I tell my students that, in preaching, they should not lead people into the woods if they don’t know the way out. With that sage directive in mind, I want to make clear that the following is not a sermon.
I hesitated just a few minutes too long before changing channels after watching “Meet the Press,” and so heard from Pastor Joel Osteen that God is in control of my life, intricately in control of my life, to the smallest, most minute detail. I know I should have heard Pastor Osteen out, but I opted instead to turn off the television, go online, and watch the season finale of “Grey’s Anatomy.” The doctors were in a plane crash, and one of the main characters, caught under the aircraft, dies in the first twenty minutes of the episode, with her star-crossed lover begging her to hang on, because they were “meant to be” and supposed to marry and have kids. And she was supposed to become a great surgeon. Now I know that this is “just television” and “not real life.” So I guess I should not have heard myself saying, “Sorry, not God’s plan,” and wondering what would possess a God who is intricately in control of our lives, to the smallest, most minute detail, to allow and even plan for the life of a budding surgeon to be snuffed out in a plane crash. I shouldn’t have wondered such things. But I did.
It’s the season of seminary graduations, first calls, and ordination announcements that read, “By the grace of God, name is called to be pastor of name Church.” When things work out, we are bold to proclaim that the Holy Spirit works in, with and under the candidacy, assignment, and call processes, matching just the right pastor with just the right congregation. It’s also the season of weddings, where, explicitly or implicitly, we declare that God brought these two people together to share lifelong faithfulness. “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6). What a wonderful thought! God, who controls the minutest details of our lives, selects our pastor (or our congregation) and even our spouse.
Then the plane crashes. In this season of first calls and ordination announcements, I spend more time with bright, articulate, faithful, committed pastors-to-be, who find themselves waiting for the Holy Spirit to make a “match” as their rent goes up, student loans kick in, and health insurance runs out. What about those who didn’t get the call? What was God’s plan for them in the process? I also hear from former students, for whom the Holy Spirit’s “match” a few years ago is turning out to be a mess. Was that God’s plan?
As for weddings, pastors tell me they find weddings difficult, in part, because they go in knowing one in two marriage fails. Faith-full people whose marriages have ended genuinely wonder how they could have so misinterpreted the Spirit’s will and, worse, fear that, since they blew it with the person God intended for them, God’s plan is now for them to end up unhappy and alone.
Someone will rightly point out—and someone did point this out to me twenty-six years ago, as I waited for my first call—that in the grand scheme of things, a single seminarian not getting a call or a given marriage not working out is small potatoes compared to poverty, hunger, disease, war, violence, global warming… We can talk about sin, free will, and human resistance. But that undermines the notion that God is intricately in control of the minute details of our lives. Or we are saying that God’s plan for some people is disappointment, betrayal, suffering, and anguish. Why would God who controls everything have such a plan for these people—to test them, perhaps, or, to humble them?
I have never asked why I was born legally blind in terms of its meaning and purpose. There’s no satisfactory answer. I accept neither punishment for sin nor inspiration for others. Sometimes, things just happen. My eyes formed the way they formed. This means that, if God was in control, God chose not to exercise control. Or, my preference, God doesn’t control every detail of our lives. Some things don’t happen—or not happen—for a divine reason or a purpose, including seminarians getting or not getting calls, and this person marrying or not marrying that person. Sometimes, planes crash. Sometimes, things just happen. As someone recently said to me, “Sometimes, things simply fall the way they do.”
I think of some minor biblical characters, including the generations of Israelites who spent their lives in slavery in Egypt or wandering in the wilderness and dying before they ever reached the Promised Land. Was that God’s plan for their lives? Does God have a plan for stars but not for extras? Then what happens when I thought I was a star and find out I’m not a star or that my stardom has passed, and now I’m only an extra? Watching the American Master’s piece on Johnny Carson, and reading about him, the trick seems to be knowing when to leave the stage.
Jesus certainly had a plan for Saint Paul. According to Acts, our ascended Lord spoke of Paul to Ananias, saying, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15). Sounds to me like a plan. And in the subsequent verses, Acts makes it sound like Jesus’ plan: in just 19 verses, Paul was healed and baptized, immediately proclaims Jesus in the synagogue, confounds the religious authorities to the point that they plot to kill him, makes a daring escape from Damascus, arrives in Jerusalem, Barnabas testifies on Paul’s behalf, Paul overcomes the apostles’ apprehension by speaking boldly in the name of the Lord, and is sent off to Tarsus by the apostles. In Galatians, Paul remembers things differently (1:17ff). According to Paul, three years elapsed between his conversion and arrival in Jerusalem, and fourteen more years passed before Barnabas testified to the apostles on Paul’s behalf.
I admire the online exegetes who work so hard to reconcile these accounts. Even more, I admire the countless faithful Christians convinced, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Acts and Galatians indicate to me that, often, God’s purpose in our lives is something others see rather something we figure out for ourselves, and they only see it in retrospect. And it may be a matter of them seeing what they are looking for.
So Paul waited fourteen years for Barnabas to testify on his behalf and the church to accept him. In seminary, we would get frustrated when we asked something and Walter Bouman would answer, “That’s the wrong question?” As usual, Bouman was right. In some seasons, the question is not, “What is God’s plan or purpose?” Some things are simply contrary to God’s plan and beyond God’s control. The question then becomes what to do with the fourteen years. And, more than a question, perhaps it’s a prayer for which there are many faithful answers.