Several years ago I was introduced to the principle, “Surprises are bad.” This maxim is accurate when applied to leadership. After all, leaders, staff and organizations do not like to learn secondhand of unexpected changes in direction, policy or major decisions.
However, there are some instances when surprises are good, like the experience I had this past summer when Lee and our children surprised me with a birthday party attended by 25 or so of my extended family or an unexpected gift that surpasses all expectations of the recipient. The best surprise of all is an unexpected gift from God. Though some gifts from God are obvious blessings, on other occasions God’s gifts are hidden by the package of the difficult circumstances in which they are wrapped.
This is what Mary receives in today’s Scripture passage. Though the unexpected gift of Jesus is great, the circumstances in which Mary receives him are hard. It begins with a visit from the angel Gabriel. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Lk 1:30-31) How shocking it must be to her to realize that God has entrusted her with the Savior of the world! This gift . . . this child will be a blessing, not only to Mary, but to the entire human race. However, the news of her pregnancy does not seem like a blessing to her at first.
Have you ever received an unexpected gift from God that came out of difficult circumstances? Maybe it was a different answer to a prayer than the one for which you had hoped. Or a redirection of a dream that you had carried in your heart for a long time. Perhaps it required you to recalibrate how you looked at life or even how you lived your life. Maybe it resulted in many tears and a broken heart. It may not have seemed like a gift at first, but in retrospect you came to embrace it as an amazing, wondrous blessing.
Songwriter Laura Story’s song, “Blessings” (from her 2011 album “Blessings”), speaks to her personal experience in finding gifts wrapped in the difficult circumstances of her husband Martin’s health issues. The chorus describes it this way. “Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops; What if Your healing comes through tears; What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near; What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise.”
Jesus is an incredible blessing to Mary, but there are tears and trials that come with him. After all, she is a young virgin engaged to be married. How can she expect Joseph, her husband to be, to believe that though she is with child she has never had relations with a man? And the gossip from the village women is surely rampant and pointed! How it hurts Mary and her family!
Then when Jesus is only a few days old the prophet Simeon says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel . . . and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) In other words, there will be pain in Mary’s future.
In spite of the challenges that accompany Jesus’ entrance into her life, Mary quickly comes to understand that he is the greatest gift she will ever receive – the most wonderful gift the world will ever know. He is an unexpected gift for sure: both in the timing of his arrival and also the way he redefines what it means to be the long-awaited Savior.
She responds to him in exactly the right way. She accepts the gift of Jesus fully . . . without reservation. She places her future . . . her life . . . her vocation into the hands of God. Jesus is an unexpected gift from God. And Mary knows how to receive him. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
The leadership principle, “Surprises are bad” is accurate when applied to many situations, but not when it comes to God’s unexpected gifts to us. Gifts like Jesus in the life of Mary . . . and like those received by Laura and Martin in his health challenges . . . and like blessings from God that are wrapped in the challenges of our lives.
During this Advent and Christmas season I invite you to join me in considering Laura Story’s question: “Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops; What if Your healing comes through tears; What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near; What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise.”
We can be sure of this. We live in a broken world full of difficulties and pain. We also serve a God who can bring unexpected gifts out of every situation.
As always, it is a privilege to serve as your bishop.
North Alabama Conference