No, God Doesn't Have a Plan. But That's OK.

Last week was Spring Break, and I'd promised the kids I'd take them to the local trampoline park. They love the place... though I wouldn't be surprised to learn the National Association of Orthopedic Surgeons is a major shareholder. Anyway, the morning we were going to go, a Facebook friend posted a 50% off coupon. I had actually opened my laptop to find the trampoline park website, Facebook was open, and the coupon caught my eye first.

I was tickled and felt a jolt of gratitude.

And God had nothing to do with it.

That may seem like an obvious statement to some, but there's a strain of theology out there that claims God is guiding the large and small details of our lives. That's what many people mean when they say that God is sovereign, that nothing happens outside of God's providence and plan.

John Vest recently wrote about this view of theology:

In my experience as a pastor, the most commonly held theological belief among both youth and adults is that everything happens for a reason. For most people, this means that God has a plan and that everything somehow fits in it. We long to believe that our lives and human history are not a series of random coincidences. We want to trust that God is in control and that deep within every situation—good or bad—some kind of meaning can be found.

He ultimately can't go there, and neither can I.

3654636770_3b1a5d470bSome people find comfort in the idea that someday the curtain may be pulled back and we'll see how everything fit together, like some cosmic Rube Golberg device. I don't know. If God really is all-powerful, surely God can work God's purposes out in ways that don't involve children getting cancer or thousands perishing in a tsunami.

If God has a plan, I don't think it's being petulant or faithless to hold God accountable if that plan doesn't correspond to who we know or believe God to be.

Instead, I don't attribute bad things that happen to God's will. But there's a problem there too: we end up giving God none of the blame and all of the credit. When something good happens, we thank God. When something terrible happens, we say God grieves with us and can make good come from it. That makes it sound like God has a plan for the good stuff, but washes God's hands of the bad stuff. This is unsatisfying too.

Instead, I believe life isn't a matter of plan---God's or ours---but of improvisation. The basic rule of improv is "yes-and," to accept what's offered and build on it. Like this recent StoryCorps piece on NPR. Jeff Wilson accidentally hit Tammie Baird with his car when they were both young adults. The experience had a major impact on them both, as you would imagine. He ended up becoming a surgical technician who does a lot of orthopedic work. She became a stuntwoman, of all things, and has been "hit" by countless cars since that first collision 30 years ago.

Plan, or yes-and?

The former may be comforting to some, but the latter more accurately reflects a world in which drivers just get distracted sometimes. And cells grow uncontrollably. And plates shift under the oceans, creating massive waves.

Plan has the virtue of rationality, but yes-and has the virtue of creativity. It also reflects our lives. We improvise all the time. We work within constraints. We are called upon to be flexible and creative. And if we are created in the image of God, I think improvisation is part of God's nature too. I certainly see it in scripture all over the place.

So if God doesn't have a plan, what does God have? A direction. An orientation. God seeks to move, and seeks to move us, in the direction of love and wholeness, no matter what the circumstance. All of this reminds me of Martin Luther King's arc in the moral universe, bending towards justice.

In fact, if God is love, maybe it's not accurate to say that God has a direction or an orientation or an arc. Maybe God is those things.

This idea of an improvising God makes people uncomfortable. Isn't God supposed to be all-powerful? What kind of God isn't capable of dramatic intervention? Answer: the Christian God. Folks, we just went through this last week. An improvising God, working within circumstance, isn't a heretical idea. In fact, in the crucifixion, God voluntarily puts on human weakness and shame. Herod and Pilate and the high priest and the rest of that corrupt system come after Jesus and seek to silence his message about the kingdom of God here on earth, not because they're doing God's bidding according to The Plan, but because that's what powers and principalities do.

And yet... Holy Week is full of yes-and. Yes is "she has anointed me for my burial." Yes is "put away your weapon, Peter." Yes is standing there when Pilate asks, "What is truth?" Yes is "Father, forgive them."

And the resurrection? I don't know what the resurrection is. Except that it's the ultimate And.

