Do you ever watch movies over and over again? Sleepless in Seattle is one of our go-to movies when we want to relax with something that is heartwarming and tension-free. A recurrent theme throughout this charming story is that destiny controls our lives. Whether it grandmother’s wedding dress that rips when Annie tries it on (and her mother says, “It’s a sign.”) or the windows of the Empire State Building that light up in a heart shape at just the right moment (and Annie murmurs, “It’s a sign.”), many in this film seem to believe that an impersonal force, fate is running their lives.
It is fascinating that many people assign control of their destiny to fate, or even Mother Nature, but have trouble believing that God could take interest in them. Or that there even is a God.
I throw my lot in with those who see God everywhere. We see His diverse and ingenious handiwork in the lavish color of butterflies, the unique perfection of snowflakes, and the amazing precision of our solar system’s orbiting planets. We see his love of beauty in the majestic vistas of Sedona and the glittering desert skies.
Most of all, however, we see his love for each of us in his intense interest in every detail in our lives. One man named Abraham dared to believe, thousands of years ago, that God was talking to him, and today, in 2017, millions believe that God talks to us. Of course, we regularly turn to the Bible for instruction; but I’m talking about the amazing and intensely personal ways he orchestrates things to help and guide us.
Through our lifetimes—Karon’s and mine—we have witnessed it repeatedly. Come with me as I recall a few of the amazing ways God has taken a hand.
- I grew up in a home that witnessed God at work. So right from the beginning I asked God to guide my life. When I wondered which elective to choose in high school, I asked my mother how to find God’s direction in prayer. She told me about her prayers for direction, including marrying my dad, and said she would pray with me. I chose Spanish. Years later this choice would become very important in my life.
- God answered my prayers about whom I should marry. Even in grade school I started praying that, when the time would come, I would know who the girl was for me. (I thought that Midge. Moose’s girlfriend in the “Archie” comic strip, was pretty cute.) Years later as I made plans to attend Warner Pacific College (WPC), a Christian school in Portland, Oregon, I felt I perhaps would meet someone there. Interestingly, Karon Neal, a pastor’s daughter from California, was also praying about her eventual husband. She wasn’t planning to go to college since a high school counselor had told her she wasn’t college material. (Can you imagine?) However, a young man she occasionally dated disagreed with the counselor, telling her that she was great college material. So, with her Dad’s help, she applied to two colleges. He suggested that they pray for God’s direction by asking him to arrange for the right college to accept her first. She received her acceptance from WPC on Friday and left that weekend for Portland. Monday, her acceptance came from Anderson College! Yours truly was at WPC. We were both given jobs in the school cafeteria, and that’s where lightning struck.
- Many people, including me, assumed that I would follow in my parents’ missionary footsteps. After Karon and I were married, I began to question this idea. In fact, I began to realize it wasn’t my idea at all. Thoroughly confused about my future in my senior year at college, I dropped out until I could decide what might be next. I looked for jobs in fields I thought would interest me, and worked several for short periods of time in display (decorating windows back in the day when department stores did that), in interior design, and then selling custom draperies and carpeting. During these months Karon had our first little girl and we moved to Salem, Oregon where the last job offer was. Karon’s parents just happened to live in Salem, too. Hmmmm. Months later we were staying at their house with Karon’s two younger brothers for a week or so and the phone rang. It was Cliff Tierney, a pastor in Southern California who was good friends with Karon and her family. He was calling to ask Karon’s Dad about what he thought was my potential of serving as his Minister of Music and Youth. But Karon’s folks were out of town, and I answered the phone. And so, without even getting an opinion from them, Cliff invited us to become his associates and gave us a couple of weeks to think and pray about it. And that’s how we moved to southern California. Being a youth and music minister was not on my radar, but God took a hand, launching us into a career that would last forty-three years.
- Fast forward fifteen years. Karon and I had three children and both worked full-time jobs. She was between jobs, a period of over six months, and finances were tight. We told no one, of course.
I was doing a lot of speaking at conventions and camp meetings that summer, and was at Warner Camp in Michigan, preparing to preach the evening’s message. I felt the keen gaze of a woman about halfway back, maybe twenty rows. It was very intense and rather unusual. After the service, she came forward and asked to speak with me. She said, “I have a word from the Lord for you.” The phrasing was unusual in my circles and her prophetic mannerism and piercing eyes made me nervous. She continued kindly, “As I prayed for you before the service began, God told me that you and your wife are concerned about finances. He wants you to know that He’s got this. Don’t worry.” With a smile, she added, “that’s all.”
Months later after she found work, God reminded Karon that, during this six-month period that she was at home, all three of our kids recommitted their lives to God.
