As it happens, they are both men. One is an African-American Presbyterian pastor and professor of urban ministry in a PC(USA) seminary; the other, a Caucasian Jesuit priest, an editor at America magazine who makes appearances on The Colbert Report.
As he ended the last class he would spend with us, our professor urged us last week to bear in mind the great privileges which are ours. Most people in the world, he pointed out, do not have the luxury of sitting in air-conditioned and well-lit classrooms to study theology or the Bible. Most people lead very different lives indeed.
I thanked him afterward and told him that he had reminded me of something the last twenty months have blotted out. And had brought back a particular memory: At the end of our first year winter quarter, I had taken a break during our Prophets and Psalms exam ~ three hours of nonstop writing ~ to walk up and down the hall a couple of times. As I stood at the window at the end of the hallway, looking out over the snow-covered campus and trying to unclench my hand so that it could write for another hour, I thought: I am so incredibly graced. Here I am, writing on the prophets and the psalms for three hours because ~ because I can! Because it has been my privilege to study them for three months, long enough to have at least a little something to say.
I did not know that six months later, the only Scriptural writing I would be able to tolerate would be Psalm 88 ~ that it would be another six months before I could read even Job. I didn't know how bleak my world would become or that I would lose sight of any purpose or meaning. And so I was grateful for his reminder of another astonishing grace: that even with all that has happened, it has still been my privilege to complete (assuming I finish that last paper looming ahead) the course of study for my M.Div. and to become at least minimally prepared for ~ well, I'm not sure what, exactly. But for something.
Which leads me to one of the books I'm reading on my brand new laptop Kindle, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin, S.J. It's not news to any of my readers that I am enamored of Jesuit spirituality, and this book is an easy and fun introduction for anyone else who might be interested as well. (Readers of My Life With The Saints will know that Jim Martin is a terrifically engaging writer.)
Most of the material in The Jesuit Guide is familiar to me, but last night I came across something I'd never read before. He's discussing the "spiritual but not religious" identity so many people claim today, and arguing astutely for both, on the basis of spirituality transferred via religion. The specific example he uses concerns the idea of our God of Surprises, the God who both surprises and who waits for surprises, which he has encountered through four individuals writing in religious contexts, and he quotes novelist Ron Hansen, whose character Mariette says:
"We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, 'Surprise me,' "
Now, depending on your theology, you might be more or less comfortable with the God who not only surprises but is surprised. I'd say, Let that one go for now, and imagine the potential for surprise, any surprise at all, in the context of all-encompassing loss and darkness.
I have been working on survival, not surprise. And yet, as I look back over the past few months, I have found both. I don't always want them, but there they are.
And so, I wonder: if I manage to survive this loss, and if I remain cognizant of the great privilege of study and preparation that I've been afforded, how will God surprise me? How might I end up surprising God?