In Defense of Potluck

I have decided to do something a bit different today and defend what may seem indefensible.  The potluck.

No.  I am actually not talking about the reality of the potluck that the symbol points to.  I often find it hard to defend assorted jellos with mayonnaise in them, various casseroles of assorted things, and other essentially indefensible things.

I am actually talking about the word:  potluck.

OH.  You may say, afraid that by this word I may be bowing before a 1st century Roman god of chance.  Rushing to the defense of the mysterious providence of God, you say with a knowing smile, “You mean a pot providence.”

No.  I actually don’t.  I mean a pot luck.  I do not at all deny the mysterious and wonderful providence of God, by which He upholds heaven and earth with all creatures and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand.

With all Christians, I sound a hearty AMEN to that statement, found in question 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

But the fact is that language is a wonderful, nuanced, careful, cacophonous, brilliant and God- imaging thing,  Adjectives fail me.

I began this post saying that I decided to do something different.  By this, I did not mean that I have independent free-will apart from the decree of God. I simply meant that I made a decision.  I could have decided not to write this blog; or I could have decided to write it.  I have not yet decided to publish.  You will know if you are reading it what my decision will be.

We don’t live in the mind of God.  We don’t have access to His secret decrees.  What has been revealed to us are those things that Solomon calls, “The things under the sun.”

We are not commanded to pry into the book of life and see whose names are written there.  We are commanded to come to Christ, who freely offers salvation to all.

We are not commanded to sit under a tree and ponder when and how God will provide our daily bread; we are commanded to get a job and go to work.

That is part of what has been revealed to us.

The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.
(Deu 29:29 KJG)

Often we act like children taking quizzes answering every question with “Because that’s how God made the world.”

What were some of the causes of the War of 1812?  God’s providence.

Why did the apple fall on Newton’s head?  God’s providence.

What were the causes of the crusades.  God’s providence.

Eventually it becomes silly.  We all (as Christians) know and love the doctrine of God’s providence.  But we also live under the sun and are called to apply our hearts to wisdom.

And there is a remarkable thing that happens under the sun.  Sometimes events happen that are inexplicable.  There are wondrous coincidences.  There are almost mystical convergences that take place that change the course of history.  One may be righteous, and die; and one may be wicked and live.  One might be the fastest runner, but he stumbles on a nail that just happens to be on the road.  As the proverb goes, for want of a nail, the war was lost.

We all know that these are attributed solely to God’s hand of providence.  But the word “providence” includes everything that takes place in or under heaven.  Some things work on very precise mathematical principles.  Often, human behavior is predictable to a remarkable degree.  Weather patterns can be followed and weather forecasts can be made.

And we know that it is all attributable to God’s providence.  And yet, we don’t insist that every time we speak of any fact we again remind our hearers of God’s providence.  Science books and history tomes would be even more ponderous than they already are if with every sentence you had to say, “By God’s providence, of course.”  Couldn’t we just understand that principle and read and think in the light of it, rather than give ourselves to vain repetition?

By God’s providence, the alarm clock went off at exactly the same time that I set it.

By God’s providence, the bread dough rose exactly as it was supposed to.

By God’s providence, the man that I insulted and hit became angry with me.

All of these statements are factually true, but lack wisdom and insight.  We are better than that.

Human beings have a word that describes those inexplicable happenings, those things that have no earthly explanation. Those fortuitous events that come together without any expectation, contrary to what experience would allow.  It is true that all of these events are also in the hand of God’s providence, but that is sloppy language.

The word that we have in English is “chance”, or sometimes, “luck”.

When my house catches fire, but I happen to be awake at 3:00 in the morning, contrary to my usual pattern, and so I am able to warn my family and flee to safety, I might say, “I was lucky that I was up then!”

I would praise the sovereign hand of God, give him thanks for his providence and rejoice in Him for His goodness.

But if I said, “By God’s providence, I was up then,” then I haven’t communicated anything meaningful.  I have not told you if it was my normal practice, whether I had a predictable reason for being up, or whether my insomnia was inexplicable.

“Luck” or “chance” covers those things that are inexplicable and fortuitous.  “I happened to come by just as the accident happened.”  “I was lucky to have found the child before he was seriously injured.”

The problem with using the term “providence” to describe those events that happen by chance, is that it leaves the impression that providence does not cover those events that happen expectedly.  Let’s look at an example from the Bible.