~

photo credit: COBOL Rube Goldberg by Phil Manker via photopin (license)

Wholeness

Our church is continuing its year-long theme, "Who is our neighbor" with an emphasis on health issues in our community. On Sunday we had a guest speaker, so my sermon is a little more concise than usual: MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church October 28, 2012 Mark 10:46-52

‘Wholeness’

46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" 49Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." 52Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

We’ve got about nine days until the election, and I think I speak for many of us when I say, “Thank God. Make it stop.” ...The ads, the phone calls, and the soundbites. It’s been a particularly bizarre season for soundbites. Barely a week seems to go by without a political candidate putting his foot in his mouth. This week a Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, was asked about abortion. Many people who are pro-life make exceptions in cases of rape—in fact, most people do—but this particular person does not, and he said,

Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

My intent in bringing this up is not to talk politics, but theology. What do we believe about good things happening out of bad, even terrible, circumstances? Does that mean the bad thing was part of God’s plan?

Some are inclined to give Mr. Mourdock the benefit of the doubt—he wasn’t saying rape is good, he was saying that life is good, regardless of how it comes about. Others said his theology is flawed: pregnancy through rape is not the work of a good God, but a consequence of an evil human act and a burden that no woman should be forced to bear.

What’s more, I read countless reflections this week by people, friends, who have been victims of sexual violence who were hurt deeply by his words. A few weeks ago in worship we heard Jesus’ words, cautioning us not to create a "stumbling block" for others. Mr. Mourdock’s comments created a painful stumbling block for those who are still struggling with the painful aftermath of these traumas.

Let me put to you another situation: a few weeks ago I read a blog post by an Episcopal priest and a breast cancer survivor. She talked about the impact of cancer on her life, and she gave thanks for friends and family who supported her, she gave thanks for the strength to withstand the treatment, and she gave thanks for world-class medical care and the means to access it—something not everyone has. And then she said, “And thank you, God, for cancer.”

Thank you for cancer.

She went on:

Because of cancer I learned lessons I didn't know I needed to learn. Because of cancer I discovered a depth of love, faith and gratitude I never knew existed. Because of cancer, I learned that bad news is best handled when infused with the Good News.

Is she right? Does God make cancer happen? Is Richard Mourdock right, about God’s intent? Does everything that befalls us have God’s fingerprints on it?

The question of God’s involvement in good and evil has puzzled theologians for thousands of years. The fancy theological word for that question of good and evil is “theodicy.” And for many people living in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century, it is the sticking point for faith. It’s hard to reconcile the existence of a good and loving God with the holocaust or the killing fields in Cambodia. And it’s not a problem we’re going to solve at Idylwood Presbyterian Church on October 28, 2012. But Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus gives us a few pieces to the puzzle:

God is a God of mercy. Repeatedly Bartimaeus calls out “have mercy on me!” Mercy is compassion. Mercy is kindness. Mercy is care. Does that sound like a God who makes cancer happen, who is so bent on granting the gift of life that God will use a rape to make it happen? There is nothing merciful about that.

God does not impose on us. Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” He doesn’t presume. He doesn’t assume he knows what Bartimaeus wants. He asks, and he waits for the answer. God is not a presumptuous God. Ultimately we are given the dignity to ask for what we want, and to make meaning of our experience for ourselves. I read a reflection by a woman who became pregnant through rape and made the audacious decision to keep the baby. And for her, there was redemption in that decision. And that’s the key phrase—for her. It’s her right to make meaning of her experience; no politician should do it for her. No clergyperson should either. I wonder about the priest with cancer—it’s fine for her to thank God for it but I sure hope she doesn’t insist on her parisioners’ doing so. If God, if Jesus, is gentle enough to ask, “What do you want? How do you see your life and your need?” then that is our call as well. God does not impose, and neither should we.

We are partners in our healing. Bartimaeus has to get up and go to Jesus. There is no remote-control healing here. He’s gotta get up and move, he’s got to ask for what he needs in order to receive it. That means that we avail ourselves of the medical technology that we are fortunate to have. That means that if we’re overweight or a smoker or making poor choices with our diet, we are called to do something about it, not hope for a divine rescue.

And again, that’s the problem with Mr. Mourdock’s theology. If God is the author of everything that happens, then what’s the point of striving for wellness, or going to the doctor? What’s the point of doing anything?

That doesn’t mean that our efforts are always successful. We know the heartbreak of people who do everything right, who make all the right choices, and who still suffer from disease or injury. There’s no getting around that.

And principled people can come to different conclusions about abortion and when life begins. But Mourdock’s theology is wrong. A God of mercy, a God who does not impose on us, a God who asks us to be a partner in our own healing, desires our wholeness…desires our peace… desires our shalom. And not just our wholeness and peace and shalom, but that of this world that God loves.

In Christ, God is reconciling the world. Thanks be to God.