The Art Of Sanctified Serendipity
There is an ancient legend about three princes of a land called Serendip. It seems that every time these three princes set out on a journey something strange, something quite unexpected, happened—and by coincidence or accident or whatever you choose to call it, they found valuable things they were not seeking. Having encountered this ancient legend, Sir Horace Walpole was moved to coin the word “serendipity,” which means “the gift of finding valuable things not sought for.”
Today, I want to focus on the connection between this word “serendipity” and our faith as Christians. It has always seemed to me that God makes His will known to us in different ways. The primary way, of course, is through prayer. When we attune our minds to the mind of God through prayer, there is a certain sense of being in the course where God would have us to be, a certain sense of assurance and purpose that begins to well up within us. But before we can be sure that this is truly God’s will, we must measure what we discover in prayer by the second vehicle which God uses to communicate with us—His Word, the Bible. Now the Bible is not a magic book. It is not to be used like a Ouija board. You have heard, I am sure, of that fellow in search of God’s will who flipped open the Bible, stuck his finger on the page and read the words, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” Shaken, but still determined, he flipped some more pages, stuck in his finger and read, “Go and do likewise.” “Surely there must be some mistake,” he thought, so he tried a third time. He flipped the pages, stuck in his finger and read: “What you do, do quickly!” Well, the Bible is not that kind of book. Yet when we seek to immerse ourselves in what it teaches, when we become familiar with its great themes, and when we devote ourselves to the discipline of regular reading in Scripture, then we can begin to discover God’s guiding hand in our lives.
Having said all that, I want to suggest that there is yet another way in which God reveals His will to us. I am referring to those unexpected things, those unexplainable things, those “funny” things that sometimes happen to us along life’s way. I am suggesting that we need to develop the art of “sanctified serendipity”—the art of finding valuable things from God which we never expected to find. Let me explain…
Have you ever found the sacramental in the coincidental?
I have. It was my senior year in college. Graduation was but weeks away. At that late date, I had made the decision to enter the ministry, and I put in a call to Louisville Seminary. They said that it was too late to apply, the incoming class was filled. I applied anyway. My application arrived the same day as a letter of cancellation from someone else. Coincidence? Perhaps. Shortly thereafter, Trisha applied for a teaching job in Louisville. “No openings,” they said. She then decided to take a teaching job which she had been offered in Memphis, and it appeared that our plan to get married was stymied. Three days before school opened in September she decided to try one last time in Louisville. She picked up the phone. They said: “We just had an English teacher resign today. If you can be in Louisville by four o’clock tomorrow afternoon, the job is yours.” Coincidence? Perhaps. But I choose to think it was God revealing His will to us.
Now our experience was not unusual. It is scribbled all across the pages of Scripture. Abraham was concerned that his son, Isaac, have a wife. So one day Isaac went to the well—that was not what men usually did in those days…but funny thing…Rebekah was there, and you know the rest of the story. Two blind men, living for many years in the monotony of darkness, their eyes unable to see, but always able to weep, weeping many tears, praying many prayers, and then…funny thing…Jesus passed by and healed them. Matthew, sitting at his tax tables, knowing that his books were balanced but that his life was not, and then…funny thing…Jesus happened by, and, with the authority of God in His voice, said “Follow me”—and Matthew did, closing one set of books but opening another. In those days after John the Baptist was imprisoned, Jesus was trying to understand how God wanted Him to carry out His mission. He was walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and…funny thing…he happened to encounter two fishermen whom Jesus had known to be friends of John the Baptist. Their names were Simon and Andrew. He must have thought to Himself, “Funny thing that I should meet them today, for they are just the kind of men I need to do my Father’s work.” So he said to the two men: “Come, follow me.” Simon looked at Andrew. Andrew looked at Simon. They both looked at Jesus. And they thought to themselves: “Funny thing, here we are mourning the loss of John the Baptist and along comes One who speaks like God Himself.” So they followed Him, and the world has never been the same.
Do you get my point? These “funny things,” these unexpected, unexplainable things, these strange and subtle suggestions of the Holy Spirit are happening to us all the time. At first they may seem to us to be simply coincidences. But the fact is, they may be something more. They may be important in helping us to see God’s will for our lives. Therefore, our responsibility as Christians is to be sensitive to these subtle suggestions, to be open to the fact that they come to us along life’s way.
But let us take it a step farther. Have you ever found the providential in the accidental?
Have you seen God at work in the hardships of life? Have you encountered the spirit of God in the midst of the difficulties that come your way? Have life’s interruptions ever been signposts for you? Toynbee, the historian, said that “civilizations advance on the stimulus of blows.” That is true for individuals as well. I saw a cartoon in which a little boy was leading his younger brother up a steep, rough mountain path. The younger brother said: “There are too many bumps here.” The other boy replied: “The bumps are what you climb on.” A lot of the bumps, the hard times, the unexpected interruptions that come to us in life, are things that we can use to climb higher.
