I had a pleasant surprise after boarding the first leg of my flight to Virginia a
couple of weekends ago. I had just found my seat and gotten settled when I
looked up to see my uncle Mark walking down the aisle. As it turns out, quite
serendipitously, his seat was next to mine. Perhaps it was not surprising. He’s
living in South Whitley now, with his new wife, Anne. He was planning to attend
the funeral and weekend with the extended family. There are relatively few flights
that originate in Fort Wayne and can connect easily to Charlottesville, where we
were both ultimately heading.
But still, it was a pleasant surprise. And after Mark settled into his seat and I
named the happy coincidence that brought us together early that morning – it
was a 6:45 flight after all – he offered an expression I’ve heard before – ‘I don’t
believe in coincidences.’ Our flight passed quickly, partly because the first leg was
from Fort Wayne to Chicago, and partly because he’s an easy conversationalist. It
was a welcome diversion from the solitude of traveling solo for that weekend,
and we talked about a number of things we had not discussed before.
Still, I kept coming back to his statement – ‘I don’t believe in coincidences.’
His response reminded me of that Albert Einstein quote – “God does not play dice
with the universe.” These reflections imply that God leaves nothing to chance, or
at least, nothing important to chance, and to their greater extent, that God is in
control of everything that happens around us. Perhaps that is true. There are also
some who believe that everything happens by chance, that everything is a
coincidence, that all of life is random and when an unexpected blessing happens,
we simply should recognize it for what it is, and be thankful for it.
Which are you? Or are you somewhere in between, believing that there is
equal parts chance and design that weave together the happy surprises or
unexpected encounters of our existence? I don’t think any of these perspectives
are entirely wrong or right, or bad or good, for there are elements of faith and
hope whichever of those outlooks works for you. We sometimes find ourselves
needing to reflect on how we engage the encounters with God and the ‘beyond
us and our understanding.’ Because no matter which of these perspectives is truly
true, we won’t know for certain, unless we can get an answer from God directly
and definitively. And that’s not the way that God typically responds to us.
This encounter did cause me to think about our text from Acts today. This
story continues a series of texts we’ve studied from this history book about the
early adventures of the early church. One of the parts of Acts that I love is that
the book gives us the stories of people beyond those who are widely known.
Saul/Paul, Peter, Timothy, and Barnabas are several of the focal people in these
stories, but it is the encounters they have with faithful people like the Ethiopian
eunuch or Dorcas or Ananias or in this text, Lydia, that offer inspiration to the
church, then and now.
The story of Lydia is one that is not often told from the Christian scriptures.
It is a story of openness, of faithfulness, of willingness to follow the leadings of
God’s Spirit, without a clear and definitive direction of where following God’s
Spirit may take her. The way that Luke the writer of Acts introduces Lydia offers
us a clue to her importance in the story. ‘There was a certain woman called Lydia
who was listening to us.’ Luke is notable as a writer for his inclusion and notation
of women, both in his gospel and in this book.
Yet I was also struck by the second part of that phrase. The story notes that
Lydia was ‘listening to us.’ That phrase carries extra meaning, due to the fact that
there were some leaders in the early church who would have been resistant to
Paul preaching to Lydia at all, both because of her gender and because she’s a
Gentile. Listening is an important attribute of faith, no matter who you are or
when you lived. Not the physical act of listening, but the spiritual act of listening.
Jesus’ primary fault with his disciples was that they did not listen to him. Peter’s
primary struggle with the church elders is that they did not listen to him. Paul’s
primary struggle with some of the churches to whom he wrote letters was that
they did not listen to him.
But Lydia listened. And interestingly, listening is the second step. The first
step is opening our hearts, spirits, and minds to the possibility of God doing a new
thing in one’s life. That observation takes even greater precedence in today’s
world than in Lydia’s. There is so much more to distract us, and so much that we
allow ourselves to be distracted by. Lydia must have prepared herself to listen, to
be open to what God might be doing in her, and then actually listened to what
she was being taught.
The final step we witness in this story is response. It’s one thing to prepare
oneself for God to enter our lives. It’s another thing to listen to the call God has
placed upon us. But it takes a strong degree of courage to step out in faith and
respond to that unexpected call. Vicki McGaw is the director of Christian
education at a church in Cleveland. One day, she was attending a church meeting
and struck up a conversation with a woman. Vicki learned that the woman’s
husband, Bob Fortney, was in dire need of a kidney transplant. As they talked,
both became teary-eyed.
And then Vicki asked the woman, “What do I need to do to be
tested?” Vicki had a clear sense that this was what she needed to do. Although
she had never met Bob Fortney, she immediately made the decision to donate
one of her kidneys to him. She was tested for compatibility, and ended up being
more of a perfect match than any of Fortney’s family members. The surgery took
five hours, and was a complete success. Vicki returned home in two days, and
resumed her job in five. The following Sunday, her pastor told the congregation
about Vicki’s generosity. It was an “ultimate act of hospitality,” he said.
Bob Fortney has also recovered well, and he is enormously grateful to Vicki.
His family calls her a “miracle from God.” The entire experience has had an impact
on Fortney’s congregation, and the pastor of the church has observed, “I’ve
witnessed something unexpected. People are asking, where is God in their lives?
They know it was no coincidence Vicki was a match for Bob and the generosity
and compassion she displayed were extraordinary. They know God was
Vicki McGaw chose faith over fear, and practiced extraordinary hospitality
instead of ordinary self-concern. “I really felt this is what God put me here to do,”
she says. “A person can find 20 million reasons not to do something, but there is
usually one reason that sticks with you as to why you should.”
We have our own Beacon Heights version of that same story, except with
Kathy Fry-Miller, a former long time church member in Vicki’s position, and Dave
Kiracofe in Bob’s. Kathy donated her kidney to Dave not long after I arrived here
at Beacon Heights, and I remember being so inspired by a congregation and
families who would offer that kind of Christ-like love to one another. It’s one thing
to pray for each other – most churches do that; but it’s another to put that prayer
into action by giving literally of oneself to save and prolong the life of another.
It’s been 11 years since the kidney transfer, and I asked both Dave and
Kathy to share their memories and reflections about it. Dave wrote, ‘There are
really two main feelings that I had and still have. The first was not seeing or
believing how things could possibly work out for me and wondering what was
going to become of me. The second was that when things did come together, just
not believing that so many people would care so much about me to offer to
donate their kidneys, and that Kathy actually did it. I am tearing up with gratitude
even as I think about it.’
Kathy wrote, “One thing I'd say is that I, too, am deeply grateful for the
experience of giving a kidney to Dave. It was an amazing time in my life, truly
trusting in God for the well-being of both Dave and I. I feel like I received such a
wonderful gift also. It's profoundly humbling to have been chosen to donate a
kidney. It's been such a pleasure to see Dave and Sandy's enthusiasm and the
many compassionate gifts they share with others. It's fun to share our numbers,
our creatinine levels, each year! I will always cherish this experience.”
So, what is it that God has put you here to do? Where is God at work in
your life … right here, right now? Whether you believe in coincidences or God
moments or are somewhere in between, how do you open yourself to the
possibilities that you encounter? It’s not only being open to the possibilities, of
course. It’s also centering our minds, hearts, and spirits to be prepared when
those moments take place. For God moves in our lives in often surprising,
unexpected ways. We are not only called to respond, but also called to have the
courage and faithfulness to do so. Amen.