Yesterday morning, before I left Fairhope, Alabama, for EFM Mentor Training in Pensacola, Florida, I went for a run. As I started down the hill towards the Mobile Bay, I could feel a fairly stiff breeze blowing up from where the water is. Although I couldn’t see the bay yet, I could already picture what the water looked like. Given the path and pace that I run, it took me a while to the waterfront, but, when I did, I was very surprised. I had pictured a choppy, brownish seascape, dotted with whitecaps, which the wind had whipped up. Instead, I discovered a blue-gray mirror so still and calm that the sky above was reflected with almost no distortion.
Not long after I saw that magnificent surprise, I stumbled onto another one: two good friends, whom I knew from my days at Birmingham-Southern College, were walking their dogs along the bay. Although I should have remembered that they had retired to Fairhope a few years ago, I still associate them that chapter of my life that took place two-hundred-fifty miles north of the coast. As a result, I nearly ran past them without realizing who they were. Once I figured it out, I stopped for a chat, but they, too, needed a minute to figure out who this oddly dressed and out-of-place stranger was.
In this morning’s Gospel lesson from the Daily Office (Mark 6:47-56), Jesus walks out on the wind-whipped sea to meet his disciples, who were struggling against the waves. He almost passed them by, but, when they saw him and were frightened by the unexpected apparition, he stopped and hopped into the boat. And as soon as he climbed into the boat, the wind ceased, and the sea became still.
Even more remarkable to me is what happens when Jesus and the disciples make it to the other side: “And when they got out of the boat, immediately the people recognized him, and ran about the whole neighborhood and began to bring sick people on their pallets to any place where they heard he was.” The disciples, who supposedly knew Jesus well, didn’t recognize him when he walked passed them on the sea. The crowds, many of whom may have only heard about Jesus, dropped everything they were doing to bring their sick friends and relatives in a confident expectation of healing. It seems that the disciples didn’t expect to see their master while they were struggling against the wind, but the crowds were able to recognize a healer even though they hadn’t ever seen him before.
What I expect to see usually limits my ability to see what’s really happening. When I have something in mind and then encounter something different, I either get distracted by the unexpected sight or miss it altogether. Occasionally, like the disciples, my reaction is fear of the surprise. More often, as with my chance-run-in with two old friends, I almost pass it by completely. In my experience, however, God usually works through those unanticipated avenues that I’m not looking for. When I realize what’s happening, I am sometimes gripped by fear, but often I’m so focused on what I expect to see that I can’t even see how God is working in my life. Why can’t I be more like the people of Gennesaret? Why can’t I be ready for the unexpected? What must I do to open myself up to recognizing and embracing God’s surprising work in my life?