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.