It happens every time.
Once or twice a year, we round the familiar corner, go over that same small hill, and right there before us, spreading outward toward the far-off horizon, is the expansive waters of Lake Huron.
Even as a child, I remember that feeling of excitement that always came with seeing, for the first time in a long time, that wide open, expansive, seemingly never-ending stretch of water.
To this day, whenever I’d behold that view for the first time in a long time, I’d have that sense of my little, narrow world, suddenly breaking open; my restrictive patterns of thinking that kept me in a rut, suddenly disappearing.
Seeing those expansive waters would automatically do something to my inner world, lifting me up out of that entrapping rut of feelings, restoring to me a better sense of perspective, helping me relax, and providing me with a renewed creativity and courage.
For me, a new wide open world, both outer and inner, suddenly, and joyfully is born.
It seems something similar was going on in the dynamic between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus had this effect on the disciples, of breaking open their otherwise restrictive world views and old patterns of thinking.
In today’s text from the Gospel of Mark, for example, we see how the disciples were upset because they’d heard that someone outside their group, someone completely unknown to them, was healing people in the name of Jesus. They were upset and wanted that stopped, because that person wasn’t from their own group.
Jesus’ response to them blows open their narrow world, saying essentially that anyone who is and does good is part of God’s grander purposes on earth, and who are they to stop it.
We’re reminded that God’s activity and power are not limited to, or controlled by established religious institutions, or our own narrow expectations.
We have the same temptation today – to think that God’s activity is limited to what we do in the church, or to a certain group of “enlightened” people whom we favour and like.
But Jesus reminds us that God has broken into the world and is on the loose, working both inside, and outside the church, among people we wouldn’t even expect… all for the blessing and healing of the world.
We like control. But God… being God… can and does operate outside our control. Outside our expectations. Outside our worldviews, biases, prejudices and predictions. God is way bigger than we are, way bigger than our own minds, feelings, and thinking.
And it’s those moments where we’re reminded of that – when we catch a glimpse of a larger perspective on the world – when our biases are shattered as we meet someone different than ourselves, listen to their story, appreciate their point of view – when we’re moved by the love and care shown by someone, or some group we wouldn’t have expected – these moments are God-given moments allowing us a glimpse of the expansive, incomprehensible grace and mercy of the Holy One.
It’s something we all struggle with – that terrible ease we have slipping into a rut, into a way of thinking, behaving and feeling, that in the big picture of things, proves very narrow, and ultimately destructive.
In the world of religious institutions, it should be no surprise that declining numbers among those who participate is the order of the day. It’s no less true for the Jesuits than any other religious organization.
Jesuit priest and author James Martin shares a situation he remembers when the Superior General of the Jesuits came to visit his novitiate in Boston.
The novices were asked to come up with one question they really wanted to ask their religious leader.
James Martin decided to ask the million dollar question: “What’s the best way to increase the numbers of persons joining the Jesuits?” In other words: What’s the best way to increase numbers?
Well, the big day arrived when the Superior General walked in, clad in black clerical suit with a black raincoat. He was accompanied by other Jesuit officials from Rome. All these “men in black” gave the unmistakable impression of seriousness, severity, intimidating authority.
James girds up his courage and asks his Superior: “Father,” he says, “what’s the best way to increase the numbers?”
James expected him to respond with the typical answer something like: “We have to do more recruiting in our colleges, seminaries and parishes” or “We need to do more advertising to get the word out about the Jesuits” or some such similar strategy.
But the Superior’s response was as surprising as it was memorable. He said, “Live your own vocation joyfully!”
In other words, being joyful, and having a lightness of being, is attractive. And that makes sense. Joy attracts people to God. Why would anyone want to join a group of miserable people, right?
Now, some of us might say, that’s too “fuzzy” a strategy, to vague a plan to “increase numbers.” That probably wouldn’t pass as a serious enough “business plan” in a fledgling company.
But I think, for a church, which professes a faith and a hope in God, who is far greater than we can ever be, we have to know how to put less faith and trust in our so-called smart strategies, and more faith and trust in God, who is always beyond our control. We have to become a bit more comfortable with the unknown mystery that is God.
This letting go of our need for so much control, this letting go of our restrictive ruts of thinking and feeling, naturally gives way to a joy and lightness of being which can only be attractive to others.
We can’t count on a lot of things.
But we can count on the grace and goodness of God, who undergirds and fills all of life.
We can count on the fact that despite our best efforts to live a life of faith, no matter our successes and failures of being the Church of Christ in our own time and place, we can rest assured that the good purposes of God will most certainly and eventually work themselves out in many and various ways – ways we can’t even predict, expect, or imagine.
Such is the power of God. Such is the expansive, never-ending, limitless grace of God, as wide and endless as the waters stretching out over the horizon.