I have a confession to make; I have had the privilege of studying with renowned biblical scholars. Having degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1980s and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond in the beginning of the 21st Century, I was afforded ample opportunity to learn from the some of the smartest people who have ever called themselves Baptist. But even with all this great instruction from learned men and women, my confession is, “I still do not understand God’s providence.” Many of you have heard me say, “I find providence to be the most mysterious of all the Christian doctrines.” Because of my strong emphasis upon the gift called freedom of choice, I have a hard time grappling with the idea that God orchestrates everything, because I don’t believe that everything that happens is God’s will. I don’t think the Holocaust or the tragedies of September 11, 2001 were God’s will. If God caused everything, we would be nothing more than marionettes on strings controlled by God as the master puppeteer. God gives us free will; we have to continue to seek God’s direction, even when we don’t know what is going to happen in the future.
All of us make choices every day; choosing remains a gift that we get to exercise because of the mental capabilities with which humans have been blessed. Yet God continues to make things happen; God continues to work even when hard times come or presenting circumstances give the illusion that that is not the case. And at all times, we are asked to follow.
Our New Testament Lesson details Paul’s Second Missionary Journey. Paul wanted to serve God, but doors kept slamming shut. He wanted to go to Asia, but the Holy Spirit forbid him from speaking the word in Asia. I’d call that a door slammed shut. God must have spoken loudly, and the answer was, “No.” Paul and the Mission Team attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus again did not allow them. Once again, a door slammed shut with God speaking loudly, and the answer was, “No.” So Paul went down to Troas. He must have been exhausted: wanting to serve and not being allowed to do so. Sometimes that becomes the will of God: closing doors in certain areas so that open doors can be found elsewhere.
That was my experience before moving to Madison. I find calling to be a two-step process: a calling away from a place has to occur before God can call someone to a new place. I sensed God calling me away from Hampton, VA and had resumes sent to numerous places for a couple of years. I would feel God calling me to a specific place only to learn that someone else had been called as pastor of that particular congregation. After a few of these scenarios, I became discouraged, and then I received a phone call. The voicemail said, “This is Ronnie Stapp, Chairman of the Pastor Search Committee of Madison Baptist Church in Madison, GA.” And once we arrived and got settled in Madison, I learned why the other scenarios did not work out. God wanted me in Madison, and the timing wasn’t right until God’s timing was right. Often, we can’t fully discern God’s will until we look in our rear-view mirror. I often have seen where God has led me after the fact.
Paul faced closed doors, and heard God loudly saying, “No.” As he slept, Paul had a dream with a man from Macedonia saying, “Come over and help us.” Dr. Luke, the author of Acts and also a member of that Mission Team, recorded in verse 10, “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” God had spoken loudly with a “No” on separate occasions. Paul went to bed with no idea where he was to serve next, but woke up with a definitive direction. “Being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” Uncertainty and finally certainty. Before Paul went to sleep, surely he prayed that God would lead him where to go next. Paul may have even asked God to speak loudly, as loudly as God had spoken on the other occasions.
The passage used first person pronouns “we” and “us.” Luke wrote that they were convinced; this was not a second-hand account for Luke was part of that Mission Team. God had spoken loudly.
And did you hear what happened? Paul, Luke, and the others on the Mission Team made their way to Philippi, where they deliberately went to a place by the river; it was commonly understood that Jews who fled Jerusalem continued to worship in areas by rivers. Paul, Luke, and the Mission Team encountered some women there, specifically a lady named Lydia, who was very receptive to this gospel message. God led Paul to a woman, and Lydia became the first convert on European soil. This woman named Lydia helped Paul start the first church in Philippi; that Philippian Church became Paul’s favorite church.
We often cannot understand what God is doing; because of our finiteness, we are limited, but God is not limited at all. Isaiah 55:8-9 reads, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God is not bound by time or space; while we see the world and its events as a timeline, I think that in some way God sees the world and even history as more of a panorama, again not being restricted like we are in our finite understanding.
