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Coincidences? Or Maybe a Well-conceived Coordination?


One statement summed up the sermon for Linda and me: God may ask you to go somewhere you don’t want to go.

Yep, that’s what God does. Remember the opening lines of Psalm 23? The Lord is my Shepherd. He makes me to lie down…, he leads me…, he guides me along the right paths….  We the sheep, that’s what we do: we follow our good shepherd and listen for his voice.

Today’s story recounts one of the most significant decisions of my life, which was directly affected by the involvement of four people. Their voices, through whom God spoke, helped me become willing to change from a firm no into a willing yes.

Let’s set the stage for the four participants in my life drama.

I left pastoral ministry in 1984 to study Intellectual History at Cal State Sacramento. My dream was to wear two hats, Pastor and Professor, and was accepted into the PhD program at the University of Chicago for the fall of 1985.  This was a thrilling development for me, but not so much for Linda.

Since I wasn’t offered any financial aid, she would step into the role of chief breadwinner for at least a couple years, and we would delegate the raising of our one child – oh my, make that two; Linda learned in the spring of 1985 that she was expecting – to the staff of a day-care somewhere on Chicago’s south side.  


I buried my dreams of being a Professor in early July, 1985. Sitting across from the director of ministry for our denomination, I informed him of our change in plans: I’m not willing to sacrifice our family on the altar of my aspirations. I need to return to pastoral ministry. Pronto!

Enter participant number one, Ted Smith, the pastor of First Covenant Church in Sacramento, California.  We hadn’t aligned with a specific congregation during my year of study. On Sunday, July 14, 1985, we just happened to worship at Ted’s church, and during his sermon he spoke about following the directions of our commander-in-chief.  

And that one line snuck into our car and accompanied us home: God may ask you to go somewhere you don’t want to go.

The implications of Ted’s statement quickly became evident. Clarence Winstedt, the superintendent of our regional conference of our denomination, became the second of God’s spokespersons. He just happened to call that same evening to ask me a question: could he recommend my name to Escalon Covenant Church, a congregation near Modesto?

Was I excited about this development? Nope. It was the one Covenant church in the entire state of California about which I had often declared: I know I’ll never serve there.

Dozens of times I had driven through “the town with all the churches”, as Escalon was known in the SF Bay Area. A small farming community served by thirteen congregations, more than half of them were on the two-lane highway bisecting the town, including the Covenant church.  

I grew up in Oakland, studied at Berkeley, and had lived in three major metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sacramento.  I was convinced I would fit into an agricultural community about as well as a four-alarm Texas-style chili at a senior’s potluck lunch.  

Clarence asked me a question, so I had to answer. I tactfully answered in a different language, one we both spoke fluently. In the wonderfully insincere language of Christianese, I said I’ll pray about it. In plain English, that means no way! I also informed him that I was hoping to serve God in a place I felt was more suited to my gifts and experience.

For the next day and a half, I did pray about it,  mostly expressing to God both my displeasure and my disappointment.  And I would have continued in that vein if it weren’t for the doorbell ringing at our home on Tuesday afternoon.


Enter Ron Short – the third actor in God’s drama. A seminary buddy and the previous pastor of Escalon Covenant Church, he just happened to drop by our house. He was in the area laying the groundwork for a new church plant in El Dorado Hills, and had some free time that afternoon. He assured me that Clarence hadn’t asked him to look me up, but I still wonder about that.

Whatever his motivation, a good friend stood on my front porch, so I invited him into our home. I stopped talking and started listening to the story of Escalon Covenant Church, narrated by the one who had been their shepherd for the previous five years. After an aggressive effort by the church leaders to change the focus and the culture, a group of stubborn Swedes had bolted in frustration. A lively and gifted core were now ready to move ahead with energy and passion.  

It began to appear that God’s direction for my life and work was pointed towards a completely different direction than where I wanted to go. The bottom line: whose judgment would I trust? Mine or his?

Learning to trust in God – relying on his wisdom, stepping out and doing what he says – only happens when we honestly ask ourselves a bucket of questions, including the most obvious one for my experience: Why would God want me to serve in a tiny town like Escalon?  

A few days later I poured out those questions to the fourth participant, Bob Herrington. My youth pastor when I was a teenager, he became a colleague and a trusted friend in ministry. And he just happened to serve at that time as one of the staff pastors at Modesto Covenant Church, only an hour south of Sacramento.  

Two conclusions surfaced from our conversation. Serving in Escalon would teach me how to become a pastor in the classic sense of the word. In a smaller congregation, the shepherd knows the sheep and tends to their needs. That does not generally happen in a larger congregation, which is what I had wanted for my career.

It would also be a lesson in faithfulness, a character trait God seeks to develop in each of us, and rewards everyone who exhibits it.

The word Escalon is Spanish for step, like a rung on a ladder, or better – a stepping-stone. Just fifteen miles from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Escalon is one of several cities that link the San Francisco Bay Area to Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest.

Bob helped me admit to myself why I didn’t want to serve in Escalon. I didn’t want to be – didn’t deserve to be, I was convinced – stuck on a scraggly flatland stepping-stone that would likely lead to another struggling congregation. I wanted to be perched high on a Yosemite granite boulder, one that would elevate me above my peers, and cause people to look up to me with admiration.

And therein lies the problem: me and my ego.

I decided to trust God’s leading for the path that lie ahead, despite my misgivings, and accepted the call to serve. A few weeks later I was installed as Pastor of Escalon Covenant Church, a position I held for the next twenty years. I am so grateful for God’s wisdom and leading, for countless blessings received, lessons learned, and priorities shaped. Yes, Father knows best.  


I am also glad I listened to the five people through whom God spoke to me. Ted - a Pastor faithfully feeding his flock, and I was given a timely reminder. Clarence – my overseer in ministry, blessing me with his experience and insight. Ron – a trusted friend who could help me move past my prejudices and pre-conceptions, and truly share the heart of the congregation. And Bob – who knew me better than any of them, and once again spoke wisdom into my life.

Yes, there was a fifth one: Linda. All along she thought the idea of accepting the call to Escalon sounded great, and she was right. So right.

Everyone prays for God’s guidance, but to receive it, we need a willing spirit: willing to listen for it from a variety of sources, and willing to follow it even if it wasn’t what you wanted.

Did you notice the two-word phrase that popped up four times in this post? I put it in italics so you might – just happened.

When Ron showed up at my door, I realized it was time to realize: these events didn’t just happen. They weren’t coincidences, but rather a well-conceived coordination by the work of the Holy Spirit.  

Does your understanding of God and his guiding presence in your life allow for the coordination of events to lead you in the way that will cause you to thrive? Or is your stubborn ego preventing you living into that wonderful verse about "God causing everything to work together for the good" (Romans 8:28 New Living Translation

I’ll close with a personal promise from our gracious Lord. It’s also a fitting plea, seeing as how we’re sheep, not mules.  

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.” Many sorrows come to the wicked, but unfailing love surrounds those who trust the Lord.  Psalm 32:8-10 New Living Translation

Benediction of Blessing

  • May you have the wisdom and the courage to look honestly at your past decisions, noticing when you took the path to which God called you as well, as the times you stubbornly blazed your own trails.

  • May you accept the bountiful mercy of God for all of it, and hear his tender voice as he continues to beckon you to trust him.

  • May you be all in with your commitment to trust God with your past, your present, and your future.


Note: this post is a rewrite from one that appeared in March 2022.  The story was and still is great, but the writing wasn’t. The original has been deleted.

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All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM



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