My birthday was earlier this month, and I heard from a number of friends from across the country. Each call, text, card, and post reminded me how fortunate I am to have people in my life who see the best in me and believe the best will unfold for me.
But how many of us have had the opposite experience? A time in our life when someone assumed the worst about us. Perhaps even reached that assumption without really knowing us.
It’s funny how such an assumption can lead to so many dead ends. Having someone assume the worst about us can stop us from exploring new possibilities, from trying new paths, from being our authentic selves. Someone else’s negative assumption can cast a shadow over how we see ourselves, shrink what we believe about our potential, and limit what we’re willing to risk.
After divinity school I moved to central Kentucky to serve on my first church staff. It didn’t take long to discover that my new neighbors were less than thrilled to have a “preacher” living next door. Despite their politeness, the message was pretty clear: We’re not interested in getting to know you.
I found myself feeling self-conscious when we would run into each other. In fact, sometimes if I saw one of my neighbors getting into his or her car in front of our houses, I would wait a few minutes before heading out to my car to avoid the awkwardness.
Fortunately, things changed over the months that followed. My neighbors and I got to know each other and became great friends.
At some point one of those neighbors told me she’d had all kinds of negative assumptions about me. Because of bad experiences she’s had with the church, she assumed that she knew what I believed, how I viewed the world, and how I would treat her. Even to this day, she admits that she can be surprised by how I view a given issue or make sense of a certain situation.
Those kind of assumptions also can lead the people who hold them to dead ends. As with my neighbor, such assumptions can limit one’s openness to new possibilities. They also can reflect fears or pain from earlier in one’s life or prejudices one has unconsciously carried over a period of time.
All those assumptions and the dead ends to which they lead can make it difficult to imagine other directions we might take, other paths we might follow.
I sometimes wonder what was going through the minds of the first disciples whom Jesus called to follow him. How close did they come to allowing the assumptions they had about themselves stop them from imaging what Jesus’ invitation might mean for them? To imagine how taking an expected turn might change their lives?
But the disciples weren’t the only ones who needed to risk turning away from their assumptions. Jesus also risks putting aside the negative assumptions many people would have about Peter and Andrew and James and John.
As Jesus walks beside the water, he sees these soon-to-be disciples going about their regular work—fishing to earn a living for themselves and their families. The work isn’t glamorous or high status; it’s a dirty and physically demanding job that requires long hours. It’d be easy to discount the people doing this work. To see only their grimy fingernails, their sweaty clothes, their tired eyes. To notice their lack of education, social standing, and political connections.
But Jesus seems to imagine something more. To see the potential in these unlikely people from this unlikely place. To see them as they truly are—and imagine who they may become.
Jesus risks releasing unknown possibilities as he invites these four to change their lives by taking an unexpected turn. He calls them as they are, from where they are, being who they are—but he calls them to become something more, something new, something unexpected.
If we believe God’s good news still calls to us today, perhaps we can risk imaging that we too can become something more, something new, something unexpected. And maybe part of that changed life involves putting aside the negative assumptions we have about others so we can imagine the unknown possibilities they represent.
Each of us experiences unexpected turns in our lives. We have a choice: we can play it safe and remain stuck at our dead ends—or we can risk taking the turn and discover a new direction for our lives.
By taking the risk to imagine something new, we also can invite others to take their own risks. By putting aside our assumptions so we can see others as they truly are and might become, we can help them see and believe the same thing about themselves. And who knows what possibilities we might release for our world.