Coincidence or Providence?
Welcome back to the Front Porch Swing where, for the past two weeks, I have been considering whether God sovereignly directs our lives?
After fifty plus years of pastoral ministry, it has sometimes felt like I made choices based on my preferences; other times God has clearly directed me. When I have been resistant, God has remained relentless. He has been opening doors and closing them to reveal His will for my life.
There are stories of God directing people in the Bible. For example, Peter was specifically told to go to Caesarea and meet a Roman Centurion that had been instructed by an angel to retrieve Peter from Joppa. You can read Peter’s story in Acts 10.
Paul was also called by God to preach the gospel to Gentiles and to plant new churches. He would eventually make at least three major missionary expeditions to places as far away as Rome.
Here’s how it all began: “Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:1–3, ESV)
God interrupted a prayer and praise meeting in Antioch in order to announce His plan for Paul and Barnabas. These two pioneering missionaries traveled through Cyprus and present day Turkey planting churches. Sometimes they experienced severe persecution and resistance, but they always knew they were doing what God had sent them to do.
In Acts 16, on a second missionary trip, Paul faced a dilemma. He had his route planned out, but God had another itinerary. God shut the doors and crossed off cities Paul that had intended to visit. Here’s the inside scoop:
“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” (Acts 16:6–10, ESV)
In a night vision Paul saw a man from northern Greece calling for help. God had a plan to thrust the gospel message across the waters and into another continent. Paul and his associates sailed off to Europe ASAP. Today, you and I are beneficiaries of Paul’s decision to obey God’s call even if it meant cancelling his own plans.
Does God still open and close doors today? Yes!
Here’s my story:
Last week here on the front porch, I shared how God once led us to accept the pastorate of a struggling church in Portland. I was attending seminary and had no plans to pastor another church at that time. God had a better plan and used a teaching assistant to submit my name to the search committee of a local church. I eventually accepted the call to Powellhurst Baptist Church where I spent over thirteen wonderful, fruitful years of ministry in a once dying church.
Whenever I received invitations from other churches I would immediately decline, because I was committed to remain at Powellhurst.
God had another plan.
First Baptist Church in Bend, Oregon (a very desirable place to live) was seeking a lead, teaching pastor and contacted me. I declined. Soon another letter from the search committee arrived stating that they had not received my resume. (I hadn’t sent one.) I declined again. Finally the regional director of our association of churches asked me to pray a week before saying no to Bend.
Mary and I prayed and even drove to Bend to check it out. While in Bend we visited a friend that had attended Powellhurst before moving to Bend. She had played the piano at Powellhurst and had served on the worship committee. Jennie didn’t know that First Baptist was considering me as a candidate. When I asked about the church, her report was less than encouraging.
Once again I told the regional director that I wasn’t interested. However, deep in my soul, I felt troubled. First Baptist relentlessly continued to request my resume. It appeared the search committee was convinced that I was their man.
I remained stubborn and begin to give God reasons why it was the wrong time to leave Powellhurst; God removed each excuse within 24 hours. My last two reasons for not going to Bend were, I felt, valid. First, our youngest son was a sophomore at a local high school and was already playing some varsity football.
One Friday morning I told God this was the wrong time to move our son, because he would be so vulnerable. That night, after the game, as I waited for our son, I turned on the radio in my truck. The first words that came out of the radio were about a pastor in a larger city that felt called to a smaller community. (It was a panel discussion on God’s call to ministry.) The pastor’s teenage son and daughter begged him not to go, but later thanked their father and said it had been the best thing for them.
I was dumbstruck. It was if God was saying, “Syd, trust me. I can take of your son.”
Clinging to my desire to remain at Powellhurst, I found one more reason to not go to Bend. It was a Saturday morning when I told God (Imagine the audacity.) that I can’t leave Powellhurst because of Lonnie. Lonnie, a recent convert, had been abused by his biological father and a stepfather. He struggled with severe depression throughout his life. One day, sitting in my office, as I shared the gospel it was like a light went on in Lonnie’s heart. Somebody loved him unconditionally. Somebody who would never hurt him or abandon him. Although we were the same age, Lonnie looked up to me like dad. He loved me and I him.
That Saturday morning I prayed, “Dear God,” I said,” if I leave now, I will be one more man that has abandoned Lonnie.” I was serious.
Next morning, between the two services, Lonnie asked if we could talk. Sitting there in my office in the chair where he had prayed and surrendered to Christ, Lonnie began to speak: “Pastor, I hear rumors that a church in Bend wants you to be their pastor. I don’t want you to leave, but God sent me here to release you.”
Those were his words.
I felt my skin quivering. I fought tears. It was as if God Himself was speaking to me. “Syd, I am asking you to trust me. Follow me.”
And, we did.
Perhaps God had been using delay tactics and my refusal to accept the call in order to prepare us for the first two years at First Baptist Bend. These were the most difficult years in over 50 years of ministry. It was so difficult that Mary never placed furniture in our living room because we didn’t know if we would survive.
God healed the church, and we spent 25 years loving the people and being amazed at God’s goodness.
I have been reminded again and again that God gives the best to those who leave the choice to Him.
He has providentially led us. He has blessed so richly. He truly is a good and faithful Father who knows what is best for His children.
That’s my/HIS story.
I welcome your feedback and any anecdotes you have about God leading in your life.