October 22nd, 2015
Though he and a couple others are off to Ft. Worth for the Mission to North America’s (MNA) Conference on Mercy, Kevin Gladding writes this week’s Backstory.
Boris Pasternak, the 20th Century Russian poet, novelist, and translator, has said, “Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.” That is an interesting statement. “Surprise” is rarely something I consider when I think of “gifts.” To some, “surprise” is the word they dreaded hearing (or hoped to hear) on a birthday or other celebratory occasion. To others, it is excited expectation or perhaps fearful anticipation. And of course, it is sometimes the tool of sarcasm to say that one is, in fact, not at all surprised.
But perhaps Pasternak is on to something. Perhaps “surprise” needs a larger context than birthdays. Perhaps it is a “gift” after all. Perhaps it is the gift that reminds us something else is at work, someone else knows more than we do. It may, in fact, be the very “gifting” of surprise that draws us to books, movies, shows, and the like – the element that even when we can guess the ending, pulls us along the various, intertwining narrative threads to offer a revelation and, perhaps, a resolution. And, lo and behold, we are (or hope to be) pleasantly surprised!
Pasternak may have seen the necessity of that surprise ending, for even the briefest glance reveals that there is much in the world that is tragic and sad – and sometimes altogether abhorrent. And in the midst of these grievous moments, another sorrow accompanies them: That while these actions and situations are truly terribly, they are not truly surprising. In fact, what we need, what we hope for, is a surprise ending, something to draw all the threads together and somehow bring not merely resolution, but redemption. We need a surprise gift that makes sense of our moment and every moment.
What I am suggesting is that the Christian story is just that – a surprising gift that meets and ultimately undoes sin and its consequences. Consider some biblical highlights: With the world in need of hope, God chooses an old childless couple. A single male child born to this 100-year-old man and his 90-year-old wife becomes the promised seed from which nations of people come. A ruddy shepherd becomes a king whose fame outlasts his predecessors or his descendants. Into a struggling, oppressed Semitic world, God sends the Messiah – but into a manger! Yet He is “born king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2). And it sounds good…until rather than take the throne, even upon the urging of His followers, He lets Himself suffer the death of a violent criminal. But then, He rose from the dead! Perhaps hearing it too often has numbed us to what was surely a surprise ending for the original readers and hearers. But we should be careful, lest we miss the surprising gift and develop a wonderless theology.
The entirety of the biblical narrative is, at least in some ways, that which surprises our expectations and sensibilities in order that we might wonder and marvel at the plan and power of God. Scripture attests to the reality that God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts not our thoughts (Is. 55:8-9). Page after page of God’s story reminds us that our God is a wonder-working God; it affirms that God is able to do “abundantly more than we can ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). A god who cannot surprise us would be less than He ought to be and less than we’d desire Him to be; a god who will not surprise us will never do more than what we can already imagine, and so he is irrelevant. But a God who both can and will surprise our expectations at their deepest levels is a God we can trust to bring order out of chaos, beauty out of ashes, gladness in mourning.
The image – both mental and visual – of a flower poking its way through the cracks in a cement sidewalk has been the subject of songs and poetry. It is at once both jarring and beautiful. And, I think, in many ways, it is an appropriate for God’s work. It comes up when and how and where we least expect it. It reminds us that God is not only at work; He is succeeding in His work. He has already succeeded! Henry James once said, “There are two kinds of taste, the taste for emotions of surprise and the tastes for emotions of recognition.” It seems to me that God has satisfied both, and He has accomplished the former in part by sating the latter. Amidst the dismal and the degenerate, He has shined His light and made Himself known: the transcendent One has allowed Himself to be both imminent to and intimate with His people – a people whom He has named friends.
The flower in the sidewalk is less surprising than the heart of stone that God has made flesh, for the latter action is nothing short of miraculous. And so we ought to be those who expect our God to surprise us and who glory and rejoice that He does and how He does. Like C. S. Lewis, we ought to be “surprised by joy.” Last week, we posted audio files with lectures on praying [ed. note: the 3rd installment of talks on the Book of Common Prayer can be found here]. As we learn to pray, may we also pray that we would never cease to be surprised by the God we serve and that He might make our joy in His work ever larger.