“Expect to Be Surprised”

Water knows the way. Water and gravity. Water and sand. Water and frigid weather.  Water and subterranean heat. Water and soft rock. Water knows the way.

My appreciation for the wisdom of water grew this fall when Jean, her mother Barb, and I visited National Parks out west.  We drove through Arizona and Utah, Wyoming and a little piece of Idaho; we visited Arches and Bryce Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Dead Horse Point State Park. In every visitor center (and yes, we did go to all of the visitor centers) there was a description of how the remarkable landscapes had been shaped by water.

And there were a number of ways. Water itself eroding solid rock. Water mixed with sand (from sandstone), eroding more quickly and deeply.  Water freezing in the cracks of exposed rock, expanding and breaking it. Even in Yellowstone, which does not share the desert topography and climate of the other parks, water combined with hot magma below the surface creates the amazing geothermal sites that are so famous.

And so perhaps it is not so surprising that Jane and our worship team have chosen a river as the Advent symbol of finding “a way out of no way.”  Our worship for these four Sundays will include an Advent prayer and hymns that remind us of the ways that water finds a way, a way forward. A way towards the justice, compassion, and stewardship that we proclaim on Sunday mornings. A way towards public life that reflects the best of human cooperation and aspiration. A way towards congregational life that uplifts and connects us. A way toward personal lives that are joyful, humble, and generous.

Right now, the way to all those things seems blocked, barricaded, barren. I do not need to name all of the ills and outrages that greet us every day, but I do need to notice the back story for the words of Isaiah that we heard this morning – it, too, is filled with ills and outrages. The book of Isaiah began with the prophet naming the misdeeds of the people of Judah and of Jerusalem, and blaming them for the misfortunes of their nation and city.

So it is a little surprising that the second chapter begins with an outrageous vision of how the world could be. God will be at the center and be universally revered. People will long to be present with God, to learn from God, and to walk in the ways of God. Not only will warfare be ended, but the very tools of war will be transformed into tools of domestic life. The Hummers will be converted into tractors and the arsenals will be remodeled into homeless shelters.

Isaiah not only believed that there was a way, he also dared to imagine what that way might look like. He shared that imagination with the people of Judah and the residents of Jerusalem, who had been repeatedly defeated and exiled from their homeland.

Many of us share that sense of being defeated and exiled from the nation and the community that we long for. I sometimes worry that our current determination to resist the injustices of our legal and immigration systems in the United States, and the acid partisan practice of politics … I wonder if those commitments to resist sometimes interfere with our need to dream big, to dream as Isaiah dreamed. Who will be the Isaiah’s among us, the prophetic voices who will weave pictures of economic and social justice dramatic enough and beautiful enough to inspire and ignite us? Dreaming is part of finding a way when there is no way.

So is paying attention: watching, waiting, anticipating. “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” wrote Paul in his letter to the church in Rome. The phrase he used for “wake” might better be translated as “be awakened from sleep,” as though the call to wakefulness comes from outside of us and the waking is not of our own volition. Sometimes, it seems, we must wait for the way to come to us, to wake us up, to tug us forward.

“You know what time it is,” Paul goes on. The word he uses for time is Kairos, which is not the kind of time that is measured by a clock or a calendar. Kairos is a propitious moment for decision or action. When we say, “the time has come” or “the time is ripe,” we are using the meaning of Kairos.

An Aside. You might already know that I have a long-term love-hate relationship with the Apostle Paul. His writing is at the center of much of Christian theology, and when he is at his best, his words soar with meaning and clarity. When he is not at his best, it is hard to know what he is talking about. He knows what he is talking about here.

Dreaming. Paying attention in this moment. Living honorably. Paul’s list of is living honorably is presented in the style of “thou shalt not” – no reveling and drunkenness, no debauchery and licentiousness, no quarreling and jealousy. We might add some suggestions in more positive way: fun and joy with radical inclusion, love with respect and forbearance, community with mutuality and affection.

Whether we put it in punitive terms or positive terms, the truth is that finding a way out of no way is dauntingly multi-task. Dreaming requires both a clear-eyed view of what is around us, and an imagination of how it could all be different. There are many ways to see clearly and many ways to imagine, and sometimes it is hugely difficult to hold our dreams and visions together as a community.

Dreaming is also a way of setting expectations, now only of how the world should be, but also of how the people around us should be. Sometimes that expectation calls out the best in us. Remember the school experiment where teachers were told that certain of their students were likely to do well in their classes? At the end of the term, those children had done well – even though they had been randomly chosen in the first place. It was the teacher’s expectation that set in motion the process that helped those children shine. High expectations can be inspiring and healing.

On the other side, expectations can set us up for disappointment, anger, and unhappiness.  A friend of mine who is a member of the recovery community put it this way: “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” What she meant, I believe, is that by expecting events and relationships to turn out in a particular way, we come to believe that they should turn out as we have planned. Thwarted, we end up resentful of all the people who didn’t do what we thought they should have done.

Resentments do not lead to a way out of no way. But there is one expectation that might:  the expectation of surprise, the expectation that what is coming and what needs to be done next have not yet been revealed – but they will be. The spiritual practice of discernment is a way of expecting surprise, because you enter that practice to listen to the Divine voice, not your own. In our house we use the term “listening” for that quiet waiting for clarity and direction. If you think about it, a great many important things that happen in our lives grow out of surprises, out of moments that unfold differently than we had been expecting.  It is truly a spiritual discipline to rely on the belief that something will open up for us.

I don’t know if water has the capacity of being surprised. I can’t help imagining that as the river finds its way under the ice, between the rocks, around the banks, even into the foundations of our houses . . . I can’t help imagining that the river experiences something of the wonder of finding a way out of no way.