One of the speakers at the Wee Kirk Conference last week gave me a new perspective on John 3:8.
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
I’d known for a long time that the same Greek word means both wind and spirit. Both wind and Spirit are unseen, and both have effects that are seen. That’s as far as I ever heard the analogy taken before. I thought of the effects of the Spirit as being on the inside, in changing people’s characters and behaviors.
But the speaker spoke of people being “blown about” by God’s Spirit in a more concrete sense. Not that we get literally blown from one place to another, but we end up in surprising places and situations. To an outside observer, these alterations in our circumstances might seem as haphazard as if we really did get blown here and there by a strong wind.
He had already talked about the unexpected means by which Paul got “blown” into the life of the Philippian jailer. I have always thought of Paul’s encounter with the jailer as God bringing good out of a bad situation. But the speaker suggested that it was because God “had his eye on” that jailer that Paul was there to begin with.
After all, Paul had been trying to preach the Word in the province of Asia. He was prevented from doing so, in some unspecified manner. Then he had a vision of a man asking him to come to Macedonia and help. At Philippi he preached at a place of prayer at the river, and Lydia and her household became Christians. Things were going well.
Then circumstances changed. A slave girl with a spirit that enabled her to foretell the future started following Paul around, shouting about how he and his companion were “servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” I’ve heard different explanations for why Paul felt compelled to exorcise the spirit – that her shouting was distracting, that it was not appropriate to have a spirit like that as the “draw” to listen to Paul, or simply that he wanted to set her free from the spirit and her money-hungry owners.
In any case, ending her career as a fortune-teller – and fortune-gainer for her owners – ended up by getting him and Silas a severe flogging and incarceration in the worst part of the prison. (According to the speaker, prisons were built around large openings in the ground, and – lacking any kind of plumbing – the innermost cell would be where all everything pooled at the bottom.)
I’ve taken several classes on evangelism, and they give a variety of methods for meeting up with people to share the Gospel. But getting beaten and thrown in prison was never one of them. The Philippian jailer, however, was quite unlikely to ever make it to the prayer meeting at the river where Paul preached, so God had to take Paul to where the jailer was. An unexpected encounter indeed, both for Paul and the jailer.
The speaker gave an example from his own life also. He had been extended a call to a church, but as confirmation of the call he wanted to find housing for his family before accepting the call. This involved driving around trying to find a house that was for rent, getting lost, being willing to ask for directions (a miracle in itself, he said), stopping at a house and asking to use the phone, finding out the house was already rented, then having the person whose phone he was using tell him about someone who know someone who had a house for rent but hadn’t advertised it yet.
The other speaker on the same day told about incidents from his life. He grew up in Iran as a Sufi Muslim. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was diametrically opposed to how he had been brought up, and his parents wanted to send him to safety in England. Travel arrangements did not work out, and he ended up stuck in Portugal. A teenager at the time, he found the least expensive English-speaking school he could attend, which was a Christian school founded by American missionaries. After many months comparing the teachings of the Bible and the Koran, he came to faith in Christ as Savior.
So I started thinking about what unexpected means and being “blown about” God had used in my own life. I can’t think of anything quite as surprising as those other examples, but certainly when I think of my life now, it is far different from what I anticipated when I was young. Since many of the changes were a result of my own choices, I don’t know that I can say God worked through “unexpected means” (another phrase the speakers repeated often in reference to how God works in our lives). But it is perhaps surprising to me that God could use those (sometimes unwise) choices to direct my life in a way that put me where He wanted me.
As a teenager I planned on being a missionary, translating the Bible into languages that do not yet have any version of the Bible. I had previously dreamed only of being a writer, but during a missionary conference at church, a speaker had challenged us to tell God that if He wanted to send us to the mission field, we would go. I really did not want to be a missionary, because I wanted to be a writer. But if God wanted me to be a missionary, how could I possibly choose a different path? Not that I had any sense of God calling me to be a missionary, but if He did, I had to be willing to follow His leading.
The speaker asked those who made that surrender to God to go forward at the invitation at the end of the service, and after a somewhat prolonged struggle with the idea, I gave in and went forward. I was a young Christian; I thought that most of the people at the church must have made a similar decision previously, when I saw how few of us went forward. After all, how could anyone who wanted to follow God not be willing to follow wherever He led?
For reasons I did not understand, the people of the church concluded that God had called me to be a missionary. All I had said was that I was willing; I still had no sense of God’s call in that direction. But with it apparently taken for granted by older and presumably wiser Christians, I began to seriously consider where God might send me. I read missionary biographies, and I was especially impressed by the work of the Wycliffe Summer Institute of Linguistics. I was good at languages, the idea of living in primitive conditions did not bother me, and moving far away from my family would not bother me at all. It seemed to me like a good fit.
By the time I graduated from high school, my standard response when asked about my future was to say I was going to be a missionary, and – depending on who asked – I might say I was called to be a missionary. I still had no definite sense of call, but I had heard preachers who said that everyone should consider themselves called until God specifically directed them not to go to the mission field.
