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Sunday Spiritual: Surprise (!).

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At the end of last week’s article about time with family, I mentioned an author named N.D. Wilson, and cited his “Stories Are Soul Food” podcast as a good source of family and parenting wisdom, amongst other education and entertainment-related topics.

Anyways, I recently heard N.D. talking about how God has woven surprises into the universe – surprises that we humans must often be patient and wait to discover, like ice cream.

Ice cream?

Yeah, ice cream.

See, ice cream wasn’t just “created by God” in the form of a hundred magical, unmeltable cones hanging from an ice cream tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden.

No, instead, over hundreds of years (or at least until the 2nd century B.C., from what history seems to suggest), we didn’t have ice cream, or gelato, or sherbet, or milkshakes. Our poor ancestors.

Instead, one random cattle farmer or starving self-experimenter, probably in some early agronomy setting, discovered that one could squeeze a nourishing, sweet-savory, white liquid from a hairy balloon sack under a female cow.

Hundreds of years later, his milk-swigging tribe possibly met up with a party of rock climbers who had emerged from the top of a distant peak with tiny leather canteens full of cold, solid, frozen water. Maybe they all shared a glass of iced milk, who knows?

Then, perhaps twenty or thirty years later, a boat shipwrecked near the iced-milked village and a rag-tag group of desperate pirates traded a rare vanilla bean from Madagascar to the iced-milk tribe, who smashed it up with a mortar and pestle, dusted it with the chieftain’s prized stash of ground cane sugar and voila…

…ice cream.

God must have smiled as he witnessed us curious, relentless humans unlock yet another savory surprise He’s hidden throughout random corners of the planet, now blended in a synergistic dose of domapine-inducing creaminess that would go forth to make school children scream with delights and adults raid the refrigerator for a midnight snack for the remainder of all human history.

See, God seems to enjoy pulling off surprising stuff like that. Perhaps it brings a smile to God’s face to witness us tiny humans embarking upon crazy, curiosity-driven adventures to uncover new thrills or discover interesting solutions to problems, or learn something new and useful about physics, or science, or biology, or molecular gastronomy, or some other fascinating investigation into the machinery behind how the world works. Sure, sometimes it may take a few thousand years for us to unlock the latest secret of the universe, but as a saying I heard once roughly goes, “Sometimes the best surprises are the ones you have to wait for.”

Some of these ice-cream-esque surprises woven into God’s creation are quite obvious. Take synergy for example. ​Synergy​ is broadly defined as the combined efforts of two or more organisms to produce a greater result than each would achieve individually.

Here’s one surprising example of synergy: the synergy of the zebra with a very small bird called an “African oxpeckers”. The zebra has two sources of food for the oxpecker – the ticks on the zebra’s back and the zebra’s blood (which the birds suck out of wounds from tick bites). But get this: the zebra’s blood loss from oxpeckers is nonsignificant, while oxpeckers act as a natural pest control and predator protectant, specifically because of the hissing sound they make whenever they’re frightened. So the oxpecker gets liquid food all day long and, in exchange, is a built-in alarm system for the zebra.

Or take aphids and ants as another example of surprising synergy. Aphids are tiny sap-sucking insects that secrete honeydew, which is a sweet, sugary liquid that is the waste product of their diet. Ants then feed on the honeydew by “milking” the aphids with their antennae. In return, the ants protect the aphids from predators and parasites, and some ants will even move aphid eggs and nymphs underground to their protected nest, which ultimately makes harvesting their honeydew more efficient and allows the aphids to safely propagate.

Then there are anemones, those flowerlike marine animals with the addition of neurotoxin-filled stinging tentacles, an inconvenient and annoying characteristic for those of us who like to walk barefoot in the water near the beach. But if we were all clownfish, or at least, if we had clownfish feet, we would be immune to anemone stings (just like the clownfish is). It turns out that a layer of mucus on the clownfish’s body allows this tiny creature to safely nestle into the anemone’s tentacles to hide from predators. In exchange, the clownfish help their “host” by keeping anemones free of parasites, providing them with nutrients through the tasty clownfish fecal matter (which may also stimulate the growth of beneficial algae within the anemone), dropping food onto the anemone and even driving off anemone-eating intruders that come too close. The tiny movements of the clownfish may even help to circulate water and increase the oxygenation available to the anemone, while the bright clownfish colors can help lure small animals to within closer reach of the anemone.

