Life’s Surprises by Nancy Reynolds


For Mt. Pleasant Worship – November 21, 2010

John 3:1-8


Since July 21st I’ve been marveling over Life’s Surprises. July 21st, exactly four months ago, that’s the night of my excruciating headache. I call it the “headache from hell.” It started about bedtime and grew increasingly painful. By 1:30 AM it became obvious that something was very wrong. I called my daughter and then 911. It’s fortunate that I did at that moment, because I don’t remember much after that – until I woke up the next afternoon following emergency brain surgery for a brain hemorrhage. The doctors located the blood vessel that was bleeding and repaired it. The surgery was declared a success and the doctors were confident that I would be fine.


A subdural hematoma, as it is called, is usually associated with a blow to the head and frequently fatal. But I couldn’t recall any head trauma. The doctors were puzzled and finally labeled it – “cause unknown.” Because I had no brain damage, my recovery has progressed smoothly and quickly. I’m back to doing all the things I did before. But what a surprise! What a shock! I keep marveling over that! It’s because I got to all the right places at the right time and doctors knew what to do that I’m standing here today. I still have to pinch myself as a reminder that it really happened. It‘s certainly not something I ever expected or imagined. Neither was a diagnosis in 2005 of a rare disease called Celiac which has me on what I call “the diet from hell.” Never in a million years did I dream that Celiac would be one of my health issues. But – surprise, surprise! It’s a hereditary condition and it’s in my Mother’s family.


Have you ever pondered the surprises in your life? Some of life’s surprises bring astounding jubilation. Some bring total devastation, overwhelming heartache and pain. There are instantaneous surprises like an earthquake or a 9-11. And there can be an accumulation of events that you realize later in life as a surprise. Thinking back, I can celebrate the surprise that I earned two college degrees. I had very low self-confidence when I entered college. During orientation that first week, when the leader said, “Look at the person on your right and look at the person on your left. Only one out of three will make it through the four years to graduation.” I was pretty sure I’d be one of the failures. I become elated whenever I think of that accomplishment. I wouldn’t trade that education for anything – a wonderful life surprise! And what a surprise it was for me to be called to a unique ministry in my community to children with learning disabilities and have had the privilege of doing that work now for 25 years plus the 21 year opportunity to do the same for teens at West Nottingham Academy. That was such a fulfilling work. It surprises me how it all fell into place.


Another surprise I celebrate is my three amazing kids and their spouses – all of whom I am extremely proud. They were at my bedside throughout my ordeal in July. I celebrate my six beautiful grandchildren and #7 on the way. Surprise! I never dreamed they’d be so beautiful. The most painful surprise of my life was divorce. It’s something else I never thought could happen to ME. It was full of heartache. I became a single parent with three teenagers! Whoa! That’s a surprise I call “the challenge from hell.”


Then there was the day my mother fell and broke her hip. Life was never the same after that day for my parents and for the whole family. And oh, how about the surprise that happened this past April when I was visiting the Netherlands and the volcano erupted in Iceland grounding all the planes in Europe! Though that surprise was devastating for many, I liked it. It meant a one week free extension to my vacation. We all know surprises come daily – volcanic eruption! Brain hemorrhage! News of a new grandchild! And we know we must always expect the unexpected. Life can turn on a dime!


Henri Nouwen, in his book titled Beyond the Mirror, refers to these surprises as life’s interruptions and says that “it has been life’s interruptions to my everyday life that have most revealed to me the divine mystery of which I am a part. Such events have forced me over and over again to ask myself the question, ‘Where is God and who is God for me?’ Each interruption invited me to look in a new way at my identity before God. Each interruption took something away from me; each interruption offered something new.”


So what surprises in your life had a major impact? Which ones were life changers and your life was never the same again? Which ones took you down a path you never could have dreamed possible in earlier times? Which ones were affirmations of some new leading you were working with? This is a fascinating exercise, because to do the inner work is to see how God is moving through our lives, and feel the wonder and mystery that surrounds the events of our lives every day. And the surprises remind us that we are not in charge. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” God is moving in surprising ways in our times as in the past. If only we are able to recognize and work with him.


The Bible is loaded with surprising events full of awe, wonder and mystery – history changing events. We may not be able to explain their happening, but we may be able to sense the hand of God working through it all. The list is endless and all of you could name your favorites, but I’ll include a few outstanding ones:


The Incarnation has God coming to earth and being born in a manger! Think how outrageous that is! God shows himself to us in human form through the life of Jesus! That’s startling! But this is all passé to us in modern times. There is no shock value any more. But just think of it!


