Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Not What We Expected:
In Praise of the God of Surprises

So, we're a few days away from the kick-off of the Summer of Scripture, a 90 day Bible-binge of young adults in Madison and across the country. The project has taken a fair amount of organizing and explaining to get to this point. Also, help. Lots of help. I am already so grateful for the input and participation of the Episcopal Center community at St. Francis House and also for the friendship and cooperative leading of Dorota Pruski. Lots of others. Emmy, Noah, Rebekah. It takes a village, but this is fun, and we're almost to the starting line.

The week before the kick-off has been calmer than the weeks before it. With most of the preparation in place, I've taken up the Apocrypha as a week-long warm-up to the big dance. Part of this is practical: I want to have a sense for how slowly or quickly I read, and, while I think I've the whole Bible at one point or another, I have little confidence I can say the same for the Apocrypha.

The thing that impressed me right off the bat was Tobit's movie-like plot line. Even better, the book doesn't assume much prior knowledge, which is just to say phrases or terms unfamiliar to me are assumed to be unfamiliar to the general reader, and so they are defined. Old Testament redactors take note! I'm convinced that most of us have avoided the Old Testament not because of all the blood and war, but because reading it leaves us feeling stupid.

But not Tobit.

The best part is the prayers. Not just in Tobit - in Judith, too - wonderful prayers. Prayers for death, about lust, revenge, frustration, and disgrace, prayers for victory through deceit, all that God would be known, worshiped, and adored. Maybe because I'm coming to them secondarily, the prayers of the Apocrypha seem to me a kind of real-life, ueber-messy practicum born of the Psalms.

My favorite prayer, though - so far - belongs to Raguel, in the book of Tobit. Raguel has just successfully married off his daughter to Tobias, and - unlike the seven men before him - Tobias survives the wedding night and is not destroyed by the demon who has tormented his now-wife, Sarah. Raguel sends a maid into the bedroom to see, discretely, how Tobias has fared. When the maid reports that all is well, Raguel begins his song of blessing. In the middle, he says, "Blessed are you because you have made me glad. It has not turned out as I expected, but you have dealt with us according to your great mercy."

"It has not turned out as I expected..."

Not, "You heard my cry and delivered me."
Not, "I knew you would come through all along."
Not even, "I had my doubts, but praised your name through the darkness of the night."

No sign of prior belief and so no hiding the amazement. Simply, "It has not turned out as I expected."

And I think of Peter and the Marys. The empty tomb. I think of Moses and Thomas and, God help him, Judas.

I think of all the saints before us with the honesty to despair and the good sense, when he found them, to be wrong. Overcoming the laughter and tears, crying out as anti-prophets, "It has not turned out as I expected."

How wonderfully understated.

I wonder if I will say the same thing in ninety-plus days, turning the last page over, Revelation vanquished, having finished the book. Of the reading, of the experience, I wonder what it will have been about the summer that will cause me to say with a wry smile and bewildered joy, "It has not turned out as I expected."

How strange and wonderful to imagine - to anticipate - the joy God derives from putting these words of delight born of doubt and the deliverance of God on the lips of God's People. For even at the grave we make our song, "Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!"

For truly, my sisters and brothers, it has not turned out as we expected.

Praise God, and amen.


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