Pastor's Blog

Evangelicals talk about "God things" or "God moments".  I call such things Providence, and reading providence is how I live my life.  In my walk with God I don’t hear voices or see visions, nor do I seek or ask for miracles or signs.  God is welcome to intervene with miracles any time He wishes.  That's up to Him.  Until He does, I read Providence.  I believe that God is always working in, through, and behind the ordinary circumstances and events of life.  To walk with Him, I look at my options, try to avoid folly and sin and try to make the wisest choices.  The choices I make set up the next series of events, along with whatever else Providence adds to the mix – and I make the next choice.

One of the first providences I remember reading had to do with my choice of college.  I had been accepted at Penn State for architectural engineering, but several people suggested, independently of each other, that I demonstrated the gifting necessary for the ministry.  I took that as a Providence that I ought to at least look at career options in ministry.  It was March 1978 and I would be graduating high school in June.  It was late to change course from Penn State.  I knew nothing about Bible colleges or ministry preparation.  The leaders of our youth ministry recommended Bob Jones University in South Carolina.  They happened to be taking a group of prospective students to tour Bob Jones that month and I signed on for the trip. 

Let’s just say that weekend was not one of the best of my life.  I was disappointed with the school.  Bob Jones was definitely not  for me.  It looked like I’d be going to Penn State for architecture.

When I got home my parents excitedly shared with me that while I was away in South Carolina, a group of missionary kids from Baptist Bible College of PA had spent the weekend at our church and led a youth group retreat.  One of those missionary kids had stayed at our house – slept in my bed while I was at Bob Jones – and my parents were quite impressed with him and thought it might be worthwhile for me to look into Baptist Bible College.

There were some odd things about this little series of events.  First, I hadn’t heard ANYTHING about the coming of these missionary kids or this youth group retreat.  To this day I have no idea how that happened.  I was very involved with our youth group.  But somehow this event was never on my calendar.  Second, our church had never had a connection to Baptist Bible College and didn’t have one at that time.  Our pastor was a Lancaster Bible College grad and our youth leaders supported Bob Jones and Word of Life Bible Institute.  How that missionary kids team found its way to our church that weekend I still don't know.  To my knowledge, that particular weekend is the only weekend that Baptist Bible College ever had a connection with my home church.

The unique oddities involved intrigued me.  I trusted that the entire arrangement was of God, and we set up a visit to BBC in April.  Even at that late date, the college welcomed me for a visit.  I sat in on a class on the Psalms led by a professor who ended up becoming one of my favorite teachers.  He was weighty and deep and yet wonderfully practical.  I drank in every word that he said.

Furthermore, the campus of the college was formerly Catholic monastery.  The Catholic architecture created a familiar atmosphere for me, and the biblical teaching I heard fed my soul.  Everything about Bob Jones had seemed foreign, cold, and unwelcoming.  Everything about BBC fit me.  I didn’t agonize in fasting and prayer about the decision, worrying about whether I was "in God's will".  I “read the providence“, applied to the school, and was accepted.  I took the acceptance, even at such a late date as a providence, and began my college career there in September 1978.

That is the first providence I recall reading -- the first of many that have led me up to this very day.

The sterile hospital room was quiet except for the occasional beeps and clicks of the machinery that kept the motionless patient’s heart pumping and lungs expanding and contracting.  The dear soul had no brain activity.

I was standing out in the hall with the family as the doctor tried to tell them in soft tones that there was no hope.  Proper etiquette wouldn’t let him say that absolutely.  Doctors always leave a pinpoint of hope and family members want to grasp that point of hope, want to grasp anything,  rather than make the decision that no one ever wants to have to make.

I’ve been with families in that situation more than once.  And somehow there always seems to be a well-intentioned evangelical that shows up to break the weighty silence, spurring everyone on to faith in a God who raises the dead and to continue in fervent prayer for a modern-day miracle.  There was such an evangelical in this case – several, in fact. 

This poor family, torn between the grim facts and their faith in God, looked with pleading eyes to me to weigh in.  I said something to this effect: “The God who does miracles is on the throne.  If we allow the doctors to turn off the machines, we will find out if God wants to do a miracle.”  After some deliberation together, the family decided to trust God and turn off the machines. 

There was no miracle.

Perhaps my counsel seems unsettling to some.  It was based on a simple distinction between ‘miracle’ and ‘providence’.  If you wanted the machines kept on, you weren’t trusting God for a miracle.  You were hoping for a providence.  But a miracle really was what was needed in a case like this one.

My approach to the Christian life is simple.  Expect providence.  Make responsible decisions using the knowledge and wisdom you have at hand and trust God to work in, through, and behind the ordinary processes of life.  God can intervene and do a miracle if He wishes.  We have no promise or guarantee that He will do so.  That decision is entirely up to Him.  It’s up to us  to trust God’s decision.

