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God’s unexpected presence is found in surprising encounters

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

I recently received a copy of “Unexpected Presence: Twelve Surprising Encounters With The Divine Spirit,” edited by David Fortier. Usually, I find a series of this sort interesting but not particularly inspiring or moving. I prefer a single author and a longer, more detailed account that unfolds more elaborately…a novel versus short stories.
This book proved to be an exception to that rule. The contents of each tale intrigued me and caused me to meditate on times when I had experienced the unexpected presence of God, a surprise of time, place and people.
Often biblical parables go unheeded because they are too mysterious for many folks to appreciate; however, stories like the 12 surprising encounters with the divine spirit tug at the heart as parables for today or as psalms sung newly in the language of contemporary experience. These are tales told by seven men and five women who bravely confront themselves and the reader with the power of truth.
At first, one might treat them lightly as episodes from each writer’s past that appear to have uniquely affected their life. With a second look, the reader can both see and hear the cry Fred Hang, one taleteller, might have missed had he moved fast enough and looked busy enough. “Attention must be paid!” was the call he heard.
Attention must be paid to each of the stories. Being attentive to them evokes attentiveness to the stories and surprises hidden in our own lives. With or without an intentional understanding that these tales, these events and people, are magnets drawing us more deeply into the presence of the Divine, they do just that. The stories impel the reader into a contemplation of God’s life in humankind. It is always and in all ways an active and surprising engagement.
Attention must be paid to the paradoxes that prevail, mysteries that capitalize life, giving it a vitality that makes it an adventure and a journey into love.
When we pay attention, we can hear the human cry to be loved and accepted. We can see the persons who do what they really didn’t have to do for us. We notice more than simply see. We hear the Voice that tells us someone wants to hear us sing. Someone needs to hear our laughter and to wipe our tears. Someone needs us to the same for them. Someone wants us to drop everything and go to a special place, a spot where we will discover ourselves anew. Go, not despite the peril but because of it.
Go, and find wonder in the shadows. Find light in the dark places. Go, and know that we are sunflowers who have the will to live and be food for the hungry. Go, and tell our story until it is no longer our story to tell.
This book reminds us that our stories are gospel truth, acceptable to the unacceptable ones because they are the ones who can hear the passion beneath the words. They are the ones who will see us as we really are, truly are. Like a little child who wants to be just like his Daddy, they’ll want to be just like us.
The stories emphasize a profound reality: human anguish dissolves in this kind of imitation. It is like an Easter sunrise at the Grand Canyon, forever memorable in myriad and incredible ways. Each viewer emerges with a personal response or reaction. Each memory is etched differently. Yet, the recall is there. That is what is important. The human baggage of life is recognized, picked up, and carried. The journey continues.
Sometimes it may appear we are hovering around the borders of life. That is only because we have yet to see the remainder of the story. We have yet to come full-circle to discover that we are not unconsciously hovering around the borders of life. We are consciously doing so to give life. We are offering love without even knowing we are doing it.
Certainly, we’d have a deepened experience if we were conscious of our presence in the lives of other and of their presence in ours. Surely, it would be wonderful to make the best of each moment, each event, each sorrow, each joy. Our imperfections must not be barriers to new beginnings. They must not be destroyers of a will to reform and be re-formed in wholeness and holiness. Our imperfections must not be allowed to rob us of our innate goodness. They must serve only alert us to the fact that we have limited time to live our stories and to tell them.
As I read, I felt the vitality packed into 123 pages of stories told by men and women of different ages, places, cultures, and experiences. I knew one reading would not be enough. This tiny treasure chest of memories would be read and reread to revive the burdened spirit, renew the tired heart, and release a deepened sense of God’s presence.
It is a work that asks the reader to be time rich, to give oneself the gift of Sabbath rest, to learn to be an intercessor, a person who pays attention, to live more intentionally. If for no other reason, this book offers the reader a wonderful incentive to stop and rest a bit. It presents a reason to slow our pace so that we might contemplate life.
As one contributor was told, it is “something for the train ride home.” I suggest we spell home with a capital H and consider the power of that ride home to God. Wouldn’t that be something to think about?
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.