Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Surprise

Imagine you find out that a relative or a friend has left you quite a lot of money. This actually happened to me once. Well, in all honesty, it wasn’t quite a lot of money, but it was precisely the amount needed at the time to pay a bill that was due to the Ethiopian government (sic) and could not be delayed or sustained by a bank loan.  It was truly miraculous, for it allowed us to do something at the time that wasn’t for myself but was for others.  In fact, the person who passed away—her name was Margot Tully [link]—had done in her death, the very thing I was trying to do in my life, help someone in need.  Suddenly acquiring the precise amount you needed for such a project would be quite the surprise, wouldn’t it?  It was for me on that occasion, and I imagine it would be for you were you to suddenly come into an inheritance or have something quite unexpected like that happen. 

Imagine the surprise of Robert Warren, Hoyt Sherman Place’s executive director, who, as recently as 2016, found Otto van Veen’s “Apollo and Venus” in a closet of the Des Moines Women’s Club in Iowa [Link]. Warren noticed a sticker on the back of the painting that revealed that it had once been displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attributed mistakenly to Federico Barocci, but was actually the work of the aforementioned Dutch master. The painting turned out to be valued at four million dollars; thus, to say that Warren stumbled upon something that had somehow been overlooked but was actually worth a fortune would be, of course, an accurate statement.

Reading about this set me to thinking. It’s possible, in the case of an inheritance or another kind of unexpected surprise like that or, even more astoundingly, in the case of the painting we just discussed, to be right next to something of great import the whole time and fail to recognize its value.  That painting was overlooked and might have been thrown in the trash, unless Warren had taken the time to examine it closely and notice its remarkable beauty.  And in my thinking, I wondered if there are other things in life for which this could happen. Of course, in the realm of food, there is.  Someone might think, I shan’t ever eat okra, as it looks rather slimy and gross.  But that person will miss out on a vegetable as nutritious as it is delicious.  High in fiber, okra is, too.  Or a kiwi fruit. Whoever heard of eating fruit with fur on its exterior? Yet ripe kiwis are quite delicious, fur and all—yes, you can eat the kiwi’s skin.

But what about something else quite common in our life, something we all bestride in one way or another, but often either take for granted or want to avoid?  I’m talking about, of course, religion. Well, let me say first that religion, per se, I personally could take or leave. And I’d rather leave it more often than take it, truth be told. But what about God, the God who is often obscured by religious rites, overblown prayers, sanctimonious rituals?  Is it possible to be sitting in church or even visiting a beautiful church, even a superb gothic structure like the Nôtre Dame of Paris, and miss Him altogether? Could we have been standing right next to God all along and failed to see Him?  I think it just might be the case.

Nôtre Dame, Paris

And if that is the case, the next question is whether he is simply a good thing that meets our psychological needs—the way the wonderful and surprising inheritance that I received met my financial needs at the time I inherited it—or if He is more like the painting, more valuable than anyone could have ever imagined.  Yet, unlike the painting, he is a not frozen moment in time—for religion often tries to freeze Him—but alive, like a roaring Lion named Aslan. And his roaring can motivate us to do what Margot did when she left me the $2500 inheritance.  He can motivate us to do something good, even when our personal inclinations toward good are at best often lukewarm.

And I leave you with that thought. Could it have been that your notion that there is no God, that life is to be lived either without God or by pretending he doesn’t exist, have been wrong all along? Couldn’t, rather, the very first breath you ever took have been a gift from God, and all the wonderful things you’ve enjoyed in this life, from sunrises to sunsets to being able to put your toes in the ocean’s tide, really have been gifts from God? If you’ve ever been to a beach in Florida, you might just know what I mean.  The beach is impossible to miss; and a deep breath of that sea air, too, something perhaps we take for granted, is also hard to miss. And for a moment, you feel, when you see it, that you’re looking at the masterpiece of an artist’s hand.  And you just might be right about that.

Sunset at Key West, Florida

It’s hard to miss, too, when a little miracle happens, an answer to prayer for the precise sum of $2500 that my dear friend Margot Tully, in her last will and testament, left me.  And I could see not just the miracle or the timing of it—for that was impossible to deny—but also the greater miracle behind the miracle, which is God Himself. Sometimes we are standing right beside a Dutch master that we think is the work of a lesser-known artist, or maybe we don’t even notice the painting on the wall when its right before our eyes, or maybe we find it in a storage closet and we think to ourselves, “Well, yes, there’s a painting here, but surely that old painting isn’t worth anything. If it were, why would it be in the closet?” 

But, then, perhaps something happens, something surprising—a new friendship, an unexpected turn of events in our life, or sadly, as in Margot’s case, someone dies, and the finality of death shakes us to our core—that opens our eyes to the beauty of the painting that was there all along.  And that’s what discovering God is like. So, thank you, Margot Tully, all these years after you gave me that money, that allowed our family to adopt three kids from an orphanage in Ethiopia. You reminded me not simply of the power and beauty of a prodigious Dutch master but of that of the prodigal Master Himself, the one who paints the fabric of our lives with the beauty of happiness and pain, joy and sorrow, who has many names, one of the finest of which is Immanuel, “God with us.”  And he truly is here with us, for when I arrived in Ethiopia I myself saw Him, in the eyes of three children from a distant land.