Surprised by Grace
Last May I was on the Union College campus in Lincoln, Nebraska. I had brought a pile of work with me, so when I wasn’t preaching for the Kansas-Nebraska camp meeting or visiting with friends Ron and Sue, Carol and Darrell, Helen, Chris and Yolanda, Lloyd and Lynn, Bert, Ed and Madelyn, Hubert and Lucille, I was in my room in the Ortner Center slaving away at my computer.
Thursday afternoon I went in search of something cold to drink, and was directed to Rees Hall, one of the women’s dorms. I found a vending machine, put my money in the slot, and pushed the button. After some internal clunks a can of root beer appeared in the receptacle at the bottom of the machine.
But the display on the machine said I still had a credit. So I pushed the button again, and out came another can of root beer. I pushed it again with the same result. I stopped only when I realized I couldn’t carry more than six cans of root beer at once.
Not to worry: I didn’t have to. I gave one can to the woman staffing the desk at Rees Hall; another to a guy sitting in the lobby waiting for someone; another to a guy I saw on the sidewalk outside pushing a baby in a stroller; and two to the two women staffing the desk at the Ortner Center.
I wouldn’t presume to credit God with those little acts of serendipity. But they do remind me how God looks after His people, coming through when they least expect it.
After enduring the unimaginable spiritual and emotional torment of walking with his son Isaac to Mount Moriah, Abraham found there an animal to sacrifice in Isaac’s place.
In spite of being betrayed by his brothers and sold as a slave, and despite being in prison, Joseph was at exactly the right place when Pharaoh’s steward and baker had dreams that confounded them. Joseph’s interpretation of those dreams led him to serve in Pharaoh’s court long before his brothers, the ones who sold him into slavery, had to come to Egypt to buy food.
Pharaoh’s daughter not only found a “son” when she spotted something floating among the rushes of the river—she also found someone who would nurse Baby Moses and raise him to fear the Lord.
It’s nice to know that God has plans for our future long before they’re realized. And besides feeling an intense sense of gratitude, the best and most effective way to demonstrate our thanks is to pass the surprise on to someone else.
Some years ago I was in Los Angeles on business, traveling alone. I stopped for lunch at Ernie Jr’s Taco House, our favorite Mexican restaurant. It was summer, and as I was eating my food, three or four police officers came and sat at a table near mine. They were close enough that I could clearly hear their conversation. They were complaining about the heat, and how their bulletproof vests made it seem even hotter.
Then I heard them mention a buddy who was shot while delivering a summons of some kind. That his condition was serious, but that they expected him to recover.
When the waiter brought my check, I told him, “I want to pay for those guys’ meals.” A little later he brought me their check, which I put on my credit card. I walked out the door just as the waiter told them that their meals had been paid for.
It’s no surprise that we live in a hate-filled, violent society. About the time that we think we’ve heard it all and that it can’t get any worse, we hear about something so atrocious, so hideous, that we wonder whether love, grace, joy, mercy, and peace will ever conquer evil and the inhumanity it creates.
But they will. And we will be surprised when it happens.
Just as I was surprised when I got six cans of root beer on a hot day at Union College. Because that’s not all I got: When I pushed the “coin return” button, I got all my money back. I’m not saying God was behind it. But I told the college president about the prodigal vending machine, and now I’m telling you. Because in my mind, it’s a story that illustrates grace.