Co-initiating Paradox

By Sharon R. Harvey

Learning to partner with God is a paradox, as it’s often hard to know who is going to initiate next.

“Whatever it takes, we are going to reach this goal!” I said to the faces before me. “It’s going to be hard work, and we will have to sell our TVs, our cars, or give up things if we’re going to reach our offering for missions.” I was speaking to churches with members of many nationalities. I knew the people listening to me had little. Still, I challenged them to keep missions first. I told them God would bless us.

Over ten years, I led a missions program for thirteen culturally diverse churches in Canada. The program’s goals were to educate, raise money, and pray for missionaries. It was exciting to see the enthusiasm that was building for missions as we worked together on various programs. All churches participated yearly in a large offering campaign to raise support for missions. We would have rallies to raise the fundraising targets that were designated to each church. Until this year, we had met the annual quota, which was a miracle in itself!

This time, however, we came down to the end of the year still far from the goal. I challenged the people to make it happen, once again, no matter what, and people actually did what I asked. They sold their belongings and gave as much as they could give. I remember feeling a sense of sadness as the money came in and it was close, but not enough. Did I miss it? Hadn’t the Lord always blessed us in this venture? Hadn’t we fasted and prayed and done everything we could to reach the goal? The final event ended. We were about $450 short. We sent off to headquarters what we raised.

You know that feeling when you have faith for something and it doesn’t come through? You might start second-guessing your faith, or you might get disillusioned. Well, I was disappointed, but there was nothing I could do about it. I had done my part and so had the others. But there was more to learn.

I was headed out of town the next day to be at a camp meeting service. Arriving just in time for dinner, it surprised me to see the national director of our missions program at the dining hall. In his Scottish brogue he lit up and said, “Well, Sharon, how did you do with the mission offering this year?” My heart sank. I was about to tell him I didn’t reach our goal for the first time since I led the missions program. Before I could say a word, he said, “Well, Sharon, how about I give you a check for $450 to help you with the mission offering?” I gasped, “How did you know?” He didn’t know. The Lord had directed him to give exactly that amount. How perfect could that be? And here I thought we were out of time, but we weren’t late at all. If the head honcho of our organization was handing me a check for the year, we were certainly on time!

My concept of God shifted with this incident to one where I realized God initiating and playing a role in my activities. Many more lessons were on the way. I guess I’d forgotten that God wanted to be involved. It wasn’t up to me or my churches to make it all happen. Nor was it up to just God, either. We just needed to recognize that co-partnership meant that everyone does their part.

As president of the mission organization for my province, I had the privilege to attend large conferences with many mission presidents from around the country. In session after session I saw how other districts did their rallies. I noticed the huge budgets they had and the elaborate programs that took place. I remember wistfully sitting in one session where a district president told the audience about having the rally programs made of laser foils. I didn’t even know what laser foils were. All I could think of were my thirteen struggling churches. I felt very out of place. I remember having an awkward conversation in my head with the Lord, “Man, I wish I had some laser foils.”

A few weeks later I went to visit a friend at a chicken farm in Indiana Amish country. During our visit she said, “Come, I want to take you to an ostrich farm down the road.” Amused and curious, I accompanied her. When we arrived, I also noticed a print shop sign out in the yard. I met the farmer with ostriches wandering around. He told me about the ostrich meat industry. As we were about to leave, I asked him about the print shop. He asked if I wanted to see it. I followed him into the print shop. As he showed me around, I asked him if he had ever used laser foils. He said, “Why, do you want some?” He just had several packages of them. “Here, take these,” he said. “You can have them.” Here I was, out in the middle of nowhere, or, I should say, out at an unlikely ostrich farm, and all the laser foils I could imagine were given to me FOR FREE. I didn’t even know what I was to do with them, but it tickled me!

At the next mission rally, we had laser foil-embossed shimmering gold words saying “YES!” in several languages on the front covers of our programs. They were the most beautiful programs ever! It probably didn’t mean a lot to anyone in the room, but to me I realized God had partnered with me in seemingly impossible details. God let me know that my small corner of the world mattered. I took note that God desired a real relationship with me in bringing about the best possible future in my ministry and work. God was cooperating with me, because I was uniting with his agenda. This happened prior to my becoming fully aware of open theism, a theology that celebrates a robust relationality with God. I was seeing that God wanted to participate with me in a closer way (laser foils?!). That made what I was doing for God even more exciting.

Mission offerings and laser foils were just a start. The implications of God being active with me in the planning and effecting of day-to-day activities meant that prayer and reaching out to others were more pertinent now. Once I learned about open theism, it made sense to me, as I was experiencing a freedom of giving input on things I wanted to do with God. Sometimes God would take the lead and give me a nudge to do something. Other times I initiated and would run my thought past God to see if it would fly. It was a great arrangement because it felt so authentic and vibrant. God was willing to risk my initiatives and to let my creativity run away with possibilities. Rather than God making all the decisions, God was participating in the decision-making and in the completion of “our” initiatives.

With the pandemic continuing in the spring of 2021, families were struggling with multiple issues: unemployment, working at home, childcare, and trying to help the students in the family stay on top of school work. Seeing that students in our community needed help with their studies, in partnership with God, I helped to launch a free After-School Tutoring Program at my church for grades 4-12. At that point, no one in town provided tutoring because of facility safety rules. Using six student tutors from my local university, we offered sixteen hours a week of face-to-face training, while following proper safety protocols, in four subjects. We have already served almost 200 student appointments and have had representation from six out of ten schools locally. A friend said to me recently, “You know, Sharon, when you said you were going to start a tutoring center here at the church, I thought it was a great idea, but I honestly didn’t think it would happen.” (I guess if I had to just depend on my doing this, I’d be surprised too.) But with the Divine, there’s no calculating the impact that collaboration can make.

Learning to partner with God is a paradox, as it’s often hard to know who is going to initiate next. Open theism has helped me to stay tuned to advancing opportunities coming from God, as well as recognize that my dreams are also accepted and amplified in conjunction with the Divine.

Question: Who initiates . . . you or God? Does God always call the shots, or can you take the initiative?

Sharon R. Harvey is Senior Lecturer and General Studies director at Arizona State University. She earned her Ph. D. at University of Idaho. Harvey is the author of Open Theism and Environmental Responsibilities (VDM Press, 2012) and other publications on religion, environment, and education. She enjoys a good pastry, swimming, and playing the piano.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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