This Is my/HIS Story (pt. 2) 

Coincidence or Providence?

Last week I shared how God uprooted all my plans when He providentially directed us to pastor a small rural church in Ohio when I was only 23 years old.

But does God always direct in such a specific manner?

Sometimes God directed men like Peter to go to specific place. At other times, it seems like Peter just went with the flow. Consider this passage in the book of Acts:

“Now it came about that as Peter was traveling through all those parts, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. [Present day Lod in Israel.] And there he found a certain man named Aeneas, who had been bed ridden eight years, for he was paralyzed” (Acts 9:32).

It sounds like Peter just meandered into Lydda, where the Holy Spirit empowered him to heal the paralytic. While in Lydda, an urgent message arrived from believers in Joppa (present day Jaffa) entreating him to come quickly. Tabitha, a beloved member of the Joppa fellowship who had faithfully served many people, had just died. Having heard of the amazing miracles being performed through Peter, the church in Joppa were trusting God to restore this saintly woman to life. 

The Bible doesn’t tell us whether Peter asked God whether he should go to Joppa or not. As far as we know, he just got up and went. It was, he probably reasoned, “the right thing to do.” And God used that trip to Joppa in a huge way. By restoring Tabitha to life through the power of God, the report of this miracle resulted in many people trusting in Jesus Christ.

So what do we conclude here? Were Peter’s decisions and the resulting miracles providence or coincidence—or both? Peter had chosen to go to Joppa, but the miracle of raising Tabitha was God’s work! 

Peter remained several days in Joppa, making himself comfortable at the home of a man named Simon. Peter may have seen the R & R as a nice break in his apostolic schedule. But God had another plan—a most surprising change in Peter’s itinerary. His next stop would be miles up the Mediterranean coast to Caesarea, to visit with a Roman Centurion named Cornelius.

I can’t imagine that hanging out in a Roman city like Caesarea was ever in Peter’s daily planner. But it was in God’s.

 Cornelius was a seeker of the one true God, and was respected for his compassion and generosity toward the Jewish people. One day, as Cornelius was praying, an angel appeared, instructing him to send to Joppa and bring Peter to Caesarea. Immediately, the Roman officer dispatched two servants and a “devout soldier” to retrieve Peter.

Meanwhile, back in Joppa, Peter had received a vision that would challenge his prejudice against Gentiles. Three times Peter pushed back, clinging to his Kosher tradition. And three times God responded, exposing Peter’s pride and prejudice. 

As Cornelius’ messengers were approaching Simon’s home in Joppa, the Spirit clearly told Peter to go with these Gentiles without misgivings. This time, unlike choosing to go to Lydda and Joppa, God had a sovereign plan for Peter.

I have experienced both of those options in my life: God has at times given me freedom to choose my own destination, and at other times, He has clearly and sovereignly directed me. 

Here’s another chapter in my story:

After serving seven-plus years in Pulaskivile and assisting in establishing a Christian school in Marion, Ohio, I was ready to go to seminary. I had planned to go to Dallas Seminary when I accepted the call to Pulaskiville. Now, ten years later, I knew my strengths as well as my weaker spots. Seminary would help fill in the blanks.

I considered three seminaries: Dallas, Trinity (in Chicago) and Western (in Portland). Even though I prayed, I never sensed a direct leading from God to attend a specific seminary. He seemed to be leaving it up to me. I remember asking myself, “Why would I return to Chicago or move to Texas when we could move to the Northwest?” When I was eight years old, my family had visited Oregon, where I had been impressed with the lush greenness and the beautiful mountains. Besides that, Western Seminary had a strong Old Testament department—an area that had been lacking in my undergraduate work. So I chose to pursue a Master’s Degree in Old Testament studies at Western. 

Moving to Portland was a family-driven decision. While in Portland, however, God once again revealed His sovereign plan for my life. I was in my mid 30s with ten years of local church ministry experience under my belt. One of my professors’ teaching assistants took note of that. Andy attended Powellhurst Baptist Church, knew they were seeking a pastor, and decided to submit my name. 

The search committee requested a résumé, which by now, after serving as a pastor ten years, I could provide. Reading Powellhurst’s annual report wasn’t encouraging. Nor was I seeking a pastorate. I was a full-time student at Western, worked a night shift at UPS, and we had two sons. My plate was already full. 

Pastoring a dying church wasn’t on my agenda. But was it on God’s? Was He opening a door? Was His plan—improbable as it sounded to me—better than mine? 

What do you do in a situation like that? You pray. With great intensity!

As Mary and I kept putting this decision before the Lord, I began to sense a tugging on my heart. One day I said to her, “If ever there was a church that needed to either be put to rest (closed) or, by God’s grace, to be raised to health and life again, it is this church.” 

The challenge was daunting, to say the least. Powelhurts’s building, large enough for 800 people, was in very poor condition. Less than a hundred people regularly attended. Powellhurst had enjoyed a great history, but was in severe decline.

I served 13-plus years at Powellhurst, and we grew to love our church family. God saw fit to breathe new life into the church. A large corporation purchased the original property, and we were able to relocate—debt free—on a very visible corner less than a mile away. 

The congregation grew, so that two services were necessary. 

When I began to receive offers from larger churches to candidate, I would immediately decline. I was planning to serve Powellhurst until retirement or death. 

But once again, God had another plan—another surprising chapter in my/His story.

But that’s another story for another visit here on the Front Porch Swing.

Oh, by the way, one of the ways God helped bring Powellhurst back to health was when thieves broke into the building one Saturday night and stole the sound system. Next morning the small congregation had to move forward to hear, not only the message, but to hear each other singing in the large worship center. I wonder if the thieves knew they were being used to accomplish something good?

