Joe McHugh, the author of Startled by God: Wisdom from Unexpected Places, is about as quiet and gentle a man that I’ve had the occasion to meet. Unassuming, reserved, humble, almost phlegmatic in his manner, his dress, his comportment – these things I experienced when first meeting him.
Startling, reactive, easily impressed, overactive, sensitive, trying to shock does not seem to be parts of his personality. I felt a sense of centeredness that was not surprising to me since he works in the area of spiritual direction.
But I did feel, when I had a chance to sit down with him in my office in Cincinnati and then to have a cup of coffee at an area emporium, being drawn in, curious, interested and engaged, almost at once. It is the same sense that I had with his book.
And so it was this laid-back presence that I experience when he shared that moment when “we meet God.”
“All of a sudden, we experience God when,” he told me, “you don’t expect God to show up.” It is a surprise, a emotional moment.
As he noted in his introduction to the book that includes more than three dozen “brief stories about how God camps out in our lives,” God offers us, “is always offering us,” the chance to be more aware, “more fully alive,” in our own “concrete stories” of our lives. “That’s where we’re often startled to find God waiting patiently and lovingly in expected places.”
And he is clear that those times occur are not likely to happen on our schedule, and are just as likely to be on the diving board, like depicted on the cover of Startled by God, as it is on a mountaintop or by the shore where there are lily pads, almost inviting contemplation. Those times might “particularly” occur, he noted, “in those dusty corners of experience where we’ve frantically posted ‘no trespassing’ signs,” keeping God at arms length until it is comfortable.
And despite our efforts to protect our worlds of work, relationships, entertainment, pleasure, responsibility from divine presence, God uses stories, our stories, as the eternal storyteller, to work within our own narrative in which we are the main character.
But, he points out – surprisingly – there is one story that God tells. “How we are constantly offered ways of being so fully alive that we can describe the experience only as eternal life…. God delights in offering us real life, full life, eternal life.”
McHugh then provides us the spiritual direction of exploring how and how often God is at work in our lives, times that we consider us immune to God’s presence or deny the possibility of the sacred mixing with our profane existence, or even draw too distinctly the division between the sacred and the profane.
I invite you to take the journey with Joe. I think you, like me, will be “startled” and learn something about God’s presence in the every day of our lives.
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While we might look to mountaintop vistas, like Mount Mansfield in Vermont shown above, to find the environment where we might think we might encounter the divine, Joe McHugh suggests in Startled by God that we are “startled to find God waiting patiently and lovingly in unexpected places.” (Photo by Mark Lombard)