More than 30 years ago, I stood with my high-school youth group waiting outside the gates of Disneyland preparing for my first incursion into the World of Mouse. The youth minister who stood with us was a man named James Newman, “JE” to us.
As we waited, JE decided it might be a good time to lead a brief prayer of thanks.
Although that prayer took place long ago, I believe I can still remember the gist of the prayer and the ensuing questions.
“Dear God,” JE began, “thank you for safe travel today and our wonderful youth group. And thank you for putting Disneyland here just for us! Amen.”
It was a short prayer, but before any of us had time to verbalize our comments, the other youth sponsor, Mrs. Obenshain, blurted her astonishment, “JE, why would you say that? God didn’t make Disneyland. Mr. Disney did!”
Knowing JE as we all did, we knew to expect a well-thought answer. JE was a Ford auto mechanic and Mr. Ford hadn’t included much theology in his training, but JE had some ideas about God. While JE didn’t always know why things worked the way they did, he did know what worked.
“Sure he did!” JE insisted. “God created Mr. Disney’s mind, right?”
“Well, yes, but JE, honestly,” declared Mrs. Obenshain, “you can’t really conclude that . . .”
JE was undeterred. “If God made Mr. Disney’s mind, then God must have created the picture of Disneyland in his mind long before Mr. Disney could draw it, right?”
“But JE . . .” Mrs. Obenshain was wavering.
“Look,” JE said in his Oklahoma twang, “don’t the Bible say that, ‘All good things come from God?’ ”
Then, pausing, JE let the hammer down on our slack-jawed sponsor. “And ain’t Disneyland a good thing?”
Deterred by logic too simple to be wrong, Mrs. Obenshain simply muttered something like, “Well, I guess so.”
I think I remember JE’s theology largely because I hear it a lot from patients who speak with assurance that God made a certain hospital, doctor or medicine just so it would help them.
I heard it again this week when a father told me how a surgeon was going to reach into the center of his 2-year-old daughter’s brain and pull out a tumor.
Yet this was his theology — “God put this surgeon here for my daughter.”
His declaration, like JE’s, sounded more self-centered than God-centered.
Yet, maybe not.
What I found astounding about both men is that they seemed to rely on an innate understanding of the works of God. Neither had ever enrolled in a theological or philosophical school, yet they could still identify goodness as one the most important attributes of God.
The father didn’t need to be a philosopher to acknowledge his good fortune at finding such a talented surgeon. Neither did JE have to be a theological teacher to recognize Disneyland might provide one of many God-given environments he would use to mentor and instruct our youth group.
We search so far to understand God. We read so much and attend every sort of lecture. Yet, I believe most of the time God continues to manifest his goodness in those placed directly in our own paths.
In the end, Mrs. Obenshain found JE’s theology irrefutable and all she could mumble was, “Do you have our tickets, JE?” And hearing that remark of acquiescence, we were all willing to call this theological discussion a draw, especially if it meant being first in line for the Matterhorn. For like JE, we all knew goodness when we saw it.