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.