Several years ago there was a contest in Britain to determine the country's citizens’ favorite word. It turns out, the British best love the word “serendipity.” According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary, serendipity means “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” As such, serendipity is the secular sibling of providence.
Providence, a tradition-encrusted old word with Latin roots, is theological tooth and claw. It is also more robust than serendipity.
Providence speaks of God’s government of nature, history and humanity. While serendipity evokes playful, happy coincidence, providence bespeaks responsibility: the buck stops with God.
Providence, as a doctrine, almost inevitably leads to knotty theological conundrums. But providence, as a personal promise from God, leads to a sense of confidence that no power on earth can shake. Providence speaks of God’s provisions for us in life and in death.
Recently something happened that caused me to reflect anew on God’s providence.
My wife Debbie was asked by the large and active Presbyterian Women’s group at my son, Jeremy’s, church in Virginia Beach, to speak at their monthly gathering. At the close of the evening the benediction was given by Chaplain Autumn Butler-Saeger, an active duty lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. Chaplain Butler-Saeger has seen more active service than most of us can imagine, her most recent deployment having been on a ship patrolling the coast of Somalia. She was on exactly the kind of ship that figures into the story of Captain Philips, whose crew was taken by Somali pirates. An earlier deployment took her to Al Anbar Province in Iraq, which, for a time, was just about the most dangerous place on earth. Her job there was to serve as the chaplain to a group of U.S. Marines.
The benediction Lieutenant Butler-Saeger gave the group of Presbyterian Women at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church of Princess Anne was the blessing she gave every night to the Marines who went out on patrol in a very dangerous place. It went like this:
“Go forth from this place to love and serve. Return no one evil for evil. Help one another. Honor one another. Hold each other accountable. Now may God go before you to guide. May God be around you to protect. May God dwell within you to keep you safe. Amen.”
There are likely many things that resonate with us in this blessing. But the utter absence of abstraction surely must be high on the list. God’s providence is not a distant pie-in-the-sky dogma meant to produce head-scratching puzzles. God’s providence is at its heart the promise that God will walk with us into every dangerous night, that God will remain closer to us than we are to ourselves, that God holds us more precious than we can possibly know and is hard at work to do for us better things than we can ask or imagine for this life and the life to come.
This is something to be thankful for today, and every day, and in the midst of every dark night.
Let us give thanks for God’s providence.