“Watching the Impossible”
July 01, 2018
By John Partridge*
Deuteronomy 30:9-14 Jeremiah 18:1-6
Have you ever been asked to do the impossible?
For those of us who study history, or for those who are old enough to remember it, it is worth noting that the Polish Army has been ridiculed because at the beginning of World War Two, they attacked German tanks with cavalry. Men on horseback would seem to be a remnant of a bygone era. While this seems ludicrous, the truth is that the Polish army had some of the best tanks and anti-tank weapons in all of Europe, including those brought to the field by Germany. But while it seems odd that Poland had mounted cavalry units in the field, we forget that every other nation involved in that great conflict did as well, including the United States who used cavalry units in the Philippines. Poland’s cavalry were skilled infantry soldiers who each carried a rifle, a saber, and the single best anti-tank weapon available in that day. For the Poles, horses were simply a means of moving an infantry force with greater speed and flexibility.
From our perspective, asking soldiers on horseback to fight against tanks was asking the impossible, but the bravery and training of the Polish troops may have achieved the impossible. Although the German Army had rolled through the contested lands between Germany and Czechoslovakia without opposition, the war for Poland lasted for thirty-six days. In a single battle, between a Polish Cavalry Brigade and Germany’s 4th Panzer Division, Germany lost over 100 armored fighting vehicles and at least 50 tanks. Ultimately, the superior size of the German military overcame the resistance of the Polish army, but their defense was of major significance. The advance of the German army was slowed enough to allow the evacuation of much of the Polish army and, as a result, Polish military units fought their way from the beaches of Normandy, across Europe, into Germany, and to the surrender of her port cities.
Although people laugh at the ridiculousness of attacking tanks with cavalry, the reality is that the Polish Army did the impossible.
Today, the question I would like to ask is this: Has God ever asked you to do the impossible? What is it that God has put on your heart? How many times have you thought or felt that you ought to do something, or even that God might be leading you to do something and yet rejected the idea because it was too hard or even seemed to be impossible? I think that at one time or another, this has probably happened to all of us, but our scripture for today promises something different. (Deuteronomy 30:9-14)
9Then the LORD your God will make you most prosperous in all the work of your hands and in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your land. The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, 10 if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
In this passage, we are reminded that it is God that does the doing. It is God that commands, it is God that rejoices in our obedience and it is God that orchestrates our success. We are taught that God will bring success when we are obedient and faithful. What’s more, we are told that what we have been asked to do is not out of our reach simply because God has given us everything that we need in order to be obedient.
In September of 2001, along with you, I watched in horror as two commercial airliners were flown into the World Trade Center, a building that I had visited only a few years earlier. Perhaps in part because of these disturbing images, I began to reconsider the meaning of my work and of my life. Only two or three years earlier I had changed jobs in order to find work that was more tangible. With a degree in electrical engineering, I had been working at a Laboratory in Cleveland, testing gas appliances for compliance with national safety standards. There, I often felt as if we were just spinning our wheels, always doing the same thing and generating tons of paper doing it. In my new job in North Canton, we were building machines and equipment for the steel industry. It was satisfying that once every few months we could go out to the loading dock and see the end result of our work as it was shipped to its destination. Occasionally, we would also have the opportunity to travel and help with the installation. I felt challenged by my work and I was happy with what I was doing but there began to be a nagging afterthought. I began to wonder what good I was doing. I realized that much of the equipment we were building was replacing machines that had been designed and built by engineers (like me) twenty or thirty years earlier and I came to the realization that in another twenty or thirty years all of our work would likewise be torn out, melted down, and replaced.
Less than six months later, I was called into my supervisor’s office and informed that my services were no longer required. There was no warning, there were no memos outlining my failures, just an abrupt termination. I really struggled with that. The way in which I was let go, and my resulting unemployment, was difficult for me but also for my family. Not only did they have to deal with our lack of income, but also with my depression, moodiness and underlying anger. I was unemployed for two years. In an economy that was good, and with a degree and a work history that was solid, I should have had no trouble finding work, but instead it seemed like I couldn’t even buy an interview. During this time, I questioned God’s will for me. I started by crying and yelling and eventually began to pray and study. I devoured books and study materials that my pastor thought might be helpful and finally began to consider the unthinkable. I grew up in the home of a United Methodist pastor. I moved three times and attended school in four school districts. For forty years, I swore that there was no way on God’s green earth that I would ever even consider being a pastor.
But, God had other plans.
