Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Unexpected Blessings

This piece was the cover article in this week's View newsletter from St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

Last week, I flew up to our nation’s capital for a short but important meeting. Although the focus of the trip was a much-hyped discussion on potential changes to the structure and governance of the Episcopal Church, I knew that other aspects of the journey would bear fruit as well. I chose a connecting flight that would enable me to sit next to a friend and colleague who was travelling to Washington for the same meeting. I made arrangements to stay at the seminary where I finished my studies because I knew I would get to see a friend who has just begun his time there and because I expected to cross paths with some of the professors who had helped shape me for ordained ministry. Also, the seminary campus abuts a boarding school, where a member of our youth group has recently started high school, and I thought a quick breakfast or at least a cup of coffee together might be possible.

Soon, however, those hopes began to evaporate. Mechanical problems on two different airplanes prevented my friend from making the trip, so I ended up sandwiched between two strangers instead. When I saw the agenda for the church-wide meeting, I discovered that it was scheduled to run later than I expected, and I was not sure whether my friend would be able to stay up long enough for us to visit. When I saw one of my favorite seminary professors and approached him with a big grin on my face, he returned my offer of a handshake, but I could tell that he could not recall who I was. Then, my ride back to the airport fell through, which meant I would need to call a cab, which meant that I might not have enough time to have breakfast with our parishioner at the boarding school.

Faced with mounting disappointment and the reality that I was standing in a familiar place but had no one to share it with, I went for a walk. Although it had been a long time, I retraced my steps from the seminary back to the apartment where Elizabeth and I lived when we were first married. The first few minutes of the walk were very familiar, and I recalled with joy how many times I had made that trip in the past. Then, I found myself walking down a street that I knew had to be the right one even though I could not remember any of houses on it. Finally, I turned a corner and saw our apartment complex, which prompted me to pull my cell phone out of my pocket and call Elizabeth to share that moment with her.

Without asking whether she was interested, I narrated my walk for her as I proceeded down the street to the last row of apartments. Then, as I turned down the dead-end sidewalk that led to our apartment, a flood of memories came back. “Do you remember making a tiny snowman in the grass during that fall’s first snow?” I asked. “Oh!” I exclaimed aloud, “I wonder if the hydrangea are still in front of our patio.” Finally, as the place we called home came into view, I said, “Do you remember our neighbor? What was his name—Mr. Burke? I wonder what happened to him.” Then, suddenly, through the bushes, I saw something—someone sitting on our neighbor’s patio. “May I call you right back?” I asked. “I see someone.”

Nine years ago, when we lived in northern Virginia, Mr. Burke (I think that was his name) was already an ancient man. He lived next door to us, and he was the kind of neighbor young couples dream of. Always friendly, always courteous, Mr. Burke loved to smile and wave as he passed by our front door, pushing his shopping cart toward the grocery store. He shared dramatic stories of his military service and reminisced about his wife who had died years before. When I moved away from that apartment, I cried a little bit because I knew that I would never see that lovely man again. But, when I walked down that sidewalk last week, there he was—still sitting on his front patio, even more ancient than before, but just as friendly as ever.

That day, I sat with him for a while, reminding him who I was and thanking him for being such a wonderful neighbor. I told him that I think about him often and give thanks to God for what he meant to us back then. He asked me to keep him in my prayers, and I assured him that I would. As I walked away, I called Elizabeth to tell her the good news, tears streaming down my cheeks. I never expected to see Mr. Burke again, and this trip all the way to Washington had given me another chance to appreciate him and, through that unexpected encounter, how full of God’s blessings those short nine months had been.

God does not wait for us to look for his blessings before he bestows them upon us. In fact, God showers them upon us even if we are completely oblivious to the fact that he has given them to us in the first place. As Jesus said, “God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). The difference between the two, however, is what they do in response to those heaven-sent gifts. Jesus’ words are a reminder that it is up to us to count our blessings and give credit to God for giving them to us.

Sometimes blessings come when and where we expect them to be—an answered prayer, a scheduled encounter, or a much-anticipated gift. More often, however, blessings sneak into our lives without us even noticing—a cancelled meeting, an interrupted vacation, an unexpected reunion. What does God ask for us in return? Only that we notice how full of blessing our lives really are. What will it take for us to embrace our blessedness? What will it take for us to count those otherwise unnoticed blessings? Find time each day to name before God the many, many ways that you are blessed so that, by giving thanks, your life might be more fully shaped by the blessings you have been given.

1 comment:

  1. So true. We never know for sure where a day might take us!