2016-06-30
In the summer of 1968, between my junior and senior years in medical school, [my wife] Nancy (a nurse) and I worked in a small rural hospital in the village of Tomohon, in the northernmost tip of Indonesia. We went through a fellowship program, then administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges, designed to expose American medical students to dire medical needs in rural foreign settings. We had to arrange for an American doctor to serve as our sponsor, and we went to Indonesia because we knew a medical missionary, Dr. Philip Anderson, working in that location.

While driving us into the mountain village of Tomohon for the first time, Dr. Anderson joked that he had a little Indonesian child picked out for us. We laughed because nothing could have been more improbable; I faced several more years of training, and we were neither emotionally nor financially ready to start a family.

I soon met the little eighteen-month-old boy Dr. Anderson had in mind, because he was still in the "pediatric ward" (meaning wooden slats on a cement floor) after being left at the hospital by a "family friend." He had some minor problems that needed attention but was basically in good health. After several weeks of getting to know him during my hospital work, I impulsively decided to take him with me to a birthday party for one of the Indonesian nurses. Nancy had been working in another part of the hospital, so that evening she met him for the first time. After the party we decided to take the toddler back to our quarters and give him a bath. (He was quite dirty because he ran around the hospital compound without clothes most of the time.) When the time came for him to go back to the hospital, we decided he should at least spend the night with us; I would take him back with me in the morning. We had a wonderful evening playing with him.


The next morning over breakfast, we looked at each other and immediately decided we should adopt this totally lovable young boy so he wouldn't have to go into the orphanage when he was released from the hospital. From that moment on he was our son just as surely as if he had been born to us.

There is more to the story. After Nolden had been living with us for several weeks, a teenage girl showed up one day to check up on him, and we quickly learned that she was his mother. She told us how the father had left her when Nolden was born, how she had raised him for the first eighteen months of his life as long as she could breast-feed him, and how she had brought him back to the father when she could no longer afford to take care of him. The father, posing as a family friend, had brought him to the hospital. All the while our hearts were pounding in fear that she would now want him back.

We explained to the young mother what had happened and how much we wanted to adopt the boy and take him back to America with us. To her great credit, in our eyes, she readily agreed that this would be the best plan for him since she was in no position to raise a child. And so we were allowed to keep this great gift that had so unexpectedly come into our lives.

I could go on and on about the events that followed-the enormous difficulties we encountered in trying to get U.S. Immigration Service approval for bringing him back with us, the very real threat of having to leave Nancy behind to take care of him when I returned to medical school, the immigration officer in Alaska who allowed him into the country even though his status was not fully legal and so on. But the bottom line is that we returned to medical school in the fall with a young son who has turned out to be one of the great joys in our life. As I write this, Nolden is in his mid-thirties, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, a freelance furniture designer, and married to a young woman who is also adopted. A few years ago they welcomed their first child-our first grandchild!

I tell this story to raise the very complicated and profound question of whether or not it's possible and wise to believe in "providence"- the idea that the God responsible for the creation of this universe might also "arrange" or "direct" human affairs in everyday ways. In this context, is there any reason to believe that somehow God "arranged" that we would meet and adopt Nolden?

In retrospect it's often startling to see how events in our lives that at the time appeared to be totally disconnected seem to have stunning- even spooky-connections. For example, in the case of our son's adoption, Nancy and I could conceivably trace a line from the seemingly chance events of being raised in the same church denomination (though geographically separated by a thousand miles), meeting in Chicago because of that connection (she in nurses' training at the hospital sponsored by our church, I attending their seminary), falling in love and getting married, my surprising decision to attend medical school, which led to the fellowship program, placing us in Indonesia because we knew a doctor who would sponsor us, arriving just at the time Nolden had been abandoned at the hospital. What a stretch, you might say! And I would agree, from the point of view that sees all of life as a series of entirely accidental and unrelated events. But what about a perspective that views life as a series of choices which, when made according to a set of principles based on maximizing the love of God and neighbor, may over time increase the possibility of ending up with a more fulfilling life? I know that also sounds like a stretch. But as I look back on my own life and choices, I can discern that kind of providential principle in my life and in the lives of others I know well. Put another way, the many individual choices we make along the way start to build up in a collective direction that can ultimately make a dramatic difference, depending on those individual choices.

I should make clear that I am not suggesting something as rigid or simplistic as "if I had not met Nancy my life would have been doomed," or "if we had not gone to Indonesia, Nolden's life would have been ruined." I believe that there are many opportunities for all of us to make good choices, and if one does not work out, another will come along. Nor do I mean to suggest that even if we attempt to make good choices, everything will turn out OK. Life is too full of freedom and mystery for that guarantee. But I am trying to say that over a lifetime, if we make choices according to standards suggested by the Sermon on the Mount, we at least increase our potential for experiencing personal contentment, of being blessed.


And if that kind of "probability pattern" is built into the fabric of human affairs, in which different choices have different consequences, might we not legitimately call it "providence" and see it as part of God's creative design? I readily admit this concept is not the kind of providence that many religious people adhere to-that is, God constantly directing the detailed traffic of everyday human affairs. But for me this "providence of probability" makes much more sense because it acknowledges the very real freedom-permitting free choice, but with consequences-we humans are allowed by the creator God. In other words I believe God has designed our world in a way that allows us to become partners with God in helping to determine the outcomes of our lives. We are not puppets at the ends of cosmic strings attached to the fingers of God. Rather we are like athletes, in this case entered in the race of life itself, who must make choices about how to use (or abuse) those gifts and opportunities we have been given.

Put another way, when we make important life choices based on purely selfish considerations, we eventually find ourselves "rewarded" for such choices. As C. S. Lewis put it in "The Great Divorce," "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'" Even though there may be no immediate consequence of each individual choice we make, there will be an ultimate and cumulative effect from the many choices we make in our lives. We may be rich and famous but unhappy and unfulfilled precisely because we have ended up with what we have been choosing. Similarly, when we make choices according to the "will of God"-which, according to Jesus, means to love God and out neighbors as ourselves-we are more likely to end up in territory where we may have fewer material rewards but considerably more personal satisfaction and contentment. Because I believe these consequences are built into the way God created this world, I call them "providential"-intended by God but resulting from our free choices.

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