Even in the daylight, it looked like a scary movie set.
We stared through our minivan windows, waiting for Oliver to emerge from the scene. I double-checked the house number Oliver’s mom had given me.
My six-year-old son had invited two school friends to Wednesday night church. It felt like a throwback to the days of Sunday School busses. Since my grandpa had a CDL and the disposition of Andy Griffith, he was the driver. Since I was the oldest grandchild, I got to ride along.
I remember sitting in the first seat, wrangling an enormous bag of bubblegum, which I held out to every kid who climbed aboard. Before we got to church, the floor was littered with pink and blue wrappers, and the bus smelled of gum, exhaust, and Sunday morning hairspray.
Thirty years later, I was driving a minivan with no bubblegum to offer our guests. We picked up the girl and drove to the boy’s house. I was nostalgic and proud of my son’s kind invitation. In hindsight, it probably had more to do with his wanting capable dodgeball teammates for game time than it did with sharing God’s love. Either way, I saw it as a kind gesture.
I parked on the street, and my heart flipped. Its roof was steep with sagging peaks. The second story was white, and the sprawling first story was a patchwork of faded red siding, surely the mismatched remnants from a construction site dumpster. One upstairs window was cracked, and an air conditioning unit hung at an angle out of the other one.
The screen door to the porch was swung open, but I saw no activity. Broken plastic toys littered the yard. An old tree leaned away from the house. Its roots had clawed up through the dirt, and their ends were exposed where rain had washed away the soil.
I hoped I had the wrong address. Normally, I’d have sent the kids up to the door to fetch him, but I hesitated. I’ll give him another minute.
Sure enough, Oliver came bounding out. We opened the van door, and he hopped in.
“Hi, Oliver!” I greeted him. He smiled and buckled himself in.
Then, as six-year-olds are prone to do, my son asked the question on all our minds. “Oliver, is that your house?”
I glanced in the rear-view mirror in horror, searching Oliver’s face for signs of embarrassment. I was ready to pounce with a ludicrous redirection forged in the hot fires of a panicked mother’s mind.
I was considering, “Oh my goodness! There’s a three-legged unicorn!” or “For heaven’s sake! Is that a money tree?”
But before I could decide which one to ask, Oliver nodded and said, “Yeah.”
I held my breath.
A smile spread across my son’s face, and he and the little girl exclaimed in astonished unison, “That’s huuuuuge!”
In the rear-view mirror, I saw Oliver smile while the other two children refused to let their amazement die.
“That’s bigger than my house.”
“Yeah, mine too.”
“It’s the biggest.”
In my utter discomfort and fear of what might be said, I took control by asking questions about school lunch and recess.
A dozen years have passed since I first parked by that huge, haunted-looking house. Oliver’s family has moved. But every time I drive past, I recall my surprise and shock. And then I feel thankful.
I was surprised about the house, but I was shocked by the kindergarten dialogue in the back seat. Every time I drive by that house, I’m thankful for everything that was not said.
For good or for evil, experiences of shock and surprise sear memories into our minds. In positive instances of shock and surprise, those moments also generate heartfelt gratitude.
One of my favorite verses, Psalm 116:2, is seared into my mind, not because I used rote memorization strategies, but because its message surprised and shocked me.
I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me…”
How do you suppose that verse ends?
If you’d made me guess ten years ago, I’d have said, “Because he turned his ear to me, I’d better not screw this up,” or “Because he turned his ear to me, I’d better pay him back.”
But the Psalmist’s lyrics record the surprising truth. “Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live,” (Psalm 116:2).
I had been worried God’s time for me was limited, and I was wasting my allotment with my neediness. I was afraid I’d receive notification about how I’d be charged for calling on him, something akin to “Messaging and data rates may apply.”
But God is not constrained by time. He’s reliable. Because he bends down to listen, like a father stoops to hear the whispers of his child, we have the privilege of calling on him as long as we have breath.
When I first read it, it shocked me. But as I read my Bible, I see that God has often used shock and surprise to cement his truth into people’s hearts. Once it was locked in, his people gratefully passed it along.
When Jesus told the story of the man who was beaten on the Jericho road, none of Jesus’ original listeners were surprised that three religious people passed by and ignored the dying man. After all, those busy folks had religious obligations to keep.
But the surprise that sent his listeners reeling in shock was that the man who knelt in the bloodied dirt on the side of the road, who bandaged wounds and hefted a grown man into a saddle, who transported him to shelter and paid for his expenses—that man was a person the original listeners hated. He had bad blood. He was from the wrong part of town, and he didn’t worship at the right place.
Jesus surprised them with the story, but perhaps it was the shock of his command, “Go and do likewise,” that seared it into the Apostle Peter’s heart. Years later, Peter told the story to Luke, who transcribed it in a letter we call the Gospel of Luke (See Luke 10:25-37).
Holy surprise begs to be shared.
A month ago, I drove by Oliver’s huge old house. The upstairs windows were boarded. The screen door was closed, and an excavator was parked on the city street. I felt sad. Not because I wanted anyone to live there, but because it housed a memory.
Holy surprise leaves a mental mark so that even after the occasion has passed, the house is razed, and your Bible has closed, you still remember.
This year has been a little like that old house—scary and patched together with remnants from a dumpster. We’ve been afraid of what might come out of the door. But it has also housed moments of holy surprise.
Because our schedule has slowed dramatically, I’ve been writing down those surprises in the form of a quick thank you note to God. No fancy sentences or metaphors. Just a few words at a time in the evenings.
- “Thank you for all the time the boys have had to go fishing. I love walleye!”
- “Lord, thanks for the seven-minute, screen-free conversation with my teenage son.”
- “Thank you that his car was drivable after he hit the deer.”
- “Thank you for the athletic trainer who fixed the dislocated shoulder, so we didn’t have to visit the ER.”
To me, these are holy surprises. They are events and results I didn’t expect, but I’m exceedingly grateful for each one. Writing them down helps me remember God’s faithfulness even in a ramshackle house, banged-up car, and the strange uncertainty of 2020. Perhaps someday I’ll stop feeling surprised by his goodness, but I hope not.
What are the holy surprises you’ve witnessed this year that you won’t soon forget? Have you written them down or shared them with someone?
If not, I hope you will. It will bring glory to God, reassurance to you, and hope to the person who hears about your holy and surprising God.