Last January feels like an age ago, so much has happened. I spent the first couple weeks of the year in Atlanta, taking an urban ministry course. We had the opportunity to worship at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr’s old congregation. The pastor gave a message that used the illustration of “20/20 vision” as a theme—playing on the digits of the calendar year. It caught my attention, and I remember berating myself a little because it was just so obvious—a real plum of an illustration just hanging there, ready for the picking. No doubt there were thousands of pastors across the nation who were tapping into the “20/20” concept and laying out their visions for the future. I wonder if they would change anything if they could go back and revise their sermons?
Looking ahead is a good thing. We need to anticipate and prepare for what might be coming. In our scripture for the Call to Worship last Sunday, Paul is encouraging the Romans to wake from their sleep, to be prepared, because the day of salvation is closer now than ever. Jesus is adamant that we keep ourselves ready for what is coming—parable after parable points to the necessity of being awake and aware of the times. But how do you anticipate the unpredictable? Just a week or so after I returned from Atlanta, the US had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. How many plans for the year were derailed by that diagnosis? While there have been numerous times in the centuries-long history of the Church that our meeting together had to be put aside for the moment, it was unsettling to send out the notice that we would be suspending our weekly services for a time. That was not part of my strategic plan for 2020—I doubt there were many who even imagined it.
Our difficulty in anticipating the future involves the limits of our vision. To spin off that “20/20” theme, we’re not seeing things clearly. Too often, our plans for the future are framed in ways that prioritize our personal benefit. Individually, we plan for and anticipate what will make our future more pleasant or secure. Corporately, as the Body of Christ., we plan for the future in which our congregation thrives and grows. Objectively, none of these things are bad—our personal advancement, whether as individuals or as congregations, is for the most part a good thing. The problem is that we make it the only thing. Our vision of the future becomes limited—we experience a sort of “spiritual glaucoma” that reduces our field of vision and creates all sorts of blind spots and tunnel vision. We define “what is right” as “what is good for me,” without recognizing that God has a much bigger plan, and can see so much more.
Occasionally, though, the scales fall from our eyes, and we catch a glimpse of God’s action beyond our limited vision. In Psalm 104, the Psalmist sings of the honor and majesty that are rightfully God’s. In the song, the clouds are God’s chariot, the winds are God’s messengers, and the flames are God’s ministers. God sets the unshakable foundations of the earth and sets immovable boundaries for the waters. All the creatures of the earth “look to You to give them their food in due season; when You give to them, they gather it up; when You open Your hand, they are filled with good things. When You hide Your face, they are dismayed; when You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When You send forth Your spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the ground.”
This past year has been a small reminder of just how little we control. It’s hard not to get a bit resentful when we recognize how insignificant we really are. All of our strategic plans and grand designs can be nullified in a moment. And the harder we push back, insisting on the fulfillment of our vision (“We put so much effort into it!”), the more frustrated we become. The truth is that circumstances often don’t care much about our plans. And to have circumstances strip away our illusion of control—well, that’s actually a good thing. We have a chance to take a moment and see things clearly, maybe for the first time. We can see that even when our grand designs lie in rubble around our feet, there is still something grander happening. God is still clothed in light, still riding that chariot of cloud, and the earth is still satisfied with the fruit of God’s work.
If you’re like me, you’re probably a little gun-shy of trying to plan anything these days. I find that I’m reluctant to even think a week out sometimes. What a far cry from the grand plans of January a year ago. But maybe we all needed a little uncertainty to challenge our plans. Maybe we were getting a little too wrapped up in what we wanted, and we lost sight of what God was doing. If we’re feeling a little stressed and anxious about the way our vision has been kicked to the ditch, then maybe we were holding a little too tightly to that vision to begin with. God has not changed—not one little bit. God is still blessing all of creation, including us. And God’s perfect plan is still perfect. In all the uncertainty, that much is certain. So, maybe we can’t see as much of the future as we’d like, and maybe the world isn’t going to line up in the way we want it to. Maybe “20/20 vision” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But as the Psalmist says, the Lord is great, and we can trust that the next step we take into God’s future will be blessed. So—while we may not know the path God is leading us on, we’re ready to follow. On to the New Year!