The movement of this Sunday’s readings is a little baffling. In the first reading, we hear how God is gathering people from all the nations and bringing them into the fold. It’s a wide, sweeping gesture that opens the door for a diversity of people. In the Gospel, though, Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” It feels limiting, like the way is only open to a few.
So, are we in, or are we out?
These could be metaphors for how we understand church. Some see church as an open tent where lots of people can fit. We might get a few questioners, lukewarm believers, or on-the-fence members, but there’s room for them alongside the committed faithful. Others see church as a smaller room, set aside for the more ardent faithful. There’s no room for tepid believers, but there is a strong sense of faithful commitment.
I’m more of a fling-wide-the-doors Christian myself, but maybe that’s because I’ve found myself on the fence more than once, so fence-sitters are kind of my people. I see the appeal of the small, committed group, but it’s not really my jam.
As I think about it practically, though, it doesn’t work to open wide the tent without any sort of parameters. I’ve learned that the hard way. We started our God Space small groups without clear guidelines, so we had people who talked the whole time, others who never said anything, and everyone else in between, wondering what to do. We had to get intentional and direct about how we’d hold our circle. Once we did, a couple of people self-selected out; they wanted a platform to talk about their stuff, but that’s not what our groups are for. The rest of us took comfort in our guidelines, and we discovered that they freed us to listen deeply to each other and to God. Our structure opened a rhythm of silence, sharing, and prayer. So, you could say that our tent is wide, but there are helpful boundaries.
An open space with boundaries – that’s a good image for relationships too. I want a wide-open heart, one that’s approachable and free for connection, but I also need boundaries, or I’ll be stepped on. I’ve learned that the hard way too, unfortunately. This puts me in mind of an audiobook, Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice, by one of my gurus, Brené Brown. She talks about people who assume the best in others, who believe that people are all just doing the best they can. According to her research, all people who “make generous assumptions” about others have just one thing in common: good boundaries. Brown says, “to love and love big” requires “boundaries, integrity, and generosity.” We can’t offer an assumption of generosity to people who don’t respect boundaries or who take advantage of us. And we probably can’t make generous assumptions about anyone if we have not set and kept our own boundaries. It’s only when we respect ourselves enough to set healthy boundaries that we can be compassionate and generous to others.
The way we are together calls for a balance of openness and boundaries, but I’m not sure if that’s true with God. God is always open. God always loves us in big ways. It’s us who have limitations. Jesus says to enter through the narrow gate, but I don’t think that means God is exclusive. Jesus is responding to the question, “‘Lord, will only a few people be saved?’” He doesn’t say, “Yeah, sorry, just a few. The rest of you are SOL.” He tells them to try to enter through the narrow gate and concludes by saying, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” That doesn’t mean people won’t get there; it means those who assume they’re “in” may need to rethink some things, like how they treat others, how they exclude or diminish people. Ironically, entering through the narrow gate may mean loving other people in expansive, generous ways. Maybe we enter through the narrow gate when we open wide the tents of our hearts — while also preserving the integrity of our own boundaries, of course!
A narrow gate isn’t a closed door. It’s a way in that invites a little patience and perseverance and generosity. So, yes, be open. And, yes, have boundaries. A wide tent and a narrow gate.
I want to leave you with a song that speaks to me of what it feels like when we create community that’s both inclusive and safe, where people really see each other, respect each other, and can be free to be themselves. It’s “Heart Beat Here” by Dashboard Confessional.
By Sister Leslie
Sister Leslie Keener, CDP is the director of God Space, a community-building spirituality ministry in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. She’s a Sister of Divine Providence with a Masters in Ministry and a Certificate in Spiritual Direction and Retreats from Creighton University. She directs retreats, meets with people for spiritual direction, and serves as the vocation director for her community. She also serves on the Coordinating Council of Spiritual Directors International. She enjoys music, meaningful conversations, and dancing