Change of Plans

I’m reading to you from The Message translation of Proverbs 16. By the power of the Holy Spirit, listen for the Word of the Lord:

Mortals make elaborate plans, but God has the last word. Humans are satisfied with whatever looks good; God probes for what is good. Put God in charge of your work, then what you’ve planned will take place. God made everything with a place and purpose; even the wicked are included-but for judgement. God can’t stomach arrogance or pretense; believe me, he’ll put those upstairs in their place. Guilt is banished through love and truth; Fear-of-God deflects evil. When God approves of your life, even your enemies will end up shaking your hand. Far better to be right and poor than to be wrong and rich. We plan the way we want to live, but only God makes us able to live it. (Proverbs 16:1-9)

Deciding what to do and making plans to get things done are daily chores for everyone.

Sometimes, the decision-making is easy, and the plans are straight-forward. But, if I went around the room and asked, I’d bet you dollars to doughnuts that each of you once struggled with a weighty decision in your personal or family life, and that some of you currently are struggling to put together the puzzle pieces of a complicated plan intended to get you from point A to point B.

Often the questions at hand are so complex, and the decisions so consequential, that you find yourself paralyzed and powerless to move forward. It is in those deer-caught-in-the-headlights times of frustration and confusion – in those seasons of not knowing what to do or which way to turn – when you just might find that latching onto a Quaker belief called “way opening” will come in handy.

The Quakers are a centuries-old Christian sect whose members believe in the human ability to tap into the divine light that lies within each of us. And Quakers trust that “way opening” is a fruitful means of letting God take the lead when the Holy Spirit touches your heart and mind with disturbing word that some kind of active change needs to take place in your life – but you just can’t quite figure out the pathway to pivoting your life in that new, more faithful direction.

When important life decisions need to be made, you have a wide variety of thought processes at your disposal to figure out what God would have you do. You might jot down a list of pros and cons associated with a particular decision in hope of divine guidance making the right choice clear as day. Or, you might seek advice from friends, colleagues, and family members in the very-real possibility of hearing the voice of God in theirs. Or, if you’d rather not “bother” God with your problems or anticipate not liking what God has to say, you then might just flip a coin and let the odds determine your fate.

Whatever means you choose – faith-based or less so, most of our decision-making practices require some type of intentional and deliberate effort that produces concrete answers and results.

“Way opening” is different.

Rather than doing, “way opening” is all about simply being. “Way opening” demands being still for a period of expectant waiting on God. Perhaps the biggest challenge of “way opening” is feeling like you’re making absolutely no forward progress at all and learning to be at peace with that as you wait for God to make clear the way.

For “way opening” to work as intended, you have to surrender control, summon up patience, and sanction yourself to a place of uncertainty for an unknown period of time. That demands getting comfortable with the uncomfortable – learning to live with doubts, uncertainties and mysteries; resisting the temptation to rely solely on fact and reason; and trusting that all is unfolding in God’s good time.

Easier said than done, right? But hang in there. It’ll worth the wait. Because what “way opening” does is identify ways forward via pathways you might not have noticed had you not been so distracted and preoccupied with actively seeking them. And when God does make clear your new pathways, it often feels like the new way forward magically drops in your lap when you least expect. And, best of all, “way opening” often brings a solution to a problem that you never, ever envisioned – usually the answer to your question that God had in mind all along.

My life, like yours, has had its ups and downs.

More than once I’ve seen my cherished plans unravel in the blink of an eye. The way seemed clear, so I made plans and began to make my moves. And then life happened – a personal crisis, a family problem, a relocation to a new home, and it felt like a door had been slammed in my face.

And, in my stubborn resistance to letting go of my plans and childish insistence on plotting my own course, I’ve more than once gotten stuck trying to force my way through a doorway that God had long ago closed. My feeble attempts to hold fast to my own wants and desires – which I’m pretty sure by that point had morphed into fantasies – prevented me from seeing other doors that God had opened all around me.

But, in spending less time “doing” and more time “being,” which is the underlying premise of “way opening,” I was able to see all kinds of new paths and different routes that, in the end, turned out to be better for me, for others, and – more importantly – for God than the directions I’d once been so hell-bent on following.

“That’s all well and good, pastor,” you might object. “Way might have opened for you, and way might well open for other people, too. But way sure isn’t opening for me.”

True enough. That’s where the patience part of “way opening” becomes crucial. But, from a longtime believer and practitioner of “way opening,” here’s another way of understanding what’s happening when “it ain’t happenin’.”

“I was born a Quaker,” a woman named Ruth says. “And in 60-plus year of living, way has never opened in front of me. But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.”

Ruth’s words trigger chuckles borne from the kind of amusement that comes when a simple truth exposes your heart for the needlessly neurotic mess it has become. Her honesty gives each of us a new way to look at our individual life journeys. And experience has long-since confirmed the lesson she teaches: There is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in your life as there is in what can and does happen – maybe even more!

You might decide, with good reason, that it’s time to move on from your current situation and present circumstances. This indeed might be what God wants for you in the long term. But God will determine your steps, guide your feet, and set your pace, so that you don’t leave where you are any sooner than you should. God might even leave you where you are for the sake of another person you will continue to love and serve until God accomplishes some important purpose in that other person’s life.

Who knows? Only God!

The One who gives us healthy minds to think things through rejoices when our conclusions align with heaven’s purposes. “Go ahead and think,” God says, knowing full well that, if we are honest and faithful in our thinking, the Holy Spirit will bring us full circle back to God. When you focus on nurturing your relationship with God and on caring about the same things about which God cares, God will do something pleasing in your life and use your hands and feet, time and talent, to bless others, too.

So, please don’t hurry through your day. Ask the Lord to go before you, and God will order and regulate your time and activity. You never always know precisely how any particular day will go, which can trigger anxiety, worry, and sometimes even panic. But slowing down and letting God be God on God’s good time makes a life-affirming difference when faced with unexpected and unwelcome events that change everything! Deliberately let God be in control, and courageously let God determine the course of your days.

Doors close, and way opens – all part and parcel of God’s grace in determining our steps. In the end, deciding what to do and making plans to get things done aren’t so much daily chores as they are opportunities to encounter the grace our living God, risen Savior, and effervescent Spirit.

Once again, hear Jesus calling:

I am your Lord! Seek Me as Friend and Lover of your soul, but remember that I am also King of kings – sovereign over all. You can make some plans as you gaze into the day that stretches out before you. But you need to hold those plans tentatively, anticipating that I may have other ideas. The most important thing to determine is what to do right now. Instead of scanning the horizon of your life, looking for things that need to be done, concentrate on the task before you and the One who never leaves your side. Let everything else fade into the background. This will unclutter your mind, allowing Me to occupy more and more of your consciousness.

Trust Me to show you what to do when you have finished what you are doing now. I will guide you step by step as you bend your will to Mine. Thus you stay close to Me on the path of Peace. (Sarah Young, Jesus Calling, p. 143)

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during morning worship on Sunday, May 16, 2021.Commentary and reflection by Lara Holliday, Parker Palmer, Christopher Smith, and Sarah Young inform the message.

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