I am a planner. I like to have at least a rough plan in mind for any undertaking that I am part of, whether it is a work project or a trip to the beach. I get that from my Dad, who was a high school band director and needed to plan everything from rehearsal schedules to band trips.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the plans of literally billions of people into the trash. Everything that people planned to do, from work to retirement, weddings to General Conference, has been put on hold or dramatically altered or canceled. Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley [go oft awry]” (To a Mouse, 1785). It was one of my Dad’s favorite sayings when his plans got disrupted. A more succinct way of putting it is, “People plan, God laughs.”
We think we have life under control, and then something happens to disrupt our plans. It could be something negative like the pandemic, illness, job loss, a death in the family. It could even be something positive, like a new job requiring a move or a new baby in the family. As a pastor, I was familiar with unplanned moves. A single call from the district superintendent can upend one’s life! Every time it happens, it reminds us that we are not in control.
The Israelites needed to learn that lesson early in their formation as a nation. When the two or three million Israelites escaped from Egypt, they had to learn to depend upon God for everything. He guided them through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, and on the way supplied them with food and water every single day in miraculous ways.
The most dramatic lesson in dependence upon God is found in Numbers 9:15-23. God’s presence hovered over the Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle). “Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. At the Lord’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped.” “Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out.”
The Israelites had only a rough idea where they were headed and how to get there. They did not know from one day to the next whether they would stay in camp or set out on the next stage of the journey. They had to depend completely on the Lord to determine their travel schedule. They were unable to plan and had to live day to day.
That is somewhat where we find ourselves today. Conditions change, restrictions are adjusted, new closings or openings are announced. At any point, we or a family member could come down with the virus and be ill. We are living day to day in dependence upon the Lord in a more vivid way now than we experience in “normal” life.
The Israelites learned during their time of absolute dependence upon God that he would never abandon them or let them down. Moses reminded them what they had experienced during their wandering, “Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years” (Deuteronomy 8:4, 29:5). God took care of their every need, as they walked in dependence upon him from day to day.
That is God’s promise to us. “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:31-34).
Of course, one of the opportunities we are given in this pandemic is sharing with those in need, if we have more than enough. We can be the answer to someone’s prayer, the fulfillment of God’s promise of loving care for a person or family we know, or even for people we do not know and who may live halfway around the world. We can follow that nudge of the Holy Spirit to share what we have.
Our dependence on the Lord does not mean that we give up planning for the future. After all, Jesus reminds us, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?” (Luke 14:28). It only means that we should hold our plans lightly. All our plans are “subject to change” as the Lord works in our lives, and the circumstances of this world impinge on what we can do.
James put it well. “Pay attention, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such-and-such a town. We will stay there a year, buying and selling, and make a profit.’ You don’t really know about tomorrow! What is your life? You are a mist that appears for only a short while before it vanishes. Here’s what you ought to say: ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that'” (James 4:13-15).
I often find it is hard to let go of plans that I have made. After all, I had it figured out so perfectly! But the Lord has to remind me to hold my life with an open hand. “If the Lord wills.” What better way to express our daily dependence upon him? He is God, and I am not. And that realization gives me peace and security in the midst of the unpredictable circumstances of life.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.