Thursday, July 10, 2008

Summer surprise

The trouble with a lot of religion is that it is so predictable; there is no room for surprise in it. Sam Keen, a theologian-philosopher and a very creative thinker, has written about the absence of surprise and wonder from most conventional religion and from life itself. Keen thinks surprise—and wonder—are at the heart of religion. In one of his books he remembers an incident that always makes me smile, because I can remember it too. He’s sitting in Mrs. Jones’ elementary school classroom practicing what used to be called penmanship.

Mrs. Jones’ classroom always seemed dark, but on this particular day it was more depressing than usual. For an eternal afternoon I sat practicing my penmanship exercises, listening to Mrs. Jones’ monotonous: “Make your ‘i’s’ come all the way up to the middle line. And don’t forget to make your ‘o’s’ nice and round. Circle. Circle. Circle. Period. Now repeat.” Caught somewhere between boredom and despair I struggled against tears and settled in to wait for the resurrection—the 3:00 bell.

And then it happened. A movement in a tree outside the window caught my eye, and there, in the sweet and redeeming light of the springtime world, was a summer warbler building a nest. Caught in wonder, I followed the progress of the nest construction. . . . My “i’s” and “o’s” were forgotten until Mrs. Jones materialized over my shoulder and demanded to know why three lines in my penmanship book were empty. Instinct warned me that no serendipitous warbler could provide an excuse for the neglect of my educational duties. So I bit my tongue, cherished my wonder in silence, and stayed in after school to make up my lessons.

“Mrs. Jones won more than the day,” Keen says. “Schooling became a habit for me, and I remained in the classroom for twenty-five years and five degrees without seriously questioning the maxim that private enthusiasm must be divorced from the educational task” (To a Dancing God: Education for Serendipity, pp. 38–39).
Sam Keen went on to write some important theology. In Apology for Wonder, he argues that the experience of wonder is at the heart of all true religion and all true education, that there is altogether too little of it in our churches and schools. Both religion and education, he says, strive to make everything predictable, conventional, certain, nailed down—that is to say, to eliminate the possibility of surprise, unpredictability, novelty, mystery.
The Bible, on the other hand, is full of surprises. Faith in this God is not predictable. Faith is an openness to the startling, amazing, surprising grace of God coming at us, to us, in the most unlikely and unexpected of ways.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, faith is not about knowing everything there is to know about God. It is knowing that there is plenty about God that we don’t know. Faith is not certainty. Faith is acknowledging that God will not be reduced to the limits of human understanding. God will be God, and there will always be surprises. “God will make a way where there is no way,” Martin Luther King Jr. used to say. God will make a way through the sea. God will bring freedom out of oppression, justice out of injustice, life out of death. It’s not that God will do everything we ask, give us whatever we think we want, as the prosperity gospel preachers promise. It is that God is God and God will do God’s will and it will be a surprise when it happens.
The scientists know that discovery grows out of humility and openness to surprise. The enemy of science is certainty—the sense that there are no surprises, no mystery, that we know everything there is to know. But you and I are resistant to surprise and far prefer predictability.Edmund Steimle was a great preacher and teacher of preaching in the last generation. Commenting on the text “God’s mercies are new every morning,” he said, “At my age, the promise of newness every morning is at best a mixed blessing. I have come to the point in my life when I don’t want anything new in the morning. I want my slippers right beneath my bed where I left them the night before. I want my orange juice and bran flakes for breakfast as normal. At my age, I can do without a lot of newness, especially in the morning”
The Bible is full of surprises from beginning to end. A God who time and time again comes to his people when they have given up, when they’ve concluded that God has forgotten them—if God even exists in the first place. A God who comes particularly when their backs are against the wall and their hearts are full of fear. A God who comes quietly, steadily, to be with them, to bind up their wounds, to strengthen their hearts and arms and legs, a God for whom nothing is too wonderful.
Christianity is about a God of surprises. What, after all, could be more surprising than God coming into the world in the birth of a child, another child, this child born of humble parents in an insignificant village called Bethlehem? What could be more surprising than that?

W. H. Auden, the great poet, captures it in his Christmas Oratorio, “For the Time Being.” At the manger, the shepherds say —

We never left the place where we were born . . .
walked thousands of miles, but only wore the grass between work and home.
But . . . music and sudden light
have interrupted our routine tonight,
and swept the filth of habit from our hearts.
O here and now our endless journey starts
(“For the Time Being,” W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, p. 294)

What could be more surprising than the incarnation, God coming to us in that child? Only one thing actually: that child becoming a man and teaching so amazingly and clearly, healing so lovingly, reaching out to the marginalized so graciously, dying so courageously, and then, the greatest surprise of all, defeating death on Easter. A God of beautiful surprises, who makes a way where there is no way; a God who, precisely when we are afraid, literally scared to death, resigned and without hope, comes with new possibility; a God so surprising that death itself becomes the occasion for new life; a God for whom nothing is too wonderful.
So take time to be surprised this summer. Get a late night cone at the dairy queen. Feel the sand between your toes. Watch the children’s laughter as they splash near a pool. Take time to be surprised by God.

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