In the movie "Evan Almighty," God, in the form of Morgan Freeman, has only begun his mission to convince Evan, played by Steve Carell, that his mission in life is to build an ark for an upcoming flood. God is preparing Evan for his special purpose by delivering the wood and tools he'll need for his king sized boat.
Evan remains unconvinced, telling God that all this ark building didn't really fit in with his plans.
"Your ..." God smiles and sputters as he laughs the last word, "plans." Then God has a good old belly laugh as Evan smiles in confusion.
Surely, our plans must make God chuckle from time to time. All our plans, neatly mapped out in immediate, intermediate, and future categories. All our hopes and dreams, daydreamed over while we do the things we must do now.
I'm sure the people in Haiti had plans. The people in Chile had plans. The people in China had plans. Then the earth moved beneath them, and their plans, immediate, intermediate, and future, came crashing down. They didn't plan to be living in the streets. They didn't plan on losing loved ones. They didn't plan on starting from square one to rebuild - to make new plans.
"Life can change in an instant," my guitar teacher, Rusty, told me the other day. I was visiting him in a rehab hospital where he's recovering from a stroke. This is not where he had planned to be a few weeks earlier, but here he was, tooling around in his wheelchair, hoping against hope that he can recover enough movement in his right arm to keep playing his beloved guitar.
Rusty is familiar with how blindingly fast life can change. He lost his youngest son in a car accident two years ago - an instant that forever changed his life, as well as his faith. Suddenly, God wasn't as benevolent as he believed he once was. Instead, God was unpredictable - perhaps a bringer of tragedy.
Rusty is like another friend of mine - I'll call him Joe - whose relationship with God was already on shaky ground when he lost his grandmother. That relationship crumbled at his grandmother's funeral, when his mother suffered a stroke during the service. She would never completely recover - and neither would my friend's faith.
While Rusty is still willing to trust in God, my other friend gave up his faith. If this is what God was like, he wanted no part of him.
I asked Joe to tell me about his view of God, and his description was familiar - God was a loving God that was supposed to take care of you and rescue you from suffering and pain.
"Joe," I told him, "God hasn't disappointed you. Your idea of God that has."
We have unrealistic expectations about God, and who can blame us. The Bible tells us that God is a rock, a mother hen, God is love, our protector, savior, and provider. How can a God like that allow tragedy - and yet, how often we find ourselves picking up the pieces of our shattered plans.
Certainly, God is all those things - but God is not our personal manager, charged with the task of keeping us safe from harm and sadness. Even Jesus was not immune. What makes us think we're so special?
Over the years, I have learned to not cling to any image of God, because I will be disappointed. Now, when I think of God all I can say is, "God is ..." I cannot end the sentence, even to say that "God is love," because once I box God in, even in love, I will always be disappointed.
Ending that sentence is the same as making plans. I've put an expectation on God - one that God will never live up to - because it's not God's job to make sure my plans are realized. Instead, it's my job to make sure God's plans are realized - that I use each of my moments to help those in need - to bring healing to those whose plans have suddenly crumbled to the ground. Saying "God is ..." brings me into the present moment, where I can be God's most effective servant.
As I sat on Rusty's bed, I picked up his guitar to show him a new song I had been working on - one by Kenny Chesney that calls us to the present:
I’m alive, and today you know that’s good enough for me
Breathin' in and out's a blessin' can't you see
Today's the first day of the rest of my life
And I'm alive, and well
Be here now - that's the best plan we can ever make.
The Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge is the associate pastor at Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia, SC, and is leading a new parish extension called Jubilee! Circle. She is also the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass.