May 1, 2016

Acts 16:9-15
Revelation 21:10, 22 – 22:5

“Making Plans”

This is the time of year at St. Andrew’s when we are busy making plans. It may not seem that obvious just from attending worship here on Sundays, but behind the scenes, in the committees and groups, and among the staff of the church, plans are being hatched.

As many of you likely know, our congregation makes plans on a yearly basis. The committees of Session (like Worship, Christian Education, and Outreach), set goals in the Spring, and bring them to Session for approval at the beginning of May. They write up reports of their activities over the past year for the Program Report, and highlight their new plans in the form of goals that are presented at the Annual Program Meeting at the end of May. Things usually get a little quieter over the summer, and then we all get to work again in September to put our plans into action throughout the year.

Once in a while, we also get the congregation together to do some deeper reflection and longer-term planning for our mission and ministry. At one such gathering quite a few years ago, St. Andrew’s wrote and embraced a mission statement: “St. Andrew’s exists to proclaim the gospel and share the love of God in our church and in our community.” And at other such gatherings, new ideas for pastoral care, outreach, and stewardship of gifts have been formulated and put into practice in the years following.

Over the last few months, the Session of St. Andrew’s has been talking about doing another big congregational event for planning. We haven’t settled on the format, the scope, or the timing for such an event yet, but we are mulling it over and praying about how to invite all our members and adherents into the process of discerning new possibilities for Christ’s mission in our community.

These are very Presbyterian ways of figuring out what God may be calling us to do and be as a congregation. We get people together, we pray, we read the scriptures, we share ideas, we look for consensus and common vision, and then we vote to confirm our plans. It is usually very orderly, very thorough, and very slow.

It’s one of the strengths and the weaknesses of our Presbyterian form of church government, that we don’t make hasty or quick decisions about important things. It takes time to decide things decently and in order, and perhaps it saves us from the consequences of going in a new direction without thinking it through properly in advance.

While I appreciate the gift of organization and planning, the longer I am in ministry the more I realize that God sometimes works around our plans, in spite of our plans, or even to confound our plans. The Spirit of God is not as predictable or controllable as we might wish, at times.

Certainly, there are times when church members come up with great new ideas at the goal-setting meetings of their committees or during the congregational gathering for strategic planning. But other times, the ideas come in the middle of the night, or while reflecting on a particular sermon by the minister or a visiting preacher. Sometimes the new idea fits neatly into the work of one of the committees or groups, but sometimes it requires a whole new team of people who are willing to think differently and put it into action.

A year ago when we were setting goals for this year, for example, no one at St. Andrew’s yet had the world refugee crisis on their mind. Although it was already a serious problem with millions of people being affected, it wasn’t until it hit the news and the political scene in the Fall of 2015 that many of us started to really pay attention and feel the call to be a small part of the solution.

It wasn’t a part of our original plan, but the Spirit of God led us together to respond to an urgent need, and we got involved with sponsoring a Syrian family who should be arriving in the next couple of months.

And even when we decided to do it, I didn’t realize the ministry I would be privileged to experience as part of the sponsorship. I began an email conversation with this Muslim family, living precariously in Saudi Arabia… getting to know them, praying with and for them, and preparing for their hopeful arrival in the relative safety and freedom of Canada.

The Apostle Paul knew what it was like to get pushed by the Spirit in a different direction, and to go somewhere he didn’t expect, to meet new people and engage in new ministries that he hadn’t considered before.

We know that Paul had plans for spreading the good news about Jesus around the world. At the beginning of Acts chapter 16, just before today’s text, he meets and recruits a young helper in the mission (Timothy) and they set off together. They want to go to Asia, but the text says that “they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” Then they attempt to go into Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus” does not allow them to go there.

I am struck by the matter-of-fact way that these confounded plans are reported by the author of the Book of Acts. Can you think of plans that you once had, and how you reacted when they didn’t work out? Maybe it was a program into which you were not accepted. Maybe it was a job from which you were let go. Maybe it was a relationship that didn’t work out, or a life plan that didn’t come to fruition.

Imagine having the peace of mind of Paul and Timothy to respond to a set-back by simply moving in a new direction, trusting that God has another plan for where you are to go, and what you are to do.

Woody Allen and others have said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” implying that making plans is rather foolish and naïve because God is the one who is in charge. And others have scoffed at the time wasted in planning, saying things like, “Life is what happens when you are busy making plans.”

The Book of Proverbs, on the other hand, doesn’t suggest that we stop making plans, but encourages us to keep them somewhat flexible: “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” (Proverbs 9:21)

Can we keep that in mind when we are thinking about our church’s plans and goals? Can we keep that in mind when we are thinking about our personal plans, our family plans, our work plans, our retirement plans? “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.”

Sometimes the strategic planning that we do both in churches and other organizations is referred to as “visioning.” Good leaders are described as people who can get a clear picture of what we want the future to look like, and then help us to set goals and make plans for us to get there.

But when it comes to planning in the church, and when it comes to planning in our own lives as Christians, the long-term vision is not something we come up with ourselves. The big vision is one that comes from God, that we read about in the Bible, and that we pray for every time we say “thy kingdom come,” in the Lord’s prayer.

The big vision is the reign of God that Jesus announced and that he enacted in his life and ministry of peace, love, goodness, and mercy. The big vision is for a world that John of Patmos described in the Book of Revelation as the holy city coming down out of heaven from God. It is a new world that is full of light and truth, peace between people, and healing of all that is wrong. There is water of life flowing, abundant fruit on the tree of life, and most of all, the very palpable presence of God pervades everything.

It is a beautiful vision, and we cling to that promise that God’s reign of peace will one day be fulfilled. We cling to it especially strongly when we are inclined to get discouraged by the hatred, greed, violence, and oppression that seem to run rampant throughout the world in which we live today.

But along the way to God’s big vision being established, there are little visions to be seen and minor missions to be embraced. God blesses us with good ideas and prods us with challenging thoughts that refuse to leave us alone until we do something about them.

God comes to us, not often with literal visions like the one Paul saw of a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” But God speaks to us and directs us through the scriptures, through preaching, through listening to one another, and through paying attention to the needs and concerns of our neighbours both near and far away.

And when we have a potentially good idea, or a feeling that God may be calling us to something new in our mission and ministry… As Presbyterians, we get together and discern together whether our particular vision seems to be a part of God’s big vision for the world.

Hopefully we don’t get bogged down in our own polity and decision-making processes. Hopefully there is enough openness, trust, and courage that we are able to start carrying out the plans and possibilities that God is sending to us in our dreams and visions.

But who has visions these days? It seems like a commonplace occurrence among Bible characters, but is it realistic to think that we also might have dreams and visions that come from God?

I was interested to read that “In the early 1990s, George Gallup Sr. asked Presbyterians whether they had ever experienced a vision from God. Surprisingly, half of the church members he asked said they had had a vision from God, and even a higher percentage of clergy said the same thing.”

I suppose those were probably American Presbyterians that he surveyed, but I expect that the statistics would be similar in Canada. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God is still giving us visions. God is opening our eyes to notice the needs around us and see what God would have us do in the world. God is enlightening our minds to think creatively about how to keep at our mission in the midst of a rapidly changing world. God is nudging us to action when there are practical things that we can do to reconcile relationships and build up the kingdom of love and peace that God intends.

I like to think about Paul, some years later, after he and Timothy founded the Christian Church in Philippi. Even though he was stuck in prison, and perhaps wondering and worrying about how God’s big vision was going to be fulfilled, he remembered Lydia and the other Philippian Christians, and gave thanks and praise to God for them.

I am sure that being imprisoned wasn’t a part of Paul’s plan, any more than going to Macedonia in the first place had been. And yet, he comes to recognize that God can use even something like that to spread the gospel, as the imperial guard and everyone else comes to know that his imprisonment is for Christ.

As we continue to make plans – both for our congregation and for our own lives – let us keep in mind God’s big vision for the world, let us keep our eyes open to see where God is leading us here and now, and let us remember that no matter how many plans we make, it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.

As Paul wrote to the Philippian Church, I say to you also today: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”