Has God got a plan for you? I’ve touched on this question in the past, but it’s come up again with renewed anxiety because one of our two local hospitals, Walla Walla General, is closing its doors on July 24. Shutting down the campus includes affiliated clinics, physician offices, and home health care services. A little over 400 employees will be let go, not counting employees of contract services.
It’s not that the community will suffer loss of quality hospital medical care. The larger St. Mary’s Hospital is near by. Except for the emergency department, they can absorb demand for hospital treatment. Several physician clinics offer almost every specialty. With luck, most displaced workers will find jobs in the health care sector. Nevertheless, General will become a vacant, lifeless campus filled with lifeless equipment. Yes, the highest quality care will still be available at St. Mary’s, but there’s a subtle difference in the way the two offer their services. It seems like a small one, but it has a huge effect. St. Mary’s is in the business of producing and selling quality medical care to those in need. General’s is a ministry providing sanctuary for physical and spiritual healing to all who enter its doors. To be sure, each has Christian roots. St. Mary’s was founded by missionary nuns, and continues to be a part of the Catholic affiliated Providence health care system. General was founded by Seventh Day Adventists, and is a part of the Adventist health care system. However, St. Mary’s and its Providence parent better understood, perhaps, the business of producing and selling hospital services. In the changing environment of health care economics, General’s way became a money losing operation that could not be sustained, so it will close. With it the community will lose a place where God’s grace and presence was infused in the every act of medical healing, but never thrust in the face or down the throat of anyone. It’s a loss that extra beds and more physicians cannot replace.
With that said, you can understand the level of anxiety it has created in the community. As an Episcopal priest, I’ve had an enduring relationship with Adventist centered General as a patient, committee member, and occasional chaplain to staff, so it was not unusual for me to be among those setting time aside to listen to emotionally charged concerns about what was happening. The most common thread was an appeal to God’s plan, for surely God has a plan, this is a part of it, and everything will work out OK – won’t it? What do you suppose each person meant by their appeal to God’s plan? Have you ever said something like that? What did you mean?
My theology says that God’s plan is revealed in scripture and worked out through the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a plan for salvation in which our individual lives are not planned out in detail, only in the sense that in Christ God calls us to follow where Jesus has led. God may certainly call some persons to particular service, but even then it does’t appear that God dictates each event of their lives. Consider the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses as examples. Did God lay out a complex flow diagram establishing the day-by-day events of their lives from which no deviation could be made? Scripture itself says no, that’s not the way God does things. Their stories are filled with questions, doubts, and negotiations with a God who was willing to negotiate. Still, it’s comforting for some to believe that God has a plan for their life, and this time of intense anxiety must be part of it. It’s short lived comfort because there are only two steps forward one can take. One is to figure out what that plan is and follow it with God being maddeningly vague about giving directions. Mess this up and you’re bound for reprobate land. The other is to relax and let God do the work. No doubt the phone will ring, an offer made, or maybe not, but whatever, it must be God’s plan. If nothing else, it’s a way to avoid personal responsibility. Both tend to fall into that form of Calvinism in which predestination takes all the questions out of it. Either you’re in or out, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Wanting desperately to discover you’re among the saved, you have to look for signs of that plan and follow it, or you’re doomed. Or, what the hell, you can’t do anything about it anyway so why worry?
That doesn’t sound right, does it, and it isn’t. But what is right? Returning for a moment to those old stories of the Hebrew patriarchs we can find some clues. God has plans. God created order out of chaos. God established processes, human and otherwise, that lead somewhere. Where? To a new land, the formation of a new people, a new nation, a new way of living together. To a new creation of all creation. What God intends will come to pass, but God accomplishes it through engagement with people who are free to say yes, no, maybe, or can we talk about it. Moreover, what God intends takes place in God’s time that extends hundreds, thousands, millions of years in all directions at the same time, which puts our puny life spans at a disadvantage. It’s not a scope of things we can easily comprehend, and our part in it, if any, is nothing but a micro step.
Well, if not a sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge then the micro steps of my life must be important too. What about a plan for that? If we are serious about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him, then that plan is clearly laid out. “Here’s how I want you to lead your life,” says Jesus. “Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. For additional details consult the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and the Great Commission. That’s the plan. Any questions?”
Well yes, it doesn’t seem like much of a plan. It doesn’t say whether God planned to close General Hospital, or throw 400 health care providers out of work, or what the next step of the plan is. And that’s the frustrating part. God engages with us, but does not control us. The more open one is to engaging with God, the more present God becomes in guiding and guarding our steps, but it’s our responsibility to choose and take those steps. On the other hand, the less open, or more closed to engaging with God we are, the less present God becomes, leaving us entirely to our own devices. Moreover, each of us lives in a time and place inhabited by several billion other persons, each making thousands of daily decisions that may affect our lives in unknown ways at unknown times. On top of that, each of us is affected by the presence and actions of countless generations preceding us. It means chance plays a big role in life, and “Luck be a Lady Tonight” is not among the approved prayers.
None of that is very satisfying to those who want God to work out what is best for them according to his plan because it suggests there is no plan, at least not the kind of plan they have in mind and desperately want. Sitting with an anxious person about to become unemployed who wants to know what God's plan is, is not the time to explore an alternate theology. It’s the time to listen, and hold them in prayer. But here in this place is the time to go back to the basics. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Then take the responsibility to take the next step in your life with God as your companion on the way.