Joyed By Surprise
Christmas is that rare time of year when we tolerate enchantment.
The season invites us to see life through a different lens, and feel it with a different spirit. Even adults who have entered the "iron cage" of disbelief still make room for magic. On the mantle above our fireplace stood a work of embroidery. Stitched in that frame was my father's mantra: "To believe in God is to know that all the rules will be fair, and that there will be wonderful surprises."
That strange interplay between fairness, rules, and surprises long simmered in my mind as a boy. As I experience the failures, regrets, and losses of life, the meanings of that mantra multiply. Surprises do their best work by breaking rules. They sneak up on our defeated expectations, just before we let them go, and tap us kindly on the back. The word is almost always used in a positive sense. There's a reason why people yell "surprise" at a 40th birthday party with happy voices. A negative surprise wouldn't be called a surprise at all, but a "shock," an "accident" or even a "tragedy."
God allows us to give up on this world, only to come roaring back with something better around the corner. It is not the unpredictability of life we should fear, but the absence of unpredictability.
Surprise is about witnessing the pulling-away of the drab cloak that smothers a world steeped in mystery. Perhaps for our own good that cloak clings heavily to the earth and is not easily blown off its mooring. Otherwise, if we could see this world for the wondrous place it really is we may try to drink it in faster than we have capacity to hold.
Some years ago I shared this wonder with my toddler. One morning he was circling the kitchen table, looking for a chair to climb on top and play with (or eat) all the exciting things there. Refusing to be discouraged, he raised himself onto tippy toes and caught a glimpse of his yellow pacifier. I could see it perfectly from my vantage point above, but didn't want to indulge his habit. Yet he desperately reached for it. He first petitioned me with his eyes, and then let out grunts and squeals, hinting that I should get it for him. After a while I thought he would get over it and walk away. But he became more insistent. His imploring got louder; his grunts and squeals more urgent. He shifted from one side of the table to the other, stretching from a different angle each time. I still tried to ignore him.
Then finally his demands turned into full-on crying. I gave in and convinced myself it wasn't worth the ear-ache. I picked up the pacifier and handed it to him. When I did so his countenance softened and relaxed. He was stunned by my generosity. His body froze and melted into the tenderest gestures I've ever seen. He didn't know what to do, so in an awkward flourish he lifted his arm in the air to signal his recognition of what I had done. He was trying to communicate something to me that he himself didn't understand. It was as if he wanted to say "Gee dad, thanks. That was such a kind thing to do for a little guy like me. I have a hard time reaching up in high places, and only you could have got it for me. And now I think I want to say something but I can barely talk, so I'll just pause here for a moment in awe at this new emotion I'm feeling. Do you know what this is? Tell me." I then realized what just happened: it was the first time my son experienced the joy of surprise.
Such moments between father and son make all the disappointments and frustrations worth it. In fact, they make the surprise possible in the first place. Like my toddler discovered, life presents opportunities for which our existing emotions have no gesture. So we reach into our bag of familiar expressions and apply those worn-out feelings to everything we encounter, whether they fit or not.
C.S. Lewis is known for being "surprised by joy." He describes the longing for something he can only approach, but never fully grasp. I like to tweak that and say that I am "joyed by surprise." The surprise comes in the grasping, and the joy is found in not knowing it would happen.
So, on Christmas morning, when we look under that tree, the presents we prize the most will be the ones not on our list.