The Familiar is a Barrier to Our Imagining

It’s the first time I have really noticed that with the conclusion of Mark:6, a cycle completes. From beginning with the Jesus’ baptism by John, Mark moves very quickly into the nitty-gritty of Jesus’ ministry with a focus on how Jesus’ healing action alerts us to the power and operation of God in the world. Mark brings the cycle of Jesus’ actions to a fitting conclusion with King Herod’s political murder of John in the final section of chapter 6. However, there is more of that bit of the story next week.

If it’s not too crass an analogy,  Jesus’ tour through the Galilean countryside: calming storms, casting-out demons, healing the sick is the envy of the current presidential election bus tours being made by President Obama and Governor Romney. Oh, how they each might wish to make such an impact on the crowds as Mark reports Jesus making.

After a ‘successful’ tour  Jesus returns to his hometown where his family and former neighbors are scandalized by, what seems to them, his grandiosity. They are determined to put him back in his place so as not to have their small world disturbed. Is it their unconscious envy that causes them to react like this? Quite probably!

Yet, I think there is something else motivating them as well as their being driven by their unconscious envy. Jesus’ family and their neighbors seem encapsulated within a prison of the familiar. Jesus presents them with an experience that does not fit within the limitations of their world view.  They are open to miracles performed by prophets so long as they are happening elsewhere. They do not have the psychic space to recognize one of their own to be a prophet capable of revealing God’s power in the world. They are trapped within the limits of their own imaginations.

How are our imaginations limited? I invite us to take a deeper look at our lives. Can we notice how our attachment to what is familiar  inhibits and limits our imaginations? We live lives limited by our need for predictability and our minds seem only to recognize what they are somehow already looking for. My own experience is that it is not difficult for us to recognize this state of affairs.

However, let me invite us once more, this time, to take a broader look at our lives. Can we begin to notice those turning points of life where we  have somehow become open to something beyond the familiar?  We have  taken a risk and stepped out there! Maybe this has been a wonderful experience. Maybe it’s also been a difficult and possibly painful step to have taken. Yet, has taking this step not always resulted in an expansion of our living and imagining?

When our lives take an unexpected turn we are rewarded with an enrichment to our living. This enrichment results when we become open to the promise of there being more than we, if left to our own impoverished expectations, expectations carefully tailored by our need to stay within predictable limits, can imagine for ourselves.

We live in a world strongly influenced by something called the Human Potential Movement. Everywhere we see advertisements inviting us to realize our human potential by running with the wolves and diving with the dolphins. This approach to life tells us there are no limits to what and who we can become. The unspoken hitch is that we just need the money to do it. The picture of life extolled by the Human Potential Movement is to realize our fullest happiness and satisfaction. We are enjoined to become all that we have the potential to be. Fortunately, this is not the message of the Gospel.

God’s invitation to us is to risk opening to the process of becoming the person we were created to be. This looks dangerously similar to the invitation to realize our fullest human potential. However, God is not inviting us to throw caution to the winds and run-off to find ourselves. God invites us to step-out and to take a risk. The hallmark of this experience is facing up-to, and struggling within, the boundaries of natural limitations.

God invites us to move beyond the mere achievement of our own human potential. God’s dream for us is that we open ourselves to becoming more than we can imagine for ourselves through struggling within our experience of limitation. The Epistle and the Gospel  for today give us two quite different examples of how this works in our own lives.

The first example is an example of struggling within limitation. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks about his struggle with his ‘thorn in the flesh’, which he tells them God has given him. I am not interested in wondering what the thorn actually was. How can we know? However, the example Paul offers us is one of struggling with a problem, a difficulty, a painful aspect of life that does not go away. The cause of Paul’s pain does not go away despite his fervent prayer that God take it away. This results in Paul coming to realize that it is through his weakness, his experience of painful limitation, that God’s grace fulfills and blesses him. He is healed through his being wounded. He is given strength to persevere, i.e. put up with hardship. He experiences an expansion of imagination, an expansion of the horizons that boundary his experience, i.e. some kind of mystical experience of acceptance.  Paul’s stepping-out and risking results in both strength and ecstasy transmitted through God’s gracing his suffering.

Taken alone we might think that Paul’s example is the only approach. However, Jesus in Mark’s Gospel offers a counterbalance. The limitation here is less personal and more situational.  When he goes home Jesus is not struggling with his own experience of limitation. He is facing the limitation of his situation caused by the lack of openness of others. What does he do? He does not use his unique access to God to overwhelm the limits of imagination in his hearers, i.e. blow their minds. He does not wow them with mighty acts.

Jesus accepts that the failure of imagination among his family and their neighbors places a complete road block to his ability to be a conduit for divine action. He recognizes the hopelessness of the situation and he redirects himself, taking a completely different direction. He sends his disciples out on the road. What has been his ministry alone up until this point now becomes theirs as well. Mark tells us that they work the same miracles as Jesus had been working.

Sometimes the need is to persevere and become opened-up through our acceptance of limitation thus allowing God to do in us, and for us, and through us, that which we cannot do for, or by, ourselves.  However, there are some situations where our capacity for living is limited and the needed response here is to walk away. We cease trying to change the unchangeable  and creatively move in another direction. The experience of being blocked opens up a new channel . As we begin to move in that direction, something beyond our imagining expands and enriches our reality.

The trick of knowing how to recognize which kind of limitation we are facing is one of spiritual discernment. Spiritual discernment is a process that involves asking for, and listening to, the wise counsel of others. We then take our own perceptions alongside the perceptions of others into a place of deep prayerfulness before God. This is a place both of openness and felt risk. Openness does not come without that disconcerting sense of risk. A sense of risk is one of the indicators that we are opening. Here we encounter a God who is always dreaming us into becoming more than we can possiblly imagine for ourselves.

About relationalrealities

Episcopal Priest currently Rector of St Martin's Providence, RI
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