And what a surprise it is that Jesus did not come as the expected type of savior! Everyone was looking for an earthly king who is supposed to lord it over mankind. Not one who would turn the power ladder upside down and instead be servant of all?


How about the shock to Mary and Joseph when they learned that they would be the ones to usher Jesus into the world! Talk about lives forever changed!


And what about the disciples giving up everything to follow Jesus and stepping into unknown futures! Then came the shock of watching Jesus die at the hands of evil men and their hopes dying with him – until the resurrection when they were utterly astonished to see the risen Christ who had conquered sin and death.


What about the shock of the women at the tomb when they discovered Jesus’ body was gone. They were utterly at a loss. What about the disciples on the Road to Emmaus who were dumbfounded when they realized they had been walking with Jesus on the road and didn’t recognize him until they sat down to supper.


The disciples were shocked on the day of Pentecost – when the Holy Spirit filled the room, opening their eyes to the realization of the living presence. They were never the same again. They could move forward with a new sense of courage. And what about the gift of the holy spirit to us! Incredible! And always a mystery!


Paul was more than shocked on the road to Damascus. Paul, the Christian persecutor, was stunned blind and totally transformed. How about the horror on Ananias’ face when Paul showed up at his door. Ananias wouldn’t let him in, because he was so afraid of him!


Unexpected events, life’s surprises, surrounded by mystery, wonder and awe, and the hand of God was working in and through it all. “The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but don’t know where it comes from or where it is goes.” So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John3:8)


CS Lewis, an amazing Christian scholar and writer, is the author of the famous Chronicles of Narnia, which remain extremely popular among children and youth today. The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity are considered classics. He had a most fascinating conversion experience over the course of his early life. He described it in a book called Surprised by Joy. The mystery of God’s presence is very evident in this story. At the age of 15, Lewis declared himself an atheist despite being brought up in a religious home. Occasionally, surprisingly, out of nowhere, usually when he was reading or observing something beautiful in nature, an experience of joy would come upon him. It was “a deeply felt and intense longing”. This “joy” was such an overwhelming and thrilling surprise that Lewis decided it was of the “highest good of life” – something to be sought after. He tried to figure out how he could make it happen – how he could bring on this spiritual exultation. He said it was like “tasting heaven.” He began to realize that God was in hot pursuit of him. Finally, after trying in vain over a long period of time, Lewis realized these experiences were coming from someplace beyond himself, that they were signposts toward God. These experiences reflected a reality – another dimension he had not yet recognized. This is when he knew that God was closing in on him.

Surprised by Joy is a masterpiece of literature recognized as an exercise in self-reflection and analysis, and as an unparalleled example of the conversion of a priceless human soul to belief in God. Lewis’s account of his spiritual journey shows that God can be discovered in the most unlikely places and in the most unlikely ways, no matter how hard we try to avoid Him. When we think we have trumped God, we find that He has in fact trumped us, always remaining well ahead of us on the path. Lewis’s account often reads like a great chess match between one man and God, but it remains familiar because it is a match that we play again and again. All the surprises in our lives point us in the direction of faith, hope, and a sense of God’s nearness.


So, how do I read my surprise of last July in terms of God? In my mind, it’s really very simple. By the time doctors knew my diagnosis and what needed to be done, I was in an unconscious state. My kids had to make decisions for me – so there was no period where I was stressed about the possibility of death. I didn’t know how serious it was until I woke up and by then the worst was over. I know I was in shock, but at the same time I was calm and have had a sense of peace throughout my recovery. I didn’t fight it, or really question it very much. The brush with death did not unnerve me and I know the loving care I received constantly from everyone around me contributed to that. It seemed to me that if I had actually died, it would have been okay. God granted me an island of peace within my soul. I felt He kept His promises, the promise to be with me, and the promise to love me. And I know that in every circumstance of my life, he is calling me unto Himself – calling me toward a deeper relationship with Him – giving me a solid place to stand.


He says to me, “You are my own – When you pass through deep water, I am with you. When you pass through rivers, they will not sweep you away, walk through fire and you will not be scorched, through flames and they will not burn you. For – I am the Lord your God, the Holy One, your deliverer.” (Isaiah 43:2)


The wind blows where it chooses. I hear the sound of it. I don’t know where it comes from and I don’t know where it is goes. But I know that it is and I can depend on it.


Note from Pastor Asher: Ms. Nancy Reynolds is our current Lay Leader and Lay Speaker. She preached in my absence, while I was leading Home Coming services at Tome Memorial UMC.


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