Imagine a young actor sent out on stage to deliver a monologue.
Ever since his director first handed him the script, he's been excited by the possibilities. He's been working toward this for months, and now the night is here: his first chance to perform in front of a packed playhouse.
When the time comes, he steps into the light with confidence. He strides toward center stage. Once there, he pulls in a deep breath and briefly closes his eyes, bracing to deliver the opening line.
But in the stillness, he hears a whisper of sound at his back. A murmur rises from the audience. He glances over his shoulder and perceives with a shock that the curtain is rising behind him, revealing not only a completely unfamiliar backdrop, but also -- surprise! -- another actor.
He subdues an initial rush of alarm and gamely reminds himself that whatever else happens, the show must go on.
The other actor starts speaking, and in his lines our young friend recognizes fragments of the original monologue, although nothing is verbatim. The essence is there, but it's all a bit different somehow.
Much to his surprise, our young actor finds himself unexpectedly improvising a scene with a seasoned performer (who -- surprise again! -- just so happens to be one of the most talented improv actors of his generation). Fortunately, the monologue that his director had given him to memorize provides our friend with cues to spark the dialogue, and his nervous energy fuels his acting with a strange new fire.
Very soon the two are bringing down the house with a brilliant, offbeat performance.
After the show, the young actor sits backstage, mulling over the fact that his monologue -- although in itself very good -- would never have topped what just happened. "That was incredible," he thinks to himself, "but where did it come from?"
Soon the director sticks her head in to congratulate him. "What in the world," he laughs. "Why did you spring that on me?"
She shrugs, smiling. "Let's be honest. We both know what you're capable of, but if you knew ahead of time what was coming, you would have panicked and tensed up. So I decided to give you something else to concentrate on and some work to keep your skills sharp, while meanwhile I lined up this other thing. Nice work, by the way."
"Thanks," he says. "But maybe warn me next time?"
She shakes her head. "No, I know you too well. You always do better when you don't know exactly what's coming."
Honestly, that's how life feels sometimes.
When God points us in certain directions, we obey and pray and prepare. We think that we know exactly what he's doing and what it all means, only to find out as the curtain rises on opening night that there's actually something else going on entirely. Something deeper and unexpected and exciting, but also potentially terrifying.
Would we ever have stepped onstage had we known?
In these moments, we must still the panicked questions and listen for a small Voice, a low whisper.
"Not that," he's saying. "This."
Please don't misunderstand. In acknowledging this truth, we're neither crying foul nor accusing God of some cosmic bait-and-switch.
We're thanking him for proving again that his ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts. For confirming that he's capable of ordering our lives so that his will impossible to miss. For keeping us from needless worry and empty dread. For reminding us that the greatest and most effective acts of service in our lives will be the ones that he foreordains without any input from us.
If we're willing to trust him and follow his direction, he's capable of using us in ways that are far beyond our original capacity.
So what if you're usually not aware of what scene's coming next? Determine that in spite of that, you'll keep preparing as best you can for whatever might be behind the curtain. Keep stepping out into the light.
As long as you're in tune with the voice of the Director, you'll be able to hear him speaking softly in your ear.
How many times have we missed it already?
"Not that," he's been saying. "This."