I initially looked at four-year Christian colleges, but then our church youth group went to Snow Camp at Word of Life in Schroon Lake, NY, and the camp counselors were students at the Word of Life Bible Institute. I was so impressed by their love for God and for us that I decided I had to become one of them. I worked two summers on the staff of Word of Life Ranch, and my desire to be a student there only increased.
I learned a lot about the Bible and theology during my year at the Bible Institute, but I discovered that it made no miraculous change in my character. I eventually realized that the character qualities that had so drawn me in the WOLBI students were probably evident in their lives before they enrolled. The year-long study of Scripture in a demanding environment (lots of rules, very little personal time or space, a great deal of rote memorization) enhanced such qualities, but it did not, on its own, produce them.
Perhaps the school attracts a certain kind of Christian who displays the qualities of zeal for God and compassion for people that had so impressed me. Perhaps those who did not have such zeal and compassion usually dropped out. Perhaps I had the zeal, but lacked the compassion as well as an understanding of how God might use my particular personality and abilities in ways that did not fit what seemed to be the standard model of Christian that Word of Life turned out.
In any case, I made it through the year, and made plans to transfer to a four-year Christian college. I asked our Bible instructor for recommendations, and he gave me two: Cedarville College and Citadel Bible College. All I knew about Citadel was that its president had previously been dean at WOLBI and had had a lot to do with developing the strict demerit system that was currently in use. That was all I needed to know. I applied to Cedarville. (I got very few demerits at Word of Life, but I was frequently literally sick from anxiety over keeping all the rules. The physical problems vanished as soon as spring term ended and I was no longer subject to the demerit system.)
I applied to Cedarville to be a Bible major with a Missions emphasis, and in September I transferred – along with a number of fellow graduates from WOLBI, to Cedarville College. I had transferred in most of the Bible and theology classes needed for my Bible major, but I needed the missions classes. The first two terms, however, my advisor put me in Christian education classes. I figured that was part of the program, and didn’t think to question it until I got my first grade report, and discovered that I was listed as a Bible major with a Christian Education emphasis.
It turned out that my advisor was the head of the Christian Ed program. I knew that, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I should have had the head of the Missions program as my advisor. When I had showed up for registration in the fall, most of the advisors were at lunch, and so someone had gone looking for, and found, an available professor to get me registered. She apparently was under the impression that I was assigned to her and that I was planning on a Christian Ed emphasis. So I took Christian Ed classes I would never have considered taking otherwise.
I also studied Spanish, in part to see how fast I could learn a new language. At the end of the fall term, my instructor offered to work with me outside of class during the winter term to go through the rest of the Spanish I and simultaneously do the same work being done in Spanish II, so that by spring term I could test out of the rest of Spanish I and enroll in Spanish II. I jumped enthusiastically on the opportunity, and worked very hard so that I would be able to manage the more advanced class in the spring.
I learned Spanish well enough that, when I went to Spain that summer in a study abroad program, I had few problems speaking and understanding the language. (I had plenty of other problems, related to inexperience being on my own and poor social skills.) I also enjoyed the whole process of learning the language so much that I wanted to become a Spanish teacher. I admitted to myself that I had never been all that sure God really was leading me to be a missionary, and I certainly showed no eagerness to talk to people in Spain about Jesus, any more than I had back in the States. Perhaps, I thought, those classes in Christian Education had been providential, preparing me for a teaching career.
Back at Cedarville, I signed up for a summer mission trip to Mexico, which would be good preparation whether I was going to be a missionary or a teacher. The pastor of my home church, however, when asked to write a letter of recommendation (required for me to participate in the program), declined to do so, saying he did not know me well enough. He had come to the church since I left for college; I could understand that he didn’t know me well but it was the only “home church” I had. I concluded that God was not leading me to the mission field, and after graduation I set about getting a job at a Christian school.
I wanted to be a college professor, but I wanted first to teach high school. Today there are a lot of career opportunities for someone who speaks both English and Spanish, but at the time most Spanish majors were going to become high school Spanish teachers. I figured if I was eventually going to be teaching future high school teachers, I wanted to have done it myself.
I had gotten my degree in both Bible (with missions emphasis) and Spanish, but I hadn’t taken any classes from the Education department. Without a teaching certificate, I couldn’t teach in a public school, but I could teach in a private school. I got a part-time job teaching both French (I had three years high school French plus one year of college French) and Spanish at a small Christian school. I quickly discovered that I had a great deal of trouble with classroom management. I thought if I went to grad school (which I needed anyway if I planned to be a college professor) I would be able to take classes on teaching Spanish as well as solidifying my command of the language.
The year I spent in Spain, getting my masters degree, was best year of my life up to that point. Everything I did could be seen as contributing to my success as a future Spanish teacher, since I was immersed in the language and culture, traveling and learning about the country and its history, and growing personally and spiritually as well. (Plus I got plenty of sleep – I happily adapted to a schedule of staying up until midnight like many Spaniards, and not having to get up for my first morning class until nine in the morning.)
