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FIRST-PERSON: Coincidental? Certainly not

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–If a sparrow cannot fall from the sky without God’s knowing it, how much more does He attend to the operations of taxis and their riders. And God is not just an observer; He coordinates the circumstances so that there simply are no coincidences.

Let me give four fresh examples connected to my weekly run to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to teach a night course.

First, a Nigerian seminary student who drove me to the Louisville airport supplied the missing piece for a puzzle I’d been trying to assemble. One of our church members just got a job in New York City, and he was asking about evangelical churches there. I’d asked a few people for suggestions, and someone mentioned a Baptist church up on 57th Street, not that far from where the man would be working. I thought I was told “Trinity,” but I just couldn’t track it down. I used several Internet search engines to no avail. And then my SBTS driver came to the rescue.

It’s a long way from Nigeria to that Manhattan church in question, but he had made it there just the same. Serving as a computer specialist for a brokerage firm across from the World Trade Center, he had gone to this church regularly. Turns out, the name was Calvary, not Trinity. It also turns out this student was on the scene on 9/11, and he had quite a story to tell about that.

Back to the church. My driver asked me if I had heard of Stephen Olford -– a famous expository preacher — and, of course, I had. Well, he was once pastor at Calvary, which stands right across from Carnegie Hall, just south of Central Park. Then my Nigerian friend added that the new pastor, David Epstein, was a fine fellow as well. It was sounding good.

Then the boss of the website I served called a few of us to New York for a huddle, and I found myself in Midtown Manhattan the day after getting back from Louisville. On a break, my wife, Sharon, and I ran by Calvary Baptist and got some material. Two days later, I was back at my church, Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church, where I passed it along to the fellow about to leave us for NYC. One of our deacons, the registrar at Kendall College, recognized the church and volunteered that its pastor had been an excellent teacher at his alma mater, Capital Bible Seminary in Washington, D.C. Check and mate.

Now, I can’t say this is the right church for this recent grad from Kellogg School at Northwestern University, but I am convinced that God engineered my making this suggestion. Of course, I’ll check out the SBC options in the area, but I think we’ve made a good start, thanks to God’s linking me up with a Nigerian who came to Southern Seminary via New York’s financial district.

Second example. In a previous column I wrote for the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, I talked about President Bush’s reference to the Koran in his second inaugural speech. The day I wrote it, I spent about half an hour in the Koran, making sure I had my citations squared away. Years ago, I spent a fair amount of time working through the Koran, and I’ve glanced at it from time to time since then, but those occasions are rare. Rare, but not incidental.

That same day, I flew to Louisville, and caught a cab from the airport. (The good folks on campus usually meet me with a student driver, but I had thrown them a curve with a late flight change.) As we made our way up I-65, I asked him where he was from. It was Mauritania, a Muslim country in West Africa. The conversation then moved to his brand of Islam (Sunni), to my brand of Christianity (Baptist), and to our differing views of Jesus (merely a prophet vs. the Son of God). Then he asked me a question that brought God’s providence to my mind immediately –- “Have you ever read the Koran?” My answer: “Yes, I was reading it this morning, specifically Surahs 3 and 4.” (Thank you, Lord!) After recounting what I had read, I asked if he had ever read the Bible, and he said he hadn’t. I pointed him to the Gospel of John, and he knew the burden to read it rested on his shoulders. After all, I had been reading his book. I didn’t mention that I hardly ever read his book. He didn’t ask me that. Now one might say, “It just so happened you had read the Koran that day,” but there was no “just so happened” about it.

Third example. Another cab from the Louisville airport a week later. Again, I “wasn’t supposed” to be in a cab, but once again I had confused the student scheduler with a late plane change. My “wasn’t supposed to” soon showed itself to be a “was supposed to” as our taxi conversation developed. As we compared backgrounds, I learned that the driver’s mother had been secretary to the first president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. Well, having been the third president of Midwestern Seminary, I had a “small world” moment. With 6.6 billion people on earth, and a planetary circumference of 25,000 miles, this world is overwhelmingly big to finite folks such as you and me. But for God, it is a very small world, and he has no trouble at all putting people together in uncanny ways.

Now, I don’t know the purpose of our meeting. Perhaps it was to help remind the driver of his roots. Perhaps it was to encourage me to write this column. Whatever it was, our meeting was no accident.

I’m often reminded that I’m living in a theme park, where the theme is God’s utter sovereignty. In that connection, let me note that walking through New York’s LaGuardia Airport one Friday evening, I spied a copy of Technology Review at a newsstand. There on the cover was a long-bearded Cambridge University scientist who believed he could lengthen human life spans to over a thousand years. The headline was “Live Forever?” I couldn’t resist it. I was working on a sermon from Genesis 5, where Seth’s progeny, including Methuselah, were listed. When I opened the magazine, the table of contents labeled this fellow “Methuselah’s Prophet.” I bought the magazine and used it in a sermon illustration two days later. I’m telling you, I was supposed to spot that magazine. That’s the way God works.
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal.

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  • Mark Coppenger