“Keep Your Eyes Open” – Finding God Where You Least Expect Him

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My wife has a gift for spotting pheasants when we are driving. It’s a skill she learned from her dad and I’m always amazed at how she can spot these birds – so well concealed by their environment – as we speed by at 65 mph. “If you just keep your eyes open, you’ll always see something” she told me once when I asked her how she did it. I have found that this is great advice for more than just pheasant sightings, and offers no end to wonder and delight as I learn to keep my eyes open for the God who, as it turns out, has a knack for showing up in the most unlikely places.

There are the obvious places where you expect to encounter God – church, the scriptures, prayer, the Rabbit Room (wink wink), etc. – but it’s the times when I encounter him unexpectedly that prove the most potent, precisely because they are unexpected. Familiarity can breed contempt and it’s all too easy for us to become ambivalent to the things of God in the places we expect to find them. It’s kind of like already knowing the punch line to a joke. There’s something invigorating about God catching us off our guard and I imagine, too, that God enjoys keeping us on our toes, confounding our attempts to pigeonhole him. Our calloused hearts are blessedly defenseless against this kind of behavior on God’s part. The element of surprise is one of his best weapons.

While God can always be counted on to be faithful, good, gracious and true to his nature, it is possible for us to become too presumptuous and forget that he’s always holding an ace or two up his sleeve. After all, God’s master strokes have always defied expectations: Israel’s deliverance out of Egypt, Christ coming as a baby, the resurrection, etc. Michael Card told me once that you should never finish the Bible’s sentences for it, and of course a part of what he means is that we have a tendency to become too familiar with mysterious and holy things and think we have God figured out, forgetting that, as Lewis put it, he is not a safe lion at all, though he is good.

And while I believe God can be found in churches, monasteries, and the other usual haunts and that there is a holiness in established rhythms of devotion and monkish observances of rituals that can lead us to God, I also know there is a romance to the way God takes our breath away by operating outside of the parameters we try to set for him. With this in mind, I love watching for how God may show up in the most unexpected places. It’s kind of like a cosmic “Where’s Waldo” where the stakes are higher and the rewards richer.

If I keep my eyes open, from time to time I catch glimpses of God whisking away around a corner, darting behind the scenery of my life, leaving clues, leading me on, further up and further in. In fact, I’m at an age in my walk where I experience his presence more profoundly in the unexpected places than I do in the expected ones. So watching has become a holy discipline.

For instance, I rarely experience worship with contemporary worship songs (I’m not making a statement against worship songs, I’m just saying they don’t typically inspire worship in me personally), but when Sufjan Stevens sings of the “Great I Am” in Decatur, or when the bells toll in the heavens in the final scene of the controversial film Breaking The Waves, or when I close the book on Perfection – Mark Helprin’s story of a little Hasidic WWII orphan who goes to Yankee Stadium to save the “Yenkiss” in “the house that Ruth built” from being “slaughtered” by the Kansas City Royals – it’s at these times when every tear I cry and breath I breathe become a holy “hallelujah.”

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael grumps, and then to his surprise and delight, he encounters Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and his life will never be the same. “There’s got to be more than flesh and bone,” Tom Waits growls. “There are angels in the architecture” sings Paul Simon. In movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Magnolia, and Life Is Beautiful hope blooms like an Easter lily amidst the sewage of the worst of our human brokenness and depravity. I find the most tender expression of sacrificial love expressed in the bleak post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I discover the strength to carry my own burden as I get lost in the fantastical journey of Tolkien’s Frodo and Sam. I can see glimpses of Christ even in the world of Harry Potter.

I think part of the reason why we find God in these unexpected places is because God’s story of redemption is the best story of all, and all other story-tellers are left with no choice but to borrow from The Great Story. One of Frederick Buechner’s most memorable novels follows the character of Leo Bebb, a bit of a religious huckster who in spite of (or maybe because of) his idiosyncratic and often misguided adventures, God shows up. Bebb – founder of the church Holy Love, Inc. – is more or less a stump preacher just barely one step ahead of the law and being caught in the tangles of his own deceits. In all of his shortcomings, however, it is clear that something holy is at work here. Buechner talks often in his work of the hidden-ness of God, and The Book of Bebb was one of the first stories that taught me to watch not only the foreground where the characters are playing their parts, but also the background where God is directing the action. If the devil is in the details, then God is in the subtext. This gives me hope.

