I've never read Roald Dahl's 'Tales of the Unexpected' but the title does seem to sum up the experience of the early church as well as having something important to say to the Church today as it seeks to relate to a post-Christian, 'Covid-shaped' culture.
I suppose I'm thinking like this because two friends were blessed in the most unexpected way recently when their GP daughter fell seriously ill with the virus. She is quite young so everyone thought she would fight it off quite quickly. But she didn't and was finally admitted to hospital. Sadly, she grew progressively worse and early one morning they had a phone call informing them that she only had a 50/50 chance of survival.
They did what I guess most of us would do: they gathered together to pray - and God answered their prayers in the most remarkable way. Later that night, as they sat watching a Christian TV programme, their daughter, who just a few hours earlier had been hovering between life and death, contacted them on Facetime to tell them just how much better she felt. That was pretty remarkable in itself, but as they were talking a verse from the Book of Exodus appeared on the screen which read 'I am the Lord who heals your diseases'.
When I was told this story, I was immediately reminded of something the apostle Paul wrote to his friends in Ephesus. God, he said, is able to do infinitely more than we can ever ask or even imagine, that His glory might be seen in the church.
I have seen the Lord do so many unexpected things over the years. It began with my conversion. I was such a conceited atheist that I gave my girlfriend (now my wife) a choice: it was God or me. And to my complete surprise, she chose God. I didn't expect that, and I certainly didn't expect to become a Christian either. But I did. And then to our utter amazement, I went to a prayer meeting and left it convinced that I should become a Baptist pastor.
Life's been like that ever since. I can still remember my mother telling me I should have been a monk because she was so concerned about her grandson's future after we had given up our jobs to live by faith as I trained for pastoral ministry. But God never failed to take care of us, including the twins who arrived unexpectedly too. In fact, He did it so wonderfully that to our complete surprise my mother became a Christian and was baptised too.
I didn't expect Doris to come up to me at the end of a baptismal service and tell me she had been completely healed of arthritis either. But she had, even though no one had prayed for her. In the same way, none of us anticipated a telephone call from a local health authority in the mid-1990s offering to give us four ambulances that we could take to wartorn Croatia.
The offer came after we had been asked if we could find any and had prayed of course, but to get that phone call within a few hours prompted one newspaper editor to say, 'Good God!'
One of the most memorable moments in my life occurred a little over 10 years ago. I was pastoring a church in Bridgend at the time and had accepted an unexpected invitation to become the leader of a church in Pembroke. I can still vividly remember telephoning a friend to inform her that we were going to announce the news the following day. It seems that she already knew because my mother-in-law had told her a few days before and had even named the church! Nothing remarkable about that, you might think, but you need to know that my mother-in-law was suffering from dementia and had been told nothing of our intended move.
I came to the conclusion that day that if God can speak through an elderly lady suffering from dementia, anything is possible; I should rule nothing out but simply enjoy the fact that He is 'gloriously, predictably unpredictable'.
Rob James is a Baptist minister, writer and church and media consultant to the Evangelical Alliance Wales. He is the author of Little Thoughts About a Big God.