Friday, December 31, 2004

expect the unexpected (a sermon)

Expect the Unexpected
a sermon reflecting on the year past
and preparing for the year ahead
by Troy Cady

“Oh what a beautiful morning! Oh what a beautiful day! I got a beautiful feeling everything’s goin’ my way!” He was a friend of mine and he was playing the lead role in the musical “Oklahoma.” In this particular production, my friend walked out on the huge stage before an audience of about a thousand people with a real live horse. It was about the 6th performance and just as he sang those words the horse decided he needed to relieve himself. Right then, right there. So, he started urinating all over the stage. After 5 performances without a glitch, we all learned that day to “expect the unexpected.” Sometimes life throws us some surprises, eh? Unfortunately, not all surprises are humorously benign like this one. Some of them, in fact, are downright tragic.

For example, when I was two years old, I was playing outside one day when an awful accident happened. I was run over by a truck. There I lay on the concrete, virtually dead. That unexpected event has literally changed the course of my life. Yes, sometimes life throws us some unexpected curves.

Most times, however, life’s surprises fall somewhere in between the two extremes of peeing horses and near-death experiences. Most times, life’s unexpected occurrences take on the form of a change in plans. You see, we make plans for the future and God keeps stepping in and changing our plans.

For example, when I got married at the young age of 21, and someone asked me: “What are you going to do now?” I responded: “First, I’ll finish up my last year of college. And while I’m finishing school, Heather will get a job. Then, after I finish school, we’ll go straightaway to the mission field. And, after we’ve been married about three years, we’ll have a baby.” I had my whole future planned, with the timing all worked out.

But, God had a different plan in mind. Oh, sure, I did finish my last year of college, but when it came to the other three things, I was slightly off. Heather had some glitches in finding a job in the States because she’s not an American citizen, we did not get to the mission field right after college and we did not have a baby when we wanted to. In fact, we almost thought we would never have children. “No, God, you don’t understand. This isn’t the way I had things planned. It was supposed to be easier to get a job. It was supposed to be easier to start my career. It was supposed to be easier to have a baby. No, I’m sorry, God, your timing is off.” But, life is full of surprises and God refused to cooperate with my attempt to control the universe.

Surprisingly, I still haven’t stopped trying to put life into a box. Some of you know that currently I’m leading a team of people in Madrid to start a new church there. And, we have some Plans For The Future: “We’ll acquire this Resource and Rent that Building at That Time in That Place and We’ll have This Event, and We’ll have this Many People by That Time.” This way of thinking has some potential dangers. If this mentality is taken to an extreme, we’ll have our own little Church-in-a Box. Now, don’t get me wrong, planning is okay. It’s just that sometimes I put God and life and love and everything in my nice little Troy-box. But life is full of surprises, and quite frankly: I’m happy God refuses to cooperate with my attempt to control the universe, because even though God has changed our plans, He’s replaced it all with something so much better. He’s actually given us an expanded vision of the kinds of things He wants to do through us. An expanded vision: A walk out of the cage, a look out the window, and an adventure in the big, wild, unpredictable world. Yes, I’m happy: Life is full of surprises. I wonder what’s going to happen next…

So, how about you? What surprises did you encounter last year? Fill in the blank on this statement: “I didn’t expect this (fill in the blank) to happen last year…”

Isn’t it amazing? Who would have imagined that last year would have held such victory and such defeat; both unrestricted rejoicing and unimaginable heartache. A loss of a job, the start of a new job; the beginning of a new relationship, the end of another; the realization of a dream, the demise of another. Who would have imagined last year would turn out like it did? That’s what we could call “the surprise factor.”

Now: We’ve noted that life is full of surprises but we haven’t talked about “What to do” in light of life’s unpredictability. I’m particularly interested in this topic for two reasons:

One, a whole New Year is just around the corner, filled with uncertainty and unpredictable promise, so this is a good time to address an issue like this.

And Two: life may not be controllable but how you respond to it is. So, ask yourself: “In light of life’s unpredictability, how should I respond?”

To open up the possibilities of how to respond, let’s take a look at what the Psalmist says. Psalm 37 says:

“Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him…” Psalm 37:3-7a.

There are four things here that I would like to highlight. Four ways of responding positively to life’s unexpected occurrences. First, Trust in the Lord. Second, Delight in the Lord. Third, Commit your way to the Lord. And Fourth, Be still before the Lord.

Now: as I was studying this, I realized “There is so much here, man! How can we unpack this in a helpful way in a reasonable amount of time and even remotely do it justice?” So, I’ve decided not to go down the list “one, two, three, four” in typical sermonizing fashion. Instead, we’ll take a look at the collective message of this paragraph and see if we can glean some helpful insights. So, I’d like to just spend a little time "thinking out loud" about just a slice of what’s here in these verses.

The first thing that strikes me about these four responses (trust, delight, commitment and stillness), when taken as a whole, is this: notice how the four things build, one upon the other: For example, trust is a foundational response. When something unexpected happens, it’s our first response. The trusting response says, “I’m okay with this. I trust that God is in control.” But, notice how delight builds on the idea of trust. Delight is like saying, “Not only am I okay with this, I quite enjoy this.” Now: if trust and delight are more passive responses, commitment is a more active response. It builds. It says, “I have some plans, but I’m willing to give them to God and to follow His lead into the future, whatever that may be.” And then, notice how the last item brings us full circle to the stillness that we may have had before the surprise. It says, “I’m trusting you, God. I delight in what you’re doing and in who you are. I commit my future path to you, and now I’m back where I started with stillness and listening, ready for the next surprise, ready for your next move.” See how they build, one upon the other?