As far as spiritual exercises go, I confess that looking for God in these least likely places of the music and stories I enjoy may be a bit self-indulgent. I suppose it is my way of whistling in the dark in hopes that God may be at work in even my most unexpected places – in my brokenness, my pain, my jealousy and fear, my anger, my sadness, my failure. These are the places where hope is tested, where hope matters and has meaning.“If you keep your eyes open, you’ll always see something,” my wife tells me. I think she’s right, and so I’m always looking.


29 Comments

  1. Mike

    While reading the Easter story a couple of years ago I was amazed at the Emmaus Road experience. It seemed to me the least likely place for a resurrected Savior to appear. Shouldn’t he have gone to the local mega-synagog to announce that He was alive. No. He shows up on a dusty road to have an encounter with two guys who were pissed that things didn’t turn out like they were told it would.

    I have been a Jackson Browne fan for the past thirty years. I didn’t know God was in his songs however until his first acoustic album a couple years back. The song “Looking East” still gets me as do many others in that album.

    Yes, I’m realizing more an more that I’ve just taken God out of the box I had him in and put him in bigger boxes.

  2. Nate

    I agree with you completely, Jason.

    Here lately, I’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings. And there are passages in there that just blow me away. The conversation between Boromir and Frodo over the ring. Frodo speaks of the weight and how Boromir’s advice seems like wisdom but Frodo knows he should not “take the way that seems easier” or refuse the burden laid on him. This passage pictures so well Christ and his taking the burden of the cross. Satan offered him easier ways, but he knew that Satan’s words only seemed like wisdom, when really they were folly.

    I think the best story that shows God is in the OT however. There, God shows grace upon grace upon grace – just look at Judges. Or consider the deliverance of Israel in Exodus. This story is crucial to a proper understanding of the gospel. We should read, study, teach and preach through the OT story narratives.

    I think that humans innately feel trapped, enslaved, oppressed. We tend to think that it is poverty, racism, cruelty. But really it is sin that enslaves us.

    And we innately cry out for freedom and for redemption. I think God puts these ideas in us to make us long for “the far country.” And I think these ideas come out through expression. I think that people exude these themes whether they understand them or not. And people are drawn to these themes even though they aren’t sure why – the same way they are drawn to other things that they cannot quite find the words for – things like fellowship, holiness and contentedness.

    I think God gives us images in this world so that we’ll understand. The images reflect the greater reality. The image may be in a book or a song. Or it may be real life slavery. And when we forget the deeper reality, get hung up on the image, we fail.

    Slavery and poverty are not our biggest problems. They are only pictures. The real problems are that we are enslaved to sin and completely impoverished before God to defend ourselves against his coming wrath.

    And then he provides the sunrise. He blesses us with beauty. We should listen to the sunrise and recognize that their is love. It is from God and we do nothing for it.

    I think God weaves his story all around us, if we, like your wife says, just keep our eyes open, we’ll see it.

  3. Stephen

    This has been a subject that has really intrigued me the past few years. It’s quite surprising indeed when you hear the Lord speak through Rolling Stones and Beatles songs! It’s like he never stops trying to draw us in and whisper in our hear. That just floors me.

  4. Loren Eaton

    I often wonder if artistic beauty — a fine turn of line, a well-crafted narrative, the contours of paint droplets on a canvas — is a manifestation of common grace.

  5. Arthur Alligood

    Jason, I was thinking about the contemporary worship deal last night as I watched a concert online of Josh Ritter. He has one line in his song “Thin BLue Flame” that I hate. He says “God made the earth in seven days and ever since he’s been walking away.” My wife hates this line and I hate this line, but as I shut the computer down last night I made the comment, “But it sure speaks to me a heck of a lot more that Christian radio.”

    So, I am agreeing that modern worship music does nothing for me. Apparently the blantantly, blasphemous moves me toward Christ. I don’t know how this works, but somehow it mysteriously does.

    By the way, if you don’t listen to Josh Ritter you should. His last two albums have been great.

  6. Nate

    Arthur, I agree. I think, often, a statement that is the opposite of what is true serves to highlight the truth. It makes you think about it. I’ve heard pastors who, before explaining what a scripture means, they explain what it doesn’t mean. This helps one listening and thinking about the statement to better process the truth and meaning involved.

    A memorable sermon of this is where John Piper first takes 2 minutes to describe what Romans 1:17 does not mean, then 20 to explain what it does mean. I think the 2 minutes is almost as helpful as the 20, if only for clarification of the latter.

    Josh Ritter’s song, though its wrong, clarifies the truth. Thanks for the example.

  7. Peter B

    Arthur and Nate: I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been coming to the place in my life where I want to hear the overflow of a disappointed, broken heart who can’t seem to believe that God is there or cares… because honestly, I feel that emptiness all too keenly sometimes. Perhaps it’s only when we actually acknowledge these feelings — by putting them into words — that God will begin to deal with our despair and unbelief.

