The Rev. Elsa A. Cook joined the Old First family in October of last year. At that same time, she started her ministry with St. Peter’s UCC in Knauertown, PA as an interim pastor. Next month, she wraps up that work and looks forward to joining her military husband in Fort Leavenworth, KS.
I am surrounded by boxes. Two months ago, everything I own was packed up by strangers, loaded upon a truck and transported to our next home in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Just three months ago, my beloved and I celebrated our marriage. It was wonderful. It was everything you could ever hope that such a blessing could be but after that epic celebration, we have been surrounded by boxes and bags.
None of it has gone well. Almost everything arrived in Kansas. There is still one bedside table that I can’t seem to locate amid our various pieces of church rummage sale furniture. Otherwise, it seems to be all here. We are almost unpacked and so the dust seems to have settled.
I am, however, not ready to rest easy. From the moment the movers arrived, there were a series of frustrated phone calls to dispatch. Things were not packed as they should have been. Too many items were untagged. There were going to be delays. Lots of delays. Whatever plan there may have been to pack and load in x many hours has been ruined.
That frustration is familiar. It’s the frustration that I hear from the people in the church I’m serving here in the Pennsylvania Southeast Conference as interim pastor. They want desperately to know the future of their church. They want me to order the steps. Likewise, my husband wants to create a system for unpacking. He wants to strategize before we rip the tape off of any of the boxes. It is indeed a familiar frustration that I see on my new husband who tackles every problem through the tactical training he’s received from his years of service in the US Army.
It’s frustration that even I feel especially when I travel. This is so true that just last week in the midst of our wedding celebrations, a good friend asked me to share my honeymoon itinerary because she knew that there was a document waiting for me on Google Docs with a detailed plan for our honeymoon because there is nothing that I hate more than sitting around and agonizing over what we should do next.
I love a good plan. Not everyone loves a good plan. I can see it on their faces. They are not so Type A as I am for I really do love a good plan. I plan for everything except in ministry.
In ministry, I have learned what I can’t yet apply to the rest of my life. It is simply this: there is no plan so strategic or detailed that will not eventually be ruined by Woody Allen’s wise words, “if you want to make God laugh, tell [God] about your plans.” I typically roll my eyes at such trite theology. I tense when others quip such words but it’s true. There is always something that will surprise. There is always something that couldn’t be anticipated and so that the best that we can do is pray. Really. That’s not just a thing that pastors say but a way of being in the world.
It’s the No Plan Plan. It’s something I am trying to embrace while I complete my work in Pennsylvania and prepare to move to Kansas. It looks just like my house did when the movers arrived that terrible morning when they loaded up the truck. There are stack of boxes in every room from floor to ceiling. Nothing was organized. There were still things unpacked. You could make as many frustrated phone calls as you might want calling upon God the Almighty, but at some point, we’ve all got to agree that whatever plan that we thought there may have been is no more.
It’s a story you know well if you’ve been around the Protestant Church for a while. It’s usually told with bitterness. For the church had big plans after World War II. There were babies being born. Tons of them. So much that it was called a boom. The church saw this as the future, believing that population would only increase. They built new wings on their building. They expanded their programs in complete confidence in the certainty of this imagined future. If that was ever the plan, it is not the plan anymore. Call dispatch, if you like. I’m fairly certain that the line will be busy with other frustrated prayers. Or embrace this new possibility — this unknown future that lies ahead — as a spiritual practice. It’s what I am trying to do as I move from the neighborhoods surrounding Old First to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It’s the practice I’m trying to introduce to the congregation I’m serving.
When we cannot know the future, we can only ask questions. Questions like: who am I? what is God calling me to be and do? and who is my neighbor? Being faithful does not mean that we know what is going to happen, but instead that we haven’t given up. We haven’t thrown in the towel but are still trying to be attentive what God is doing not by jumping into planning mode but slowing down enough to remain present to the holiness in this very moment. And there is some glory. There is lots of glory even when there is no clear plan into the future. There will be delays. We will never quite feel finished but the No Plan Plan means that we’re listening and we’re ready to respond to whatever God throws at us. May we be so faithful.