The missional life and serving God certainly involve a large and regular measure of the unexpected. One typically sets out to serve God only to find efforts seemingly sabotaged as obstacles are encountered that appear to impede the work we believe God has called us to do. I have seen this happen far too many times to think it might be “coincidence.”
In the world of missions, workers often scratch their head as they mull over the possible reasons why things have not followed the anticipated course. Have I sinned and God has withdrawn his blessing? Is God completely disinterested in what is happening in my ministry? Did I miss my calling and am “out of God’s will”? Is God trying to teach me something through my misfortunes?
In the early 1990s, after nineteen years of fulltime pastoring, missions efforts, and vocational Christian ministry, I found myself mysteriously reassigned to the blue-collar world of oil rags and steel-toed boots where I would deliver heating oil to the homes of Baltimore, MD. Instead of preaching sermons and counseling the hurting, I daily climbed up into an oil truck to deliver 5,400 gallons of fuel to residences.
It was time for me to learn the deeper significance of familiar biblical texts. As a child I had memorized I Corinthians 6:19-20: “Do you not know…that You are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body.” That passage was about to take on new significance.
One day I was pumping 200 gallons of #2 heating oil into the basement fuel tank of a rowhouse on Ednor Street, blissfully unaware of the colossal error I was making. As I stuffed the ticket into the screen door, I noticed the house number didn’t match the address on the ticket. My heart sunk and my stomach churned.
I stared at the ticket. How could I have made such a serious blunder? Since my employer’s policy required me to repay the company if I delivered fuel to the wrong home, I would owe the company $200 unless the residents of this house were willing to pay me.
Unfortunately, the house occupants were invisible and inaccessible. In spite of phone calls, letters, and repeated knocks on the door, I was never able to elicit a response. Already struggling to get by on a shoestring budget, I was now forced to pay for the oil that would warm another person’s house.
In that desperate hour, I turned to God and prayed something like this: “Lord, I’ve told you that all I have is yours. So, I want you to know that this $200 is coming out of your pocket. If that’s the way you want to spend your resources, then I accept that.”
I waited uneasily for a voice from heaven to assure me that God was taking immediate steps to regain his lost funds for me. Now, almost three decades since that incident, I’m still waiting. And yet the answer has come multiple times in unexpected ways. God’s responses to our prayers are sometimes clouded in an obscurity that throws our theology of prayer into turmoil. Rarely is there the clear voice that tells us precisely what God is doing in his servant’s life. More often we are left to decipher a possible response out of the pattern and trajectory of our life. Kind of like a flashback that includes the realization, “Oh, so that was how God answered that request! I didn’t realize how he was at work in that situation.”
“You have been bought with a price…” Claiming what was rightfully his, God gave oil to strangers and refused to collect his lost funds and return them to my pocket. In the baffling darkness of my earthly journey, God was digging deeper into my already depleted resources.
Since my assets were his resources and not my personal funds, he dipped into my checking account, took his capital, and gave those funds to total strangers! With infinite resources to replenish my empty wallet, the King of Heaven refused to fret over a measly $200 “squandered” on an anonymous Baltimore household.
A deep anguish was stirring my soul. Did I truly believe I belonged to God? Were my resources merely temporarily entrusted to my stewardship? As a disciple of the Savior, was he Lord of the possessions he assigned me to briefly manage? And, of course, there was the larger question ever lurking in the back of my mind: How did I, a seminary-trained minister of the Lord, end up delivering oil to rowhouses?
I was learning to release my tight grip on my finances. And for all of us as pilgrims passing through this world, similar ongoing lessons await us along the way. It’s tough, isn’t it? And yet there is no other way if we are to grow and mature in the work God to which has called us.
Several suggestions to ponder:
First, don’t be dismayed by the inscrutability of God’s apparent silence. It only seems as if he is not listening to us when we need him most!
Second, don’t allow the mystery of God’s purposes to distract you from trusting him. When we inquire as to exactly what God is doing in our lives, we can go to God’s Word where we find assurance that brings comfort.
Third, don’t let frustration prevail. Temptation to pursue our own plans will come. Fleeing to God’s Word for sanity and stability, we discover that the Master Teacher was himself confronted with the same dilemmas that we face daily. Jesus’ prayer, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42), encourages us to just rest in God’s inscrutable purposes.
The pedagogy of Ednor Street is forever etched in my memory, for it was there that some invisible and anonymous “friends” were utilized to teach me to hold loosely to things entrusted to my stewardship but which actually belong to God. The principle of I Corinthians 6:19-20 must surely govern all that we possess. When all is his, we are freed from anxiety and the fear that someone might take something from us.
A footnote: as a further testimony to the inscrutability of God’s maneuverings, I eventually returned to fulltime ministry in the fall of 1993. Now I was wiser in the ways of God and better equipped with the lessons needed to experience increased effectiveness in my calling. I thank God for what he did that day on Ednor Street!