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Following Unexpected Directions

When I saw a couple of pumpkin vines starting to grow next to the parsonage stoop early in the summer, it was no great surprise. Last fall, the squirrels had feasted on the pumpkins sitting on my stoop and, of course, they left behind a seed or two. This one took root under the yew bush.

Then one morning recently as I returned with Bella from our morning walk, I spotted something bright orange nestled in the yew branches. On closer inspection I discovered that it was a pumpkin blossom that had climbed its way to the top of the shrub.

It was a pop of orange yellow set against the deep green of the yew. It was quite an unexpected find on that misty morning. That discovery prompted me to take a moment to wonder about the strength and persistence of that bloom. Climbing it’s way higher and higher to find the sunlight.

That got me thinking about all the unexpected things that happen in our lives. There are the unexpected things that we enjoy, like surprise birthday parties, IRS refunds, or your college student coming home for the weekend. But there are those other unexpected things that can really shake us up, like the death of a loved one or the robbery of your home. Life has a way of throwing us a curve ball when we least expect it.

Often expectations are a good thing. They provide a way to create goals for our lives. They help parents set boundaries for their children. It’s usually good to know what your boss or your significant other expects from you, too.

But sometimes what we expect only leads to trouble. We expect someone to behave in a certain way; we expect them to think, believe, and act as we do. We may expect a big raise and a constant pat on the back that just doesn’t come. When life and people don’t live up to our expectations, how do we respond? With sadness? Disappointment? Anger?

When the unexpected happens, we can either react in fear or respond in faith. The choice is ours.

You can undoubtedly create a long list of unexpected moments in your own life and consider whether you reacted in fear or faith. For me, I never expected to go into ministry. And I never expected that a divorce would put me on that path, but I have found that God usually speaks most clearly in those unforeseen moments of life. There is a wonderful old Yiddish adage, “Mann tracht, un Gott lacht,” which means, “man plans, and God laughs.”

When my pastor on Long Island first suggested that I consider going into the ministry some 15 years ago, I scoffed. But eventually I began to consider the question and to ask God for clarity. The answer to those prayers came one Sunday afternoon in a shopping trip to my local Marshalls store.

I had gone to the store to look for new silverware. After sifting through several boxes on a top shelf, I settled on a set that resembled what I already had. When I got home I sat down at the dining room table to pull the spoons, forks and knives out of the box. It was then that I noticed the pattern name of the silverware. You know those names that manufacturers give silverware, like Bristol, Cambridge or Country French.

I dropped the box as if it were on fire and got up from the table. I couldn’t quite believe what I had read. With my heart pounding, I picked up the box again and read the pattern name aloud: Seminary. And then I began to laugh hysterically. God had answered my prayers with a box of silverware! To top it off, the silverware was made by Cuisinart and their motto was printed right above the pattern name, “Savor the good life.”

While we might look for God to speak to us in extraordinary ways, often times it is in the unexpected moments that we find some clarity – whether it’s an errant pumpkin blossom or a box of silverware. Those unexpected moments can challenge us to look at our selves and our lives differently. They can bring healing where we thought there was none. They can send us in new directions that deepen our faith and trust in God.

Through those unexpected moments I have come to trust in the words from Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV): “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

My prayer is that you too will come to embrace the expected and be ready to grow and to say “yes” to God. And remember, God can even find you in Marshall’s!

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