Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Children's Chapel: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
While We’re Making Other Plans
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 23, 2007
The bumper stickers people have on their cars tell us a lot about them. For whom they’re going to vote, of course. Which radio stations they listen to. The churches they go to; the restaurants they frequent. At which school their children were honor students, or students of the month, or what have you.
Of course, they can also tell us something about what people believe. They give us a little glimpse into their philosophies, their worldviews, maybe even their religions.
So it was that one car I saw recently had me scratching my head a little. Because, you see, its bumper stickers said two very different, perhaps even contradictory (on the surface) things; but I was also a little confused because I, too, agreed with both of them!
On the left side of the bumper, the sticker read: “Expect a miracle.”
And on the right side, it said: “[Bad stuff] happens.” (It didn’t actually say “Bad stuff”, but the noun it used for [Bad stuff] is not one I can utter publicly, at least not here in church. So [Bad stuff] it will have to be this morning. But I think you get the point.)
Now as I said, I read the bumper stickers on the back of that car, and I nodded my head and agreed with both of them. They both resonate with my view of the world. I suppose that might mean that I’m a little mixed up when it comes to the Big Questions of Life. “Honk if you’re not sure,” another bumper sticker reads—and sometimes, I’d have to be one of those doing the honking. As I suspect many of you might be, too. I also suspect that if I were to ask all of you who have life “all figured out” to stand up (which I won’t) there wouldn’t be too many of you standing.
One of the refreshing things about this particular faith of ours is that we say it’s ok not to have it all figured out; not to have ready answers to all the mysteries of the past, present, and future. It’s ok to go on struggling with the questions as long as we need to (which may be, for some of us, all of our lives).
But back to those two bumper stickers:
Expect a miracle. It has a nice sound to it, doesn’t it? Good things can come your way if you go through life with a sense of expectancy.
True enough. Life can bless us in ways we never even imagined possible.
[Bad stuff] happens. It sure does. All too often. For no apparent reason. To people who just don’t deserve it. We have to just accept that it’s part of life, and resign ourselves to it.
We go through life with expectancy in one hand, and resignation in the other. In between these two seemingly contradictory impulses of our spirits stands each one of us and the life each one of us leads. Or, as the Beatle John Lennon once put it: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
If there’s one thing that we all should have learned by now it’s that, try as we might, we can’t plan for every contingency that might come our way. We might try to have it all figured out; to try with all our might to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s; and have a “Plan B” and a “Plan C” all the way to “Plan Zed” (just in case). But we can’t cover all the bases (in baseball, there are just three; in real life, there are an infinite number). None of us really knows what’s written about us on the next page of the great Book of Life, let alone in the next chapter.
Unless the ducks we’re trying to get all lined up are clay dummies, they’re not going to stay lined up for long. They’re going to fly off as soon as we’re not looking, because that’s what real ducks (let alone real human people) are made to do.
Of course, there are places in life when we try to plan for the future, and rightfully so. There’s much wisdom in laying aside a little for a rainy day, and sometimes our very survival means storing up grain (either actual or metaphorical) for the winter. If any of you have ever seen the portfolio I assemble before making the most rudimentary road trip (let alone an extended intercontinental journey)—maps, guidebooks, hotel confirmations, floor plans of various airports and train terminals with the bathrooms circled in red, lists of parking lots in the area I’ll be visiting, various resources all the way from AAA to Zagat—you know that I’m no enemy of advanced reservations. I sometimes like to say that dad I been the once accompanying the Blessed Virgin Mary, Jesus would have been born in the Nazareth Comfort Inn or similar level accommodations.
There are places where planning comes in handy. There may even be a place in businesses (maybe even, shudder, in churches) for that much maligned (by me mostly) beast known as “strategic planning”—when it’s done gingerly and sensitively (so as not to fence the Spirit, and so as not to reduce human beings to mere things; to mere “human resources” to be exploited). And when it’s done with a full humility that knows that anything we plan with all our human cleverness today can be rendered completely irrelevant tomorrow in the light of the greater realities of life.
So, I remain skeptical that such long term views are possible when dealing with complex human institutions (and that probably means any institution with more than one person in it: I mean, a marriage, in our culture at least, only has two people in it—and can you think of any institution more complicated at times than a marriage?). Some things—like walls—can be built brick by brick. But most of the time, I prefer to see life more as a field of wildflowers that we’ve been blest to come upon in the meadow. It’s a free gift of grace. We haven’t done anything to build it or earn it. We should just experience it, and savor it, and enjoy it. Expect a miracle.
But be careful because some of those plants you come upon in the meadow might well be poison ivy; because, remember: [Bad things] happen.
Sometimes, life is given as a garden; and we, as good gardeners, have our roles to play. We plant the seeds; we till the ground; we water and fertilize; and try to get rid of all those weeds. We do the best that we can, for we know that, things going as they should, a well-tended garden will produce an abundant crop. A well-tended life will be, more likely than not, a life that is worth living.