Yes, God works in mysterious ways. That, I know, by experience.

This is My (HIS) STORY

Providence or Coincidence?

“God doesn’t care where I choose to serve Him.” 

At least that’s what I once thought. Certainly, God was more concerned about my motives than whether I moved to Texas or Oregon. I could serve Him in Philadelphia or Portland. Even Atlanta or Albany would be okay. Or so I thought.

I knew that God had clearly directed men like Peter and Paul to minister in specific locations. Consider Philip. In the midst of a great spiritual awakening among the Samaritans, he was specifically sent to a remote desert region to evangelize one Ethiopian man, a court official of Queen Candace. After baptizing the Ethiopian, perhaps the first African convert, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away while the official, now filled with joy, continued his journey taking the gospel with him.

No doubt about it, God had a very specific plan for Philip.  But that was way back in the first century, when the gospel needed to be taken to unreached places like Africa. Right?

Does God still have a specific plan—a unique calling—for his ministers today? Or are we left to make our own choices? Is it providence or coincidence?

I can’t speak for everybody else, but I can share my story—a story of God providentially directing my life. As I reflect on my life, I see strong evidence that God has led me all the way. I am who I am today because God had a plan for me. 

That is what I want to share over the next few weeks here on the front porch swing.

Every choice we make has consequences. It’s inevitable. The result of a choice may be positive or negative, but it is never neutral. For example: I chose to wait two years after high school before attending Moody Bible Institute. Mary worked one year after high school. We ended up in the freshman class. She caught my eye, and I was on pursuit. I won her hand in marriage and my life has been forever changed. Sometimes I wonder what if I had gone straight to Moody from high school, and Mary had worked a year. There’s a good chance that I, a senior, and she, a freshman, may not have met. What if I would have surrendered to “senior panic” and found someone else?

None of my five grandchildren or two great grandchildren would exist today. I would never have attended Ohio State to finish my undergraduate work. I would never have pastored our first church in Ohio. The list of changes in my life’s story would be almost unbelievable.

So this week, I want to share how God providentially guided us to our first pastorate in Ohio.

Mary and I had been married two years when we graduated from Moody. I needed one more year of liberal arts to earn my BA degree, so we returned to her home church in Galion, Ohio where we volunteered to serve as youth directors. It was a team effort, and we enjoyed it.

Mary was pregnant. I needed a job.

One morning before I left the apartment to apply for a job at North Electric Company in Galion, Mary and I prayed for God to provide a job, and to enable me to interview well at North Electric. When I entered the personnel manager’s office, Bert enthusiastically welcomed me and noted that I had just graduated from Moody. I waited for her to begin telling me about the job at North Electric. 

She never did. Instead, she excitedly shared that she was on the pastoral search committee for a small rural church 20 or so miles to the south. They had contacted Moody that week, inquiring if there were any alumni in the area that might be seeking a pastorate. This was, in Bert’s mind, a sign from God that I was their man.

But I had other plans! I needed a paying job in Galion. I was headed to Dallas Seminary the following year, after finishing one year at Ohio State University. It wasn’t the right time to accept a pastorate. Besides all that, I was only 23 years old and had zero pastoral experience. I wasn’t ready, and to be candid, I really wasn’t interested. I was passing through Ohio on my way to Texas!

Our pastor, however, after listening to my account of the interview at North Electric, encouraged me to at least look into the offer. “Perhaps God is in it,” he said. With a great deal of skepticism and very little enthusiasm, we drove down to see Pulaskiville Community Church. (Meanwhile, Mary was home wondering why the interview was taking so long.)

I met with the search committee, and after reading their doctrinal statement, I discovered a few red flags and told them that I wasn’t interested. (What a relief!) A few months later, however, the search committee contacted me again, asking us to pray before declining again. What could I say? Of course we would pray, and we did.

I didn’t want to be another Jonah running away from God’s call, so I told the search committee that I would consider their offer on these conditions: I disagreed with their doctrinal statement and would preach what I believed the Bible said, and I was still planning on going to Dallas Seminary in a year. Assuming those reasons would finally squash their persistence; I was surprised when the congregation voted to call me as their pastor.

We moved into the parsonage with Mary six months pregnant. Pulaskiville, once a small village on a country road, consisted of a half dozen homes or single-wide trailers begging for a little TLC.

Forty or so people gathered on Sundays in an old white building seated across the road from junked cars and a pig pen. The future didn’t seem promising, but Pulaskiville was now our home.

That little church became the best seminary I could have attended at that time. Preaching Sunday morning and evening, teaching the adult class and leading the youth ministry stretched me and helped me discover that the Holy Spirit could use me. I grew deeper in my appreciation for God’s Word and in my ability to preach and teach. We grew to love the people. They were our kind of folks: farmers and laborers in factories. I sat through numerous surgeries and buried and married several people. I learned to be a shepherd.

The church began to grow numerically. Several persons responded to the gospel and invited their relatives and friends to come to hear God’s Word. One Sunday the Holy Spirit was so present and powerful that there were almost more people at the front of the church responding to the message than those who remained in the seats. This has been the closest experience we have had with revival.

Eventually 200 plus people gathered in a building built to seat 100 fairly comfortably. We began to look for property on the main highway a few miles away to build a larger facility. 

Obviously, I stayed longer than that one promised year. In fact, we enjoyed over seven wonderful years in that rural church. 

Was it coincidence that Bert, the personnel manager, served on a pulpit committee that had just contacted Moody? Perhaps, but after 50 years in the ministry I think not. In fact, God has continued opening doors even when I wasn’t seeking.  

I am convinced those years at Pulaskiville were part of God’s plan for my life; it is His story.

And the best was yet to come.