This Is Mm /HIS Story (pt. 3)

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.

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.

How Do You Measure Success?

Today I am writing even more than usual as an old man. That’s another way of confessing that I have been reminiscing. It’s David’s fault. While reading through the Psalms the other day I overheard him speaking to himself.

Praise the LORD, O my soul;
All my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, O my soul,
And forget not all is benefits
(Psalm 103:1,2)

That last line set my mind in motion, reflecting upon God’s blessing these past three quarters of a century. The list of benefits—though I’m sure I only remember a fraction—was very long. Life has been good. Yes, I’ve had my share of pain, too—and much of it resulting from my own poor choices. But God has shown me His grace in the lows as well as the many highs.

I reflected upon our family of two sons, five grandkids and one great grandson. Fifty plus years of Christian ministry brims over with great memories made in four churches in Ohio and Oregon. I have enjoyed mission trips loaded with timely provisions from God—and far too many to justify as coincidence.

In the voyage through the winding backroads of memory, I recalled listening to an old 33 rpm record that my father had. (Those old forgotten vinyl discs seem to be popping up all over the place again. Perhaps we all have a reflective side.)

That particular record wasn’t the usual collection of songs; it contained excerpts from sermons preached by well known, godly preachers and evangelists from previous generations. I used to love listening to these men. Most of them I had never heard of, but something about them seemed to resonate in my pre-adolescent heart. Perhaps it was God planting a small seed that would germinate into His call on my life.

This record from the 50s included voices from men as far back as D. L. Moody. Moody was an evangelist in the last few decades of the 19th century, so his voice may have been recorded on one of Edison’s wax cylinders. The sound was distorted badly, but behind all the noise I could the voice of Dwight L. Moody reading the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

I could hardly believe it! I knew about The Moody Bible Institute in those days, but didn’t know I would someday be an alumnus—and also a preacher. I knew the evangelist had died in 1899, but I heard him speaking from that scratchy old record back in 1957.

There was one other voice that I still remember over 60 years later. Perhaps it was his name that leaped off the record label, but I think it was his voice that camped in my mind that day. Rodney “Gypsy” Smith was born in 1860 near London, England. He was the son of a gypsy family wandering around the countryside—despised by the locals, and often accused of thievery. His father spent a fair share of time in local prisons.

Gypsy, as he became known, claims he never went to school. Not even for a single day. At 16 years of age, however, Gypsy happened to hear a Methodist evangelist preaching to a crowd. The teenager’s heart was gripped by God’s Spirit and he was, in his own words, “converted.” He returned to his family that night declaring his conversion to follow Jesus Christ. Soon he carried a Bible and a prayer book that he couldn’t read. He learned to read and preach and sing the good news. And God used him.

Crowds mobbed into churches where the young gypsy boy was preaching. He became a phenomenon in his own country and began to cross the Atlantic to preach in the States. Before his death, in 1947, Gypsy would cross 45 times and preach to huge crowds in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Paris, France.

Once when defending his lack of formal education Gypsy explained, “I never went to any of your colleges or seminaries. They wouldn’t have me, but I went to the feet of Jesus where the only true scholarship is learned.”

That uneducated, social outcast, gypsy boy became one of the most listened to preachers of his day. He often burst into song in the midst of a sermon, and it was a song that I heard on that old 33 rpm record long ago. It was the same song that I just heard once again this morning through the Internet. It moved my old heart today as much as it did my teenage decades ago. I believe the lyrics hold the secret to the success of Gypsy Smith’s long global-wide ministry.

I can hear my Savior calling,
I can hear my Savior calling,
I can hear my Savior calling,
Take My cross and follow,
Follow all the way.

Where He leads me I will follow,
Where He leads me I will follow,
Where He leads me I will follow,
I’ll go with Him,
with Him all the way.

Just now I listened once more, trying to sing along with this hero of the Faith, but lost my voice in the emotion of the moment. You will discover a link at the bottom of this blog if you care to hear Gypsy Smith singing in 1902.

So you ask, “What does this have to do with measuring success?”

One of the preachers on that old record album defined success this way: “Success is knowing God’s will and doing it.” 

Now I can’t swear that it was Gypsy Smith who made that statement about success, but I have always remembered it that way. If those weren’t Gypsy’s words they certainly reflect his life and the lyrics from the song above. One day a young gypsy boy, rejected and hated by peers, heard Jesus calling him to follow all the way, and he did. For over six decades he proclaimed the good news around the world.

There we have it. Success isn’t accumulating money or trophies or being famous for some other reason that our culture values. Rich men have died paupers, if not in gold, in reputation. Strong men succumb to disease and death like the rest of us. Musicians with great voices are silenced by death. But the man or woman who knows God and understands God’s will and does it will abide forever.

How do you measure success? Success is knowing God’s will and doing it.

Knowing and Doing God’s Will

How does God lead His sons and daughters? Sometimes His will seems mysterious—maybe just beyond reach. In many circumstances of life, however, Scripture provides clear instructions about God’s desires for our lives. The challenge in such moments is not so much knowing God’s will but in actually doing it. For example, every husband is to sacrificially love his wife. He need never wonder about God’s will in that regard!

