As we continue to consider how God works in time, past, present, and future, it might be helpful to recall such related and relevant biblical expressions as these: “…it came to pass,” “in the fullness of time,” “at the appointed time,” “…a time for every matter under heaven,” “…the times and the seasons,” “…and the time arrived,” “…the acceptable time,” “…the signs of the times,” “…for such a time as this,” and “…before the foundation of the world.” For all these recurring phrases in scripture serve as reminders that there are pre-determined times known only to God, times that have been set by an act of His sovereign will, both past and future events: “…that which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by” (Ecclesiastes 3:5) – fascinating, and perhaps confusing, references to the manner in which God bends time (i.e. time as we know it) to suit His own eternal purposes (determined in Eternity, where there is no such thing as “calendar time,” only the Eternal NOW).
In reading an Old Testament passage this week in preparation for a Sunday School lesson I will be teaching in October I was struck by this passage in the book of Esther: “If you keep silence at SUCH A TIME AS THIS…who knows, perhaps you have come to power (i.e. to a position of royal influence) FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS” (Esther 4:14). This is undoubtedly a reference to divine providence, which is a common concept in the Bible, God’s providential dealings with His covenant people, His provision for them, His protection of them, His persevering faithfulness to them. This is a dominant theme in the Psalms of the Old Testament, which have become known as “the faith of ancient Israel set to music,” and also a prominent theme in the New Testament. The faithfulness of our Father in heaven in caring for His own was certainly central in the teachings of Jesus, and it was an important part of the “good news” proclaimed by the apostles. It is the same faith we sing in such hymns as “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with Thee; Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not; as Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be…Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”
This post is picking up where I left off last week, in which I shared how in my sophomore year at Kentucky Wesleyan College God had opened the door for me to serve as student-pastor of the very same church where some of my ancestors had been members, including my maternal grandmother who had planted the idea of the ministry in my mind when I was only five years old. That very special church became an “extended family” for both Norma and me, during our courtship and preparation for marriage. It was four miles from my hometown, so I was able to visit and stay with my parents on the weekends. Furthermore, that was only thirty miles from Louisville, which was Norma’s home, so she too was able to visit with her parents, whenever both of us traveled together to Smithfield. What an unexpected blessing that proved to be, as it gave both families the chance to become better acquainted in preparation for our wedding in September (1951). Was that merely a stroke of good luck, or just one more witness to God’s providence and faithfulness? Was it another way God was communicating with us, reassuring us that His eye was upon us, that He was in control, that He was going before us to prepare the way, making the rough places plain, working in all thing for our good?
I am more convinced than ever before that God enjoys surprising His own people, those whom He has chosen and called. Furthermore, I believe the best way to view the events in our lives is in panorama – the word means to “see all things from a central viewing area, or viewpoint.” It is rewarding to practice viewing our entire lifetimes from this perspective. In this way we can see how God was preparing us at each stage of our lives “…for such a time as this.” Every era was unique, a special time with different opportunities that served as important learning experiences. However, one of the most important lessons learned during each time or season was that we were being led at all times, in a way that we did not know at the time, but led by Someone who did know the way – a sovereign God who has always been in the process of completing what He started in our lives so long ago, “perfecting” us according to His will, weaving all of the events of our lives together into a beautiful tapestry that will eventually prove to all that we are His own “workmanship” (Ephesians 2:10).
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews admonishes us to make Jesus the focal point of our lives, to keep our minds and hearts fixed on Him, always “Looking unto Jesus…the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2). The word “pioneer” is not hard to understand, but what about “perfecter”? “Pioneer” means one who went before us, the one who blazed the trail; “perfecter” means the one who has been at work in all the events of our lives, even from the beginning, working in all things to re-make us into the persons He created us to be (i.e. the persons He had in mind when He first thought of us; when the process is complete we will be just like Him). We were not aware of this great truth at all times, certainly not when Norma and I were so young, and so immature. At the end of our sophomore year in college we were more aware than ever of how little we really knew and understood, how much more we needed to learn, how we needed to keep on learning (for as Einstein said, “When you stop learning, you stop growing”).