Of course, it’s not all about zebras, ants, and anemones: we humans have synergistic relationships with nature too.

For example, the eggs, larvae, and beeswax contained in bee nests are a key food source for birds called “honeyguides”. One of the ways these honeyguide birds gain access to a nutritious, sweet meal is by leading other honey-loving species – including humans who have learned to understand the patterns and calls of the honeyguide birds – to the nest and allowing those other species to do the hard work of breaking into the nest. The Hadza people of Tanzania are one human tribe that works with honeyguides. They follow the call of the honeyguides to a nest full of honey, and subdue the bees with strategies such as smoke, breaking into the nest, and helping themselves to the sweet nectar. With the bees dispatched and the humans satisfied, the honeyguides can then feast upon the leftover beeswax, eggs, and larvae.

From zebras and oxpeckers to aphids and ants to clownfish and anemones to honeyguides and humans to, yes, ice cream, the same God that I write about here as being a “wild and dangerous” God is also a God of unexpected twists and turns, crazy synergies, and delectable surprises.

Who knows?

Maybe 100 years from now we’ll have figured out that we can make liquid gold by blending psilocybin from magic mushrooms Vitamix with freshly harvested moon rocks in an average countertop Vitamix. Or perhaps we’ll discover that the human colon contains tiny, easily harvestable crystals that can be fetched from a smart toilet and used to power a smartphone for an average of two decades. Or maybe we’ll just discover a novel, tantalizing flavor of ice cream, concentrated from newly discovered minerals brought to the surface by AI-driven rob-submarines from the very, very bottom of the ocean.

I don’t know about you, but I have a hunch there are plenty of surprises that we have yet to discover in this universe. 

There’s also plenty of surprises we have yet to discover about ourselves, especially if we – like pre-ice-cream hominids – are simply patient enough to watch, wait and listen.

What do I mean by that? Well, maybe God didn’t hand you that thrilling ice cream cone He planned for your life when you were first born, but instead is watching as you engage in the character-building, spiritually-refining process of discovering bits and pieces of His greater plan for your life as you slowly zig-zag up the mountain, listening to God’s voice and learning from His wisdom, doing, as a friend of mine likes to say, “The very best job you can with whatever God has put on your plate for that day.”

After all, when it comes to happiness, it’s not just about the hedonistic pleasure of the ice cream cone, or the flashy car, or the new job. As my friend Arthur Brooks writes, happiness is found through enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. Enjoyment is about the pursuit of pleasure alone, but pleasure without memory can lead to addictive behaviors. Satisfaction comes from accomplishing tasks through effort and struggle, including the experience of delayed gratification. Meaning is found in the pursuit of something greater than oneself, such as work, relationships, or societal contribution. This means that when it comes to producing happiness, an ice cream cone snatched from the chest freezer and snarfed down at midnight by a lonely human is far less happiness-inducing than an ice cream cone one has ridden their bicycle to the parlor for, bought an extra of for a homeless person outside, and enjoyed as a memory with friends.

There is also a centuries-old aphorism you’ve likely heard, sometimes attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, that says, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Indeed, the greatest movements and most wonderful events in your life very rarely follow a straight course. Instead, God will most likely surprise you, if you’re willing to patiently wait as you simultaneously put in your best effort to make those ice cream cones materialize.

In the meantime, every step along that crooked, zig-zagging path is simply part of God’s master plan for your life.

So just wake up, trust God, put in the hard work, and wait for the surprises. If you do that, ice cream cones are tasty, and they just keep on coming, even if there’s a bit of difficult cow-milking, ice-chipping, and vanilla-bean-harvesting along the way.

So now it’s your turn. Let me ask you: How has God surprised you lately? What wild, humorous, surprising elements have you discovered from God, whether woven into nature or popping up in your own life? Leave your comments below. I read them all!

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