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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.