They say that life is full of surprises. And even if you expect them to come, you never can predict their shape or size. Whether joyful or painful, surprises remind us that we are not in control. We are all vulnerable to the experience of the unexpected.
Nice surprises are easy to like. We encountered one, as a family, this past week on our holiday in the foothills of the Himalaya mountains. And it did a few things in my heart. But the pleasant surprise came after an unpleasant one, on the same trip. Dealing with disappointment is never easy, but it’s also an important part of life.
Earlier in the week, we had driven from our home in Delhi to the hill station of Mussoorie. The distance is about 300 km’s and takes about seven hours of driving. Although the drive can be hectic because of the condition of the roads and the nature of some of the other drivers, the peaceful setting in the hills is well worth the trip. Mussoorie is a popular holiday destination for Indians. It’s referred to as Queen of the Hills. The part of Mussoorie that we always go back to is called Landour. We had spent three months here three years ago when we first arrived in India. It’s a very special place, home to the Landour Language School, where we first studied Hindi, and the Woodstock School, a well known boarding school where our eldest daughter Alexis did the first three months of her formal education as a day scholar.
What we enjoy most about Landour is the natural beauty of the place, the mountains and trees, the fresh air and open space. It’s also very quiet and peaceful, especially compared to the noise and busyness of Delhi. But since we don’t have a home in Landour, we wanted to stay in a place that was comfortable, something special for our short holiday. Three years ago we spent our three months in a guesthouse that was entirely adequate and affordable, but a little less to our liking. Last year when we visited we had stayed at a beautiful place called Ivy Bank, and our plan was to stay there again this year. We had tried for days to call from Delhi and confirm a booking, but the phones were down. So we arrived on the doorstep of Ivy Bank in the afternoon and hoped for a room.
It says in the Book of Proverbs, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life." After learning that there were no rooms available at Ivy Bank, we walked away with sick hearts. Even though we knew that we didn’t have a confirmed booking, we were surprised that we wouldn’t be staying there. Afterall, this wasn’t a busy time of the year. There were other options for us, but they were not Ivy Bank. Maybe God had something better in mind for us? Maybe, but maybe not. Sometimes it works out like that, and sometimes it doesn’t. Life is just not that simple. Nor are the ways of God. Although it’s theologically nice to believe that about disappointments, that there is always a better option, God doesn’t have to submit to the equation. He doesn’t govern his world tit for tat. Even if you believe that he is entirely and always good (which I do), it doesn’t mean that God must deliver happiness after every disappointment. Sometimes his goodness is hidden from us, at least for a time, and sometimes a long time.
We were upset that we weren’t staying at Ivy Bank. I don’t know why it didn’t work out as we had hoped and prayed. The place where we ended up staying was not as nice, but we enjoyed the good features and overlooked the bad. We accepted God’s decision, but we didn’t necessarily understand it. It was no disaster, but it was a disappointment.
The following afternoon we set out on an excursion to Everest House. It was a short drive and an easy hike, even with kids. We packed a light picnic and planned to eat it once we arrived at our destination, which was a clearing atop a hill where Sir George Everest had lived, the Englishman after whom the tallest mountain in the world is named. He was a surveyor and geographer who had mapped out the mountains in India, Nepal and Tibet from the observatory next to his residence on this very hill. Though the name of Everest stands tall, the buildings erected by him here on this site are, unfortunately, falling apart. Still, the location is amazing.
The kids did well as we made our way down the trail and weaved through mountain villages and camping sites. It was a beautiful day, though a thick haze kept the more impressive views hidden. In some places we could make out the faint outline of mountains in the distance, and we knew that there were a host of majestic snow-covered peaks beyond the mist. To the other side, also hidden from us, lay the Doon Valley and the city of Dehradun, the state capital of Uttaranchal. As we made our final ascent to Everest House we had the feeling of arriving on top of the world. And yet we were not alone in the clearing. As soon as we caught sight of the derelict buildings, we also saw several vehicles and a great party spread out on the lawn next to the house. There were umbrellas and blankets and chairs and a grand display of food and drink. And there were people, a cosmopolitan crowd, enjoying it all in a setting like no other. It was elaborate.
As we explored the house, people looked on. Servants scurried about. Some village children played. There was more than enough space for all of us to savour the setting, but we noticed each other, especially our little family and their big party. We looked on with delight. It was a beautiful occasion.
As we made our way over to the other side of the clearing to crack out our snacks, an elderly man broke away from the crowd and came toward us. His invitation was kind and clear, "Please come and enjoy some of our food." Impressed and humbled by the gesture, we accepted the offer. Before we knew it, we were seated on the grass, feasting on the finest food, with ceramic plates, silverware and linen napkins. It was hardly the simple picnic we had planned. We were surprised, and grateful.
We learned that the man’s name was Rana and he was celebrating his sixtieth birthday party with his family. He told us that they had come from all over the world to celebrate his life in this location, from London, New York, Stockholm, Montreal, and Delhi. They had certainly come at no small expense, parents, children and grandchildren. It was extravagant.
Rana was obviously honoured and pleased by the whole event. We don’t know what else was in his heart, but he seemed grateful. His act of love was sincere and we were touched by his eagerness to share. He was generous with us, and kind. He offered more than we received, but we were never made to feel uncomfortable. It was simply a gift, freely shared. And we thoroughly enjoyed it, and laughed at our good fortune.
As we finished our food, Rana offered to have his driver take us back to our car where we had begun our hike. We gratefully accepted that offer as well, having completed the greater distance of the circular hike already on the way to Everest House, and knowing that the remaining hike was more precarious than our family probably had energy for. We said goodbye and expressed our gratitude, and our encounter with Rana was finished. Our hearts, however, kept stirring, and we spoke to each other of the goodness we had just experienced.
It’s not hard to see the good in a surprise like that. It was a gift of grace. We had done nothing to deserve it from Rana. We will probably never have an opportunity to repay him for his good deed. As well, even after seeing the party, we had certainly not expected, or even hoped, to be included in any way. In that way, our meeting at Everest House was coincidental, random. However, Rana’s generosity gives us a glimpse of God’s generosity. Although neither Rana nor us planned our encounter, we believe that God did. It is entirely congruent with our beliefs about God and his goodness. We didn’t deserve this unexpected blessing, but we believe that God was delighted to allow our family to experience this beautiful charity. It convinces us again that God is good, and that people, whatever their relationship to God, also have an amazing capacity to do good. This happening restores within our hearts a sense of common grace in our world, found in gracious people and ruled by a gracious God.
Amidst life’s disappointments, gifts of grace like this keep us bouyant. They help to keep us believing in people and believing in God. If painful surprises are inevitable, then joyful ones are also necessary, though God alone decides the shape and size of them all. He alone knows what we need and what we are able to bear, and when.
P.S. After asking their driver a few questions and doing a little research back in Delhi, we discovered that our gracious host at Everest House was Rana Talwar, a prominent international banker and a recently-appointed board member of DLF (Delhi Lease and Finance), the largest real estate development company in India. Rana is the son-in-law of K.P. Singh, the owner of DLF, and according to the Forbes listing of March 2008, the 8th richest man in the world.