But in gardening, too, there are factors beyond the control of even the most dedicated and competent gardener: wind and rain; hail and pestilence; rodents; scavengers; a freak snow storm. Then—puff—all that we have labored so hard for is gone; the harvest so carefully planned for is destroyed.
So, we do our best. We plant and tend our seeds. We do our jobs as best we are able. We raise our children with all our hearts and all our strength. We build our lives on the highest ground we can find.
Then we stand humbly before the Mystery. We stand humbly before that Great Gardener, whose face we have not seen and whose name we may not know.
Life is what happens while we’re making other plans.
But life happens. We are alive. And maybe, that’s enough.
Life, sometimes (often), is not a happy thing. According to the ancient Greeks, the dust from which we mortals were made was moistened by the tears of the gods. Sorrow is, so to speak, embedded in the very clay from which we are formed. This may not be an easy truth for all of us perky, optimistic, upbeat, modern men and women to grasp. But if we’re honest, I think we all can say that there is evidence from our own lives, to one extent or another, to testify to its truth.
Very simply, the question isn’t whether sorrow will come our way, but rather how we will respond when sorrow comes our way. How will we respond when the unexpected happens, when life happens while we’re busy planning all those other contingencies?
We’re free, of course, to respond in different ways when life throws us for a loop. We can try to deny whatever grief we feel, or we can be defined solely by our grief. We can cling to it; let it rule the remainder of our days.
Perhaps you remember old Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Jilted at the very hour that was to see her wed, Miss Havisham attempts to freeze life at the moment just before her greatest disappointment. She orders all the clocks in the house stopped. None of the decorations or furniture are to be disturbed. The table remains set, as though for guests, and Miss Havisham herself remains clothed in her decaying wedding gown until her dying day, as she retreats into a fragile, tiny world of denial and despair.
But denial can’t really stop the clock. It can’t bring back the loves or opportunities we’ve lost. It can’t rescue that which has been taken from us. If we deny that our lives have been profoundly changed by sorrow, then there’s nothing we can really learn from it, and our experience will have no meaning. To learn from sadness, we have to feel it, experience it, first.
A second response is to try to “grin and bear it”. We paint a shallow happy face over it; we try to paste a perma-press smile over the pain, and trudge through life as best we can. We try to pretend that our pain, our loss, is “no big deal”. We play act that we have it “all worked out”, that we don’t want to “burden” others with our problems.
The trouble with this approach, I think, is that after a while martyrdom becomes a rather wearisome and joyless way through life for most of us. It doesn’t feed the spirit, and a martyr’s wounds probably heal very slowly. Those who try to manage their grief all by themselves probably have a much more difficult time than others experiencing some kind of true and deep inner healing. It doesn’t allow the redeeming touch of others to work its cure. When we’re thrown by life, we owe it to ourselves to reach out honestly to others, and not just try to “muddle through” in isolation.
A third reaction is to allow life to turn us bitter, to harden our hearts. When I see the unspeakable tragedies which so many people have had to face in life, this seems to me to be an all so understandable reaction. But it’s probably not the healthiest one, over time. Bitterness can eat away at the human spirit like battery acid.
When faced with a heartrending tragedy, it’s natural to feel anger—and lots of it. We want someone to blame; someone to curse. That’s only natural; it might even be healthy. But if we get stuck in the rage, we kill our own spirits. If we stop at the anger and the bitterness, then we don’t allow the new possibilities for life to come to birth within us.
Another way we can react when life disposes of our plans great and small is to stand back and yield. Yield to change. Yield to the Spirit of Life, which will go on, and will surge forward, however tragic the experiences we have been through. Our choice is not whether life will go on; life is going to go on, whatever we do. Our choice is always whether we will go on with life.
Life teaches us important lessons of endurance and perseverance. We can learn that we are stronger than we ever imagined possible. When I see the grief and heartache that some people have had to withstand in life, I marvel at their powers to go on living. They are, to me, like the heroic Maurya in the great Irish playwright John Synge’s Riders to the Sea. Maurya (from the Greek word moira, which means fate) loses five sons and a husband to the ravages of the sea—the same sea which supports them and feeds them and keeps them alive. Yet, she survives. She goes on living. We’ve all known people like that, and their spirits continue to inspire us.
Life also teaches us to hope. A hope which has been tempered in the harsh crucible of real life is so deep. Hope is not a delusion of easy answers and ready success. It is, rather, our living declaration that human life can have profound meaning and purpose. Emerging out of sorrow, our hope can be stronger than it might ever have been otherwise.
This is the bottom line of our experience on this Earth: The human spirit is stronger than any hand which fate can deal, because our human spirits are part and parcel of the indestructible fire that burns at the center of all creation.
In Hemingway’s novel, The Old Man and the Sea, the old fisherman Santiago is finally defeated by the sea, as defeated he must be, perhaps. He has fought a long and arduous battle to land the Great Fish, but has, in the end, failed. Exhausted and beaten, he goes home to his little shack to sleep. And he dreams—not of failure, not of defeat—but he dreams of mighty lions. He has been beaten; but the spirit of victory still abides within him.
So there abides within us all that spirit which lives—which loves—wherever
the road of life may lead.