Thomas Rusert: 'Meant to be' -- playing our part in providence

It's in shops and streets and other unexpected places where God’s transforming "meant to be" experiences happen. iStock / Torresigner

As pastors, don’t leave the power of “God moments” entirely to chance. Help make them happen. Ask yourselves, “Where am I ‘meant to be’ this week?”

My wife and I aren’t sure we were “meant to be.” As she often reminds me, I was not her “type.” And neither of us looks upon the other as “the one.” Although we are happily married -- and plan to be until “death do us part” -- we don’t harbor any illusions that we could never have found happiness with anyone else.

For us, this is merely a healthy recognition of reality. It doesn’t make us doubt our marriage, but it does make us laugh.

Even so, I wonder, doesn’t God have a hand in making things happen? As a pastor, I am often confronted with this question. It happens almost every week when I sit down in a coffee shop with my sign that says “Free Prayer.” Prompted by the sign, a series of strangers will sit down with me, and we’ll talk and pray together. Inevitably, at least one or more will profess that our meeting was “meant to be.”

I’m beginning to think they’re right.

In part, pastors are called to show up for people in those “meant to be” places. Not too long ago, as I sat with my prayer sign at a local Starbucks, I watched a woman walk out of the store and a minute later come back in. Usually, when people do that, they’re retrieving a coat or some other object they have left.

In this case, though, the woman returned because she sensed that God had left something -- for her. She walked directly to me as though we were old acquaintances, sat down and began to tell me why she had come back in.

A few weeks earlier, she said, her mother had died. Then a beloved pet. A week later, she totaled her car when she had a collision with a horse-size deer. She was yearning for someone to pray with.

“And there you were,” she said. “These are times when I believe that there is something bigger going on out there.”

She thought our meeting was “meant to be.”

I’m beginning to think she was right.

This has happened so many times in my Free Prayer outings. People reroute their days for a moment to sit and speak with me. They share a thought, a concern, a prayer, and tell me in various ways that our meeting was somehow destined to happen:

“This is no coincidence.”

“This happened for a reason.”

“It must be divine intervention.”

“Our meeting was meant to be.”

Somehow, these people believe that my little prayer sign and I might have a part to play in God’s providence.

I’m beginning to think they are right.

But what does that mean for us pastors and other ministry leaders? What does it mean to be a part of God’s “meant to be,” a part of God’s providence?

No, I don’t think all of those interactions at the coffee shop were meticulously staged by the universe, nor do I see God as a bubbly event planner in the clouds. But I do believe that God is involved. As Paul Tillich said, “Providence is not interference; it is creation.” To Tillich, God is never a spectator. “Providence,” he said, “is a permanent activity of God.”

The Rev. Dr. Robert H. Linders, my co-pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, wrote much the same thing in his graduate dissertation several years ago: “God does not do everything but he does something in everything.”

That is, God is involved. No, I don’t believe that God tells me to go to Starbucks every Wednesday because I need to meet someone there. I go to Starbucks every Wednesday because I’m a creature of habit.

But I do believe that God cultivates faith and wonder within each of us -- sometimes just enough that a person might turn around after leaving a coffee shop and sit down with a pastor and his prayer sign. I believe also that God has encouraged and guided me to show up where people are, in places outside the church. When the two happen to meet -- others’ faith and wonder and my showing up -- God’s work is done.

“Moments matter,” Chip and Dan Heath write in their book “The Power of Moments,” “and what an opportunity we miss when we leave them to chance!”

Being a part of God’s providence, a part of God’s “meant to be,” need not be left to chance. My parishioners expect to find me at the church office. But they don’t expect to see me in line at Starbucks.

God uses the power of surprise to open doors to prayer and connection and transformation. By putting myself out there in the coffee shop, I become an unexpected presence in someone’s otherwise predictable day. Our meeting makes for a powerful moment. People often see it as “meant to be,” and God makes good use of that.

So don’t leave powerful moments to chance. Ask yourself, “Where am I ‘meant to be’ this week?” Find a place where you can play your part in providence. God will use it. It may be as simple as an unexpected email or note to a parishioner or a neighbor. Don’t just think about people -- let them know you are thinking about them! It might pop up in their inbox as an email that was “meant to be.”

Better yet, stretch yourself and do something even more unexpected. One pastor I know set up on the street corner outside his church and played hymns on his clarinet throughout Lent. For passersby, the sacred tones may have been just what they needed. We expect worship, service and love to happen in our churches. But it is in the shops and the streets and other unexpected places where we find God’s transforming experiences that were “meant to be.”

My wife and I may still be playfully uncertain whether our marriage was “meant to be,” but we know that God had something to do with it. We are happily married today because of unexpected events, little risks, and ultimately, a leap of faith.

As pastors, don’t leave the power of “God moments” entirely to chance. Help make them happen. Lean into the unexpected, the little risks, and take a leap of faith.

You never know. Someone might think it was “meant to be.”

I’m pretty sure they would be right.