During the 1930s, the Soviet Union took aggressive steps to diminish the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
As the dictator of a militantly atheistic regime, Josef Stalin ordered the execution of church leaders or their exile to Siberia. Priests were considered enemies of the state. Church buildings were closed, then reopened as museums or propaganda centers for Marxism.
Crosses disappeared. Religious icons were confiscated. Millions of Bibles were taken from the homes of believers and incinerated.
After 69 tumultuous years, the USSR imploded. Shortly afterward an American mission team in Stavropol, Russia, heard a rumor that there was still a warehouse outside of town where confiscated Bibles had been stored since the days of the Great Depression. Members of the team approached local officials and asked permission to look inside.
What they discovered was a mind-boggling mountain of Russian Scriptures. Having received the officials’ consent to distribute as many as they could, the team returned with a truck and some hired hands. One of them was a Russian college student who made no secret of his cynical dismissal of all religious claims. The rubles he would earn, however, would come in handy.
As the workers loaded the Bibles, one of the mission team members noticed that the young man had disappeared. Ultimately they found him in a corner of the warehouse, weeping.
He had secretly put one of the Bibles into his pocket. Then he had slipped away, unnoticed, hoping to take a quick glance at its pages. He was shaken by what he had discovered. On the first page of the Bible he had randomly picked up, he saw the name and the distinctive handwriting of his own grandmother. Of the tens of thousands of Bibles in the warehouse, he had somehow pocketed the one that belonged to a family member who had never lost her faith.
And who had never stopped praying for him.
Do things just happen? Or do things happen for a reason?
The way we answer those questions depends on whether we think there is a god who rules the cosmos, and what kind of god that might be.
The New Atheists – Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, among others – are convinced there’s no rhyme or reason to human affairs. Our lives are a daily roll of the dice. Some people get lucky. Others do not.
For Deists, God is an absentee landlord. He essentially built the universe, pressed Start, then walked away, taking no interest in day-to-day operations. That was the conviction of such 18th century luminaries as John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Voltaire.
Still others suggest we’ll never find divine fingerprints on day-to-day human events because God is handcuffed. God cares deeply about what we’re facing today, but he’s powerless to intervene. That was Harold Kushner’s solution to the problem of evil in When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Perhaps God is like a constitutional monarch. That is, he rules in name only. The Queen of England is free to express strong opinions – “We are not amused” – but she no longer makes or enforces the laws of her own land. Her “authority” is chiefly ceremonial and sentimental.
Then there’s Shirley Maclaine. The actress and celebrity is convinced that whatever happens is happening because you’re making it happen. That’s because you’re divine, and this is your Show. How that can be true for all of us at the same time in the same place is something that Maclaine and like-minded New Agers have never satisfactorily explained.
What do we find in the books of the Old and New Testament?
God is sovereign. That is, he personally and actively rules the cosmos.
Nothing happens by chance, because there is no entity called Chance that has any power to make anything happen.
Jesus describes the degree of his Father’s oversight of life’s details as knowing the number of hairs on our heads (and whether we’re in the midst of losing a few), and being fully aware when even one of life’s humblest creatures, like a sparrow, falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29-30). According to Ephesians 1:4, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” God’s sovereignty over our lives, in other words, extends even before we came into the world – or before there even was a world.
This is not to say that at any given moment we can say, “Oh, I know exactly what God is doing here.” Far from it. The significance of most of what happens on any given day will remain a mystery.
But every now and then we get to experience what traditional Celtic spirituality calls a “thin place” – a moment when the gap between heaven and earth seems to disappear, and we can trace the footprints of a sovereign God who cares enough to step into the lives of real people.
Every conversation you have today, every meeting, every phone call, every “chance encounter” in the grocery, every time you randomly pick up a book or a magazine or channel surf for something worth watching on TV, God is at work connecting the dots in our lives.
May God give us eyes to see how he’s in the middle of our stories even as we’re living them.