I spent several hours, this past week, at the hospital bedside of one of our members, Mrs. Essie Sprouse. Despite having suffered a heart attack recently, I’ve never seen someone in their 80’s so full of life and faith. We spent time, of course, talking about doctors and pills and those necessary but often uncomfortable medical topics. However, we had the most fun talking about church.
We laughed together as she shared stories about VBS, youth choirs, friend chicken lunches, and over sixty years of memories at the same Baptist church. To my surprise, our conversations, which started out as a simple time of pastoral pleasantries, turned into a deep theological moment for me.
The more Mrs. Sprouse talked, I soon realized that not only has the church been like her family, but much of her family has been heavily involved in the church. She told me about some cousins who were pastors as well as female relatives who married pastors. Her family has been so much a part of the church that they have felt, at times, as if God called their entire family tree into the ministry.
Then, she told me about her brother. His name was…
…Ira Campbell. To you, that name may not sound familiar. But, for some reason, his name made my ears perk up. I just knew that I had heard or seen that name somewhere before.
I began Googling my mental hard drive to gather some information but no search results were found. Finally, she satisfied my curiosity. She rolled her head to the side and looked at me with one eye open and said, “Now, pastor, I think I’ve told you this before, but my brother, Ira Campbell, used to be the pastor at Forest Baptist Church.”
Sure enough, I later checked our church history, and she was telling the truth. He was the pastor of Forest from 1935-1937. “In fact,” she went on to say, “one of our other members, Mrs. Margarie Coffee, told me that it was my brother, Ira, who baptized her at Forest when she was just a child.” I couldn’t believe it.
I leaned back in my chair and nodded my head in disbelief. I would have never guessed the interconnectedness involved in her story. Who knew that these seemingly random people and events could, over a span of decades, be related so closely? After a moment of silence, I then replied with that familiar two word statement which seems to say it all, “Hmm…small world, huh?” She rested her head back on her pillow and said, “Agreed.”
Have you ever had a conversation like this? There are moments in life where it seems as if the dots are clearly connected. Several years ago a research group concluded that every human being is separated by just six people. It’s called six degrees of separation. This means that you and I can think of anyone on planet earth, famous or infamous, and we can more than likely find a “friend of a friend of a friend of a friend” who is friends with that exact person. Whenever a person discovers such a connection across the Human Web, they can often be heard uttering the same words that I said to Mrs. Sprouse that day in the hospital, “Hmmm….small world.”
A few minutes later, as I stood waiting for the hospital elevator doors to open, my head and my heart met for a quick, internal moment of worship. As I replayed, in my mind, the stories that she just told, I realized that these “small world” moments were actually “big God” moments. Human interconnectedness is not merely the result of anthropology and human sociology; it is ultimately an issue of theology. Proverbs 20:24 explains it this way,
“Man’s steps are ordained by the Lord…”
This verse helps us understand those inexplicable moments when we realize that our friend’s friend has a cousin whose mailman bought a bass boat from our neighbor. When we think to ourselves, “Hmm…small world” I imagine God chuckling at our naivety. Such moments are not mere coincidence; they are, in fact, providence.
I can’t think of anyone who understood these “big God” moments better than Joseph. In fact, Joseph immediately understood what, on that day in the hospital, I had initially failed to grasp: that God was even in control of our relationships. Furthermore, He deserves all the credit when we see His hand of providence in our lives. Imagine how the book of Genesis would have been if Joseph had responded to his brothers the way that we so often do at times like this.
After being cruelly sold into slavery, wrongfully imprisoned, surprisingly promoted to second in command, Joseph finally comes face to face with his backstabbing brothers. His life, up to that point, must have seemed like a roller coaster of random people, places and events. Nevertheless, Joseph sees his brothers for the first time in decades. They need food; he has plenty. They had the power over his life; now he had the power over their’s. What an unexpected turn of events!
Joseph, then, reveals himself. Together, they weep and rejoice at this most surprising and unlikely but welcomed stroke of “good luck”. After the celebration was over, imagine if Joseph had simply turned to his brothers and said, “Hmm…small word, huh?” What an anticlimactic way to end the book of Genesis. I’m thankful that Joseph was much more spiritual than I am at moments like this.
If Joseph had made such a generic response as “small world, huh?”, it would have been an insult to the sovereignty of God. Instead, Joseph, looking back, saw the hand of God in all of it. Notice his careful, God-centered understanding of this incredible “coincidence”:
“God sent me before you to preserve your life…God sent me before you to preserve you a remnant…it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen 45:5-8)
It has been said before that Divine providence is best read like Hebrew: backwards. We don’t always see, today, how our lives work together. But trust me, God does. He knows exactly whose paths need to cross. In fact, the path to the cross for Jesus unfolded in the same way. The great injustice of Jesus’ murder actually accomplished the greatest act of justice in human history. The Judge who handed down the sentence, took our punishment upon Himself. This was no accident either. God predetermined this surprising plan (Acts 2:23).
So, the next time you stumble across some unexpected interconnectedness in life, rather than simply thinking to yourself, “Hmm…what a small world this is,” respond with a spritz of worship and consider, “Wow! What a big God He is.”