Jesus is telling a parable.  He says,

And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. (Luk 10:31 KJG)

He uses the Greek word “sugkuria”, which means “chance”.  I am sure that a modern expert on theology would have corrected him here and said, “Wait.  You mean ‘by providence'”

No.  Being the eternal word of God, Jesus never tried to say anything, nor did he ever misspeak.  He meant, “By chance”.  He is not delving into the mysteries of God’s providential hand.  He is stressing the fact that there was no earthly reason for a priest to be walking the road at this time.  At this exact moment, out of the blue, completely unexpectedly, a priest walks by.

If Jesus had said, “By God’s sovereign decree, a priest was walking by…” the meaning of the sentence would be different.  It would not be clear if this was an ordinary occurrence, according to the natural laws of priests, something that was expected, or if this was something OUT of the ordinary and unexpected and unpredictable.

Jesus’ point was that this was unpredictable and marvelously unexpected.  That is highlighted with the only word that could have been used.  Sugkuria, or, as we would say, “Chance” or “luck”.

Let’s look at the Old Testament.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (Ecc 9:11 KJG)

The Old Testament word is “pega'”.  It again means “chance.” Once again, I can hear the corrections in my head.  “Oh, poor Solomon.  He means ‘Time and providence happeneth to them all.’

Once again, no he didn’t.  The point in this verse is NOT that God’s hand is over everything, and not even a hair can fall from our heads without the will of our Father in Heaven.  That point is stressed throughout scripture and we see God’s hand in the smallest and largest events.

But that isn’t the point in this passage.  The point is that under the sun things happen that can never be explained and never be expected.  This world is vanity under the sun.  We can prepare to be the strongest, fastest, and mightiest and get run over by an oxcart in the street.  Time and chance happen to everyone.

Only when we lift our eyes to heaven can we trust in God’s hand even in those events of chance. But by denying chance at all, we attempt to explain and quantify that which cannot be explained and quantified.  We not only lose the mystery that is in the world, but we also ROB from the doctrine of God’s providence.

Just as the doctrine of election includes my free-will decisions; just as the government and order of God’s creation includes scientific laws, so also the providence of God includes those events of time and chance and luck.  In none of these is the choice “Either/or”; it is always, “Both/and.”

The writer of Esther could have written, “Because God’s hand is over all things and nothing happens outside of His decree, that night the king couldn’t sleep….” and we would have glossed over it and not have seen how astounding it was that on this night, of all nights, the ONE NIGHT that wicked Haman was plotting against the Jews, the king couldn’t sleep.

But by saying, “On that night, could not the king sleep” (Esther 6:1), the master story-teller stresses something astounding that a systematic theology could not say with the same punch.  If it was the night before, or if it was the night after, the hope of the entire world would have been lost.  But on THAT ONE night, it happened that the king couldn’t sleep.

Instead of denying God’s providence, the writer exalts the amazing hand of almighty God with art and skill and mystery, without even saying the words.  It lifts the heart to heaven in wonder; it opens the lips to praise and the heart to mystery!  It takes the breath away at the wonderful, glorious, almighty hand of God in even the sleep patterns of the kings of Persia.  The master story teller SHOWS us God’s providence, without ever even mentioning the word.

So also the potluck.  We could say, “Pot providence” but that doesn’t communicate the same thing.  I could assign everyone in the church to bring an assigned item, lay it out like a banquet, fully knowing what to expect, and still call it a “pot providence.” I could actually cater a meal, go to a restaurant, or order fast food, and have a “pot providence”.  Is God’s hand only seen in the inexplicable and unexpected?  God forbid.

When we say potluck, we are simply saying, “everybody bring what you want.  The meal will be unexpected, marvelous, strange, a bit wacky perhaps, and scientifically inexplicable – like Jello with peas and onions and Aunt Edna’s casserole that no one has ever been able to explain.”

It means precisely that there are no rules, no menu and what we will be eating will be inexplicable.

If we insist on “pot providence” let’s at least be consistent and instead of asking for menus, ask for the providence list; instead of seating charts, we could call them providence charts.  Instead of family style, we could say, providence style.

And we would be boring, uncommunicative, non-creative and say absolutely nothing.

The fact is, whether we go to Burger King, Five Guys, Red Robin, or have a potluck at church, all our food is controlled by the providence of God.  We know that as Christians.

That doesn’t mean that we turn our brains off and make no distinctions and use no definitions.

Being created in the image of God, man gave names to all the animals.  It is part of our image bearing to name those things that are under the sun.  One of those things is the uncaused event, the unpredictable and unexpected, the fortuitous and almost miraculous.

Those things have names too.  Let’s use them, and understand that God’s providence is indeed over all.  For now, I will praise the hand of God and proudly say, “Next Sunday, we’re having a potluck.  You know what that means!”

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