Column: The God of Good Surprises

By The Rev. Ed Horstmann

My childhood home was at the end of a dead-end dirt road, beyond which was an open pasture, and then woodland that seemed to stretch on forever. It was an exhilarating environment for my boyhood imagination, and on occasion some surprising elements were added into that world of mine to make it even more intriguing.

I am thinking of one particularly beautiful summer day when my family had gathered in the kitchen for lunch. Outside the sky was clear blue, the sunlight made the grass a vivid green, and there was no hint of even the slightest breeze. The normal sounds of conversation and the soft clatter of plates and cutlery filled the room, but that peaceful space was suddenly filled by a roaring whoosh that seemed to come from directly above the flat roof of the house. It was there, and it was gone, in moments. We shared sidelong startled glances, but no one responded. After a collective “what-in-God’s-name-was-that?” moment, we went back to making sandwiches.

Later in the afternoon one of my brothers went outside for a walk, but soon returned. He told us to join him in the backyard and when we did so, we saw why he had gathered us. The patio furniture that was normally arranged in a small area next to our home, was strewn around the open pasture, as if tossed there by giant unseen hands. No one needed to think long to make a connection between that furniture and the roaring gust we had heard earlier. My mother called the Schenectady County Airport and the local weather service to see if any anomalies had been reported. No one had any information to explain what we saw and heard, and so we were left to wonder, and I still wonder to this day.

Things happen to us that we can’t explain. Dreams, coincidences, visions, and voices: over many years of parish ministry, I have been drawn into the trust of people who have shared with me their experiences of a mysterious and forceful presence who broke through the ordinary with sudden and vibrant power. Most times these moments don’t last long but can leave a lifelong, indelible impression. Often such experiences have been forceful reminders to the receivers of a grace that is alive and at large in the world. In the Christian tradition we call this the resurrection power of God: the inexhaustible capacity to bring life out of death and hope from despair.

I am writing this article just two days removed from the invasiveness of a different kind of force in the lives of children and their teachers in Uvalde, Texas. Unlike my experience at home as a child, this brutal intrusion did not lead to wonder but to mayhem. Nineteen children and two adults died at the hand of an eighteen-year-old man wielding a weapon and a mighty absence of any reverence for life. These acts of gun violence are occurring with dreadful frequency, making the world seem progressively less safe by the day.

Even if we have had experiences that fill us with a surging sense of the goodness of life and the creation on which we live, it can be challenging to see the future as a fertile field for hope. And yet. . .and yet.

In our communities of faith, we tell stories about the surprisingly good things that the Spirit can and does make possible in the world. In the Hebrew Bible we can find a story about a shepherd named Moses, a fugitive from a violent past, who became the leader of the Israelites and guided them on their long walk from slavery to freedom. In the Christian scriptures there is a story about a young woman named, Mary, probably a teenager, who learned that she would give birth to a child whose destiny was to be a new Moses, and would grow up to become a visible, tangible, and vigorous expression of God’s compassion. God’s unannounced and dramatic intrusions into the lives of Moses and Mary were initially unsettling, and probably unwelcome. Yet ultimately such encounters with the God of good surprises led to incredibly good things for those who were drawn into the spirit of these movements.

I choose to believe that God is a God of good surprises who offers gifts of hope, love, and faith precisely where we need them most. God can shock us with a roaring wind, or speak with a whisper louder than thunder, and always finds ways to strengthen our weary spirits and prepare us for the next leg of the sacred journey. One breath at a time, the Spirit breathes new life into the creation, and gives us the resilience and tenderness to live toward a vision where a little child need never worry again about being safe at school.

The Rev. Dr. Ed Horstmann is the Senior Pastor of Round Hill Community Church in Greenwich. He is an artist, and plays as much tennis as possible.

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