    We have not, because we ask not.

  8. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Arthur & Nate – I love this idea that you’re exploring and have experienced it myself. For instance, Death Cab For Cutie’s nihilistic “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” has some nuggets of truth to be mined:

    In Catholic school
    Vicious as Roman rule
    I got my knuckles brusied
    By a lady in black
    And I held my toungue
    As she told me “Son
    Fear is the heart of love”
    So I never went back

    The song as a whole in all it’s nihilism and romanticized despair is very antithetical to Christianity, and yet that line – it connects and clarifies. For me at least.

    Buechner would often show Christianity in light of Buddhism, and it always made Christianity a new revelation to me. Where Buddhism says that to love 10 times means 10 woes, Christianity says that to not love means to remain in death. Contrasts are useful. Thanks for this thought, guys!

  9. Arthur Alligood

    Jason, as you well probably know Chesterton talks about Buddhism in Orthodoxy using the symbols of a circle and the Christian cross. This comparison as well has helped me. “The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.”

  10. Molly

    “So watching has become a holy discipline.”

    Thanks, Jason, for reminding me that it isn’t nearly as accidental as it sometimes seems. I’ve long been a fan of serendipity, especially when I see God on the other end. I wonder how much more I’d see if I were more disciplined about the looking …

  11. Chris Slaten

    I hesitate posting this because I bring up Randy Newman too often. But another powerful example of Light I’ve experienced in an unexpected place was my first couple of times to listen to the God Song by Randy Newman. When God sings in this song he sounds like a cold hearted Disney gangster/villain:

    Cain slew Abel Seth knew not why
    For if the children of Israel were to multiply
    Why must any of the children die?
    So he asked the Lord
    And the Lord said:

    “Man means nothing. He means less to me
    than the lowliest cactus flower
    or the humblest yucca tree
    he chases round this desert
    cause he thinks that’s where i’ll be
    that’s why I love mankind

    I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
    from the squalor and the filth and the misery
    How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
    That’s why I love mankind”

    The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
    The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
    They picked their four greatest priests
    And they began to speak
    They said “Lord the plague is on the world
    Lord no man is free
    The temples that we built to you
    Have tumbled into the sea
    Lord, if you won’t take care of us
    Won’t you please please let us be?”

    And the Lord said
    And the Lord said

    “I burn down your cities–how blind you must be
    I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
    You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
    That’s why i love mankind
    …You really need me…
    That’s why I love mankind”

    The first time I heard this, several years ago, I grew increasingly misty eyed because I felt a little bit like my faith was being assaulted by a songwriting bully from California. In subsequent listenings I instead teared up because it was such vivid picture to me of what an artist’s heart looks like when it is blinded to the pure compassion, love and joy of God. I can walk away from it with an even greater desire to paint, with as much skill and craft as R. Newman, an even more vivid picture of the God who rescues us from such a sick villain. Similarly, I recently walked out of No Country for Old Men, which is equally as dark, with a sense of spiritual relief. It was the first time in years where I had to come to face the fact that I would not be able to stop the evil/violence in the world, because the only hope in the entire movie was the Sheriff’s dream of his father going ahead of him, in a dark cold valley, to prepare a fire. In one sense movies where heroes win are great because they reflect the image of our Hero. In another sense they can be incredibly vain and short sided, because we walk out of the movie feeling like we can save ourselves and our loved ones; we can be the Hero. Bill Malonee put Martin Luther well,
    “Martin Luther said to one of his brothers
    ‘Except for one instance no man can die for another.’
    And the devil makes me fearful about my survival
    One’s gone before to ensure your arrival”

    Jason, in your entry, pretty much every movie/book example is one that I would have used for the same topic of listening to one’s life and being suprised by God. It was kind of weird, but lately I’ve run into a lot of people with similar tastes. Makes me wonder if this subculture I’m a part of has a name yet (other than the Rabbit Room).

    Agreed, the road to Emmaus is a great analogy and example for this topic.

    Just so everyone knows, if you click on Arthur Alligood’s name you will be directed to a site where you can download his new EP for free. It’s a great intro to his music. I think it needs a Rabbit Room entry. Sorry, Arthur, I decided to shamelessly promote for you.

  12. Arthur Alligood

    Chris you will hear no objections from me. Thanks friend. I say listen to whatever Chris has to say especially when it involves going to my website for FREE music. By the way, did I tell you Mr. Slaten that you’ll be producing my next epic record set to release sometime right before the end of the world? Better start learning the bass clarinet.