Here are a few biblical passages that (very clearly) express God’s will for each one of us:

  • It is God’s will to invest our time wisely and to not be under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Instead we are to live under the influence of—and be continually filled by—the Holy Spirit. God also wills that we gather to encourage one another and express thanks in every situation. (Ephesians 5:15-21)
  • It is God’s will that we rejoice and pray with thanksgiving in every situation while submitting to the Holy Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-22)
  • It is God’s will that we yield to the Holy Spirit who will sanctify or make us holy in our choices and actions. Paul specifically adds that it is God’s will to abstain from sexual immorality in every form because God has called us to live pure lives. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)

I don’t ever need to wonder if God wants me to give thanks in every situation—including life’s most difficult moments. He has already said so! I don’t need to waste mental energy asking myself if I should yield to the Holy Spirit’s influence in my life, rather than trying to solve every problem in my own strength. He has already made that abundantly clear.

My problems really boils down to doing more than knowing.

Let’s consider a broader question: “Does God have a specific plan (will) for each area of our lives, or are we free to choose things like where to live or work? I used to believe something like this: “God doesn’t care as much where I serve as why. He cares more about my motivation than the location.” I am still convinced that God deeply cares about the motives governing my decisions. But it’s also true that what I “want” may not be what God wills.

While ministering in Bend, I occasionally received a telephone call from a seminary grad or a pastor in the Midwest stating that God was calling them to plant a church in our city. They were looking for my counsel (or so they said). After a few minutes I would ask, “Why do you feel called specifically to Bend?” When the answers became a little vague and cloudy I would ask, “Do you like to ski or fish?” Often there was a clumsy silence before a mumbled “yes.” The ornery side of me assumed Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort or the Deschutes River was calling them to Bend. Those who eventually came to Bend (attracted by our quality of life) seldom lasted more than a couple of years before God “changed His mind” and sent them back home.

Sometimes, however, God still leads us like He did with the apostle Paul in Acts 16:6-10. Several times Paul’s plans to minister in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) were stifled. Doors slammed shut. I assume Paul’s motives were pure; he wanted to preach the gospel and plant churches. None of these locations offered a unique quality of life to attract Paul’s team. God simply closed the door.

After these Holy Spirit red flags, Paul received a vision of a man from Macedonia (northern Greece) saying, “Come over and help us.” That plea was like saying “fetch” to a Golden Retriever.I love the way Luke describes Paul’s response. “And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

Immediately they left for Greece. Doors in Asia Minor had been closed to reveal an open door to bring the gospel to Europe.

I can identify with the story because God clearly revealed His plan for my life when He called us to pastor a rural church in Ohio. That’s what I want to share with you today on the Front Porch.

I chose to attend Moody Bible Institute where I met Mary. I could have chosen a dozen other colleges, but looking back I see God’s hand in my choice. Having completed our training at Moody we moved to Mary’s home town in Ohio where I could attend Ohio State University. Mary was pregnant, so I needed a job to provide for our family. I applied at North Electric, a telecommunications company. Bert, the personnel manager read my resume and noticed that I had recently graduated from Moody. From that point on the job opening was off the table. Bert was convinced she had just witnessed a sign from God, because she was part of pastoral search committee for her church. They had written Moody asking if there were any alumni in the area that might consider serving as their pastor.

But that hadn’t been my plan. Not at all!

My plan (my will) was to finish OSU in a year and attend Dallas Theological Seminary. I wasn’t interested in becoming a pastor, but Mary’s pastor challenged me to at least check out Pulaskiville Community Church because, in his words, “Perhaps God was in this.”

Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to meet with the church board, but I really wanted to go to Dallas. Having read the church’s by-laws and Statement of Faith I told the board I disagreed with their doctrinal statement and stated emphatically that I was going to Dallas in a year. At that point, this Jonah set sail for Nineveh.

About six months later the church contacted me once more. They challenged me to pray about pastoring their church for one full week before finally saying no. Being upright and noble I agreed to pray. Following that week, I met the board again and laid out these conditions: “I am still planning on seminary in a year, and I will preach what I believe the Bible teaches, not your doctrinal statement.” Confident they would now reject me, I relaxed.

But they didn’t reject me. Every excuse I had offered was swept off the table. They were a desperate church; I was a begrudging candidate. Finally believing that it really was God’s will, we accepted the call and moved into the old farm-home-parsonage.

My one-year commitment to the church became seven and a half wonderful years. I grew. The church grew. My spiritual gifts were confirmed and sharpened. It was a love affair.

God had known all along what was best for me. I have always said, “Pulaskiville was better than any seminary I could have attended at that time. It was just what I needed and what the church needed.”

Next week, I want to share a few anecdotes from our ministry at Pulaskiville and introduce you to one of the men whom God gloriously saved—and who eventually served as the pastor of that same, white-frame-country-church on Morrow County Road 98

If you have experienced a time when God clearly led you by opening or closing doors, please share it with us.

Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today. I welcome your comments and input. Please invite your friends to join us.