Hilda Duke: What She Taught Me About God


I preached the following sermon entitled “Coincidence or Providence” on March 25, 2007 for the First Baptist Church of Farmville, NC. Hilda Duke, who passed away yesterday, was the inspiration for this sermon. I will always love her immensely. 

Isaiah 43:16-21

On Sunday morning, February 5, 2006, Hilda Duke left the worship service looking like she’d seen a ghost.  I asked, “What’s wrong, Hilda?”  She said, “You won’t believe it.  But today is the day my husband, Wilton, passed away eight years ago.  And every hymn that was sung this morning in worship was sung at his funeral service.”

Wilton died the year before I came to Farmville.  I had no idea when Wilton died, and I certainly did not know what was sung, if anything at his funeral.  “What a wonderful coincidence!” I thought to myself.

One morning a couple of weeks ago I was in the office here at church helping Patty with the bulletin.  After spending about a half hour with her, I went into my office to study for a little while.  About half way through my studying, Peggy Whitfield entered my mind.  I knew she was probably at the place that she had been for days—in the nursing home with her brother who was slowly passing away.

As much as I tried to continue studying, I just could not get Peggy off my mind.  Peggy, one of our most gifted deacons is so good at visiting patients and family members in the hospitals and nursing homes, and now here she was at the bedside of her dying brother.  I kept thinking about her and could no longer concentrate on my studies, so I got up and told Patty that I was going to drive out to the nursing home for a little while.

As soon as I walked into the room, I hugged Peggy who was sitting at a table near the door, and before I could speak to anyone else, Peggy’s niece who was at Jimmy’s bedside said, “Peggy, you might want to come over here.  His breathing has changed.”

I walked to the foot of the bed with Peggy and saw that Jimmy was taking his final breaths.

“Would you like me to say a prayer?”  I asked.

“Yes, please,” several responded.

I prayed briefly, asking God to be with and take care of Jimmy in death as God had been with and taken care of him in life.  When I said, “Amen,” Jimmy took his last breath.

And I thought to myself, “what a wonderful coincidence!”

Before I left the nursing home, Peggy hugged me goodbye and said, “Your timing could not have been more perfect.  The Lord certainly does work in mysterious ways.”

I drove back to the church thinking about what just happened.  I drove up Main Street, thinking and pondering, wrestling and doubting.

Was it just a mere coincidence that Peggy came to my mind while I was studying, or was it something else?  Should I say that “Peggy came to my mind” or would it be more accurate to say that “Peggy was brought to my mind?”

A mere coincidence?  Did her name just rise up, haphazardly and randomly, from the recesses of my conscience during that moment in my office?  Or was it brought to my consciousness from outside of my consciousness?

A year ago, was it just by mere happenstance that I selected the hymns from Wilton’s funeral service on the eighth anniversary of his passing?  Did those titles just come to me, randomly, accidently?

Or were they brought to me?

The dictionary defines “coincidence” as “an accidental sequence of events that appear to have a causal relationship.”  This is how, of course, the main way the modern world has taught us to think of our lives—as a random, pointless, series of accidents.

Therefore, any thought that may happen to come into my mind as I am sitting in my office is always exclusively coincidental, accidental, and random, never intentional, designed, purposeful, and gifted.  It was just happenstance that I showed up in the nursing home when I did.  I was not compelled to go or propelled to go by anything external.

In freshman biology class, this was taught to us as teleological fallacy.  The Greek word for “end,” or “purpose,” is telos.  Science does not engage in speculation about purposes and ends, only means.  And the means are always accidental.  The world in which we live is random, coincidental.

The professor tried to trick us on the exam.  Trick question: “Why did the giraffe develop a long neck?” And the professor probably expected that we dummies would answer something like, “The giraffe developed a long neck in order to reach the leaves in the top of the trees for food.

No, we had listened in class, studied our notes and read our textbook, so we answered, “The giraffe developed a long neck, not because of any plan or purpose, certainly not because of any plan or purpose, certainly not because of any divinely inspired program, but rather the end of a series of mutations, random changes that proved beneficial.”

Science has been very successful in carrying this sort of thinking a long and doing a lot of good with it. But right now, at this stage in human history, I’m wondering if a good deal of reality has been lost in this sort of thinking. I believe we would do well to listen again to these wonderful words from Isaiah.  “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”

Israel is in Babylonian exile, trapped, far from home, forlorn and without hope, except that God promises to make a new thing for them.  Here are words addressed to people who have no way out if there is not a God who not only care but also acts.  Their hope, our hope in life, in death, in life beyond death, is that our God lives and acts, creates and intervenes, intrudes and moves among us. Our hope is that our God speaks to our consciousness from without, puts thoughts into our minds, leads us and directs us in right paths for his name sake.

But this is not how we have been trained by the modern world.  We’ve been conditioned to admit that any strange, external sort of word is mere coincidence, a kind of random, accidental, meaningless glitch of the brain that means very little.

But what if it means everything?  What if these so called coincidental thoughts are some of the best thinking that we do?  What if all of these weird coincidences we experience in life are as close to reality, as close to what is really real in this world, as we human beings can get?

I believe we’ve got to break ourselves of the habit of dealing with things that happen to us, or visions that come our way, or words that come to our mind, by dismissing it as mere coincidence.  For those who are convinced that the Word has been made flesh, and the Son of God has intruded into the world, that God is always working in this world, creating and re-creating and resurrecting and transforming, there is nothing in this world that can be labeled “mere.”

For people with faith in the risen Christ, a miracle, the supernatural, is not something that momentarily intrudes among us into an otherwise natural world, but rather for us, it is all miracle and it all comes from the creative hand of God.  We look at trees blooming everywhere on this first weekend of spring in a completely different way.  It’s all supernatural.  It’s all extraordinary.

We pay attention to conversations, we listen to the reading of an ancient text, and we listen to the singing of the hymn, with the assumption that it is all potentially revelation, all the footsteps and handiwork of an intrusive God.

As Frederick Buechner says, “in the last analysis of all, all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.”

Our grandmother in the faith, Sarah, was one day straightening up her tent in the desert when these three people, complete strangers, show up.  Sarah extends hospitality to the strangers, welcomes them, and prepares a meal for them.

And after the satisfying meal, one of the strangers peaks and blesses Sarah and her husband Abraham, tells Sarah that she is going to have a baby that will be the beginning of a great people, a great family, Israel, a family that will bless all of the world’s families.  Suddenly, the text moves from describing these people as mere visitors, to describing them as the “Lord.”

In fact, later, early Christian preachers through these three strangers as embodying God—the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  When Paul later referred to this incident, he said that, “Some have entertained angels unaware.”

Now I know that, to the world, this is making a huge deal out of a meal for three ordinary visitors.  A simple meal, even eating with people that we don’t know, is a merely ordinary experience.

But having been encountered by the Christ, having experienced a God who is not distant and disinterested, we do not live in the ordinary and we don’t deal with people, with one another, with the world, as merely anything.  For us, with eyes of faith, it is never merely coincidental, accidental or happenstance.  It’s revelation.  It’s extraordinary.  It is a gift of God who does not leave us alone, who loves us enough to seek and to find and to reveal.

Our God keeps promising us, “Behold, I’m doing a new thing!” Can you see it?

Peggy Whitfield was absolutely right.  Our Lord works in mysterious ways.  And our Lord is here right now and he’s working all around us.

Can you see it?


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