your life.
This is the path we are called to walk, and it is so counterintuitive that it is almost literally invisible to us.
We are fish swimming in the water of success addiction, and we live as though we had no idea that the world of gospel air and space is so close to us.
We see this all over our scriptures today.
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,” Paul says.
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Miraculous signs and human wisdom—external proofs of effectiveness—get us nowhere.
The Cross is about failure.
The Cross is about shame.
The Cross is about losing.
We spend all our time as though we could live in what some Christian traditions call “victory in Jesus.”
But the hard truth is that we can’t fast forward to the Resurrection.
We must go through the Cross, and thus we must enter withdrawal from our success addiction.
Answer me this: when have you ever learned anything from success?
When have you ever come out of being patted on the back for a job well done and received anything more than additional inflation of your already tyrannical ego?
Again, the good work we do has value, but any time we’re allowing it to build up our false selves, we are getting farther from the gospel, not closer to it.
Now think about the times you have really crashed and burned.
Think about your humiliations, your failures.
Think about the biggest, nastiest lie you ever told.
Think about the time you cheated on your partner or spouse, or they cheated on you.
Think about the time your body failed you and you were flat on your back for weeks with an injury or illness.
Think about when you lost your job, justly or unjustly.
As awful as it was, did it drive you closer or farther to the basic truth of who you are?
Were you not forced to be more honest with yourself and others?
Whether you felt like God was very close to you or very far away, I bet God and God’s whereabouts were very much on your mind.
When you’re on the success high, God is probably pretty absent from your thoughts except for perhaps a token thank you.
Now I want to tell you two things that this is not.
It is not masochism. We’re not here to glorify suffering.
And it is not the current management buzzword concept of leaning in to failure—that’s just success addiction disguised more effectively. That’s failure for the purpose of later success.
The Cross is none of these things.
The Cross and the Resurrection need each other to be complete, and we need them both to be complete ourselves.
Watch how Jesus describes the cycle in the Beatitudes from Matthew.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
This is what I’ve been trying to get across.
I’m not worried about our reaching for and embracing the resurrection. When it comes, we’ll jump on it.
I’m worried about our understanding and embracing the necessity of going to our most pain-filled, vulnerable places.
The reason this is necessary is because you cannot love from a place of dominative power.
You must become vulnerable, open yourself up to the possibility of pain, in order to love.
If you wall yourself off to pain, make yourself powerful and invulnerable, put on an armor of success and indifference, you cannot love.
If you have ever loved anyone deeply, you already know what it is like to be poor in spirit.
Think about a moment when someone you loved was hurting and you couldn’t do anything to fix it. Was that not an experience of profound poverty?
You opened yourself up to be poor in spirit when you loved, and so you already know it is possible.
The path of discipleship is exploring that inner poverty more and more until you start to fear it less and less. And thereby, you will have more and more freedom to love, and love more deeply.
So Jesus begins at the very beginning. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
In your prayer and in your relationships, you must go to where you feel most inadequate, alienated and alone and open yourself to feel and know that place fully.
This will hurt, and Jesus tells us that. “Blessed are those who mourn,” are the next words out of his mouth.
Let those tears come, in prayer, over the plight of the world and the suffering in it, and with your loved ones.
I actually have a growing suspicion that human tears are an expression of the living water welling up to eternal life that Jesus tells us about.
So we mourn, and the gift of that mourning, the knowledge of our brokenness, is humility. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus says next.
Humility, knowing both your smallness and your greatness, your brokenness and your wholeness, your failure and your belovedness, gives birth to the next step.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
When you really know who you are, all the good and all the bad, you can let go of your self-obsession.
And finally there is room for the longing for justice, which is a place of solidarity with the oppressed.
Now we’re getting to some real gospel work in the outside world.
Having had justice come to life within us, justice’s faithful partner all the way through scripture awakens also: “Blessed are those who are merciful.”
Justice comes first, but mercy always is the final word of God.
“Do justice and love mercy,” we read in our text from Micah today.
We have moved from poverty to mourning to humility to justice to mercy, and we come now with all of these things, to wholeness. “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
Pure in heart does not mean perfect or without sin.
Pure in heart means a heart with unified focus on God, a heart who has brought all of its broken pieces to God and found them cherished.
Someone who is pure in heart or wholehearted, we might say, at the end of the day must seek love, because nothing else can satisfy.
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” as Augustine said.
And then the final step of the spiritual journey, as Jesus describes it in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
You have gone out into the world to seek justice, you have gone out into the world to love mercy, and now you can go out into the world to bring peace.
Peace is the binding up of all these things, the final harmony of justice and mercy, of mourning and rejoicing, of hunger and abundance.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
This is the remarkable thing about Jesus’ teaching—it’s not climbing a ladder up to maturity.
It’s descending a ladder to childhood.
You are entering the places of weakness and suffering and vulnerability to be at last brought to a new childhood, entering the kingdom of heaven as a little child like Jesus said.
And then it begins all over again.
What are the next words out of Jesus’ mouth, after he’s described this journey of growing in faith and love?
“Blessed are you when you are persecuted and reviled.”
You don’t get to stay in some state of heavenly bliss.
You’re driven right back to the bottom to begin the cycle again.
This is the spiritual life.
This is what it’s like to breathe the challenging oxygen of the gospel instead of the comfortable, numbing water of success, power, wealth and all the rest of it.
So what Jesus taught and Paul and Micah echo is completely counterintuitive to us and our society.
When the gospel is proclaimed to us and we really hear it, we’re suddenly a fish that sees the water he swims in.
We can never be satisfied with the ocean of being driven for success and approval and power and control, once we’ve been let in on the secret that there is a world of air and space so close to us.
We have the chance to breathe the life-giving oxygen of life in God, a life of love and justice and peace, and yes, suffering too.
It won’t make you popular or comfortable, rich or safe, but if you really let it get hold of you, you won’t need those things any more.
“The message about the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” Paul says.
In the end, all we really need to do as disciples is learn how to be fish out of water.
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