July 3, 2011

What Are Your Plans?

Let me have you do something as we begin this morning that I’ve done before to give you some space to get your brains in gear: close your eyes.  When you do, I want you to imagine a scene for me.  Where were you when you first heard about 9/11?  What were you doing?  Were you sitting (or standing)?  What were you wearing?  What was the weather like?  What were your plans for that day?  How did those plans change because of the events of that day?  Sit with that picture for just a minute.  Okay, let’s do the same thing again, but on a different day.  What were you doing on September 10, 2001?  By a show of hands, does anyone remember what they did that day?  I can vaguely remember, but only because I was in my first year of college.  I can remember at least two of my Monday classes from that semester because I had really good professors.  Tuesday, though, I remember in great detail.  My first thing on the day was an 11:30 Aural Training Class (musical ear training).  I spent most of the morning in my dorm room with the TV off working on chemistry homework from the previous day’s lecture which made little sense to me.  After straining my brain for a couple of hours, I headed to my professor’s office to get some help.  As I exited the building on a beautiful Missouri fall day, a friend was passing me on his way into the building and told me that we had been attacked.  I thought he was joking.  I thought very little of it until I got to Dr. Lamp’s office.  He had his radio on, listening to some of the early reports which were still trying to make sense of what had happened.  I asked him if they were serious.  Well, after getting some help on the homework, I went back to the dorm, glued myself to the lounge TV and stayed there until it was time to get lunch and head to my 1:30 calculus class.  My professor for that class—Dr. Howard—was a Christian.  He made some remarks about how unimportant calculus seemed on a day like that and dismissed the class to go and deal with the tragedy however we needed to.  I can still see myself going throughout that day almost like I’m looking down at an animated map of the campus.  Prior to that day I had never given much thought to things like Muslims or air travel safety.  I had had a Muslim friend in grade school who was shy but very nice and I just assumed that all the airplane rides I had taken in my life up to that point (which were many) were safe.  In a way rivaled only by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, September 11, 2001 changed our world.  Nothing has been the same since, nor will it ever be.

Every now and then, though not necessarily on the same scale, something like 9/11 happens to wake us up from our illusions.  What illusions are these?  The illusions most of us carry through life that things as they are now are as they will always be.  The illusions that we can make our plans and set our agendas and count on those things because we are the ones who will ultimately determine the direction of our lives.  The illusions that we are in control of things.  As with last week, this is not a problem unique to us.  James’ audience was dealing with the same sort of problem.  This morning as we near the end of our journey through James, I’d like to look at his words on this issue with you.

You see, then, as now, there were a number of people in the church who had the burden of some disposable income.  They were from the merchant class—the small middle class in the Roman Empire.  Now, for folks from the free lower class that literally lived day-to-day, there was no such thing as planning for the future.  There was no guarantee of having enough money to eat today, let alone tomorrow.  The most exotic travel the free lower class folks ever managed was when they headed off to work each morning.  But the merchant class folks, they were a different story.  They had enough money that they could take occasional days off.  They were wealthy enough that from time-to-time they were able to travel from place to place to conduct business.  Their disposable income allowed them to make plans for the future.  They got to decide how they were going to spend their money, or better yet, make more money, tomorrow.  And when they had laid these plans, they would naturally share them with their brothers and sisters in their community of faith.  After all, why would they not want to share such exciting news?

We have this same sort of stratification in the church today.  There are some folks who work their tails off day-in and day-out and always manage to just scrape by.  There are some folks who go through this life with a hope and a prayer because they don’t make enough money to save for a rainy day.  Others, though, are much more fortunate as we would reckon fortune.  They make enough money to cover all the bills and still have some left over at the end of the month for recreation.  Not only that, but they make enough to save for their eventual retirement and start making plans for the kinds of trips they will take or places they will live or things they will do when they don’t have to work anymore—not a real job anyway.  (For many folks, retirement is when you work just as hard as before you retired, but don’t get paid for it anymore.)  And when they make these plans, the most natural thing for them to do is to tell other folks about them.

