Monday, June 17, 2019

The Unexpected Gift

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?  (Ps. 8:4)

In his short work, Wife Wooing, John Updike tells the story of a husband who after seven years of marriage and three children is still stirred as at first by the sight of his wife.  Sitting with his family around the hearth on a Sunday evening, the husband silently ponders his wife’s beauty as she reclines in the glow of the firelight.  The reader can sense the husband’s desire growing as he nestles beside his wife in their bed, but the story takes an unexpected twist when she falls asleep while reading (of all things) a biography of Richard Nixon. 

In the morning the husband wakes and goes to work where he is confronted with a particularly vexing mechanical problem.  He struggles all day long, but can find no solution.  He brings his work home at night where he is the picture of preoccupation.  His wife makes a meal, tends to the children, puts them to bed, and slips off quietly to draw a bath.  After a time she enters the study where her husband is absorbed in thought.  As she leans over to kiss him he catches the scent of her perfume and then tastes the freshness of toothpaste on her breath.  “Come to bed,” she says in a way that suggests to the reader this night will end differently than the last.  And then Updike ends the story with the husband’s stunning insight:

An expected gift is not worth giving. 

Do you agree?  Updike contends an expected gift often is received as routine or as obligation.  It does not have staying power because it does not surprise.  But an unexpected gift, well, it can take on a life of its own that lasts and lasts and lasts a lifetime.  And even more, at the heart of all profound religious experiences there is, I think, an unexpected gift. 

Before I was a father I was an uncle.  I enjoyed playing with my nephews and nieces and when they were hungry or sticky or whiney or stinky I enjoyed giving them back to their parents.  I loved them (and still do), but my feelings as translated to actions lacked the depth and intensity of a parent. 

Perhaps the single most remarkable experience of my life happened in the instance the nurse handed my first daughter to me and I held her in my arms.  In the time it took my heart to skip a beat I was changed forever.  I can’t even begin to explain the connection I felt, but I know I don’t have to because every mother and father here knows exactly what happened to me.  It was something I absolutely did not expect; a gift from beyond.  It lit an eternal flame of love in me that still burns just as intensely and mysteriously as it began.  I knew when I first held my daughter nothing would ever mar the love I felt for her in that moment. 

All of this came to me as unexpected gift and though I am far removed from that day it is as vivid in my mind and in my soul as it was on that early September day in 1991.  Beyond being a very human moment, it was a completely holy moment.  When God comes to us God always comes from beyond as unexpected gift.  This is the essence of all authentic, true, deep religious encounters.

Why us?  Given God’s incredible nature and our seeming insignificance, why does God even consider us?  This, I think is what the psalmist pondered at a very deep level as he or she wrote the Eighth Psalm. 

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?  (Ps. 8:4)

In Genesis Chapter 1 we read how, as each day of creation is called forth, God looks at it and realizes it is good.  On the six day, God creates humanity and calls us “very good.”  It is as if God is taken by surprise at the intensity of love and affection God feels as a response to holding us for the first time.  Is it any wonder so many of us identify with God most closely as Father, a parent figure?

Why does God, who brought forth all of creation, consider humanity so highly?  The answer, I believe, is because God felt an unexpected, special bond with us from the moment we came into being.  God’s love for us – for you – is passionate, eternal, mysterious, and unshakable.

I did a Google search this week, asking if it is possible to surprise God.  No, said one site, because God knows everything.  No, said another, because God has planned out everything (don’t even get me started on this kind of theology).  No, no, no said site after site until I said phooey and closed the search tab. 

I’d like to think the God who gives the unexpected gift waits eagerly to see how we will respond.  In our best moments I’d like to think God is surprised, just as every parent is often caught off guard by the awesome wonder that is a child.  And I’d like to think the unexpected gifts we offer to one another come as surprise to God. 

And what about today?  Why are you here?  I suspect for most of us, this time of worship is an encounter with the expected.  We expect to speak with certain friends.  We expect the music.  We expect the readings.  We expect the sermon (with or without a joke).  We expect the sacraments.  We expect to make an offering of a certain amount of money.  We even expect to be home by noon.  So much of what we receive at this time is exactly what we expect.  There is a reason our prayer books fall open to the same page week after week.  And don’t get me wrong; we need certain daily and weekly rhythms to give our life order and meaning and cohesion. 

But where is the unexpected?  When does God, the holy God, overwhelm us with what we do not anticipate?  When does God woo us and open us to deep intimacy with the Holy?  Can we in some way prepare ourselves in heart and mind to receive what cannot be anticipated? 

And the flipside of these questions involves our gift-giving to God.  If an expected gift is not worth giving, and if much of our worship is an offering of the expected, does it hold value for God?  Is it possible to surprise God with an unexpected gift?  I sure hope so and this thought alone stirs my imagination.  What unexpected gift might you offer to God and how might the effort lead to things that surprise you?  How might the offering of something deeply authentic help us to meet God in the unexpected moment?