Reflecting on the pandemic, my colleague Ryan Dunn wrote a great piece for UMC.org called “Making new connections through old practices.” In it, he talks about how the changes coronavirus has created in our lives make us look at familiar things in new ways. Ryan wrote about Bible stories, but for me a couple of weeks ago, I noticed this phenomenon while watching a movie I have seen many times before.
On a recent evening, struggling to find something to watch, my family settled on Evan Almighty, a movie I have seen probably more than a dozen times. We were just going to watch it for a few minutes, but wound up watching the whole thing… again.
There’s a joke early in the movie that has passed by nearly unnoticed every other time I’d seen this movie, but in the midst of 2020, I saw it in a new way.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, or haven’t seen it in a long time, Steve Carell plays newly elected US Senator Evan Baxter, who is coming to the realization that God, played by Morgan Freeman, wants him to build an ark. Here’s a portion of their first real conversation:
When I’ve watched that scene in the past, I hadn’t paid much attention. It’s all set-up for a movie I have seen many times. But this time I noticed a nod to an old, bad sermon joke that goes something like this:
Q: How do you make God laugh?
A: Tell her your plans!
Did you see it? When Steve Carell is making excuses for why God should find somebody else to do the ark-building, he says, “You have to understand that this whole building an ark thing is really not part of my plans here…”
On the word plans Morgan Freeman starts laughing. “Your plans,” he barely gets out between chuckles.
2020 Planning Retreat
After the year we’ve lived through, the irony of a 2020 planning retreat is not lost on anyone. If there is one lesson we’ve all learned recently, it’s that when something completely unexpected like a global pandemic occurs, our plans don’t mean much.
Most of us have been in reaction mode for the better part of 7 months. Just a quick refresher:
- On March 3, a tornado struck Nashville. We can still drive around and see damage it left behind.
- Less than two weeks later, around March 15, coronavirus dominated the news. Churches went online, schools closed and we stared working from home thinking, “Surely this won’t last long.”
- Then on May 25, George Floyd was killed and racial unrest erupted around the country.
- In August, Hurricane Laura made landfall across the Louisiana-Texas border.
- At about that same time we were becoming acutely aware of wildfires that continue to burn out west.
- Then there were more hurricanes.
And I haven’t even mentioned the church yet. We had been planning for more than a year for General Conference 2020 which was canceled and now we’re hearing about the possibility of the 2021 postponement conference going virtual. There’s budget problems, divisiveness, the protocol, and… yuck!
If that wasn’t enough, there is the presidential election to fill me with generalized anxiety a couple of times a week!
None of this was part of our 2020 plans when we met for our 2019 planning retreat! (Well… we did plan on the election). So much for plans.
God and plans
It’s interesting that this joke about God laughing at our plans in is Evan Almighty, a movie based on the biblical story of Noah. Because in the Bible, God passes an exquisitely detailed list of plans to Noah! Here’s what God says:
- So make yourself an ark of cypress wood;
- make rooms in it and
- coat it with pitch inside and out.
This is how your are to build it
- The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.
- Make a roof for it,
- leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around.
- Put a door in the side of the ark
- and make lower, middle and upper decks.
That is Genesis 6:14-16 (CEB) verbatim. I haven’t added or deleted a word. I just played with the formatting to illustrate the ‘to do’ list God gives Noah! This is a planâ€”a serious planâ€”down to an approximately 18″ gap between the roof and the walls (ventilation?).
Clearly God is not a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ god. God is a planner. But it’s Jesus who models for us how to hold onto our plans.
Hold on loosely
Toward the end of the ninth chapter of Luke, there’s this interesting verse: “As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51 CEB). Other translations say that Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem.”
Jesus, who had been wandering around Galilee, now has a destination, a plan. He is going somewhere, toward his crucifixion and resurrection.
As we keep reading, we follow Jesus on this journey, getting a sense of how he holds onto his plans. There’s margin in the plan, room for other things. So many other things that we read about the plan toward the end of chapter nine, but the story of his entry into Jerusalem isn’t told until chapter 19.
Jesus is determined to get where he is going, but he also knows what matters most, and he pauses to teach, answer questions, heal and more. Even the story of Jesus’ blessing of the children comes between chapters 9 & 19 (see Luke 18:15-17).
I had one of those “not in the plans” moments this week. I had been summoned to our offices to have the software on my laptop updated. At the appointed hour, I handed my computer over to IT and settled into a cubicleâ€”not my cubicle. I don’t have one anymore.
After moments of frustration trying to do work on my Chromebook, I gave up and decided instead to watch the Adobe Max Conference on my phone. Within just a few minutes, I was listing to a presentation by Aaron Draplin of Draplin Design Company titled, “What I’ve learned since March 15.”
Draplin is a driven dude. He’s spent years building a graphic design company that has worked for the likes of Fender guitars, Nasa, Patagonia, Target and the Obama Administration, just to name a few. So when coronavirus changed things his life was altered.
It’s not like he was worried about his Oregon-based company. He’s done well, so he has the resources to be ok. He was already working from an office in his backyard. But the change of pace was jarring.
One day, killing some time by cleaning the shop, he came across a drawer of his dad’s stuff. In it he found an old button, a collectible, probably from an old union promotion, he theorizes. The button advocated for a day divided into thirds: 8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest, 8 hours of recreation.
Inspired by the message, and with more time than usual on his hands, Draplin began to make room in his life for play and sleep. During 15 years of building a business, those areas had been pushed out. To his surprise, something began to happen.
He was rediscovering purpose, passion and meaningâ€”both professionally and personally. Saying yes to that which mattered most, and no to things that didn’t became a guiding principle. He recovered what excited him about his work, what gave him energy. I think he’s onto something.
All of the plan-busting events of 2020 have also give us opportunity to reflect on what matters in what we doâ€”like getting to write about and promote The United Methodist Church’s work of addressing racism.
We get to rethink our purposeâ€”what it means to be a United Methodistâ€”and what that might mean in a post-separation church.
We are privileged to get back in touch with our passions. What gets you excited about your work? What brings energy to your personal life?
Yes, a planning retreat in 2020 may sound like a laughable idea coming out of where we’ve been for the past seven months… and counting. Who knows what might be around the corner? Or what may happen when we flip the calendar to 2021? Today we may plan to build a boat and find out in February that we need a bulldozer.
Change the world
God’s a god of plans who calls us to hold our plans loosely. To build margin into our work and personal lives, making room for things that don’t fit into our plans. Because our goal is not to be followers of our plans, but to be followers of Christ. That’s the ultimate plan!
Which brings be back to Evan Almighty…
In the very beginning of that clip, as Evan is trying to come to grips with what God is asking him to do, he says, “I just don’t understand why you chose me.”
God echoes Evan’s campaign slogan in his reply. “You want to change the world, son. So do I.”
Prayer: Teach us, O God, to plan well, but to hold those plans loosely, as we seek every day to follow you in love and service. Strengthen us to be more like Jesus, leaving room in our plans for our families, our friends, ourselves, the hurting, the lonely, the outsiders and the children. In his powerful name we pray. Amen.
Adapted from a devotion I shared at the opening of our team planning retreat.