In all of this, there is a subtle danger.  As we make our plans and chart our course, it is incredibly easy to fixate on us and our stuff.  Instead of acknowledging the One whose plans really matter, we begin to trust in our ability to make things happen, to sustain ourselves in our current state.  And just like we did prior to 9/11, we let this illusion of security fill our minds and drown out the storms building on the horizon.  Instead of making our plans and putting them in God’s hands, we make our plans without any real thought to what God might be doing in the world around us.  We might give lip service to such a practice, but when the rubber hits the road, we want what we want and we don’t really care what God may or may not have planned.  It was into this very kind of a situation that James wrote the words we are going to look at this morning.  If you have your Bible, open it to James 4:13-17.  As we begin the final major theme of the letter—trials and temptations—let’s see what James had to say to his audience to address a very much modern problem.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’  As it is, you boast in your arrogance.  All such boasting is evil.  So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

This is a pretty tough passage even by James’ high standards.  He starts out with this attention getter: “Come now, you who say.”  This is approximately the equivalent of someone today saying: “Alright people, let’s get serious here,” or perhaps, “Come on now, cut the kidding,” or maybe “Let me hit you with a bit of truth-in-love.”  Basically, James is trying to get our attention to make a serious point that often goes overlooked by most of the people for whom he’s making it.  They are communicating something either audibly or by the actions they are taking which, when subjected to much logical thought, doesn’t cohere with reality. If we keep moving in the direction our words or thoughts are currently taking us, we will find ourselves in a tough spot and we’re not even aware of the danger yet.

So what are these people saying?  They’re saying, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.”  Well what’s wrong with that?  These people are simply making plans for the future.  How many of you have made some plans for the future?  All of us do.  In this country, in this culture, planning for the future is one of the basic things we are all encouraged to do.  How many different TV ads are there by financial planning companies?  There’s one that’s been out for a couple of years in which a giant gorilla is giving an oblivious man all the reasons he should be investing his money and saving properly so he can sit back and enjoy it when he retires.  The ape identifies himself as the “800-Pound-Gorilla-in-the-Corner.”  I’ve been getting advice from my friends and family since my parents first opened an IRA for me years ago to starting putting money away now to be able to pay for the boys’ college and to live on when I retire.  This is simply a part of our culture.  And yet, as we read James’ apparently obvious disdain for this practice of future planning, because of our cultural programming, most of us are totally unaware how unique our economic situation is in the history of the world.

For most of the history of the world, banking and saving for some point in the future was reserved for the super wealthy.  For the vast majority of the population, people worked hard every day to make sure they could eat the next day.  They worked until they physically couldn’t which meant either they were dead or else a burden on the rest of their family until they did die.  Given that life expectancy wasn’t great (especially compared with where we’re at today), the greater likelihood was that people would work until they died.  In this country, however, especially since the rapid economic expansion that came because of the industrial revolution, the phenomenon of disposable income became a reality for the poor masses.  For the first time in the history of the world, a nation developed a sizable, growing, attainable middle class.  All of a sudden (in the scope of world history) people who used to never plan much further ahead than the next growing season when it was time to buy seed, found themselves able to make statements like “today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.”  In other words, they experienced the shielding effect of wealth.  They experienced not only this, but also the insidiously nefarious message that we can rely on our wealth to get us where we want to go.  They have crafted a world of illusions and like we were on 9/10, they blindly roll through this life with the assumption that things are as they will always be.

So then, given all of this, is James against planning for the future?  Is he advocating that folks with a disposable income (which is a really diplomatic way of saying we have more money than we know what to do with) should get rid of this and return to the time when they were literally living day-to-day?  After all, Jesus said that it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than it is for a wealthy person (that would be pretty much everyone here) to get into the kingdom of heaven because of the temptation to rely on their wealth instead of on God.  Furthermore, James’ response to people who carry such a mindset with them is pretty blunt: “You do not even know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”   In other words, in the broader scope of things, our wealth and even our lives are so transitory that planning ahead would seem to not make any sense.  We don’t know if that wealth is going to be there tomorrow, so why on earth would we waste the time it takes out of today to plan on something we don’t really have any way of knowing will still be there?  Why would we make the rather presumptuous move of indicating a worldview which holds that we are able to exert any kind of meaningful control over events completely out of our purview of influence?  In the scope of history we’re barely a blip on the map.  Blips on the map don’t have any business trying to dictate the shape of the map.