- When the girls were little and before Jon was born, we moved from Oregon to Southern California to begin our very first solo pastorate. For those unfamiliar with this highway, I-5 travels through some breathtaking scenery with vistas of snow-capped mountain peaks amid soaring Douglas fir trees. It’s possible to drive it all at once, but even back then Karon and I were not ones for driving through the night. We had decided to stop about halfway, making it a two-day trip. Karon drove the car with the girls in it and I piloted a U-Haul truck jam packed with our belongings. Just before we pulled out of Portland, a friend brought over a little gray kitten as a gift to the girls. It was in a little box with a food and water dish and they were delighted. Karon and I exchanged baleful looks, but we were trapped. There was absolutely no room in the car, and so Dusty, the recently christened kitten, joined the furniture in the truck. She was securely settled and we checked on her every time we stopped.
As we approached the town of Yreka the truck began to make menacing groans and finally wheezed to a stop along the town’s icy roads at a gas station that also rented and repaired U Haul trucks: the only one in town, we discovered. Karon scouted around for a motel while I waited for the mechanic to look at the truck. We gingerly opened the back of the truck to check on Dusty. She was carsick and her cage had become dislodged. Her frantic little form was soon cuddled into the girls’ arms and we decided the mess would have to be cleaned up later. We were all freezing and Karon and the girls retreated to the car. The mechanic had examined the truck and now shook his head mournfully. “Fuel pump,” he muttered. “Totally destroyed.” It’ll probably be at least two days before we can get a replacement.” My shoulders sagged. Have you noticed that bad news is always worse when you’re cold, hungry, and tired? After a moment, he snapped his fingers and said, “Wait a minute. I have one fuel pump I took off another truck that might get you there. It’s a long shot and so you’re probably out of luck. But let me check.”
He trundled off into the warmth of the garage and closed the door. I shivered over to Karon and told her that we might have to bunk here in this frozen paradise for a while. We looked at the girls, who were happily playing with Dusty. Could even this cat have been part of God’s strategy?
“Hey!” It was the mechanic. “What are the chances? I never would have believed it! This is exactly the fuel pump you need. Somebody is certainly looking out for you. Tell you what. I’ll work on this late and should be able to get you on the road by 10 a.m.” And he did.
What were the chances that a small-town mechanic would have just one fuel pump in his shop, and that it would work on our truck? God took a hand.
Finances, with guidance thrown in for free
- In 1972, we drove from California to Indiana so I could attend seminary. Another long drive. We still had two girls, but no cat. (Sadly, Dusty had died in L.A.) Karon was pregnant with our third child. A benefactor had paid my first year’s tuition and we had sent ahead one month’s deposit on a rental house. Besides that, we were pretty much broke. However, we felt God was leading us and we firmly believed that He would take care of us. I had a part-time job as an associate pastor lined up that might just pay for food and rent. After that? We trusted God to handle it.
As the baby grew, Karon lined up an obstetrician. The appointment was $10. We knew the delivery would be by Caesarian section, which would be several days in the hospital and surgical expenses. Of course, we had no health insurance and few resources. One day a cashier’s check for $500 appeared anonymously in our church mail box. We’re still not sure who did it, but God knows. Two weeks before the delivery date, the doctor examined Karon and pronounced her in fine shape. He was going on vacation but would be back in plenty of time.
The next night Karon went into hard labor! That big baby was not going to endure two more weeks in his cramped quarters. With our obstetrician out of town, we drove to the hospital. Some doctor would surely be on duty. It so happened that the doctor on call at Community Hospital was Dr. Robert McCurdy, the finest surgeon in Anderson. We had not met him; however, he had served as a missionary doctor in Kenya when my parents were there and he held them in high regard. He delivered our son, Jonathan, who, at 8 lbs., 11 oz. was presented to us by a smiling nurse as a “big, fat boy.” For over a year our little girls had been praying for a brother.
Interestingly, we never got a bill from Dr. McCurdy’s office. After a couple of months, we inquired, only to be told that Dr. McCurdy had written off the bill for his services, including surgery, as a gift to my parents in appreciation for their influence on his life. God takes a hand.
Even with these generous gifts, many other bills had accumulated. Around that time Dr. Sid Guillén, head of the language department of Anderson College, called to ask me if I would teach two units of beginning Spanish for second semester. He was in a bind. He certainly must have been desperate to ask me. I’m not sure where he heard that I had a Spanish minor with my undergraduate degree, but he had, and I said yes. Remember earlier I mentioned that God had directed me to choose Spanish as my elective in high school? Do I even need to mention that the income from those two classes paid every outstanding balance we had, and in full?
Were these all just coincidences?
Some people will choose to believe these were all just happy coincidences. Not us! All of our lives we have asked God to help us, to save us, and to direct us. At the wedding altar we committed our lives not only to each other, but to him, until death do us part. And because of His generous love, deep commitment to people, and because He always keeps his word, we have not once lacked for any true need. No one leads a charmed life and many problems and difficulties have come our way. But God promises to be with us always, night and day.
Not everyone has the guarantee of this marvelous protection, and we don’t have it because we earned it or deserve it. God gives it to those who follow him and put him first. If you do that, you, too, will experience this extraordinary kind of living. This is the promise: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear…. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt. 6:25,33).
William Cullen Bryant summarized it in his classic poem, “To a Waterfowl:”
He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.