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Two Unlikely Turns That Changed My Life

While contemplating the words in Psalm 86:17 this morning, “Send me a sign of your favor,” I was provoked to voice a prayer, “Yes, that would really be nice, Lord, I could use a sign of your favor.” As I spoke that prayer, sitting on our deck and looking out over our peaceful spot on a little lake, the Lord seemed to say, “You still need another sign?” At that moment I realized I was sitting in comfort with a beautiful view of a part of God’s creation that I really love. Not everyone would envy our spot. There are lots of pond lilies blocking part of our access to the lake. It’s quite muddy, so the shore is not a swimming beach; it’s dirt and sand leading you into mud as soon as you would walk into the water. We can swim out in the middle of the lake and the grandkids love it. Do you hear me sounding ungrateful? I hope not. I love the wild nature with ducks, otters, loons, and who knows what that swims these waters.

Then I started to think of other signs of the Lord’s favor. Among them are some unlikely events that made a big difference in my life. One is the occasion when, as a newly minted high school graduate many years ago, my Dad said he didn’t need my help on his small farm, and I went job hunting about the second week of June.

My hometown of about 1,200 people did not seem to offer much opportunity. I didn’t have any connections except to other farmers. For some reason, I wandered into the Great Northern Railroad depot to ask if the agent had any suggestions. His kids were not friends of mine. I didn’t really know the man. But I must have thought that a worldly-wise man could know something to help me. When I asked for help, he said, “I heard the Milwaukee Railroad over in Montevideo is hiring brakemen.” I had never heard of that railroad, and I didn’t know what a brakeman was.

But it meant the possibility of a job.

Following that brief, unlikely encounter I headed the seventeen miles to Montevideo, and was hired after a fifteen minute interview. As a brakeman, I learned to switch cars as part of a train crew. I worked that summer and each summer after for a total of six years, earning money so fast that I paid my way through Hope College without any help from my parents. Of course, I often worked 70 to 80 hours a week. I also got some education from my fellow workers, riding trains and working at all hours daytime and night, rain or shine, sleeping in old hotels. That was one of the most unlikely signs of God’s favor. I had never spoken to that depot agent before nor have I since. But he was an agent of God’s favor.

A few months later, during my first and only year at the University of Minnesota, where I had received a scholarship, I lived in a dorm on campus, I made some friends, among them a 5th year senior named John Howell, from California. By March of that first year, I realized that aeronautical engineering was not going to fulfill my yearning for the deeper things of life. I was beginning my own spiritual journey and was full of doubts and confusion. Over the last couple years I had listened to late night radio programs from a certain sect and read their magazine, The Plain Truth, which came to me free of charge after I requested it. This religious group condemned all other churches and its leader taught interpretations of the Bible that, in retrospect, I now see would draw me into a narrow corner of legalistic and apocalyptic fear and/or hope.

One day I told John Howell I was going to leave the university and seek an education where I could study the Bible and learn what I needed to satisfy my soul’s longing. When I mentioned that I might go to California to attend the college run by this particular sect, John looked at me skeptically. He said, “Stan, I want you to know I am an atheist, so I don’t care much about this kind of thing. But, you need to realize there are a lot of people with nutty ideas in California, and I would not go there if I were you. I suggest you go home and find out where your own church has a college or two that you could consider instead. If you go there, you can get a sound foundation for your faith, and if you still want to, you can always go out to that place in California later.”

So I took John’s advice. Yes, it was John, the atheist, who gave me spiritual direction. A year later I entered Hope College, met great Christian friends, learned and grew spiritually, then went on to seminary to pursue my studies and be equipped for ministry. After leaving the university, I never saw John again. I wish I could thank him. I certainly didn’t see the whole picture at that time. I could not then imagine being in ministry, but now I can look back and see some of it from God’s long view, that whole lifetime of fifty years in Christian leadership and spiritual journeying. I do have a sign, several signs, of God’s favor. I could tell you many more, but not right now.

I want my grandchildren and you, my reader, to know this story, partly because I hope it will help you, too, to stop sometime when you may be feeling down, or just wondering if God has paid any attention to you and your needs. Then, look back a way and ponder some of what he has helped pull together in the fabric of your life. I’m guessing you will see some signs of the Lord’s favor.


© 2020 Stanley Hagemeyer

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