Early in 1999, my daughter, my dad, and I started collecting the new series of quarters that featured the states on the reverse. Five new quarters would be introduced each year, and all fifty states would have their own quarters by the end of 2008. Emily was eight and enjoyed starting a new hobby. Dad died later in 1999, but she and I continued our collections in two coin-holding books.
2008 seemed a long way off, but now that year has passed! All fifty states have been minted. Our two collections are almost complete, but we both need Utah quarters from the Denver mint. We both kept looking for Utah Ds in change, but those quarters eluded us. Coins from the Denver mint seemed scarce in northeast Ohio. But we figured those coins would eventually travel to us via change at a store or a vending machine.
The thought of coins “traveling” among cash registers and pockets made me think of the scene in No Country for Old Men, where the killer Anton Chigurh tells the gas station proprietor: “You know what date is on this coin? …1958. It’s been traveling twenty-two years to get here. And now it’s here. And it’s either heads or tails. And you have to say. Call it.”
That’s a dark movie to introduce within my family memories, but “randomness” is both an interesting and scary thing. Don’t we all worry about the safety of our family members because of random events: the drunk who happened to be driving in the same area as your loved one, or the psycho with a gun? I once had a comparatively minor traffic accident: if I hadn’t stopped at a particular store, I could’ve avoided hitting a van that went through a red light, I would’ve already been down the road.
But randomness can be “serendipity,” too. Emily went to camp one summer at Lakeside, OH, became friends some kids from western Pennsylvania, and eventually investigated colleges in that area; she loves the one in which she’s enrolled. We meet people we love, and find new opportunities, through small encounters.
Ten years ago I took karate lessons, but we moved to another city before I progressed very far. When we moved, the instructor told me to contact her brother, who happened to work at the same university to which we were going. When we first got together for coffee, the brother brought along his pastor, whom he thought I’d enjoy meeting. A few years later, I met the pastor again when my daughter was in the same community choir with his daughter. This past year, when my wife accepted her new position, the pastor introduced me to his friend, the president of a school in the same city as my wife’s new position. Soon I had a new teaching job before I’d made a single contact of my own.
I could name numerous examples of that sort from my life. Someone once said that it’s not “a small world,” as the Disney song goes. If we’re active in our lives and open to other people, we’re bound to encounter persons who connect us to other people and places. God certainly uses these encounters to work for good (Rom. 8:28).
God introduces many experiences into the flow of our lives, not only good people but also surprises and small serendipities. You’re in the midst of some problem, perhaps a problem that you’ve dealt with for a while, and then at the perfect moment, a friend calls … or an unexpected event happens … or you get some good news. I remember when a life-changing opportunity opened up for me at a very painful moment when I wasn’t sure what to do next. Somtimes God guides us, sometimes God simply reassures us about the loving divine presence.
The term “providence” comes from the Latin Deus providebit, a translation of the phrase in Genesis 22:14, YHWH jireh, “The Lord will provide.” In that story, faithful Abraham is willing to sacrifice his promised son to God, but God provides a ram instead. Needless to say, providence is one of the beautiful doctrines of Scripture. We long to be guided and used by God. We long to know that God has been at work whether we knew or not (Hos. 11:3). But our lives run aground sometimes; difficulties come to even the most devoted Christians, while mean people seem to avoid trouble. Bad things happen to us, or to those we love, which make us question God’s love and care. As we seek to walk with God—to seek God’s Lordship and companionship—we face challenges.
We also never know exactly how God cares for us amid our life’s events. Maybe that fellow who ran the red light would’ve caused a worse accident up the road if I (and another driver who had worse car damage than I) hadn’t “met” in that intersection. (But if so, why do bad accidents happen every day to other people?)
One of the most haunting stories in this regard is that of the evil King Ahab. Elijah prophesied about his death (1 Kings 21:20f). A little later, Ahab dies in battle … but the arrow wasn’t even aimed at him. An Aramean soldier simply shot an arrow at no one in particular, and the arrow struck Ahab in a vulnerable place between his armor (1 Kings 22:34).
In a more positive story, Paul and Timothy served in Lystra and Iconium, and then planned to go preach in Asia but were forbidden to do so there, as well a Bithynia. Eventually they arrived at Troas, where Paul received a vision to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). What was the Spirit up to? The text only says they were guided.
Similarly with us. By opening ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance we can may find ourselves led—and comforted—in amazing ways, through meaningful opportunities, with people who care.
The last few years I’ve been doing a midlife exploration of the Bible. Here is a list of narratives I found concerning God’s provision. The Bible does not spell out details of how God works, the Bible is clear that God does work! These stories arise from different narratives and sources within the Bible.
· Hagar has given up hope after her water has run out and leaves Ishmael to die. But the angel of God comes to her and gives her divine assurance. At that point, she realizes she has been close to water all along, and God remains with them (Gen. 21:15-21).
· Jacob is about to face his brother after many years, and he is greatly afraid. He prays to God for deliverance (Gen. 32:9-12). His prayer is touchingly answered when he meets his brother and unexpectedly is embraced lovingly by Esau (Gen. 33:1-11). Not only that, but Jacob experiences his unanticipated time of testing as he wrestles with … who? A man? God? An angel? (Gen. 32:22-32).
· Joseph experiences the betrayal of his brothers, the betrayal by Potiphar, yet another betrayal by the chief baker, and years of imprisonment before he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and became a ruler in Egypt (Gen. 37, 39-41).
