Look Backward to Connect Your Dots

by | May 13, 2024 | Blog

Many people are familiar with the phrase ‘connecting the dots.’ It refers to a game, but it is also used to describe the linking of events, people, and outcomes in life. Steve Jobs, in his Stanford University commencement speech, Connecting the Dots, said, “You cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect the dots looking backward.” I looked backward in my 1975-1977 journal recently. One entry helped me connect several dots. Let me tell you about it to encourage you.

On October 16, 1975, I attended the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary chapel service. In my journal entry, I mentioned four people who were dots that God connected for me recently. The guest speaker was Dr. Helen Roseveare, M. D. (1925-2016), who served as a medical missionary several times in the Congo. Everyone enjoyed her inspirational presentation. She fielded questions after the chapel service, shared a few personal experiences, suggestions for preparation for missionary service, and the needs on the mission field.

When I had the opportunity, I asked Dr Roseveare if she knew Dr. Paul Carlson, M.D, another medical missionary in the Congo. She knew of him but had never met him. Dr. Carlson and my father trained together in Los Angeles in the 1950s. The Congolese rebels murdered him in November 1964. My parents bought his wife’s biography of her husband and saved the December 4, 1964, Life magazine with his picture on the cover and an article, “Congo Martyr.”

I met another chapel attendee, Mrs. Nellie Pickens, Jr., a former missionary in China with her husband. She was the second daughter of Rev. Samuel M. Zwemer, a cofounder of the Arabian Mission. I asked her if she knew Rev. George E. Stone, my great-great uncle and a pioneer with the Arabian Mission. She never met him.

The journal entry took me completely by surprise. I was a new student at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Pastoral ministry and missionary service occupied my mind. I remembered hearing Dr. Roseveare speak, but I didn’t remember speaking to her or Mrs. Pickens. Those conversations connected dots that led me to the present time. I recently published a biography about my great-great uncle Rev. George E. Stone.[1]

The History of the Arabian Mission introduced me to George around 1972. His brief story in the book fed my new missionary interest. This reading about him planted the seed for me to ask Mrs. Pickens about him. His name slowly grew into a passion over the subsequent decades.

There’s a significant reason Mrs. Pickens never met George. Her father mentored my uncle in everything pertaining to Arabia and Arabic from February 1898 to February 1899. They traveled together to Bahrain. They lived together in the Mission house in Manama for four months. George became an ‘uncle’ to Samuel and Amy’s daughter Katherina (1897-1904).

Mrs. Zwemer stayed with Katherina in Manama when Samuel went to Busrah, Iraq for the Arabian Mission Annual meeting in January 1899. Amy was pregnant with their second child. George never mentioned her pregnancy in any of his letters I read.

Samuel returned to Bahrain on February 14 carrying the emergency directive for George to go immediately to Muscat, Oman to relieve the sick missionary couple there. Six weeks later, Amy gave birth to Nellie Elizabeth on March 28. This explains why Mrs. Pickens never met George. He died in Oman on June 26 when she was three months old.

Nellie married Claude Leon Pickens, Jr. in 1925. He became an Episcopal priest in 1926 and the Pickens went to China as missionaries. Nellie’s father Samuel accompanied Claude and other missionaries in 1933 and 1936 to assess the Muslim populations in northeast China, Tibet, and Mongolia.

World War II led to turmoil for missionaries in China. The Japanese held the Pickens as prisoners of war in 1941-1942. Upon their release, they returned to the United States for three years and then went back to China in 1945. After the communist takeover, the Pickens left China in 1950 for the States. Several years later, they settled in Annisquam, Massachusetts near my seminary. This explains why she could attend the chapel service with Dr. Roseveare. Claude died in 1985 and Nellie in 1986.[2]

I am astonished how these dots were connected by reading a forty-nine-year old journal entry and researching the names in it. Nellie Zwemer Pickens never crossed my mind again until rereading the journal.  I want to go back in time to speak more with her.

Meeting Dr. Roseveare, Mrs. Pickens, and many other missionaries who visited Gordon-Conwell enriched my missionary mindset that began at Maryville College in 1971-1974. A Maryville College professor and several students attended the same missions conference in February 1898 when George first met Rev. Zwemer and heard him speak.

Reading my old journal entry connected the dots. What will your connected dots mean to you? Steve Jobs’s Connecting the Dots speech gives three answers to this question that I have adapted for this article. First, trust God to connect your dots sometime in the future. Trusting is the basis of confidence that your life will make sense.  I didn’t know in October 1975 I would write a biography of George Stone. My dad and mother didn’t know they would become medical missionaries in Malawi thirty years after Dr. Carlson’s murder in 1964. Jobs didn’t quote a Bible verse in his speech, but he could have chosen, “Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD…is the Rock eternal.” (Isaiah 26:4) Who or what will you trust?

Second, keep doing what you love when hardship, loss, and disappointment invade your life. They will be an awful tasting medicine to swallow. You won’t always understanding why they happen to you. Steve Jobs had a hard time accepting the Apple Board firing him, but he realized he still loved creativity. He focused on it, and the rest is history. Trust God and don’t lose hope. Keep doing what you love.

Third, live each day as if it were your last. We’re all going to die someday. All the people mentioned above, except my wife and me, have died. They lived and died with purpose. Death is the appointed destination for everyone unless Jesus Christ returns during our lives. Use the unknown date of your appointment to your advantage to make each day a trophy. When you reread your journal entries years later, you will see how God connected your do

[1] A Modest But Crucial Hero: The Life and Legacy of Rev. George E. Stone (1873-1899).

[2] https://hollisarchives.lib.harvard.edu/repositories/25/resources/6440. Accessed May 7, 2024.





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