Jun 3, 2016

In Good Faith: The Element of Surprise

In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about the delight of surprise -- both being surprised and doing the surprising. 


The Element of Surprise

I don’t do a whole lot of plotting in my daily life. Planning, sure. When you lead a parish — as with any institution or business — you better be planning for the next week, month, and year. But I generally leave plotting to Cold War-era spies and, perhaps, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

Nevertheless, I found myself in the middle of a serious plot last week. It had nothing to do with anarchy, so please don’t jump to conclusions and add me to the NSA watch list. It was all about a surprise 30th birthday party. Not my own, mind you, but thank you for telling me I look 17 years younger than I actually am.

No, this was a surprise party for a good friend of the family. Her girlfriend Erica, who can’t stand baseball, wanted to surprise Jen by having 25 of her closest friends and family be on hand when she arrived at Fenway Park. In order to pull this off, my wife and I, along with another friend, were tasked with taking her out to dinner, keeping an eye on the clock, not totally ruining the plan, and then arriving with the birthday girl at the Red Sox game mid-first inning.

I was a wreck all day, figuring I’d be the one to blow it. I’m not exactly known for being cool under such pressure and I kept imagining 25 people jeering and throwing things at me as we arrived, annoyed that I had blurted out something about “group sales” during dessert.

But this experience made me reflect on the whole nature of “surprise.” There’s a wonderful spiritual autobiography by the famed English author C.S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia) titled Surprised By Joy. Lewis writes of his conversion from atheism to Christianity and shares his deep, life-long yearning for what he describes as “joy,” something he only finds through faith in Jesus Christ. 

For Lewis, “joy” transcends mere pleasure or happiness. Rather, it is the experience “of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” And this true, unfettered and lasting joy comes through faith in God.

Lewis, like many of us, was surprised to find something he didn’t even realize he was
searching for. Which is not a bad working definition of “surprise” — when a surprise is revealed, we’re moved or impacted in ways we could never have expected or imagined. Sometimes that’s faith and sometimes that’s a group of your closest friends plotting together in a tangible display of love and affection in the shadow of the Green Monster.

Yes, Jen was surprised. Utterly and completely. We walked in, she froze in recognition and confusion, and soon the entire section was serenading her with “Happy Birthday.” Most importantly, I didn’t spoil the surprise and have to spend nine innings curled up in the fetal position underneath my seat.

And I was reminded that the element of surprise is a delightful way to strengthen the bonds of affection. Perhaps this is why God so often surprises us with joy, even when we least expect or deserve it.

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