The old way doesn’t cut it anymore
The long freight train of COVID-19
Have you ever had a freight train throw a wrench in your schedule? You’re already running late as you’re driving toward a crossing, when just before you get there, the lights start flashing and the bell starts clanging. You hit the brakes, and as far as the eye can see, there’s train.
It’s a frustrating feeling. Now imagine it happening while you’re running to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Yup, it really happened, to more than 100 runners in Pennsylvania, as a train crossed the marathon course—veeerrry sloooooowly.
For one of those runners, that race was his last chance to qualify for Boston. He missed qualifying by eight minutes.
And here’s the thing: race officials had been in touch with the railroad company prior to race day, and had received absolute assurances that train runs would be suspended during the race. Yet those assurances meant nothing when freight car after freight car rumbled across the course’s seventh mile, stopping the race.
Emily Lund, PreachingToday.com; “Slow Train Crosses Lehigh Valley Marathon Course, Damaging Finish Times,” NBC Philadelphia, 9-14-16
I think we can all agree that the current pandemic feels like one long freight train interrupting our plans. And so this week, I want to take you to a New Testament Scripture that, quite frankly, probably for the first time in our lives, this passage will make sense. It will ring true, and personally hit home.
Seeing Scripture with new eyes
I’m finding a number of Bible passages are taking on new impact now, because they were written to people who were under duress. That is true of this week’s Scripture. So open your Bible or Bible app to the book of James. We have unpacked James chapter one and five on dealing with pressure and on how to pray. Today from James chapter 4:13-17, let’s explore the challenge of planning in a pandemic. Here’s a passage that can help us to plan wisely and with peace. With your Bible or Bible app open we read, James 4:13-17…
“Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”
Doesn’t that ring true in a deeper way today than even a year ago? We really don’t know what a year from now will look like, no less what tomorrow might bring. It’s a strange time, unsettling for those of us who until now had highly predictable calendars and routines. Much is now up in the air, and we don’t like it. We don’t want it. We want things back to normal.
This is precisely who James is writing to—in his case, 1st-century, Jewish believers in Jesus, who, scattered throughout the vast Roman Empire, found themselves to be a tiny minority facing pressure from extended family who considered them traitors for following Jesus. They were experiencing some persecution from pagan Romans, who considered Christians’ allegiance to Jesus over Caesar to be politically dangerous. So for those Christians in their day and for us in ours, it was an unpredictable time. Hard to plan with much sense of certainly. It is to this setting—the times in which we now find ourselves—that James the brother of Jesus, led by the Holy Spirit, writes, answering three questions about planning for the future. Sam Ng’s study on this passage jump-started my thinking, and I’m eager to bring it to you.
3 questions for planning during a pandemic
The three questions James answers are, first, until now, how have we typically made plans? The second question he answers is, what’s the problem with how we usually go about making plans? And then the third question James answers is moving forward, how should we approach planning, and moving ahead into an uncertain future?
Let’s turn to the first question: Until now, how have we usually gone about making plans? If you’re taking notes…
Until now, many of us have planned as though we’re in control.
There’s an old joke that says, get two Germans together, and they’ll engineer something. Get two Koreans together, and they’ll start a church. Get two Americans together, and they’ll start a business. Americans are known around the world as entrepreneurs. We make plans and make things happen. The way we usually think is captured well by verse 13, where James describes us thinking and saying…
“Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” – James 4:13
That’s how we have always operated. But our norm has been interrupted. One of every six small businesses in America has gone out of business since the pandemic hit. Travel plans and vacations have taken a huge hit. Speaking with a couple of immigrant friends whose extended families are overseas, their usual visits are off the table. No idea for sure when they’ll be able to come together again.
Our usual ability to make plans and make things happen…has hit a ‘freight train crossing,’ if you will, and we can’t see how long the train is going to take to pass by.
Here’s what James is hinting at: talking about planning “Today or tomorrow” is his hint at planning that doesn’t include God. He’s talking about making plans separate from God’s plan, planning as though we’re in control of the future. Stating is as, “we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money” is our normal way of planning, but James is hinting that it’s insufficient.
Let’s not end up living with regrets
In an interview with Esquire magazine, actor and film director Clint Eastwood and his son Scott both agreed that they never look back on life, that they always look forward. But later in the interview, as soon as Clint’s son left the room, he admitted something, saying…
“You always wonder if you could’ve done more. You could’ve spent a little more time with [my son], a little more attention. I had that regret when my dad died. Because it was sudden. I didn’t know; it wasn’t like he had an ailment or something. I used to live close enough to him that I could’ve dropped in a lot more. I never did and I was busy, always busy, doing all the films.”