Sometimes during the course of our lives, the game changes. Where we find ourselves is not where God wants us to be, and he will use whatever tools necessary to move us from where we are to where he wants us to be. Some faithful followers are so well attuned to God that they respond to his hints, nudges, suggestions, and whisper. But others of us are stubborn. In our stubbornness, God sometimes finds it necessary to hit us upside the head with a 2 x 4. You need to know that this change of heart wasn’t only a big deal for just me. When we were married, Patti told me that she was glad that I was an engineer because she never wanted to be married to a doctor or a pastor. During my unemployment, Patti was involved in a Bible study in local church other than our own. Somehow, in that study, God was working on Patti’s heart. I knew that God would never call me into ministry unless he called both of us. And one day, before I had ever hinted to Patti what God might be doing, Patti came to me and said something shocking. Patti said that God had made it clear to her that I needed to do what God wanted me to do, even if that meant answering a call to pastoral ministry. You need to understand that several years earlier, during a church revival weekend, both Patti and I had felt that God might be calling us into some kind of full-time ministry. We both felt that whatever God was calling us toward was still in the future and, we both assumed, since we headed the church missions committee, that it might somehow involve missions.
And so now I was contemplating the impossible. I asked my pastor if, as an engineer, I had any possibility of being admitted into seminary. With a background in mathematics and physics, I wondered if I would meet any prerequisites at all. My pastor laughed. She laughed. We knew that our pastor had gifts, and two gifts that Pastor Linda Somerville had in abundance were a sensitivity to God’s will, and an amazing ability to read and understand people. When I asked Pastor Linda about seminary and about a potential call to ministry, she told me that she had known for over a year that God was calling us into ministry but was afraid that if she said anything to us, she would mess up whatever God was trying to do.
After that, things seemed to begin to fall into place. I was introduced to the Provost of Ashland University by a mutual friend, applied for admission at Ashland Seminary, was accepted, started classes, and then, finally found a part-time job. Six months later I was appointed as a student pastor in the Mid-Ohio District just south of Mansfield, Ohio. A condition of being a student pastor was that I had a half-time ministry and was to attend seminary on a full-time basis, and I did. After four years of seminary I graduated in 2008. During our time at Johnsville/Steam Corners, the financial health of the church had been changing. While we hadn’t grown much in attendance, financially we managed to grow, just a little, each year. It was expected that when I graduated, we would be moved and another student would come to take my place. But instead, Johnsville and Steam Corners decided that they were able to afford a full-time pastor and asked that we stay. As a result, instead of moving after only three or four years, as many students do and as many of Johnsville pastors had, we stayed for six.
We then moved to Barnesville and, although we expected to say longer, for a variety of reasons, we left after only two years. One again, God had other plans and we moved to Trinity in Perry Heights between Massillon and Canton. And after six years, although we thought we would be staying longer, we find ourselves here, in Alliance. As always, we believe that God has been a part of this process.
Of course, there is more to our story but that’s enough for today. For us, God has done the impossible and has moved the immovable. To get us where we are today, God has done miracles and changed us in ways we never thought possible.
Before we close I would like to share a passage from Jeremiah 18.
1 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
5 Then the word of the Lord came to me. 6 He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.
In the end, we are all like clay in the hands of the potter. If you’ve ever watched a pot being formed you will sometimes see that a small defect, a grain of sand or a small pebble, come to the surface while the clay is spinning on the wheel. When that happens, it scars and ruins the entire piece and the only choice left is for the potter to pick up the clay, smash it into a lump, plop it back onto the wheel and start over. Our lives are like that. It is never fun when we are squashed and plopped down on the wheel but through it all we can know that God is lovingly and carefully shaping us into the people that he has created us to be.
Today we stand as witnesses that God is able to accomplish whatever he has put in your heart to do. We are witness to God’s faithfulness and power. We know that it is God that does the doing. We know that God brings success when we are obedient and faithful. We know that it is God that commands, it is God that rejoices in our obedience and it is God that orchestrates our success.
Today, as we sit in church, the question I would like to ask is this: Has God ever asked you to do the impossible?
What is it that God has put on your heart?
I urge you to attempt the difficult and consider the impossible… before God decides to use a 2×4 to get your attention.
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One thought on “Watching the Impossible”
2 X 4 poster child here. I really enjoyed that story. It has several important elements that are similar to my own about God arranging things. I truly enjoyed my time in Johnsville with you, Patti, and the kids.