Reflections on a Year of Surprises

The older you get, the more you become surprised that you are able to be surprised by anything. You figure you have been around the block too many times and seen too many things for there to be many surprises. And sadly, sometimes, older folk lose their sense of wonder, their ability to be amazed, altogether. This year has however been different. I don’t suppose there will ever be a ‘new normal’ after Christy died prematurely almost two years ago now, but perhaps there will be a new routine.

What happens when you have an adult child to die prematurely is your special days of the years become more of a burden than a blessing– birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmases are turned upside down and become more difficult instead of days of more joy. This year for example, for the first time in 37 years of marriage, we had Thanksgiving quietly at home with no company except the cat. It was different for sure. And this year for the first time ever we went to Jacksonville Fla. to my sister’s house for Christmas, and did not even put up a Christmas decoration. Christmas in the palm trees is just weird— I’m just saying. But this year was also a blessing in various surprising ways. God had some things up his sleeve for me this year… and played his cards at exactly the right time.

After the chaos of extreme home makeover from December of last year to late March of this year, I went off on sabbatical to Durham England to my alma mater to write a couple of books, give a few lectures and see old friends. Lo and behold, towards the end of my time in Durham I discovered in the Dean and Chapter library of Durham Cathedral J.B. Lightfoot’s commentaries on John, Acts, 2 Corinthians and 1 Peter and various related essays— some 1500 hand-written pages of unpublished vintage Lightfoot, the greatest NT scholar of his age. I am happy to report that The Lightfoot Legacy volumes will begin to come out next November courtesy of IV Press. This transcribing has kept me uber-busy for the last seven months or so. I had to learn a new language— Lightfootese, complete with its own set of abbreviations and curious formations of English in cursive form. Sometimes when I would get stumped I would just mutter— “cursive, foiled again!”.

But then there was a remarkable week in October, with beautiful Fall weather, and wonderful touring around with our Russian daughter Yuliya all over Rome, Pompeii, Orvieto, Herculaneum, and then attendance at Pope Benedict’s conference on Jesus, where Yuliya and I actually got to meet and greet Pope Francis— a total surprise. God is just full of such surprises. The moral to this story, is if you stick close to God, you will never run out of surprises in your life, and good one’s too. I can hardly believe I almost didn’t go to this conference in Rome. Thanks to Bill Arnold for nudging me in the right direction.

Sometimes when I think about the last two years, I think about the Lord shepherding us through the dark valley of grief and sadness, to some verdant pastures and some still water. Sometimes after a great loss, you need quiet, you need stillness. I have thought often of the line ‘thou restoreth my soul’. It has needed some of that. It was not because I had lost faith in God. It was more that I had lost faith in life— it seemed too fragile, too fickle, too vulnerable, too subject to harm and negative outcomes.

God would not allow me to wallow in self-pity, or despair. When one grieves like a non-Christian, it becomes an exercise in feeling sorry for yourself, an exercise in narcissism. Oddly, strangely, a real Christian knows that Christy is with the Lord and is not suffering any more. Why should one be grieving that?

No, too much of grieving is the heart turned in upon itself, a feeling sorry for one’s own loss, one’s own hole in the heart. And so it has been important to keep moving forward with the Lord, my shepherd and realizing that the first line of that Psalm is true— “if the Lord is your shepherd, you shall lack for nothing essential…”

Another year come and gone, another birthday lurking on the horizon in two days. And we have much to be thankful for. I have discovered if you cultivate an attitude of gratitude for the good things in life, you will remain open to serendipity, to God’s surprises, for “his purposes for you are for good, and not for harm”. I do believe that, and so I say ‘L’chaim’. God’s yes to life, is louder than death’s no, as it turns out. Halleluyah.


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