I don’t know why some evangelicals expect God to do miracles every day.  God never promised that.  If miracles took place every day, they wouldn’t be extraordinary.  We’d see them as ordinary, as commonplaces, maybe even as the workings of nature.  The whole point of miracles is that they don’t happen every day.  Their rarity is part of what gives them their character as ‘miracles’.

One of the key biblical terms for “miracle” is the word “sign” (Greek semeion).  A sign doesn’t draw attention to itself.  Rather, a sign points to something else, and the important thing is not the sign but what it points to.  The signs done by Jesus were not merely about getting people healthy;  Jesus left many ill people in their stricken conditions.  The signs He did were cases specially chosen by the Father, cases that would confirm the authority of Jesus and the truth of His message to the people that needed that confirmation.  It would seem that a miracle done today should serve the same purpose.

My faith doesn’t need miracles.  The resurrection of Jesus is enough.  I’m perfectly happy to see God working providentially – what people call “God things” or “God moments” – in, through, and behind the ordinary processes of my ordinary life.

I was always told that spiritual rebirth was an amazing miracle.  Well, it may be a work of God – but when born-again people are vindictive and cruel, you start asking yourself what happened to the miracle that God supposedly did in their lives.  At least I wondered that.  It made me question whether there was a God who worked at all (as I’ve recounted in previous blogs).  When I returned from my flirtation with atheism I decided to remove the word “miracle” from my vocabulary.  Not because I don’t believe in the biblical miracles (I do) and not because I believe God can’t do miracles (He can).  I see “miracle” as a very technical term for a very extraordinary occurrence that cannot be too easily explained by an appeal to nature.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything in that category.

That doesn’t mean God doesn’t work in the world.  There is a whole other category of divine working that seems overlooked and forgotten, called “providence”, and I sing its praises.  Evangelicals seem to think that unless a thing is miraculous, God can’t be in it or behind it.  But God is constantly working in, through, and behind completely ordinary circumstances.  Why wouldn’t He be?  He is involved in our lives and our world every day.  He just doesn’t do miracles every day.

Years ago, a three-month-old boy from our church was afflicted with two different types of leukemia.  The doctors at Children’s Hospital called it a death sentence.  The little boy endured numerous chemotherapy treatments, but the cancer kept returning.  As a last-ditch effort, the child received a bone-marrow transplant from his father.  We laid hands on the child, anointed him with oil, and prayed for God to intervene.  The bone marrow transplant was successful and that boy is now a young man.

This was a wonderful divine providence.  A miracle would have been an instantaneous recovery when we prayed so that the bone marrow transplant would have been unnecessary.  But God providentially worked in and through the transplant.  Without it, the boy probably would have died. 

The transplant didn’t negate or demean the work of God.  It does if you only find God in the miraculous.  But does God only work in miracles?  I rejoice that He sees fit to use ordinary means and encourage people to use them, and to then thank God AND THE DOCTORS when they work!

Some providences are ordinary.  You pray “Give us this day our daily bread” and then the prayer is answered with a trip to the grocery store – although finding bread or toilet paper during this coronavirus panic may verge on the miraculous!

Some providences are coincidences that seem too coincidental.  My wife and I attended a Bible conference at our alma mater one year.  It just happened to be the same time that I was wrestling through the hurt and anger of betrayal by a friend.  In the first session we attended, the speaker (whom we did not know) spoke on “Washing Judas’ Feet”.  The sermon was about loving those that betray you.  I couldn’t believe it.  If no one else had been in that room, the message would have been for me.  God was at work in an amazing providence in my life.  But there was no miracle there.

When the church was small and we were trying to raise money (either for the purchase of the 13 acre plot or for the down payment on the building;  I don’t remember which) I challenged our small congregation to raise, in one offering, over $10,000.  There was a visitor there that Sunday who heard my challenge.  He returned the next week and before the service handed me an envelope.  With a stern face he said, “This is for you to read after the service.”  I opened the envelope after the service and found a check for over $10,000.  I saw that as a providential work of God, but not a miracle.  I’d have thought differently if the envelope contained a letter telling me to go catch a fish and use the money I found in its mouth as a down payment, and then had a successful fishing expedition. 

I’m big on providence – God working in ordinary ways.  I look for him there and am happy to find Him.  Of course, any time He’s willing to do a miracle, He’s sovereign.  He can do what He likes.  I’d rejoice to see it, but my faith doesn’t need Him to do so.  Raising Jesus from the dead is the only miracle I need.

I’ll probably talk about this a little more next time…

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