There are certain things that happen in life that can never be forgotten. The chain of events that unfold before you, when they have run their course, leave such an overwhelming impression that nothing else can be done but to bow before Christ in submissive silence. We call these strange, often mysterious occurrences, providence. They are often so enigmatic while experiencing them, yet, when closure finally comes, a glimpse is given into that perfect end for which the Lord intended. And it is then that we stand in awe of our Creator whose wisdom and power supersedes anything we ever thought or imagined. I have one of those stories that, if you will take the time to read, I trust will provide you a helpful way to appreciate the doctrine of providence as I have often experienced it.
It was the summer of 2008, and I flew to Lethbridge, Alberta to officiate a wedding. I was invited to stay in the home of Rev. Eric and Helen Fennema. I had already met Eric at previous church meetings, but this was my first real introduction to this very energetic preacher in our federation of churches (URCNA). We immediately had a Jonathan and David kind of relationship. All of our convictions were the same. We stayed up late that Saturday night just talking, talking about ministry, the church, and the challenges. I remember Eric stating how encouraging it was to meet a young pastor who shared the same convictions about preaching, and the proper manner in which Christian ministry should occur. Eric felt alone anymore with these convictions. I preached for Eric that Sunday in Lethbridge and made him promise that if he ever came to Lynden, he would return the favor and preach for the LURC.
A few months later I received an email from Eric. He and his wife Helen would be traveling to Lynden to meet up with his daughter and son in law and, as promised, he would like “fulfill” his commitment to preach for us. It was August 31, 2008. I looked down at the bulletin and there it was, “Watch Therefore!" The text was Matthew 25:1-13. Eric delivered one of the most powerful sermons I ever heard. It was on the parable of the ten virgins. He spoke with authority; he delivered the message with unction, pleading with us to see that there are many in the kingdom who are not ready for the LORD’s coming. His coming for us could be at any hour, whether it be his physical return, or our sudden deaths. He preached “as a dying man to dying men” and everyone knew it. “Watch therefore, for you do not know the day nor the hour.”
I had a wonderful time of fellowship with Eric that night. Another URC minister, Rev. Andrew Cammenga, our wives, and a future seminarian gathered around the table and we spent the next few hours talking about the ministry. Eric and Helen left the next day. I remember receiving an email on Wednesday from Eric telling me how much he appreciated the time with us in Lynden, the opportunity to preach, and then he concluded the email with, “until we meet again.”
It was Saturday morning, I was in my study and as I opened my email box, a new message appeared. I have saved that email, and will never forget it. “I am emailing you to tell you the sad news that today Rev. Fennema went to be with the Lord. He was golfing and had a massive heart attack and died on the course.” I broke out in tears. Couldn’t be, he was just here. The only way to describe what I felt was, empty. After gathering myself, I began to reflect, pieces came together, and all of the sudden, the light went on. The events that just happened in a few days time told a greater story. Everything was so planned, so detailed, perfectly working together, as God has assured us over and over that all thing things do indeed work together for the good of those who love him. But what a message was left to my congregation and me!
As I pieced things together, I realized that God made the messenger an example before all of us. The apostle Paul described this phenomena in 1 Cor. 4, namely, that God’s servants are often displayed as an example to those to whom they minister, that they would be “begotten through the gospel.” Think about it, Eric Fennema’s last message on earth was before us in the LURC was a plea to “watch, therefore, and be ready because we do not know the day nor the hour.” And before we were gathered together the next Sunday, he was taken. I may not have understood the “why” in the sudden death of a minister so capable of preaching the gospel, or how all these things worked together for good, but I did see God’s intention in laying before us the serious call to be ready. Eric Fennema's life and message became an abiding testimony before us. When the wonderful workings of God’s providence validate the very clear things he has expressed in His word, this is something we should be perceptive enough to see.
A few days after receiving this painful news, I was asked by Helen to preach at Eric’s funeral. Before a thousand plus souls, I delivered a message from Psalm 121 titled The Pilgrim’s Keeper. Looking over a tearful, hurting congregation in Lethbridge, I said the following:
Amid all the pain and tears we are experiencing now, we know that Pastor Fennema’s death was not in vain, God was not sleeping during his sudden death. God was soveriegn in his going out and his coming in—this was all according to plan. And since Christ rose from the dead, Pastor Fennema will rise again. But the LORD is teaching us something more through your pastor’s sudden death. The question mark is not over the life of Eric Fennema. God brings us back today, through Pastor Fennema’s witness, to the question that now is before us. Are you ready? Messengers will come and go, but the message will continue—the word of God endures forever. The message I preach, the message your pastor preached, is that which is before you this hour, “watch therefore”, ensure that your lamp is full. In other words, come to Christ, now! You do not know the day nor the hour. Do you know the only keeper of souls? Do you have access into the hill of the Lord? Do you know the only one in whom there is help, salvation? There can be only one answer given to those questions today, and I use the very last words of Eric Fennema in his last sermon, “you need Christ, you need the gospel!”