The Mystery and Wonder of God’s Presence

April 22, 2021

As I prepare to retire in six short weeks from the Houghton presidency, I find myself reflecting often on the mystery and wonder of God’s providential working in our lives. Unbeknownst to most of you, my Houghton story began back in the 1960s. My father, a pastor in a small denomination of Eastern Canada and Maine, and Dr. Stephen W. Paine, President of Houghton University, were both delegates to the merger talks between the Reformed Baptist Church and the Wesleyan Methodist Church. At lunch one day, my father saw Dr. Paine grading papers. He went up to him and said, “Is this how you get your homework done?” This led to a conversation that resulted ultimately in my father being invited to come to Houghton to teach in 1966. It was a momentous, lifechanging move for our family from Woodstock, New Brunswick to Houghton, New York. I was 11 at the time and could never have imagined one day being in Dr. Paine’s office—or sitting at his desk.

Lesson #1: We never know the things in each day that will eventually have the most significance in our lives.

In the summer of 1976, not having other plans after graduating from Houghton, I followed my younger sister in taking a job at a Pioneer Girls camp in the Adirondacks. I had no outdoor skills whatsoever, and my sister warned me that I probably would not like it because I might not even have time to get a shower every day. Thus began my five summers at Camp Cherith, where I eventually became Assistant Camp Director—and also learned to canoe, sail and lifeguard. I even became an official NRA riflery instructor. I have had no reason to make use of my sharpshooting skills since then, but my experience in camp work was my chief qualification when, in the fall of 1977, I applied for a position as Resident Director at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had just completed an M.A. in history at the University of Toronto and was sure I never wanted to do anything more in graduate studies. The two years I spent in Student Life work changed my life—and shaped the priorities I have had in working with undergraduates for the next 35 years. (Taking that job ultimately led me back into history—but I can’t take time for that part of the story!)

Lesson #2: In God’s economy, nothing is wasted.

In the spring of 1982, I was completing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Minnesota. By that time, between Bethel and the university, I had been in the Twin Cities for six years. I had made good friends, found an amazing church and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities for teaching at two local colleges. I wanted to stay in Minnesota forever. When I was offered a position to teach history at a college in Santa Barbara, California, it seemed like being exiled to the other end of the world. I was told there were no such opportunities at the time at Bethel, and so, very reluctantly, I accepted the job at Westmont College. Over the next 23 years, I found a new community of friends; grew professionally as a faculty member; had opportunities to lead travel study programs for students, alumni and friends of the college; and came to love walking on the beach with the sound of the Pacific Ocean surf pounding in my ears. (I never did come to fully appreciate the year-round sunshine—and always missed the four seasons—but one can never have everything.)

Lesson #3: Sometimes, God has to close doors to help us see a new horizon through the window.

In 2005, I had completed several years as the Provost of Westmont College and was eagerly anticipating a return to the classroom to complete my career as a professor of European History. I started receiving calls from Houghton University about coming as their next president. This idea had never entered my head—and seemed absolutely beyond anything I could have imagined. At the end of several complicated months—months of agonizingly seeking God’s guidance about where I should be and desperately wanting an unmistakable sign—I ended up accepting the position of President of Houghton University. (Again, it would take too long to tell the full story!) I would not have missed the privilege of the past 15 years at Houghton University for anything in the world.

Lesson #4: God does not always guide us in the same way. Sometimes, the confirmation of his guidance and care comes retrospectively. The key is to trust God—and to want God’s best for us—no matter what.

And so, today, I pray that, wherever you are in your journey, you will find yourself able to trust God’s mysterious and wondrous Providence—whether you see it clearly at this moment or not.

Grace and Peace to you,


Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976