God spoke loudly by saying “No” to Paul and the Mission Team on two named occasions before they were convinced regarding their direction. Today’s New Testament Lesson which I have sought to explain shares many similarities to our church’s experience.
Our timeline in search of a Minister of Music has been quite an odyssey. After 16 years, David Shytle resigned as our Minister of Music in March 2014. Much has happened over these last three years. Joe Preston became our Interim Minister of Music and a Search Committee was formed. In every one of our meetings, I included this phrase in my prayer, “And God, we ask that you speak loudly.” That Committee cast a wide net and felt God nudging them toward a specific candidate who toured Madison and felt very favorable about serving at Madison Baptist Church and living in Madison. In January 2015, the candidate asked to be removed from consideration. The organist had resigned; the pastor had become ill, and the candidate could not leave. So the Search Committee started over with another round of contacts and ads and more resumes. In our meetings, I continued to use this phrase in my prayer, “And God, we ask that you speak loudly.” Again the Search Committee was led to a specific candidate, and we all thought that person would be a great fit. As preparations were being made for a weekend like we are now experiencing, the candidate told me that another church in the same city may offer a full-time position which meant that the family would not have to move, and the children could remain in their same school. The other church offered, and our candidate asked to be removed from our consideration.
So the Search Committee started over a third time with ads and more resumes. Once again, a candidate emerged with unanimous support of the Search Committee after conference calls, questionnaires and an overnight visit here in Madison. In our meetings, I continued to use this phrase in my prayer, “And God, we ask that you speak loudly.” In December 2016, then Chair of the Search Committee Debbie Tamplin and I had an appointment to meet halfway with the candidate to finalize a financial package, and the candidate phoned two days before the meeting indicating that the spouse could not live in such a small town. On three separate occasions, the door was slammed shut.
Discouragement set in. My focus was not on how God was speaking, but on the disappointment and rejection that I was feeling. I shared this news in Staff Meeting right after Christmas and then asked to meet privately with Elsie Monk. I shared with her our struggles and asked if she would consider becoming our part-time Minister of Music with a written covenant which she and Personnel Committee would ratify for a specific window of time and a review clause for renewal. Elsie thought and prayed about it and consented in late January 2016; you as a congregation voted to affirm this decision on Valentine’s Day 2016.
The Search Committee was able to take a break. Forest Pagett reminded me that the last rejection indicated that someone better was down the road. While we had been led to three distinct candidates, God spoke loudly through them that other plans would emerge. In retrospect, I think that our church needed some time; perhaps we weren’t ready for a full-time Minister of Music. Staff stability was needed before we could call a new staff person; Elsie’s tenure for 23 months helped provide that stability. Emily Harbin’s service for 26 months has also provided the needed steadiness.
In December 2016, the Search Committee reconvened when Elsie communicated that she would serve until June 2017; Debbie Tamplin had been the Personnel Committee representative and rotated off of Personnel, and Forest Pagett was elected to be the new Chair. Again, ads were created and resumes reviewed. In every meeting, I continued to ask that God speak loudly. Renae Hester’s resume was one of the first new resumes we reviewed. We sent her a questionnaire, and she was the first candidate with whom we had a conference call. Members of the Search Committee saw her lead worship on Sunday, April 30, and I joined them and Renae for an enjoyable lunch. Renae and Joe came to Madison and received a tour.
Through her face-to-face interactions with our Search Committee, God spoke loudly, and this time, the direction was a unanimous decision by the Search Committee to call Renae. God led Paul to a woman named Lydia; God led our Search Committee to a woman named Renae. She and Joe also heard God speaking loudly. Looking in the rearview mirror, the earlier timing wasn’t right, because God’s timing wasn’t yet right. And that is where we are today.
I still confess that I don’t understand God’s providence, and that providence os the most mysterious of all the Christian doctrines. I am grateful that God has never stopped working. I am grateful that God continues to speak loudly. And I am grateful that God simply calls us to follow, even when we don’t have all the answers.