My God of surprises
by David Thomas
Gerry W. Hughes was on to something with the title of his book, God of Surprises. Not only is it the book that has shaped and guided my ministry and discipleship more than any other (the Bible excepted – obviously), but the title is one that keeps giving – or it has for me.
I’m coming up to the tenth anniversary of my retirement from full time stipendiary ministry at, what seemed to me at the time as, the eminently sensible age of 65 (and I’ve not changed my view on that). I had been involved in urban parochial ministry for 38 years and it was time to go. There were things I was only too happy to relinquish – like the state of the church roof, whether we would manage to pay our way this year, and attempting to pour oil on troubled waters over the latest spat concerning the flower rota, the unkind things Mrs X had said to Mrs Y, the state the cubs had left the church hall in last night etc., etc., etc. And I also have to confess that I retired with a fairly acute sense of the poverty of the ministry I had offered. You may imagine my surprise a year or two later when, on a retreat, in a conversation with Jesus, he thanked me for my ministry. I was in tears, thinking he could not possibly thank me for something so full of defects, weaknesses and failings; but he persisted, gently insisting that I listen to, and receive his gratitude.
Of course, there were parts of ministry that I had found hugely rewarding, none more so than that of spiritual direction which had developed in the last ten years or so of my ministry. At retirement I arranged to continue to meet those who wished to do so, with the expectation that within five or ten years (at the most), they would have moved on to other directors more in touch with things than I was. But the God of surprises doubled the number of those coming to see me; and it is by some distance the most rewarding and worthwhile work in which I have ever been engaged. There can’t be many other positions where one is so aware, so frequently, of a sense of privilege at the end of time shared with another.
Three years into my retirement (and to my great sadness) Loyola Hall, the place where I had received training to become a spiritual director (and had become a guest director), announced that it was to close. Again I anticipated that that part of my work in retirement would come to an end, only to be invited to take up that role at St Beuno’s. And yet again, I am aware of such a sense of privilege so often accompanying that work. I still can’t quite believe that they pay me (oh all right, give me an honorarium). There is a bit of me that feels that I myself should pay for the opportunity to share in people’s lives at such depth. (But don’t tell Fr Roger, or he might get ideas).
Of course, not all the surprises have been so welcome. Arthritis leading to an operation to fuse the bones in my ankle has meant that I can no longer walk for pleasure; I can still remember the feeling of almost overwhelming grief that came to me looking out at the hills at St Beuno’s and realising that I could no longer walk among them (so often with Jesus as my companion). Yet, although it is hard – perhaps impossible – to quantify such things, I feel that the surprises of joy and delight have far outweighed those of sorrow and disappointment.
The God of Surprises indeed – I wonder what other surprises await me before, finally, God calls me home. From my experience thus far, it seems unwise to speculate! – beyond saying perhaps that God does seem to be trustworthy, if surprising! I wonder how God has surprised you through the events and circumstances of your life – and how God will continue to do so.