I believe it’s Woody Allen who is credited with saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
I always found this to be a little condescending. (Morgan Freeman’s God character in Evan Almighty really does just laugh at him when Evan mentions his plans). Nevertheless, it communicates a truth I’ve seen play out over and over again. The usual meaning behind the phrase is that God has greater (and more informed) plans than we could ever cook up. It reminds me of something that has been true for me – both as a minister and as a parent. The best things that happen are the things I never planned.
In all such instances in my life, the only common denominator is that I had merely opened the space in which things could happen, but never planning or anticipating what did happen.
That doesn’t bode well for me. I’m what they call a Type-A personality. I’m organized and I plan. This whole thing about the Holy Spirit being as unpredictable and uncontainable as the wind (John 3:8) is a little nerve-wracking.
Two years ago, my son, who was 3 at the time, was sick with a fever. It was close to bedtime and he was sitting with me on the couch, looking pitiful. I had recently bought a children’s New Testament for him (it’s called The Beginner’s Bible—I recommend it for young children). I picked it up and started reading. Each story is about 2 or 3 minutes long. After reading several, I asked him if he was finished. He said, “No, keep reading.” So I read a few more and asked the same thing. “No, keep reading.”
We ended up reading the entire thing. Every single story, cover to cover. It may have been his first real introduction to the life and teachings of Jesus, and it remains one of the most meaningful times I’ve spent with him.
I don’t plan such things or even expect them to happen. All I did was open up a space where such a thing could happen. If I had asked my son to do this or tried to force it to happen, it wouldn’t have.
As a pastor, I see the same thing in congregational life. Things I try to plan or “make happen” are usually met with disappointment and frustration. But the best and most exciting things that have happened in my congregation have come from within the giftedness or passion of someone else when they felt that our church was a good and acceptable place to explore it. The best and most transformative moments of dialogue, understanding, and reconciliation have come when we simply opened space for such things, not knowing when or if something would happen. This is how the Holy Spirit works.
This idea has gained a lot of traction and is producing lots of books. One such book is called Organic Community by Joseph R. Myers. He contrasts the ideas of “master plan” vs. “organic order.” The book talks about how true and transformative community cannot be manufactured or controlled. We can only create space and opportunities for it to emerge. He writes, “We often have little control over precise direction. We do have some control over the substance of the journey.”
For me, this has profound and sometimes unsettling implications for things like ministry and parenting, for at least two reasons. First, we don’t direct paths; we define space (which must sometimes include enforcing boundaries). It’s easy to find examples of what happens when parents try to direct paths and control outcomes. I can see it across the street, on the news, and in my own home. The best case scenario is begrudging compliance. More often, rebellion. Second, creating space for those things I don’t plan—defining the “substance of the journey,” as Myers put it—requires me to actually live out the values of the space I’m trying to create. I can’t stand at a distance and direct the project as a foreman. I’m a part of the work myself. The difference is between me saying, “Here’s what can happen here,” vs. “Here’s what you are to do.”
There’s another clip from the movie Evan Almighty that I’ve always loved. Evan’s wife is talking to God, who’s disguised as a waiter. At one point he says to her, “If someone prays for patience, do you think God just gives them patience? Or does He give them the opportunity to be patient?…If someone prayed for family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does He give them opportunities to love each other?”
So my prayer has been that God would give me the strength and wisdom to create space for those things the Holy Spirit will do that I could never plan myself, and that I would have the serenity to accept that if I try to plan this thing out, I will only frustrate myself…and God.