Let’s skip the next verse for just a minute in order to talk in a bit more detail about the problem with all of this.  In v. 16 James tells us that “as it is, [we] boast in [our] arrogance.  All such boasting is evil.”  Now, hold on just a minute, James.  Who said anything about evil boasting?  All we’re doing is making plans for the future.  Doesn’t Proverbs, your Old Testament cousin, admonish us with the wisdom that a fool takes no thought for tomorrow?  Doesn’t it paint commendatory pictures of the hardworking ant who saves up now to be able to enjoy later?  This is all we’re doing when we make plans like this.  We are wisely saving up so that when the future arrives we’ll be well cared for.  This isn’t evil boasting.  This is honoring of God.  Except that for most of us, it isn’t.  Let’s think critically here for just a minute.   If you have made plans for the future, particularly plans that include money making ventures or retirement, think long and hard about this.  How much prayer went into those plans?  How ready are you to completely surrender those plans should God call you to do so?  How sad will you be if Jesus returns this afternoon (giving me plenty of time to finish this sermon!) and none of those plans come to pass?  I know the “churchy” answer is, “Yes.  Of course.  I’ll be thrilled if that happens.”  But for most of us, the quickly ensuing thought—kept well under wraps mind you—is: “But that’s probably not going to happen.”  Or worse yet: “But I hope it doesn’t happen.  There are a lot of things I’d still like to enjoy in this world.” I preached a sermon in college in which I challenged my peers with the thought that most of us want Jesus to come back, but only on our time, and only after we’ve gotten to experience everything in this life that we have planned.  I delivered that sermon in the spring before Lisa and I got married.  I can tell you that I was fully in my own crosshairs.

But let’s not think quite so far down the road as the end of the world.  We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.  It very well could bring with it the end of the world, but even if it doesn’t, it might bring with it some other unexpected turn of events that would make all of our plans totally moot.  Consider 9/11 again.  There were a lot of people who had a lot of plans that were completely trashed after 9/11.  All the planning in the world at that point meant nothing.  In Jesus’ parable of the foolish rich man who had a harvest one year that was abundant beyond what he could have possibly imagined, the protagonist made great plans to store up all his wealth and sit on it so that he could take it easy in the future.  God visited him in a dream that night, decried his folly, and announced his imminent death.  All of his plans were for naught.  More personally, Lisa and I were reminded rather poignantly of this recently when out of the blue we received a letter from the IRS informing us that our taxes each of the last couple of years had been in error and we owed them several thousand more dollars.  God has been gracious in providing for us as He always does, but the reminder was clear nonetheless.

The reality is that for many who plan out their future, their first thought is not of God.  They are not concerned with what He might or might not want them to do.  His plans are simply not on their radar.  What they are doing in making such plans, is actually boasting.  It is boasting in their ability or else the ability of their wealth to see their plans through to completion.  This comes through in the words James puts in the mouths of his target audience.  The presumption is that they have control over where they will go in the future—“such and such a town”—the duration of their plans—“spend a year there”—the nature of their activities there—“trade”—and the relative success or failure of their undertaking—“make a profit.”  What James is trying to get across is that we don’t have control over any of those things.  To presume otherwise is to be dwelling in a state of delusion.  It is to be satisfying oneself with the illusions of today.  “I’ve eaten today,” we think, “I can’t think of any reason I won’t eat tomorrow.”  “I’ve been to work and come home today,” we muse, “tomorrow will be just another day at the office.”  I suspect that not a few of the folks who worked in the Twin Towers had that same thought as they pulled into their driveways after work Monday night.  I wonder how many of them thanked God for that day and humbly left the next firmly in His hands.  I wonder how many of them knew about James 4:15.  I wonder how many of us were living with the illusion that life in America was going to go on essentially forever as we knew it on 9/10.

So what can we do instead of this then?  Well, given that the Bible encourages wisely planning for the future in other places, to simply conclude that James is against all future planning isn’t right.  Besides, James lays out for us the proper perspective on planning.  Verse 15: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’”  Well, this makes things easy.  All we have to do is add this little phrase—“if the Lord wills”—somewhere in the vicinity of our verbalized plans for the future and we’ll be okay.   That was really nice of James to give us a neat formula like this.  It’s hard to find similar formulas in the Bible.  Oh man!  Hold that thought.  If formulas like this don’t appear anywhere else in the Bible that’s too big a clue that we shouldn’t look for one here.   Have you ever caught yourself acting out of that kind of a worldview?  “If I just say or do the right things in the right order, I’ll be set.”  Or perhaps: “God likes things to happen in a certain order so if I comply He’s not so worried about the rest.”  Now of course we’d never admit to thinking something so silly as that, but our behavior is a much truer indication of the real state of our belief.  Folks, as you might have expected, James isn’t giving us a formula here at all.  Instead, he is commending a heart-set to us.  We should make all of our plans with the mindset that each day we live is a gift from God.  If He wills to give us another day to enjoy life in Him on this earth, we can pursue our attempts at honoring Him with all the resources He’s given us.  We should make our plans fully aware of how such plans fit (or not) into what God is doing in the world around us.  If He has blessed us with the financial margin to be able to make plans for the future, our first act should be to thank Him humbly and heartily and our second should be to seek His wisdom on how we can best honor Him with said margin.  If it happens that He has called us to honor Him by tithing regularly and using the rest to take all kinds of fun trips, buy cool grown-up toys, and otherwise spend it on ourselves, more power to us.  If we can best honor Him by planning to give all our attention to increasing our margin, get all of, our needs taken care of and then depend on Him from that point forward, let us strive for this with gusto.  But I suspect that if we’re honest, we can find better ways to show Him the honor He is due.