The following year, I got a job at a Christian school in Pennsylvania. It was far enough from my parents that they couldn’t expect me to come home on weekends (as they had with my previous job), but close enough that it wouldn’t be too long a trip at Christmas. I prayed about the job, the school board prayed about it, and while I had no sense of direction about it myself, they offered me the job, so I figured it must be God’s will.
It didn’t take long to wonder why God would have put me there. I still had all the same problems with classroom management, and with larger classes than at the previous school, things got out of hand rather easily. I was sent to visit another school to watch a very good Spanish teacher, and I was given lots of advice which I tried very hard to follow. But somehow I just couldn’t do it.
I am sure that part of the problem was I had trouble seeing myself as the person who was absolutely in charge in that classroom. So the students didn’t see me that way either. I had not been brought up to respect authority figures simply because of their position (my mother rebelled on principle against anyone trying to put himself in a position of authority unless he had earned her respect). I had always been a model student, both in terms of academics and behavior, simply because I loved to learn and I was a perfectionist.
I had been able to get along well enough in Spain with people who spoke a different language, had a different culture and beliefs and practices. I had fascinating conversations with Socialists who were strongly opposed to USA foreign policy. I had a good (American) friend in grad school who was Mormon. But the chasm between me and students who had little or no motivation to learn, even to get decent grades, or to follow the rules, was too great for me to bridge.
That year, following what had been the best year of my life, was absolutely the worst. I wasn’t suicidal, but as I drove to work I would look at telephone poles and think what a relief it would be to be in a car accident bad enough to put me in the hospital through the end of the school year. If I had been asked to resign, I would have, but I was not a quitter, so I stuck it out through the end of a miserable year (which also included falling in love, having the man ask me to marry him, then having him break it off because I admitted sometimes having doubts about my salvation, and he wanted to eventually have a deacon at church and needed a good deacon’s wife).
Thoroughly demoralized, I got a job in Housekeeping at the local hospital. I was nearly fired the second week for not working fast enough. (Funny, I had assumed thoroughness would be more important than speed.) A friend recommended I apply for a clerical job where he worked. I had never considered working in “business” because I thought it was all boring work done by people who either didn’t have better skills, or who cared more about money than creativity, deep thinking, or serving society.
I was surprised to pass the typing test and get the job, and even more so to discover I both did well at clerical work and enjoyed it. The same friend recommended I study computer programming, which I also was surprised to discover I both did well at and enjoyed. Once I no longer felt like such a failure (I eventually concluded that God might have had me get the teaching job so I could have an experience of failure, after always having gotten straight A’s), I started applying for jobs in IT.
I didn’t find one, but I got a clerical position that paid better (my co-workers at the first job kept telling me I was worth more than what I was making). At the interview I told the HR manager that my career goal was a job in IT, and since they only had one IT position and it was already filled, I only planned on staying a year (while I took more IT classes). But before the year was up, the IT person was fired (due to reporting overtime she hadn’t worked), and I was asked to apply for the position. I spent the next eleven years there, until my husband was ordained.
I hadn’t ever planned on getting married, much less having children. (My mother had told me since I was little than since she hadn’t had a mother – hers had committed suicide when she was young, she didn’t know how to be a good mother. So how would I know how either.) But over time I changed my mind. And in 1989 I married a molecular biologist named Jon.
Back when I was a teenager, at the fundamentalist church I attended, it was thought that the three highest callings a woman could have were missionary, teacher in a Christian school, or pastor’s wife. The first two had not worked out, but I had no interest in being a pastor’s wife. I was quite happy being a scientist’s wife.
Then when our son was a baby, my scientist husband started talking about going to seminary. He had done a lot of lay ministry (singing, leading vocal groups, teaching, helping lead worship, mentoring young people), but felt that God was calling him into ordained ministry. I was nervous about being a pastor’s wife, but if God was calling Jon to be a pastor, He must be calling me to be a pastor’s wife.
So here I am, over a decade later. We’ve served churches in Michigan, Illinois, and now Iowa. I’ve discovered both interests and abilities in teaching (those providential Christian Education courses!) and leading worship. I’ve made friends more easily (though for me it’s never easy) than I would have if I were just another church member. I’ve had opportunities to serve that I would not have volunteered for (because I didn’t think I was the best person for it), but which I am glad to do once asked.
I’ve still never had any clear sense of God’s leading. I trust God to lead us through the decisions of the church elders. (I’m an ordained elder now myself, though not currently serving.) Sometimes I wonder if all this happened just because of the decisions we made ourselves – which I’m sure is how my friend Stephen at Collapse of Civilization would see it. After all, God can use any circumstances for His purposes.
But if God can use a fortune-telling slave girl to bring the Gospel to a Philippian jailor, or the Islamic Revolution to bring it to an Iranian teenager, He can use my sometimes convoluted thought processes (my Spanish prof at Cedarville used to tell me I was “playing with my mental blocks”) to blow me about to where He wants me.