When we commemorate St. Francis’ Day, we often think about creation, animals wild and domestic, and about the beauty of nature. One of my favorite natural places in north Florida was Wakulla Springs, a 6000-acre wildlife refuge surrounding an underground system of caves and springs pumping millions of gallons of cold water every day. It’s a beautiful place, so lush and wild that several Tarzan movies were filmed there. The wildlife is abundant – Great Blue Herons, Anhinga, Egrets, all sorts of ducks, plus deer on the shore. And of course, many large alligators. Ubiquitous alligators, says the website.
I never realized just how ubiquitous until we went canoeing in the river fed by the springs. We were hoping to see manatees swimming alongside us, a peaceful day enjoying nature on the river.
Thirty seconds after we launched the canoe, however, I realized this might not be a peaceful encounter with nature. There was a sign warning motorboats, “NO WAKE – Canoes and Alligators in the area” – complete with stick figure drawings of a canoe-er being ejected into the waiting jaws of an alligator. We could be an alligator’s next meal.
So my beloved thought he should test the canoe, to see how steady it was, and how it would react if we did encounter a wake. So he began gently rocking the canoe.
That’s when I discovered I was much more terrified of alligators than I had ever imagined. I don’t have words to describe the depth of my terror – well, not words we use in church. Just imagine the music from the Psycho shower scene.
The spouse asked if I wanted to go back, but I didn’t want to give up.
It’s hard to paddle straight when you’re inexperienced, especially when you’re screaming. So we kept drifting off-course, toward the grass where the alligators lurked. And I would scream again.
But they didn’t budge. No matter how loudly you scream and no matter what you yell, you cannot scare away alligators. They have nothing to fear, and nothing to do but wait for food to swim past. We must have seen 50 that day; some close enough to touch with our paddles.
This was NOT what I had imagined. It was not peaceful or beautiful or fun. It was just misery. But I wouldn’t quit – I wanted to see the manatees. I didn’t want to be defeated by the river or the alligators, but mostly I didn’t want my fear to win. We were going to finish.
That day I needed Kenny Rogers singing in my ear, “You gotta know when to walk away; know when to run.”
Or maybe I needed to remember these words of Jesus, “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” Jesus invites us to live in a relationship of grace, not of striving. But it’s not easy to break the habit of constant striving.
I suspect I’m not the only one here who’s been canoeing with alligators. This room is filled with achievers, people who work hard and strive for excellence. But that inner drive can become a tyrant and lead us to focus so much on competing, on winning, that we miss out on the joy and wonder of the adventure we’ve undertaken. Then suddenly we realize the river’s full of alligators. And we need to hear Jesus’ invitation.
The Message paraphrases it, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out?….Walk with me and work with me; watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
I’m not advocating that you not study for midterms. Instead I’m thinking of how healthy impulses can become distorted, drowning out the impulse to embrace life. The habit of striving and never giving out can block even the invitation of Jesus, “Come to me…I will give you rest…Take my yoke…Learn from me…Find rest for your souls.”
This call from Jesus is not the loudest message out there; we have to practice hearing it. Just as musicians train their ears, and artists train their eyes, we need to train our hearts to listen for the voice of God calling us to a life of grace, love, and deep joy.
You see, there’s another way of being in the water. Just a few mile away was the Ichitucknee River, also spring-fed with beautiful waterfowl, but no alligators. The water is always 70 degrees, and giant oak trees shade the river. Instead of paddling upstream, you float downstream in an inner tube. The river does all the work.
The Ichitucknee flows so gently that you can leave your inner tube with a friend and swim for a few minutes, down into the cold water to explore the sandy white riverbed. It is beautiful, relaxing, and peaceful. A true respite.
That’s the respite Jesus invites us to find in him. As the Body of Christ in this place, we’re part of that respite. In offering ourselves and in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we’re transformed into the Body of Christ for the world and for each other.
As the Body of Christ, we offer each other respite, a place of deep welcome and belonging, a rest from striving and competition, from always trying to be our best selves. Offering instead our authentic selves – our joys, fears, hopes, and even our defeats. And in that sharing, there is grace. We experience grace like cool, gently flowing water on a hot day. In the embrace of Christ and community, we’re made free.