  13. Drew

    So, Jason, have you read Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale”? (I recommend that to everyone . . . always.)

    I can relate to your wife’s Pheasant-spotting. When it comes to watching birds, my wife always asks me how I’m able to so quickly spot them. It seems to me that what you do is train yourself to *not* see everything but what you’re looking for. You look at a tree, but in your mind you erase the tree, until only what is *not* tree remains. In this case, a bird.

    I wonder if looking for God is like that.

  14. Chris Slaten

    Drew,
    “I wonder if looking for God is like that.” I realize you were just wondering, not stating, but you made me wonder why we would want to erase/ignore the rest of God’s work when looking for Him? Seems like a myopic approach when from Him, to Him and through Him is everything. What do you think?

  15. Drew

    Well, Chris . . . you make me think that that obvious answer is that you can’t not see God because he leaves his stuff everywhere. It’s like having a toddler in the house. : D

  16. Stacy Grubb

    I can relate to that feeling of recognizing truth the most when a false statement attacks my sensibilities. A good example for me was “Unanswered Prayers” by Garth Brooks. I truly want to love that song, but I just can’t because, I know what he *means* to say with that song, but he has missed the mark. The idea of an unanswered prayer, to me, says that I said a prayer that God ignored. Maybe the answer was No, but No is still an answer. But the whole thought process that took place when I heard the term “unanswered prayers” as a young girl has made the fact that God answers ALL of my prayers stick with me. Every time I’ve prayed for something that I didn’t get, I think of that song and say, “Thanks for listening, even though Your answer was no.” Ironically, it topped the list of one of those Top 100 countdowns on CMT recently as the top religious song or something to that effect. It made me want to crawl through the TV and broadcast myself saying, “Whatver.”

    On that same subject, another line than nearly wrecks the whole song for me is in “When the Levee Breaks,” when it says, “Cryin’ won’t help you and prayin’ won’t do you no good.” I can’t think of any situation when prayin’ won’t do a person good (unless you’re one of those people who believes God ignores some prayers and doesn’t answer them). I listen to that song, dreading that line, and I just wish like everything that it said something else because, otherwise, I really love the song.

    One instance when I’ve found God when least expecting to was when I was about 13 reading the liner notes to a Collective Soul CD. I became really excited at some of their lyrics because, at that time, they were hugely popular with “Shine” and their lyrics, to me, contained a lot of Biblical references and parallels.

    Stacy

  17. Leigh McLeroy

    A few years ago I gave myself of the assignment of watching for God’s hand (or handiwork) in my everyday life, and reporting what I saw to a handful of friends each week. Three-hundred and some odd weeks later, He’s still knocking my socks off. In a pair of re-soled boots. An old chandelier. Changing the porchlight. Watching food come off the grill in an LA diner. Seeing my dog smile (no kidding). This world is so God-infused when we stop and look that it’s almost impossible to imagine God is absent or distant. Those observations became a book called “The Sacred Ordinary.” Funny, I didn’t mean to write a book. I just meant to watch for God. He’s good that way.

  18. becky

    Jason,

    When I was growing up we were not pheasant spotters, but deer spotters. My dad said one time that the trick is not to look for the whole deer, but to look for the tip of an ear or the white of the tail. Deer don’t often stand out in the open where you can see them all at once. They stand in tall brush, or in thick bunches of trees, where they are harder to detect.

    Your post makes me think that seeing God may be like that, too. I may see him more often if I’m looking for the tip of his ear.

  19. Leigh McLeroy

    Peter B – no, I didn’t. I’ve only just started reading in the Rabbit Room – but I enjoy Pete’s posts very much. All of the posts, really.

  20. Staci Frenes

    wow-i loved this whole thread of posts, thank you jason for this topic! it’s one i’ve been living in for the past year or so in my own spiritual journey. i can’t think, read or say enough about it! i am more convinced than ever that it is our watchfulness, our receptivity, not god’s willingness, which determines our degree of experiencing him in every moment, every breath.

    yesterday i stumbled on a quote by c.s.lewis: “we can ignore, but in no way evade, the presence of God. the world is crowded with him.”

  21. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Great thought Staci! I LOVE that quote by Lewis, and your statement, too: “it is our watchfulness, our receptivity, not god’s willingness, which determines our degree of experiencing him in every moment, every breath.”

    Thanks for posting. For others reading here, Staci is a friend of mine and a fine artist in her own rite and is releasing her new album any day now that was produced by Nate Sabin (the producer of my records, Sara Groves, and others). “Meteor Shower” is one of her best songs yet, and you can hear it at http://www.myspace.com/stacifrenes if you like.