I suppose that the most famous literary interruption came to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He tells about it in his diary. He fell asleep one afternoon and when he awoke, he had a whole poem in his mind. After he had begun writing it down, there was a knock at the door. A man from the city of Porlock had come to conduct some business with Coleridge. When the man from Porlock finished his business and left, Coleridge discovered that he could no longer remember the poem he had had in his mind. It was gone, and he never recalled it again. And so we have his poem “Kubla Khan” which starts off magnificently and ends in the middle of a thought. Scholars have speculated for years what might have come next in that poem. I am not smart enough to do that. But I have thought a lot about that man from Porlock.
You see, they come, these people or events from Porlock, hammering away at the doors of our lives, interrupting the normal flow of our plans. In the face of these unexpected interruptions in our lives, we can make one of two responses. We can be like the rooster who when a storm blows up folds his wings tightly about him and simply stands there and endures it. Or we can be like the eagle who in a time of storm spreads his wings, catches the updraft, and sails away to new heights.
Thomas Edison delivered newspapers on a western railroad. One day he accidentally knocked over a bottle of acid in the baggage car and set it on fire. He was fired from his job. But…funny thing…that accident with acid got him interested in science and he went on to become our greatest inventor. Abraham Lincoln wanted to be a storekeeper. He failed at that. He tried the military and failed at that. Then he decided to practice law—and he was never very successful at that. But…funny thing…all those failures led him into politics, and you know the rest. John Wesley wanted to be a great missionary to the American Indians, so he came to Georgia and failed miserably. In despair, he returned to England. Funny thing about that. He had a transforming spiritual experience and went on to found what we know as the Methodist Church. A. J. Cronin was a distinguished physician, stricken with a disease which ruined his practice of medicine. Frustrated, resentful, and with nothing else to do, he took up his pen to write. Funny thing…before he was finished, he had produced books like The Citadel and The Keys of the Kingdom. Victor Hugo’s life was drastically interrupted by Napoleon who banished Victor Hugo to the Isle of Guernsey for a 20-year exile. He had been just a hack writer up to that time; but…funny thing…the lonely exile drew forth from him abilities he never knew he possessed, and he wound up writing classics like Les Miserables. He said later that he wished he had been exiled 20 years earlier.
On and on the record spins. Individuals who have suddenly run into accidents, disappointments, heartaches, frustrations, interruptions, but because the antennae of their spirits were sensitive to the possibilities in those events, they were able to rise above them.
Now I am not saying here that everything that happens in our lives is God’s will. I am not saying that every event has some spiritual significance which we are supposed to search out. And I am certainly not saying that we are to blindly accept all the circumstances of our lives. But what I am saying is that we need to be alert to what God may be trying to do for us and in us. I am saying that we are to respond to the difficult experiences of life not with a sigh, but with a song. That is what makes the difference between a life of defeat and a life of victory.
Now this. Have you ever found the inspirational in the incidental?
It does not just happen. We have to work at it. We have to cultivate this art of sanctified serendipity. We have to discipline ourselves to watch for the subtle suggestions of God’s spirit in our lives.
Robert HilIyer has written about a man who suffered crippling arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair. Every day that may would wheel himself to a city park. There he would write down in a notebook both the interesting and the incidental things he saw about him. Then back home, at night, he would re-read the notebook, and get a double taste of the savor of life. When Hillyer asked him why he did this, the man replied: “I just want God to know that I am paying attention.”
That is the key to what I am saying today. We must always be paying attention. We must be alert to what God has going on around us. You see, as Christians, we do not believe in luck. We do not carry the cross around as a good luck charm. We do not say of the Bible: “If I read it, it is bound to improve my luck.” We do not take the elements at the Lord’s Table and say “This is for good luck.” We do not believe in luck. We believe in God. We believe in a God who is at work in this world and in our lives, revealing His will to us, accomplishing His purposes through us, carrying out His plans in us.
You see that so clearly in Jesus. Jesus could take the cursings of the Pharisees and fashion them into the most magnificent parable ever told—the parable of the Prodigal Son. They can nail Him to a cross, an instrument of torture and shame, but He simply transformed it into the symbol of ultimate love, and by means of it, He lifts the whole world to the arms of His Father. The early Christians were thrown into prisons, but they made the dungeons into churches and the prisoners’ docks into pulpits. They were alert to all that was happening in the course of their lives, they were open to the possibilities, and consequently they lived magnificently. That is not luck! That is a God who moves to bring His good from all things—a God to whose movements we must be sensitive—a God to whom we say every day: “In my life, Thy will be done, here as it is in heaven.”
One day, two young fellows, bronzed by the sun, hardened by their work, were fishing by the Sea of Galilee. They like the pull of the waves on their nets. They liked the salty freshness of the sea breezes. They liked the feel of the boat’s tiller in their hands. Then…funny thing…a man they knew happened by. He said to them: “Follow me.” And Simon looked at Andrew. And Andrew looked at Simon. They both looked at the nets, the fish, the boats, the sea they loved so much. Then they looked at Him. That was enough. They followed Him. And the whole world is different because of it.
You know, I rather imagine that later on, some night, as they sat around a campfire in the Galilean wilderness, Simon, now called Peter, looked over at Andrew and said: “You know Andrew, that was a funny thing, wasn’t it, that day the Master happened by and asked us to follow Him?” And Andrew said: “Yes, it sure was…a funny thing.”
And they still happen, you know, these “funny things.” Why I tell you, they are like stepping stones on the pathway to the kingdom of heaven…