One of these ways, and one I think captures what James is trying to say here, is this: We should make our plans and then put them in God’s hands.   We should make all the plans in the world for the future, the very best future we can imagine.  And then we should take all of those plans along with our personal investment in their fulfillment and put all of it in God’s hands.  We should make the entire thing contingent on what He has in mind for us, on what He is doing in the world around us.  We should make our plans and then put them in God’s hands.  I heard about a man who was very successful in the Real Estate business and had retired to a pretty cushy lifestyle.  Yet he made all of his plans contingent on God’s action in the world around him.  As a result, he sold his nice house in a nice neighborhood in a nice part of town and moved to a rough part of town in a rough neighbor in a rough house.  He set up shop there and started intentionally mentoring the kids in the neighborhood—particularly the boys who were largely growing up with distant, incarcerated, or unknown fathers.  His decision to make his plans contingent on God’s, to put his plans in God’s hands has resulted in a ministry to inner-city families in need of mentoring by Christian folks whom God has helped to have it together.  We should make our plans and then put them in God’s hands.  I’ve talked here before about a couple who mentored me during my youth group days.  They were both doctors—a pediatrician and an OB-GYN.  They could have had a cushy retirement doing all the fun things they never got to do when they were raising their four kids—two of whom were adopted—and working hard to provide for their family.  Instead, they made their plans, put them in God’s hands, and made several lengthy trips to Kenya to serve in a small mission hospital there.  We should make our plans and then put them in God’s hands.  And lest you think James is only talking to folks at or near retirement, when the founder of Mile High Ministries in Denver, CO and his wife were in the process of starting the ministry some twenty years ago, they moved with their two young kids from the nice suburbs of Littleton, CO (where Lisa and I lived during our time there) to an entirely black, mostly poor, high crime neighborhood in downtown Denver in order to be present where God was working in the world around them.  We should make our plans and then put them in God’s hands.  I use these examples only to get your attention.  God is at work in the world around you.  He has given you some pretty remarkable resources so that you can be involved in His work and still be able to have enough for yourselves.  He wants you to plan with all the wisdom He gives.  He simply doesn’t want you to forget that He’s God and nothing else comes close to fitting that description.  And when we make plans with the attitude James describes here, we make that very mental omission.  We should make our plans and then put them in God’s hands.

And here’s the challenging part about all of this: you know it now.  You are now responsible for the knowledge James has just given us.  You can’t claim otherwise.  You can’t vote present.  You can’t plead the fifth.  You know and you have to do something with it.  This is what James is getting at at the end of the chapter: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  In other words, now that we know that we should make our plans and then put them in God’s hands, to do anything else is sin.  For us to lay plans for the future that really don’t include a hefty consideration of how God is involved in the world around us as well as how He is calling us to be involved is to be intentionally disobedient of Him.  We should make our plans and then put them in God’s hands.

Here’s why I know this is so important.  Tomorrow in each of your lives, something really important is going to happen.  It may not seem to compare with something like 9/11, but it is going to shape you irrevocably to be more or less like the person God created you to be.  It may be something big.  It may be something that seems totally insignificant.  But it is going to happen.  And if you have made all of your plans so fixedly that there’s no room for God’s Spirit to slip in and make sure you go in the direction He desires for you, you are going to miss it.  But, if you have made your plans and then put them in God’s hands such that you are ready on a moment’s notice to drop everything and go in the direction He sends, you will experience the blessings of obedience in ways which, where you are sitting now, seem to be beyond all logical reckoning.  God has plans for you that are quite simply beyond anything you have even known to imagine.  We as a church are all about helping you get there.  Don’t let your plans get in the way.  Don’t forget that He is God and your entire life is a gift of His abundant grace.  Nothing else in this world can or will sustain you beyond where He’s determined—not money, not cars, not trips, not image, not reputation, not anything.  My friends, don’t wait for another 9/11 to shake you loose from your illusions.  Make your plans and then put them in God’s hands.