· Tamar schemes and presents herself as a prostitute in order to finally become pregnant—by her father-in-law Judah. One of her offspring, Perez, is ancestor of Jesus (Gen. 38).
· David slays Goliath with what seems an extremely ineffective weapon (1 Sam. 17:4ff).
· Saul, on the other hand, has excellent means to slay David but is prevented from doing so (1 Sam. 19:10).
· Solomon becomes king of Israel, amid the scheming of his mother and even of the prophet Nathan (1 Kings 1-2).
· As I stated above: Elijah prophesies concerning Ahab’s death (1 Kings 21:20f), but Ahab dies in what seems like a very freak accident (1 Kings 22:34).
· Elisha’s servant Gehazi cheats Naaman of money. Although not present at the time, Elisha knew and cursed Gehazi and his descendents with leprosy (2 Kings 5:19b-27).
· Ahithophel gave better advice to Absalom, to pursue David. But God led Absalom to also seek the advice of Hushai, who advised Absalom not to be hasty. Absalom followed Hushai’s advice, which sounded better but contributed to his (Absalom’s) downfall (2 Sam. 17:1-23).
· In that same story, a woman hid Ahimaaz and Jonathan, and then lied to Absalom, which allowed David to escape safely (2 Samuel 17:15-22).
· Esther, a Jewish woman in the Persian king’s harem, becomes queen of Persia and, with her guardian Mordecai, is able to save her people from massacre.
· The Assyrian king Sennacherib taunts the people of God and blasphemes God. God’s angel struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (Isa. 36-37; 2 Kings 18:13-19:37).
· Jeremiah is cast into a cistern to die. He is saved only because an Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-melech, heard about it, and the king happened to be at a place where Ebed-melech could speak to him (Jer. 38:1-13).
· The thief on the cross has not believed in Jesus and scarcely has what we’d call faith. But with the barest amount of belief he reaches out to fellow “criminal” Jesus with a word of compassion and regret. The man gets more grace than he would’ve dreamed (Luke 23:39-43).
· You could argue that the two fellows walked to Emmaus had less faith than the penitent thief. The thief knew Jesus would come into his kingdom, whereas the two fellows thought the promised kingdom was no more, now that Jesus was gone. They too, get “extra grace” (Luke 24:13-35).
· The Ethiopian eunuch studies Scripture by himself, when Philip encounters him and helps the man discover Jesus. The Spirit had merely instructed Philip to go to Gaza, and after meeting with the eunuch, Philip doesn’t even proceed to Gaza but is sent elsewhere (Acts 8:26-40).
· Peter is able to evangelize the centurion Cornelius thanks to the Holy Spirit’s “cross-referencing” of visions (Acts 10).
· Peter is imprisoned, and his friends pray fervently for him. Subsequently an angel releases Peter from prison, but when he returns to his friends’ house, they don’t believe (Acts 12:6-17).
· As stated above: Paul and Timothy had success in Lystra and Iconium, and then as they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” they tried to go into Bithynia. But the Holy Spirit forbade that, too. So they went to Troas, where Paul had a vision to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10).
· Paul and Silas are released from prison because of an earthquake, which also led to the conversion of the jailer and his household (Acts 16: 25-34).
· Paul glorified God when God raised Eutychus from the dead; but Eutychus had died because he drifted off during Paul’s long sermon and fell from window (Acts 20:7-13).
· Paul wanted to go to Rome and preach; he would’ve been released by King Agrippa but Paul had appealed to the emperor (Acts 26:30-32); so Paul was sent a prisoner to Rome, but when he arrived, the Roman officials had received no charges against him (Acts 28:21). See the whole dramatic story: Acts 21:17-28:30.
These stories require prayerful interpretation on our part, for some are violent, untoward, and strange. Others are closer to our own experiences of serendipity. Does the Bible spell out God’s role in these events? Not always! In some, God is scarcely mentioned, if at all. But the Bible witnesses to or implies a mysterious but real and strong guidance amid the very human course of things.
The Bible also gives us confidence in God’s ability to use us. The Bible is filled with characters God used. We should never raise ourselves to the stature of Moses, David, Gideon, Nehemiah, Mary, Peter, Stephen, Paul, and others. Remember that these people had specific roles in the history of God’s salvation, greater than our comparatively small place in God’s scheme. But, as we seek a deeper relationship with God in Christ, their stories give us confidence in God’s ability to use different people in astonishing ways. Although I strongly dislike that expression “One person plus God is a majority”—the saying sounds too much like “God is on my side, therefore I’m right, and you (and everyone else) are wrong”—the expression points to the deep truth of God’s power to accomplish his will. God may accomplish great things in our lives, but he may use us for great things in other people’s lives; or God may use times of trouble and failure in order to bring about important things down the way. God’s providential signs and wonders happen within a context beyond our comprehension (Eph. 3:20). As we look to Christ and his Spirit, we open ourselves to God’s love, care, and guidance.
Earlier, I said that my dad, daughter Emily, and I started collecting the “state” quarters as they began to be minted (5 a year for 10 years) in 1999. Dad died later that year but E. and I continued to collect them. Last year, quarters for all 50 states were minted. The only one we couldn’t yet find in change was “Utah” from the Denver mint. Did we ever find some? I did! I finally found one in change on July 21, 2009, which was Dad’s birthday…