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Providence (July 2021)

Dear Friends

The notion of providence is one I have come to love. It is such a significant way to make some sense of God’s working out of God’s purposes in the world and throughout our lives. It is a rich seam running through Christian thinking across the centuries. A simple dictionary definition reads: “The care, guardianship, and control exercised by a deity.”

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in the early fifth century, wrote about providence in his City of God. He saw God at work in the lives of individuals, and the world’s history, in largely hidden ways. Even in bad times and through terrible events, Augustine saw God working to bring something good into being. John Calvin, shaping the sixteenth century European Reformation in Geneva that has then shaped the life the URC inherits, could write that God: “…directs everything by his incomprehensible wisdom and disposes it to his own end.” But, to avoid the trap of us simply handing everything over to God and assuming we’ve no part to play in events at all, Calvin also says we need to use the gifts, skills and knowledge God gives us to help shape our lives and events so that they tend towards the directions God wishes. Providence doesn’t leave us pure pawns in a game God alone is playing. We are not the uninvolved or unknowing ones because God comes to involve us, to call us, to equip us.

It is the Reformed theologian Karl Barth in the twentieth century who does much to bring the old idea of providence to new life. God is the sustainer of creation, always acting to bring life into all of its fullness. God accompanies us throughout our lives, letting us be free to make our choices but also, lovingly, drawing goodness out of our choices. In 1968, Dr Martin Luther King touched upon providence in one of his greatest sermons: “We shall overcome because the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I will always remember listening to Desmond Tutu in St Paul’s Cathedral say much the same in the depths of the struggle against apartheid. Providence dethrones all tyranny and lifts up all goodness as God’s realm continues to grow and unfold in our histories, contexts and lives. As Jesus says in parables like the sower and the mustard seed, often what God is up to remains hidden from us, but it is constantly happening (Mark 4: 26-34). Therefore there is hope!

The reassurance I take in all of this is that providence gives me an anchor in a world that is so fickle and so unpredictable. As we share our lives together we know, don’t we, just how much things can fall apart for us? Even worse, perhaps, is the watching of things falling apart for others. So much bombards us and so many storms can suddenly engulf us. Equally, there are so many choices to be faced. Some are small: is this a moment for latte or cappuccino? Some are vast: is this a moment for that new job or the move into that home? Some are beyond us, with others in control. We’ve learnt much about such loss of control these past months. It is a hard road to travel; a road littered with frustrations and haunted by fears.

The anchor, for me, comes in knowing that God is at work and that God works for creation’s good. Of course, God remains sovereign and free to do whatever God wishes to do. So I have no special privileges with God and cannot pretend to tell God what God should or should not do in any situation (much though I often want to!). The fervent prayers added to mine that cancer would not kill my mother when I was young didn’t keep her alive. But, somehow, even in the midst of that nightmare, God was at work. And life emerged from the depths of despair into things I never would have thought possible. Tears remained, and remain still. But blessings abounded, and abound too.

Providence. God’s purposes unfolding. Love winning; always. To God be the glory.

Yours in friendship,