“While walking in the park one day, in the merry, merry month of May, I was taken by surprise by a pair of roguish eyes; in a moment my poor heart was swept away!”
Do you remember this popular lyric from the early years of the last century? We sang it as children as a kind of salute to allegedly simpler days of time gone by. But there is profundity beneath the placid surface of the words. Listen to the similar words of scripture: “Behold I will do a new thing; Now it shall spring forth (Isaiah 43:19).” This is a declaration of confidence in the Lord on the part of the prophet, living in the midst of a nation that has experienced disaster, destruction and exile at the hands of the cruel Babylonians.
But the next phrase of this verse raises an interesting question for me. The prophet continues his report of God’s communication with this question: “Shall you not know it?” The implied answer is “Yes!” How can we ignore “a road in the wilderness” and “rivers in the desert”? But there is a key ingredient implied in both the quaint romantic lyric about a stroll in the park and the profound scripture about miraculous renewal. Let me call it “surprisability”: the ability to recognize and accept the “new thing.”
There are regularities in life that seem universal. Some are positive and life affirming: the explosion of spring blossoms and bird song that have arrived on schedule to metro Portland this spring; the surge in wedding planning and graduation parties that comes upon us every spring. Others are depressing: the inexorability of the aging process, no matter how healthy our diet and how regular our exercise program; the proliferation of surgeries — both planned and unplanned — that characterizes the life of a congregation that, like ours, has a number of older members.
Biblical faith teaches us that the Creator has set up these regularities for the preservation and the renewing of creation, in spite of the havoc wreaked by our sinfulness. “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22). There are also the regularities that we create for ourselves in our congregational life: board and committee meetings, Bible class and worship schedules, liturgical calendars.
But will we keep our eyes open for the new things that God proposes? Will we even recognize them when they come? Will we receive these new things when they are upon us? God reveals Godself to us through his living Word, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, and through his written Word, Holy Scripture, the original and authentic witness to the living Word. But in order for God’s revelation to be complete, we have to receive it.
This is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, and this is why the so-called “sin against the Spirit” (Matthew 12:31) is called unforgiveable: we cannot receive God’s grace if we close ourselves off against it. In order for God to do a new thing in us, for us and through us, we need to foster and maintain surprisability in ourselves. We cannot let our hearts be “swept away” if we refuse to believe in surprises. We will not see our personal lives or our congregational life transformed unless we believe that God can and, indeed, proposes to do new things.
Look around. What new things do you see? Are you ready to receive them? Can you be surprised?
—Dr. David L. Wheeler