Plans, hope, future – Hardly coincidental

Commentary by W. Thomas Smith Jr.

I’VE SHARED THE FOLLOWING EXPERIENCE with a few friends and family members, but for personal reasons I have never written about it beyond a hastily scrawled email I sent to my pastor, Oct. 13, 2014, and a few handwritten notes in a journal so as not to forget the details.

For those who will now read this, please read it carefully so as not to miss any nuances or steps in the unusual series of related events that took place on that date over a period of about 20 minutes, nearly four years ago.

It all began as I was about to drive past my church after having been on the road for much of the morning. I was now heading back to my office, aware that I would pass the church along the way. I was very busy that day, and a bit rattled by my busyness, so I didn’t really want to stop. But for some unknown reason, I was compelled to pull into the church parking lot, park, go in, walk into the sanctuary, sit down in one of the front pews by myself and pray.

Now, that was not totally unusual for me, because I frequently used to do that. Not as much these days. Hmmm. Maybe I should.

Anyway, once inside the quiet, empty sanctuary (keep in mind, it was a weekday), I settled into one of the pews, second or third row from the front. The lights were off, though the daylight streaming through the windows was light enough.

I began talking to GOD about all sorts of things, and asking – as I often do – to tell me what to do about such-and-so and how to view several things I was dealing with. Then I realized that if I wanted an answer to anything, I should go to Scripture.

It was at that moment – before I opened the Bible – that I thought about a verse which was then largely unfamiliar to me. I’m sure I had heard the verse before. It included words about “plans” and “hope” and “a future.” But I wasn’t sure how the verse read. I had no idea where in the Bible it was. And I had no idea why I was thinking about it. I just knew that it was in my head in a strong way at that particular moment.

I then reached for the ESV Bible in the rack and looked in the back for an index to find the words “plans” and “hope” and “future.” But there was no index.

So I got ready to place the Bible back in the rack. Then for some inexplicable reason, I opened it again and immediately to the Book of Jeremiah [the prophet Jeremiah is pictured above].

But I did not read anything other than “Jeremiah” on the page to which I had opened. Why? I don’t know. I only saw Jeremiah at the top of the page, and I closed the book.

Anxious about the remainder of the day in front of me, I got up to leave. But before leaving I decided to walk up front and over to the great big sanctuary Bible, which was always open on the table to the left of the pulpit.

I walked up, immediately looked down onto the open pages and was surprised to see the Bible was already open to Jeremiah, the very same book I had now-serendipitously opened to in the pew Bible.

Then – to my absolute amazement and delight – when I focused on the page I was now standing before, I saw the very “plans,” “hope” and “future” verse that had entered my mind moments earlier, but I had been unable to find because there was no index in the smaller Bible in the pew.

But there it was, larger than life, unbelievable to me as it was.

The verse was and is Jeremiah 29:11 – “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

Then I left, thanking and praising GOD on the way. I felt elated. God had literally spoken to me. There was NO WAY those four things could have just happened by chance: Me thinking of the words, out of the blue, in a verse unknown to me. Followed by me immediately opening the pew Bible – first opening to the index and not finding the words, then opening directly to Jeremiah. Then me closing the Bible without reading, getting ready to leave, then going first to the big Bible and seeing it open to the Book of Jeremiah. Focusing on the page, and instantly seeing the verse that was initially in my head. Impossible.

But the story continues. As I walked out of the sanctuary – laughing with joy and seemingly on a cloud – I turned toward the stairs where I passed another Bible in the hallway. There it was again. Open to Jeremiah 29:11. WHAT?! No way.

I hurried outside, jumped in the car, and drove over to Mom’s. She lives less than five minutes from the church.

Pulling up into the driveway, I quickly grabbed my own Bible (an NASB version) on the seat next to me, ran into the house and found Mom in the kitchen (yes, where I usually find her). I excitedly told her about what had just happened. I could hardly contain myself, but I did slow up long enough to read her the verse from my Bible which I had brought in with me.

Then I said, “Mom, let’s read this verse from your Bible.”

We went in the den. I picked up Mom’s Bible. But immediately noticed it too was an NASB version like mine. So I asked for my stepdad Howard’s old NIV Bible.

She pointed to the mantelpiece. There it was. I pulled the big Bible down, opened it, and flipped to a page where I found a single, aged slip of paper with writing on it. In fact, the slip of paper was the only note in the entire Bible, which had probably not been opened in years, and it was on a page in the Book of Jeremiah. And guess what? It was on THE page.

And guess again what was written on the note? “Jeremiah 29:11.” That was the only note and handwritten verse in that entire old Bible!

Mom was equally amazed, because she was now seeing a part of my amazing experience unfold before her very eyes.

That’s six coincidences within less than 20 minutes. Coincidences? You tell me.

Yes, as I would later learn there was a reason the big Bible in the front of the church and the smaller one near the stairwell were both turned to Jeremiah 29:11. My pastor had turned both Bibles to those pages a day or so earlier. But that had nothing whatsoever to do with me. Moreover, how do you explain the verse – which I was not familiar with – suddenly popping into my head? Or the fact that I then opened the pew Bible to the very book which contained the verse? Or the fact that I then went up to the big Bible and saw that it was opened to the very same book I had opened-to in the pew Bible? Or that I instantly saw the very same unfamiliar verse that had suddenly materialized in my head? And then seeing the same verse in the open Bible in the stairwell? Then seeing that same verse scrawled on the only piece of paper which had been inserted into the Bible at Mom’s?

This extraordinary encounter with Scripture has today blossomed far beyond the 20-minute experience of nearly four years ago, but we’ll save that blossoming, to include verses 12-14, for another story.

– W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a New York Times bestselling editor and military technical advisor. Visit him online at uswriter.com.

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