God Can Bring Wonders From Our Limitations
“So keep still, and let Him do some work.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO
Earlier in January, as the Christmas season progressed, we heard from the First Letter of John during the weekday Mass readings. One morning, out of curiosity, I grabbed a handy New American Bible at home to refresh my memory about the Epistle’s backstory. I read the Introduction, and then, my curiosity further stirred, I turned to the Introduction for the Second Letter of John. “Written in response to similar problems,” it began, “the Second and Third Letters of John are of the same length, perhaps determined by the practical consideration of the writing space on one piece of papyrus” (emphasis added).
I paused and pondered, and then I envisioned St. John sitting down to write these two missives destined to become Sacred Scripture. He’s anxious about specific difficulties in the fledgling communities he’ll be addressing — false teaching, harmful divisions, a lack of hospitality — and yet he’s limiting his communication, whether by choice or paucity of resources, to a single page each. Both letters are indeed very brief — 13 verses for II John, and 15 verses for III John — and perhaps they adequately served their purpose in the churches which originally received them.
Regardless, these two short memos came to be accepted by the Church as Holy Writ, and both Letters have cameos in the Lectionary every couple years. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering what else was tumbling around in John’s head as he came to the end of each physical page. Evidently there was plenty. “Although I have much to write to you,” he notes in the Second Letter, “I do not intend to use paper and ink” (v.12).
It strikes me that all this is a helpful image of how God is eager to work through us despite our limitations — and despite our own doubts concerning his ability to do so. That’s a weird notion, in any case, because we see plenty evidence in Scripture and Church history of his accomplishing amazing things through very imperfect people.
Peter is the easiest example — a hotheaded fisherman who denied the Lord at the first sign of trouble, and yet whom the Lord appointed as the first pope. And then there’s St. Paul, who was well aware of his personal shortcomings (“I will…boast most gladly of my weaknesses,” he writes the Corinthians), not to mention his burdensome past involvement in persecuting the very Christ he came to embrace — something we heard about at length on his feast day last Friday.
But these drawbacks didn’t seem to matter at all. The Lord chose him anyway, which he revealed to Ananias in Damascus before dispatching him to heal the blinded future Apostle. “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine,” God told the skeptical Ananias in a vision, “to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel” (Acts 9.15). Sure enough, Paul went on to preach the Gospel and plant churches all over the Mediterranean, despite his being the equivalent of a very limited apostolic papyrus.
These reflections came to mind as I listened to NPR’s “Big Picture Science.” The featured guest was Rob Dunn, a biology professor at North Carolina State University, who enthusiastically described the vast variety of hidden critters — arthropods and microbes, bugs and bacteria — that peacefully and (praise God) invisibly coexist with us in our own homes.
At the end of the show, Dunn contrasted his domestic explorations with the assumption he’d harbored as a young researcher that new discoveries can only happen in exotic, far-flung places. “Over the last few years, I realized that many of the things we can find in the rainforest, we can find in homes — not the same species but the same potential for new discovery,” he said. “If we could just sort of re-focus people on the potential for discovery around them, [then] we could have wonder-filled lives.”
We have a tendency to think that we have to make monumental changes in ourselves before God can work anything through us, let alone wonders. Nonsense. God is accustomed to making use of ordinary, fallible human beings to accomplish his purposes all the time, and we’re no exception. By all means, put away sin, receive the sacraments, and get to Mass — daily if possible. But don’t wait until you feel like a saint to start attempting saintly things. That is, don’t hedge on action because you’re not a spiritual rainforest. Instead, expect to discover that God can already make wonders happen by means of your humblest efforts, and despite your humdrum limitations.
And please don’t dawdle until you’re the equivalent of a thick sheaf of pristine papyri before you allow the Lord to write his story on you and through you. Take it from the Apostle John: When it comes to fleshing out the Word of God, any ol’ page will do.
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