Surprise Me

Kyle and I would often email our schedules to each other early in the week to coordinate times for possible lunches, happy hours, etc. As his children continued to grow and become involved in activities, and his pastoral, writing and other responsibilities became more complicated, this became necessary if we were going to devote any amount of time to nurture our friendship, which, by 2005, had grown to be something special. He was my pastor, and we shared a love for UBC, but I think more than that we simply enjoyed each other’s company. I provided him, I believe, an island of respite from the stresses of pastoral work and family life. He goaded me toward a spontaneity and easiness that I do not naturally possess.

We made plans to see the film Elizabethtown on the last Friday of October, 2005. We both typically had Friday’s off, and his kids on those days were in Mother’s Day Out programs at various churches throughout town while Jen, his wife, worked as a Speech Therapist.  I called him early in the day to figure out which showing we’d go see, but got no answer. He eventually returned my call and apologized for not contacting me sooner. The night before he had decided to spend Thursday night and Friday at “Bosque,” the shorthand he used to describe his parents’ sprawling ranch in Bosque County, outside Clifton, TX, which is about 45 minutes from Waco. Bosque (pronounced bahs-ski) was Kyle’s “happy place.” More than any other piece of land, this was where he experienced God through nature and through his family. His sister and her family, as well as his parents and one of his brothers had come early from their homes in East Texas in preparation for Baylor’s homecoming, and he wanted to spend time with them before the frenzy of the weekend began.

At Baylor University, Homecoming is a big deal. In fact, Baylor claims the longest-running Homecoming celebration among all universities in the United States. Though this fact is disputed (a handful of other universities say they were the first,) what isn’t in question is that a great deal of emotional, physical and economic energy is spent to pull the weekend off. There is “Pigskin,” an event where the top acts from the previous spring’s SING! Competition  performs, (think: Fraternity/Sorority life meets Glee); a bonfire; a Homecoming Parade that attracts thousands; and the afternoon football game. Hotels double their nightly rates, require a minimum two-night stay, and sell out rooms months in advance of Homecoming weekend. Restaurants make a fortune as alumni wait in line for hours to eat at their favorite college hang-outs with old friends.

In January of that year UBC turned 10 years old. This meant that ten classes of Freshmen, and two and a half complete cycles of students, had made their way through the doors of our church. It also meant that on each successive Homecoming, assuming a steady rate of alumni returned to visit, the attendance at UBC would grow exponentially, as former students made visiting their college church the last event of the weekend before returning to their homes. Kyle was both a Baylor (and UBC) alum, as well as the pastor of UBC, which meant his weekend would be jam packed with events, so a pre-weekend getaway was going to be good for him.

I was a little disappointed that we wouldn’t be seeing each other that day, but turned down his invitation to join he and his family at Bosque for a few hours. He was returning late that night or early the next morning so he could take his family to the parade. Our time would have been short, so I decided to stay in Waco for the day, as I had to work the next morning. Before we hung up the phone he told me to check my email soon, because he was going to send me something that he wanted to get my thoughts on.

Earlier in the week he visited with an author, the father of a Baylor student who was attending UBC, who had written a book about a prayer experiment he had tried, and was encouraging other Christians to attempt as well. The project was meant to open our eyes to the work of God in our lives, and to sees God’s activity in places where we don’t expect to see it. The experiment was simple: Open each day with the prayer, “Surprise me, God,” and keep your eyes open throughout the day for ways in which God may surprise you. The author was asking churches to do this experiment for 30 days and to see what happens.

In one sense, this type of activity was out of character for UBC. We prided ourselves in being opposed to any sort of spiritual practice that seemed coercive and manipulative. In reacting to the super-slick, manufactured presentation of the Christian faith we felt assaulted by as teenagers, we had a knack for keeping at arms length anything that reminded us of that past. In our formative years we were told that we not only needed to be faithful and growing in our walk with Jesus, but we also needed to talk about it. A lot. And we just didn’t want to talk about it anymore, so we didn’t. And we were allergic to those who did.

On the other hand, the time seemed right for something like this. Some among us, Kyle especially, were starting to feel that we had successfully named all the elements of a particular way of practicing Christianity that we didn’t find helpful or healthy, but we had yet to reconstruct a faith that joined all the new ways of practicing faith with everything that was good and life-giving about the “old way.” There was, I believe, a little bit of home-sickness for the joy and vitality that many of us experienced as children and young adults in the evangelical world, and this seemed like a way to return home while still remaining true to who we had become.

Others though, myself especially, were leery of “returning home,” regardless of how much of our new selves we were allowed to take with us. The “being against” had become a part of our identity as a faith community, and we didn’t want to lose that. But regardless of what I felt about the “Surprise Me, God” experiment, I trusted Kyle and his judgment. He was never one to employ leadership tactics that mimicked those used by corporations and large megachurches.  In fact, he had even pushed for, and was successful in getting the church leadership to move away from being a senior pastor led church to being a pastoral team led church. In the model he instituted, everyone on the pastoral staff had (theoretically) an equal amount of final say in the decisions of the church.

But Kyle did know that he was a leader, and that he led with his charisma and influence, and was ready to lean into this in a way that moved the church to dip our toes back into the waters of talking about God and God’s influence over our lives. I replied to his email by expressing both my concerns and also to say that I trusted him.

I told him to enjoy his time at Bosque and Homecoming, and that I’d see him on Sunday. We made plans to go see the Elizabethtown the next week.


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