I would like to tell you about a miracle that happened to Sue and me this month.
We had been talking recently about the fact that we had no active friendships outside of our friends in the Missionary Church. Oh, we have family members, who are all very close. We also have some treasured friendships within the Missionary Church family. And we have some dear people that we are in the process of discipling right now.
But the one thing we lacked was people who were friends aside from any relationship with our ministry. It had become increasingly obvious to both Sue and me that this was an area where we desired to have some Christian friendships … just somebody to call for dinner and a movie, or to have drop by for coffee and conversation unrelated to our many roles.
We discussed this need during a recent flight to Nashville, Tennessee, for a conference. When we got to the conference, the greeters at the doors told us that the focus of the conference was going to be those life-enriching relationships that were similar to what John Wesley referred to as “bands.” When we received our nametags, there was an empty circle on the front. We were handed two round stickers, one green and one red. The greeters explained that if we were already in enriching relationships of that sort, we should put a green sticker in that empty circle on our name tags, but that if we were not in a life-enriching relationship of that sort, we should put the red sticker in the circle.
As we walked away from the registration table, it was obvious that the week would involve “red-sticker people” having conversations with others like themselves in order to facilitate the development of godly friendships. I debated putting the red circle on my name tag. I knew that placing the green circle on my tag wouldn’t be completely honest; but I said to the Lord, “I know that You and I have been talking about this need lately; but I don’t know anyone in the Nashville area, and we never travel through here, so what’s the point? Besides, I don’t really feel like engaging in some friendship version of speed dating!” So rather than placing the red sticker on my name tag, I just stuck both stickers in my pocket.
As we worshipped during worship service on that first night of the conference, the Lord highlighted a couple that was sitting about ten rows in front of us on our right. There was nothing special about them. We could only see the back of their heads, of course. They were simply one couple worshipping among 3,000 people. But the Spirit said to me in my spirit, “Go stand behind that couple, and when the last song ends, introduce yourselves and ask them what you can pray for them about.”
That may sound strange to some of you, but the Lord chooses to direct Sue and me through a specific word like that on a fairly regular basis. So I turned and whispered it to Sue, and she said, “Sure!”
During the last song, we made our way down the stairs and slid into the row behind them, although they didn’t see us. As the song ended, I tapped the man on the shoulder; and when he turned, I told him, “The Lord just asked me to introduce ourselves to you both and see if there is something that we could pray for you about.” They introduced themselves as Steve and Tracy, and we began to talk. They told us that they had been sensing that the Lord wanted them to develop a friendship similar to the kind that the conference was encouraging.
The conversation was easy and natural, and before we knew it, we had wandered to a side room where we could talk. When it came time to pray for them, I asked them where they lived, so we could pray specifically that they would develop a friendship like we had been discussing.
Steve said, “Fort Wayne, Indiana.” Sue and I stared at each other, astonished. I told him that we live in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I asked him where they live. When he told us, we couldn’t believe it. Their house is exactly six blocks from our house!
I got choked up as we prayed together, amazed at God’s care for us. He began a conversation with us in Fort Wayne about something that He knew we needed, continued the conversation hundreds of miles away in Tennessee, and then introduced us in that distant city to the friends He had picked out for us in our own neighborhood!
We spent time with Steve and Tracy that week, have called and texted prayer requests back and forth since we got back, and are heading for dinner with our new friends in a few days.
If miracles like this are effortless for the Lord, why are they so rare in our experience?
My question grows out of the knowledge that some of you experienced a surge of melancholy as you read these words. If that was you, your thoughts may have gone something like this: “I don’t want to be jealous of what God did for Steve and Sue that day, but it leaves me feeling like I have needs that seem to go unnoticed by God. And I can’t remember when the last time was that He let me know that He was noticing me, let alone acting miraculously on my behalf.”
Let’s think together about that question. Since Jesus is beautifully capable of making His attention and care for us obvious like He did for Sue and me in Tennessee, why is it that for the greater part of our lives as disciples, we almost never get to see and actually experience the truths from the Bible that we know to be true?
A couple of good reasons come to mind:
- We have not yet mastered anything if we can only do it when our teacher is in the room. As parents, we spoon-feed our babies, but we are glad when they can grasp the spoon and begin feeding themselves. It is a sign of maturing. And that maturing process continues until they can feed themselves when we are not in the room, in town, or even in the same country!
In the same way, when we are young in our faith, Jesus makes sure that we can see His hand and sense His presence providing for us, but in order to bring us to real maturity, He must hide His hand or His presence, and let us learn to go to the Father for ourselves in prayer when we (or those we care about) have needs.
- We have not internalized the life of obedience if we only obey when God is “around.” A school-teacher can quickly tell you which of his or her students will obey instructions even if the teacher leaves the room, and which ones will immediately begin misbehaving when the teacher is not in sight. This is a marker of character growth. The mature person will obey because it is the right thing to do, not just because they are being observed.
This is why Paul wrote, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12).
It is to a mature Christian’s credit to be faithful in obeying even when the Lord seems to be absent. So our Lord, in kindness, does not appear to “hover” all of the time. He entrusts us with consistent obedience that is not based on feeling His presence.
- We are blessed by the Lord when we do not see any evidence of Him, and yet believe His promises simply because He told us so.
Jesus told Thomas, “You see and so believe. Blessed are they who do not see and yet believe.” Immediately after the resurrection, the Lord Jesus began training the remaining apostles to confidently believe in Him even when He could no longer be seen. They were so used to seeing Jesus that the transition would be a hard one for some. They would miss His normal human presence terribly … the way He walked or the gestures He used. Every time that they ate a meal that was His favorite, they would remember that and grieve a little bit that He wasn’t sitting at the table, reaching for seconds.
But Jesus knew that He would soon be returning to His Father in heaven, and so He began a process of disappearing and reappearing. Instead of staying steadily with them for the days until the ascension, He would unpredictably appear, and then suddenly be gone again.
By this we see that it was very important that they be weaned off of His visible presence and that they learn to enjoy His invisible presence.
Eventually the day came when the disciples saw Him ascend into heaven, and then they saw Him no more. But by that time, they were ready to carry on without His physical presence. The Holy Spirit indwelling them was enough for them to boldly take the gospel throughout the known world.
You and I live in that new era (the era of the church) in which we believe in Jesus and spread the good news about Jesus without ever seeing Him with our eyes, and while rarely sensing His presence or seeing evidence of His tender care for us. But He DOES care for you and He IS aware of you, just as surely as He was for us when He arranged a neighborhood friendship for us 400 miles from home.
He knows your name. He knows where you are at this very moment. And although He is unseen, He is quietly attentive to your needs and to protecting you from the evil one. Live confidently in His unseen presence in your life!