  22. Karisa

    Good thoughts, Jason. I can’t believe no one has yet referenced our own dear Proprietor’s song, “Windows in the World.” It deals with this very topic beautifully. It’ll be on Resurrection Letters, Vol. 2, I believe, but you can hear it here: http://www.michaelcard.com/archives.html It’s show #310.

  23. Tony Heringer

    While discussing this very theme a friend of mine told me many years ago “either everything is sacred or nothing is sacred.” Don’t know if that was his line or someone else but that really stuck with me.

    It is a gorgeous day here in Suwanee, GA. I spent the early part of the day out running on our greenway. Lately it is on a run that I get a great sense of God’s presence. Whether it is the music fueling my run, the great vistas I pass or just a crazy thought passing in my head. Today as I was running, I thought about apple fritters and what a crazy name that was for such a fun treat. I associate fritter with waste and maybe this thing looks like waste (sorry if you are eating while reading this) but man it tastes good.

    That made me think about how God takes even my sin or frittered time to be specific and uses it for His glory. These are the sorts of meditations that put a little more zip in my step and really keep me in hot pursuit of God and what He’s up to in this crazy fallen world we live in.

    This idea of “watching” or “meditating” is to me allowing the glory of God to seep in through any means possible. It has greatly enlarged my sense of God’s omnipresence. I’m less likely to play “peek-a-boo” like Adam and Eve (one of the first and darkest jokes in the Bible — “Adam where are you?”). It keeps me honest because I remember God’s around and I am in awe of Him again or I know that I’ve fallen (again) and can’t get up apart from His Spirit.

    He’s everywhere or His markers are everywhere. So, Mr. Gray I respectfully disagree. The Devil is not in the details — God is. 🙂 Satan is just that flaming eye sending out his wraiths (the world and the flesh) seeking whom he can devour. As image bearers, whether it is common grace or particular grace, God is there — even if buried under the weight of our sin.

    Great thread folks, it has been a great conclusion to my morning run capped off by a nice cup of java and apple fritter—don’t worry mom, it was organic, I’m sure of it 🙂

    Misc. Notes:

    Stacy: On Collective Soul, I too enjoy their music and have been struck by the lyrics — especially the line in Precious Declaration that “salvation has discovered me.” This line seems to fit our overall theme here.

    A non-band member Roland (John) is an active member of my church (Perimeter) and the Roland’s dad, now at home with the Lord, was here on earth a pastor. So, it is no wonder that Ed Roland’s lyrics paint biblical pictures. Don’t know where he is spiritually, but he’s been close enough to the flame of the Gospel to have his mind warmed by it. 🙂

    Lord of The Rings – The Pity of Bilbo has always been for me the most striking thread in that work. Tolkien did not intend his work to be allegorical and chided Lewis for the allegory of the Narnia tales. The good professor does a good job of explaining this idea in the “Forward” of the book. Tolkien here states he prefers “applicabity” to allegory saying “[applicability] resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed dominion of the author.” We can expand this idea to all of creation and it would be in context with our theme – God is the author and we are the readers of His story – reflecting another quote I’ve heard over the years: “history is His Story.”

    This takes me back to the “pity of Bilbo.” This idea of mercy is carried throughout the book and in the end we see its impact on the heart of Frodo. He has the opportunity to kill Saruman and Wormtongue, but instead is insistent on showing them mercy. Saruman is bitter to the end and he and his henchman receive justice — something we all deserve apart from the grace of our Lord.

    Finally, I love this line by Spurgeon. With the Narnia books coming to film it seems to resonate even more with me. I hope it does with you all: “The Truth is a lion. Whoever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose, it will defend itself.” Here is to letting the some big cats out of the bag today!

    Cheers!

  24. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Respectfully disagree?!?! Tony, are you picking a fight with me again? 😉

    Seriously, good thoughts here – love the Spurgeon quote, too.

  25. Stacy Grubb

    Tony,

    Thanks for that bit o’ trivia, there. I fell out of touch with Collective Soul’s music after graduating high school, getting married, and being broke for upteen years. There was a looooong span of time when the funds just weren’t there for new CD’s and such. I’m much like a kid in a candy store, now, however, with so much great music to catch up on. This thread reminded me of how much I loved that Collective Soul album and now your post has me wanting to go track down some new music!!

    Stacy

  26. Drew

    “The Truth is a lion. Whoever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose, it will defend itself.”

    Very similar to John Milton’s comment:

    “Let truth and falsehood grapple. Whoever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

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