My life seems to be filled with unexpected moments these days. Consequently, I have had trouble keeping up my usual writing pattern. I have beaten up on myself a couple times for sitting down to write late at night when I finally have time, then waking up realizing my iPad has become an unintended pillow. After a few days of this, I am finally coming to realize that this is what the unexpected does to us. It knocks us out of the predictable and comfortable and sends us a new message, one that sometimes take a while to sink in. It takes time to sink deeply into the unexpected and be open to the grace and growth it has to offer us. I am reminded of the words I sometimes pray from the New Zealand Prayer Book, “For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep.”
In my waking contemplation and in my unconscious sleep, three things stood out for me amid my unexpected moments. I have to acknowledge, they weren’t necessarily the most exciting nor the things that my rational mind expected. My flat tire downtown didn’t feature prominently, nor did a perpetual string of workplace issues and dramas; those are just the daily ebb and flow within a fast-paced life. Instead, there were three distinct points of light that seem to offer me sustenance for the journey, something to take in deeply and nourish my soul. All three of these unexpected moments have a spiritual parallel which I will leave with you as well.
The first of these unexpected small points of light was at University graduation. Amid the pomp and circumstance, I was enjoying seeing the day through the eyes of my advisee, who had just completed our doctoral program. Our University changed its practice last year and began allowing doctoral graduates to be hooded at University graduation by their major advisor. So, robed in academic regalia for the second day in a row, my doctoral advisee and I made our way to the stage. Things were going as expected. Our names were announced; there was the ceremonial hooding; a photograph was taken; each shook hands with the Graduate School Dean and then the University president in recognition. It was an anticipated line of gracious formalities, and we walked it in form and smiling widely across the stage. It was a very good, ordinary yet extraordinary moment. When I reached the extended hand of our University President, though, something shifted. He paused as he grasped my hand to look me in the eyes…to recognize who I was, and to tell me how he was hearing about my work and appreciated all that I was doing for our University and community. Maybe he had that exchange with everyone, who knows. It wasn’t so important that he said it to ME. It was that he said something TO me. He met my eyes, he paused the formalities, and he seemed to know something specifically about me among the thousands who work for my big, urban academic employer. I wasn’t the graduate…I was there, showing up, being the mentor and advisor to my students that I am privileged and humbled to be. Why he stopped the line to have this brief exchange with me, I will probably never know. This exchange has made me ponder with gratitude: How much more frequent and meaningful are those moments where I am stopped in the midst of my ordinary, and reminded that I am seen and known and recognized by God for simply being who I was created to be.
Fast forward to unexpected moments of Sunday. We were having a surprise “thank you” reception for our outgoing interim rector between our two scheduled church services. This meant the whole thing had to be set up during the first service, so the parish hall was a hive of quiet, buzzing, secret activity. As I stood putting out napkins next to a pile of glass plates and food at one end of the table, I watched helplessly as the other end of this reception set up, two tables away, went crashing down with about 50 glass plates and two platters full of food resting on top of it. The noise suggested an atrocity and we thought the congregation would be streaming in to check on things…or worse yet, the guest of honor would descend. Instead, 50 plates flew off the table and slid across the floor, without breaking. The food flew up and back onto the tablecloth, other than a few pieces of random cut fruit that had to be tossed. Our cadre of workers stopped first in shock, then in laughter, then declared this a divine moment of unexpected grace. Only later did we make the parallel of how this seemingly mirrored our year of massive collapse that has also been so filled with grace. We are all intact, and we will be sure to brace the latches on the table more tightly going forward. But we also need to see the divine in the ordinary and say a prayer of gratitude for the dishes of our lives that may seem to be at dire risk of smashing, and yet show their resilience when a touch of Spirit is present to break their fall.
A final unexpected moment was during a visit from my half-sister. She lives in a different state, and we didn’t grow up together so we rarely see each other, and we have to wrestle with how to make a relationship with each other as grown-ups. There is more than I will choose to say on this blog about unexpectedness in this entire situation, but I hold those details of my family’s life as sacred and private space. The piece I do want to talk about, though, is the unexpectedness of how she chose to visit. She and the friend she was traveling with met me at my church on Mother’s Day Sunday (yes, just after the plate crashing). Part of this unexpectedness was timing, but I believe a bigger part was God. Church is both a long-standing part of me, and a new point of grace in my life. I grew up in a highly religious family, and church served as a structure and a constant within our daily lives. Church was where answers and structure were found. This meant that disorder and questions didn’t so much have a place there…and I found myself alone with those. Subsequently, most of my early adult life was spent outside the church, searching widely on the journey to deepen the questions and see the emergent grace amid the seeming disorder. Its in the past several years that I have re-entered church (this time, the Episcopal Church) as a place to embrace questions and be in the community of those who ponder and question and journey together. I so appreciate this unexpected gift, and the ways in which I have come to know divine presence within it. And, I appreciate that my sister has come to know me enough through talking and reading my blogs to want to know that part of me. The unexpected was being met in this particular space, at this juncture in our relationship of getting to know each other more deeply. I felt and experienced the gift of that time we were sharing.
And so, I sit tonight with all these gifts in my heart. There is still the requisite amount of chaos and disorder in my world; I am in the midst of a time of transformational growth, discernment, and transition. But these lessons shimmer on the path, asking me to be still and allow them to sink in deeply. And they are sinking in, both in my waking, and in my sleeping. Sometimes we glimpse God’s presence, but we need to be still in order to really, deeply know that divine Presence fully. I am grateful for those times this week, even when my iPad has been my pillow.