Embrace the surprising work of God

Friendly Reminder: A weekly reflection from the Quaker Leadership Center

If you are in touch with the religious world at all, you’ve seen news about what’s been happening at Asbury University over the last couple weeks. Some folks are excited about a long-awaited “revival” breaking out in our nation, praying it will spread to their church and region. Others are skeptical, even critical, about Asbury, claiming it’s built on emotional manipulation if not students trying to get out of class. Perhaps the majority of folks in my social media feed are taking a “wait and see” approach, vigilant in reminding us that “ye shall know them by their fruits.”

I am sympathetic to the various responses. I have a lot of personal experience with revivalism. Some of it was deeply transformational for myself and others. Other aspects of it were downright damaging, due to emotional manipulation and connection to narrow political ideologies. And, I agree that we judge any religious expression by the fruit of love; I hope new expressions of justice, community and wholeness are born out of this revival (or whatever word you wish to use for what’s happening).

But more than anything else, I find myself returning to a phrase I read in a Christianity Today article written by a professor across the way at Asbury Seminary. He provided first-hand reports and historical context, ultimately concluding: “We’re witnessing a surprising work of God.” The description “surprising work of God” comes from reluctant revival preacher from the First Great Awakening named Jonathan Edwards.

My own spiritual journey has moved me away from revivalism toward the “quiet charismatic” style of Quakerism. I’m more interested in the the work of ordinary people of faith loving God and neighbor in everyday ways, faithful over the long haul, rooted in community. Much of my ministry is telling rural and small town congregations that they matter profoundly to God, even without the flash and sparkle. I trust more in the “slow work of God” (to borrow from Teilhard de Chardin) than the “surprising work of God.”

Nevertheless, I find myself longing for a “surprising work of God.” Why? Because we live in a cynical, alienated, exhausted age. Because we are entrenched in unjust power structures, haunted by intergenerational traumas, and facing major mental health crises. Because our human wisdom and sincere strategies are feeble and faltering. Because without the Spirit of Surprise, we are left to only our own devises, and we’re lost.

So maybe it’s time to “Keep a space where God can let something totally new take place,” in the words of Henri Nouwen.

Maybe it’s time to let God do God’s thing, to do a new thing. Even if it doesn’t match our sensibilities or fit our systems.

Friend Richard Foster said it well: “We must be prepared for God to work his work among whomever he chooses and in whatever ways please him. Most certainly his ways will surprise us, but we can come to live in, and even enjoy, God’s great surprises.”

Regardless of your opinions about what’s happening in Kentucky, perhaps the invitation comes to us: embrace, maybe even enjoy, God’s surprises.

So, yes, trust in the slow work of God. Despise not the day of small beginnings. Keep looking for simple gifts and quiet moments of Divine Presence.

But also, embrace the surprising work of God. Let God be free to do God’s thing however God wants to do it. That surprising work may provide “ways open” to vital futures we can’t currently conceive.