I’ve had folks say to me, “You really have the perfect life: you life in paradise, you get to travel all over the world lecturing on luxury cruise ships . . . it’s perfect!”
And it really is a good life, and I am very grateful to God to have, in the words of one of my favorite gospel songs, “Come This Far By Faith.”
My mother (and today would have been her birthday) passed onto me her love for this verse, “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous person forsaken nor his children begging bread.” (Psalm 37:25) I believe that God loves each of us, and that he has a plan for our lives, and that it is a plan for our good. And that’s true whether you know it or not, or even whether you accept it or not.
However, there were times . . . when I didn’t know how we would survive, let alone reach a happy and enjoyable retirement. I was a “church growth pastor” who had taken a number of “difficult” churches with problems and turned them around and led them to become active, growing churches. My denomination, the Reformed Church, doesn’t have bishops, but we do have some folks who like to think and act like they are bishops, sometimes called “Field Secretaries.” I had done a good job in turning around a number of congregations and as a result some of my ministerial colleagues accused me of being the Field Secretary’s “fair-haired boy” . . . until I went to Southern California to try at turn around a church that, really, was started for all the wrong reasons in all the wrong ways.
After about a year it became obvious to me, and eventually to the leadership in this little church, that the best thing would be to close the church . . . and open a new work in a growing area nearby, thus jettisoning the image and problems of the existing church, and moving forward. To close a church, in effect, was a criticism of the Field Secretary and many of his “church growth” policies, which I felt were unhealthy in the long run. In many ways the denomination was more in the real estate business in Southern California than it was in the Gospel business. We opened lots of churches, didn’t give them a whole lot of support or leadership, watched them die, and sold off the real estate at a profit. But we weren’t really called to be in the real estate business. Suddenly I was no longer the Field Secretary’s “fair-haired boy”. Well the powers-that-be agreed to close the church, but they didn’t want to follow my recommendation and start a new church (politics are alive and well in the church!), so I was suddenly without a job, and since we lived in a house rented by the church, without a place to live. When we came to California we had invested all of our money in opening a “cruise only” travel agency which my wife was running, but it had just started, and wasn’t yet making money.
I remember it was a few days before Christmas – the denomination had generously not thrown us out of the house right before Christmas – and I got a call from the Ventura County Sheriff Department. The gal explained that they had a program to help families that were down on their luck and provide food and toys for the children. I told them that the church had closed, so I no longer really had any contacts or folks to recommend. And she said, “No, we mean for you. Someone had suggested you might need a hand.” I really was speechless, and deeply touched. So later that week the Ventura County Sheriff’s paddy wagon drove up our driveway and Santa jumped out the back with toys for our girls and a big bag of groceries. And I had the opportunity to learn how to receive.
Things went from bad to worse. The Field Secretary, whose philosophies I had now criticised, had managed to question my competency and bad mouth me to other churches with potential jobs, we had invested our money in a travel agency that was operating in the red and we had no income. I had an appointment with the Field Secretary guy, and I remember driving down to Orange County from Ventura. It was a rainy, depressing day, and I remember driving down the Pacific Coast Highway around Point Mugu, thinking how easy it would be to just careen off the curve into the ocean. At least that would provide insurance money for my family. So in that state of mind I arrived at his office.
Now you have to understand that both my wife and I are “preacher’s kids” and had grown up with the sense of the church as a supportive community that would always be there. I go to meet with the Field Secretary and he tells me that I’m on my own, that the church won’t provide any assistance or help, and he pulls out a list of all the ministers who were basically thrown out of the ministry because they couldn’t keep their flies zipped up, and showed me how they were teaching school, or selling insurance, or cars, and said, “Go and do thou likewise.”
Well, I got angry, and dropped the depression routine, and decided we would make it on our own. And we did! With God’s help, but without the church’s help. It took me a while to put all this into theological context, but if you study the history of the people of God throughout the Bible, you will see a continuing pattern of rebellion. So I figured that if the people of God are a pain in the ass to God, who am I? Why should it be any different for me?
Now that doesn’t mean I’ve written off the entire church because of one guy who was a jackass. I went on after a few years and building a successful cruise only travel agency business to work as a part time associate for church growth in a large Methodist Church with a wonderful congregation.
But, if in those dark days, you would have asked me if in my wildest dreams I would ever envision a future such as this, I would have said you were crazy. “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous person forsaken nor his children begging bread.” (Psalm 37:25) God takes care of his own!
Because I was a chaplain on the ROTTERDAM, the ship stopped in Gatun Lake, I got off and met a bunch of Embera Indians who wanted me to visit their village, I went home and got on line to find out about these Indians . . . because of that, we discovered Panama . . . and live in this paradise.
Why was I a chaplain on the ROTTERDAM? Because as a seminary student I happened to have an apartment in the basement of the home of a woman who every year did the world cruise on the ROTTERDAM and said, “Richard, when you graduate you should be a chaplain on Holland America?”
When I had my churches I would do new member classes. In 1985 a couple in one of my classes, when the class was finished, gave me a framed quote of something I said in the class. I had forgotten I had said it, but since then we have kept this framed quote on the wall of our kitchen, wherever we happen to be living.
“There are no coincidences . . . a coincidence is a small miracle in which God chooses to remain anonymous.”
So in that context, you might enjoy this . . .