God of Surprises
by Ron DeBoer
C.S. Lewis once said, “We need to lay before God what is in us, not what we think ought to be in us.” Most of us have a pretty clear notion of our own dreams for our lives. But if we could see God’s plans for our lives, I’m pretty sure we’d be surprised. We take charge of our own lives and define ourselves the way we believe we should be seen by the world. But often our efforts are about as effective as spooning out the Chicago river. Then God does something simple but amazing that changes everything, proving to us that all we needed to do was be still and have faith that he has a plan for our lives. I have two stories today that illustrate God’s deliberate work here on earth.
The first story is told by a Toronto minister who, as a campus pastor at a large university, was feeling miserable about his little-known ministry at this thriving post-secondary institution. Every day he biked the five miles from his home to the campus and spent his days attempting to get the message out about his ministry. He wanted the students to know his office was a refuge where they could explore how God could be a part of their lives. But no one seemed to take notice. He printed ads in the university newspaper, held free bake sales to draw attention to his office location, and prayed to God—lots of desperate prayers inviting God to help him make his ministry meaningful. His efforts seemed as ineffective as pushing rope. One rainy day the pastor decided to leave his bicycle in his garage and take the city bus to the campus. He grabbed his only umbrella—a broken one that tended to wilt when he held it over his head—and the plastic file box he took wherever he went. Embarrassed and feeling sorry for himself, he sat on his plastic file box and held the limp umbrella over his head at the bus stop, contemplating his life. Then there was flash. No, it wasn’t the kind of flash Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. It was a photographer for the city newspaper. He had seen the pastor sitting at the bus stop with the broken umbrella and thought it an interesting photo. He took down the pastor’s name and the place where he worked, and went on his way. The pastor went to work and endured another day of obscurity on the university campus. The next day, however, changed everything. When the minister pedaled onto campus, people pointed to him, smiled, and waved. That morning, his campus ministry received phone calls and visits. The reason? On the front page of the morning newspaper was a half-page picture of the pastor sitting forlornly at the bus stop. Suddenly, he was a bit of a celebrity on campus. Students and faculty walked up to him and said, “Hey, you’re that guy from the picture,” and began asking him about his ministry. This minister ends this story by saying, “While I was doing absolutely nothing, God fixed everything.”
The second story is one told by my wife, Karen, an editor for a Christian publishing company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After presenting a workshop on storytelling in Philadelphia, Karen was approached by a woman who informed my wife that she, coincidentally, had a friend living in our hometown (we live near Toronto) who really needed some spiritual encouragement. Would it be all right if she e-mailed her friend about Karen and would it be all right if her friend got in contact with Karen about attending her church one Sunday? Karen, of course, said that would be great. The conversation ended, and my wife packed up and flew home from Philadelphia. Two days later, while she was standing in front of the school our youngest daughter attends, a neighbor lady living one street over from us—our kids are friends—approached Karen ashen-faced, saying, “You’re not going to believe this.” She went on to tell Karen her friend in Philadelphia had attended Karen’s workshop and told her she should get in touch with Karen for some encouragement. Then the lady gave our neighbor Karen’s e-mail address. Our neighbor nearly fell over—as did Karen when she heard this story two days later. Every day, the two of them had stood side-by-side on the school yard waiting for their children to run through the doors to go home, and not once had Karen suspected that our neighbor was discouraged and had stopped attending her church. It took a lady in another country to connect these two women. Since then, our neighbor has begun attending our church.
There’s no doubt God has a master plan that supersedes our best intentions. While Karen was focused on doing a great job in Philadelphia to promote the Sunday school curriculum she and her writers had been working on for three years, the purpose of it all quite likely was for her to connect with a woman living on her own street. The pastor whose picture appeared on the front page of the city newspaper should have thrown out that old umbrella years ago. It turns out the limp, broken umbrella hanging pathetically over the pastor’s head was what caught the attention of the photographer. God can use anything to fulfill his will.
Sometimes, it is those moments of complete silence and inaction that God uses to work his plan in your life. Psalm 46:10 very simply says, “Be still, and know that I am God!” It’s not surprising that earlier in the chapter, the writer says, “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble” (46:1).
Have you considered how God might be working in your life at this very moment—even as you read these words?