After working all summer to save as much money as possible, we were joined in the covenant of Christian marriage on September 2nd, 1951, at Norma’s home church in Louisville, West Louisville Evangelical and Reformed Church. Our wedding was a family affair, since both her brothers, who were ministers in that denomination, assisted in the ceremony. Norma had always said she would never date or even consider marrying a preacher. There were already enough preachers in the family! That was another valuable lesson learned that would help us immensely in years to come: NEVER TELL GOD WHAT YOU WILL, OR WILL NOT, DO!
It will probably come as no surprise to hear me confess that we spent almost all of the money we had earned that summer on our honeymoon, and moved into our new apartment in a new city as newlywed paupers. That was the same year Kentucky Wesleyan College also relocated in Owensboro (no, the city was not named for my family, although I enjoyed telling friends it was). Needless to say, it was an adventure of faith, for Norma had to look for a job, and I had accepted another student-pastor assignment near Owensboro, a position that would only pay me $1,800.00 a year. How were we going to be able to meet our expenses? Another lesson we needed to learn, and learn quickly: OUR GOD IS THE GOD WHO WORKS WONDERS, AND WHO SPECIALIZES IN SURPRISES. Yes, we were certainly going to have some surprises, and we were going to need some wonders! Our first child, Jan Ellen, would be the first big surprise, born in the summer following our junior year — the best surprise of all during our two years in Owensboro.
The next wonderful surprise was the joys we shared while serving the Reed Community Church, where I was once again a “student pastor.” That community of faith immediately adopted Jan, just as they had adopted us. That inter-denominational church, which was in a strong rural Roman Catholic community, had quickly become a “home away from home” for us. The members of that church also enjoyed surprising us, providing additional income as needed, feeding us, spoiling us. We were continually guests in their homes. They were always making us feel not only needed but wanted. It was in that church that I had my first baptisms and weddings, although I had not yet been ordained. Having been licensed to preach in the Methodist Church afforded me those pastoral privileges, which was a great advantage for both the church and myself. The congregation had originally been a Presbyterian Church, but since there were not enough Presbyterians to support the church, it had been re-developed as a “community” church (i.e. a trans-denominational Protestant church), consisting of Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, as well as Presbyterians, who provided most of the leaders, having been previously ordained as Elders or Deacons – establishing an interdenominational church, but with a Presbyterian form of government. Why is that significant? Because, unknown to everyone but God, I was destined to become a Presbyterian Minister! Was that only a “coincidence”, or was it another “GOD-INCIDENT?” What do you think? I know what I believe.
I am a minister who not only believes in an “initial” call to the ministry, but one who also believes God calls particular pastors to serve particular churches in particular locations at particular times for particular purposes. (i.e. for particular forms of ministry). This has certainly been true in my own life and ministry, as I will explain in future posts. I am truly amazed when I now look back across the years, from my current vantage point in retirement (I only retired from a position on the staff of a church, not from ministry) to see where I have been, the many places I have served in the United States and abroad, and how Norma and I, as well as our children, have been formed and re-formed, molded like clay in the hands of a Master Potter into instruments God has been able to use in spite of our flaws, as still imperfect vessels: “For we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power (i.e. the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “the power of God unto salvation,” the power “to make all things new,” the “power to become children of God”) belongs to God and does not come from us” (II Corinthians 4:7).
We can now see our failures as well as our successes when we look back – we can see our mistakes, and we remember the struggles – it has not always been easy, but we see how God has always led us, guided us, corrected us, blessed us, provided for us, forgiven us, blotted the record clean, and never given up on us. We can see clearly now how God has intervened in our lives time and time again, teaching us, molding us, perfecting us, and preserving us FOR SUCH A TIME AS THIS.