Now: because it’s foreign to us, I’d like to spend just a little more time unpacking the second item of this list: delight. Then, after looking at the aspect of delighting in the unexpected, I’ll close with a final illustrating observation about how the four can work together in another way. Unfortunately, we don't have space to talk about the other three in greater detail, so I’ll leave those for you to explore later, okay? For now, let’s just spend a little time thinking together about delighting in the unexpected.

Specifically, I’m thinking that we can take delight in at least three things when the unexpected happens.

One: We can enjoy the unpredictability of life in its own right. Sometimes it’s like a roller-coaster ride. Half the fun is not knowing what’s going to happen next. If it wasn’t unpredictable, it wouldn’t be enjoyable. That’s the nature of the ride, and that’s the nature of life. Half the fun is not knowing what’s going to happen next. I’m learning this response in Madrid now. I quite enjoy thinking to myself, “I wonder how this is all going to turn out…” The uncertainty of the future could drive me crazy if I let it, but I’ve actually learned to look forward to seeing what surprises God has up His sleeve for us.

But not everyone can do this, however, and not all surprises are enjoyable, so there’s a second thing we can delight in: namely, I’m thinking of the long-term benefits that journeying into unknown, even difficult circumstances can bring our way. James chapter 1 puts it this way: “Consider it joy whenever you face trials of many kinds.” And, because he knows his readers are going to say, “What?! Are you crazy?! Consider it joy when I face trials?! Blow it out your ear, buddy! You have no idea what I’m facing!” he explains himself by saying: “For you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4) Put another way, unexpected happenings in our life, even unpleasant ones, develop our character, and that’s a good thing because life will never be without difficulties and if we have a character that perseveres, we will be better off for it. That’s actually a mark of all of history’s great people, by the way: the ability to weather life’s violent storms and come out the other end stronger. I think of someone like Nelson Mandela who did this, or Alexander Solzenhitsyn. So, that’s the second thing we can delight in when the unexpected happens.

Recapping: First, delight in not knowing the future, and second, delight in the character development that will take place. But, there’s one more thing we can delight in, and that’s God himself. I include this third aspect because unexpected occurrences drive us to depend on God in greater ways. That’s why the psalmist says, “Delight in the Lord.” He, after all, is the creator of variety and unpredictability. He is the primordial Wildness. It’s like knowing another person: being married to my wife is exciting because she’s unpredictable. If she were predictable, I would probably get really bored. But, thankfully, she isn’t predictable. I can’t put her in a box. And that’s exciting. And it’s the same with God. We can delight in His unfettered, mysterious nature.

So: delight. Now: I’ll leave it to you to explore further the other three items, but, in closing I’d like to pose one other thought that may be helpful to some of us.

As I was thinking about this topic and this text, it also occurred to me how each of these responses is like the response a child makes when something unexpected happens in life.

First of all, unlike us adults, children don’t tend to really make plans at all for the future. In that sense, they don’t create trouble for themselves like we do. Because they don’t get hung up in the distant future, they minimize the “frustration and anxiety factor.”

Think about it: most if not all of our worries and frustrations are rooted in unmet expectations for the future. But what if we lived like children? With only a minimal level of demand for the future. Children tend to live for the day. One day at a time. They don’t think: “six months from now, I’m going to do this or that or whatever.” For example, when my daughter was five, one Saturday night I said to her: “Tomorrow is Sunday, your friends are going to come over and then on Monday you have school.” She responded: “No. There’s no school tomorrow.” And I said: “Yes, you’re right. No school tomorrow, but on Monday you have school.” And she said: “No. No school tomorrow.” I said: “Meaghan, you will go to school on Monday.” and she said: “No. No school tomorrow.” Then, it dawned on me: “She’s thinking about going to sleep and she’s thinking her friends are coming over tomorrow and that’s about all she can handle right now. She doesn’t care what’s going to happen on Monday or the day after that or the day after that.” And that’s really part of trust. She trusts us. She trusts her Daddy. She trusts that she’ll always be taken care of no matter what. Oh sure, she may not always get her way, and sometimes she cries because of it, but usually she gets over it and she sees that Daddy’s way is best, after all.

But most times, she is not only okay with it. She actually thinks it’s quite fun living in the present. She delights in not knowing what’s going to happen. She thinks it’s fun just playing unpredictably with her Daddy. Just wrestling with him on the bed or having a horsie ride one minute and then playing doggie or tiger the next. So, she knows the secret of trust and delight.

Of course, it’s easy to see how she “commits her way” to her parents: after all, we pretty much schedule her life. And she’s okay with that because she knows we love her.

So, she’s also okay with just “being still”. She especially likes climbing in bed with us in the morning, before the busyness of the day starts, to just “be still.” To just be with us.

Do you see how each of these responses is like that of a child? Trust, Delight, Commitment, Stillness. So refreshingly childlike. Maybe if we pretended to be like kids again, life’s unexpected twists and turns wouldn’t be so devastating. In fact, life might be quite fun and enjoyable, instead of so maddening and frustrating. Maybe, we should adopt a childlike attitude. Maybe we should take our toys out of the box and say to God: “Let’s play.” Maybe the only thing we need to expect out of life is the unexpected. It’s just a thought.

Let’s pray: “Daddy, we don’t have any idea what tomorrow holds. And we think that’s just fine. Teach us not to worry. Teach us to delight in You, to enjoy the moment. Amen.”

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