Michael Hainey, “Clint and Scott Eastwood: No Holds Barred in Their First Interview Together,” Esquire (8-3-16)
There’s an honest moment of realizing that none of his planning and organizing actually put him in control. And that brings us to the second question James answers, which is the problem with how we usually go about making plans. James gives us a…
Reality check: No one has ever known what the future holds—so to imagine we do is arrogant.
James continues, verse 14…
“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes…you boast in your arrogant schemes.”
James 4:14, 16
This guy’s a real killjoy, isn’t he? Hang in there, he’s taking us someplace good. But to get there, we have to face up to reality. Here it is: no one ever knows what the future holds. To imagine we do is foolish and arrogant. One of the silver linings to be found in the midst of this pandemic is to believe what James points out—that the future isn’t ours to try to control.
What Jesus has to do with this unsteady time
Most of us crucify ourselves between two thieves: regrets over what’s past, and fears over our future. Jesus came to release us from both of those thieves. His death relieves us of guilt over what’s past. And his resurrection and reign are meant to deliver us from our fears about the future.
We’re all longing to know what the ‘new normal’ will look like. James reminds us, “That’s not in our control! It’s not for us to know. It’s above our pay grade.”
5th-century Christian leader Augustine put it this way:
“God will not allow man to have a knowledge of things to come;
for if he had prescience of his prosperity, he would be careless;
and if understanding of his adversity, he would be despairing and senseless.”
Augustine (354-430 AD)
There’s some wisdom from the past, regarding how to face the future: If we knew for sure beforehand that wealth was on the way, we would become reckless. If we knew ahead of time that hardship was on the horizon, we would despair, we’d lose our sanity. So Christ relieves us of our regrets over the past, and he protects us from worries over the future. No one gets a crystal ball to see the future with certainty. Yet so many of us, in so many ways, grasp for certainty about this thing that God protects us from knowing.
Experts at failing to predict the future
As an example, in his book titled Future Babble, Dan Gardner explores our obsession with self-proclaimed “experts” who predict future events. The book draws on a 20-year analysis of more than 25,000 predictions from almost 300 “experts.” Like these:
A hundred years ago, the British journalist H. N. Norman proclaimed that “there will be no more wars among the six great powers.” The same year he made that prediction, World War I exploded.
In 1968 the president of Anaconda Copper Mining Company predicted that his company would be successful for 500 years. But in less than ten years, fiber optics replaced copper, and his company was out of business.
In 1974, Nobel Prize-winning professor Paul Ehrlich confidently made this future prediction, quote, “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”
In 1990, MIT economist Lester Thurow declared that Japan was “the betting favorite to win the economic honors of owning the 21st century.”
In 2008, the experts at Goldman Sachs predicted that oil prices would surge to over $200 per barrel within six months. Instead, the price fell to $34 per barrel.
What that 20-year study of more than 25,000 predictions by “experts” found is that as a group, the “experts” did little better than “a dart-throwing chimpanzee”—and sometimes considerably worse. We want certainty about the future. So we believe those who claim to know it, despite their abysmal track record. James tries to help us to live in the present rather than presume upon the future.
Trevor Butterworth, “Prophets of Error,” The Wall Street Journal (4-30-11); Ronald Bailey, “It’s Hard to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future,” Reason (4-5-11); submitted by Jerry De Luca, Montreal West, Canada
Living today in light of forever
And he anchors this reality check in the brevity of life, the uncertainty about how long you’ll live, again asking, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
Someone writes about turning on the TV just as a life insurance commercial came on. The actor appears onscreen all somber-looking and explains the benefits of their policy. And it all drives toward the moment when he says you should sign up “in case the unthinkable should happen,” meaning, “in case you die.” But the thing is, James reminds us, death isn’t unthinkable; it’s inevitable. Reality check. And hang in there. This isn’t all bad.
There’s the true story of a pastor who gave a sermon about living in light of eternity, and the sermon ticked off a very wealthy member of the church. That member invited the pastor over for lunch at his gorgeous, palatial home, then after lunch they went for a walk on the property. The passed through elaborate gardens, woodlands, and farm. At the end of this impressive tour, the owner challenged the pastor, asking, “Now are you going to tell me that all of this does not belong to me?” His pastor shrugged and suggested, “Ask me that same question a hundred years from now.”
Bennett Cerf, Leadership, Vol. 1, no. 2.
17th-century Christian leader Richard Baxter leaned into James’ reality check and put it into a short poem that goes like this:
“Man always knows his life will shortly cease,
Yet madly lives as if he knew it not.”
Richard Baxter (1615-1691)
The Holy Spirit speaking through James urges, live these days in light of eternity. With the daily bread Jesus teaches us to pray for, give your best today to your family and work and friends and neighbors—trusting God with the unknowable future.
So let’s recap. So far, we’ve seen that the usual ways we’ve made plans is as though we are the ones who control the future. Second, we’ve seen that it’s not for us to know the future, and it’s arrogant to imagine we do. That brings us to the third and final question James puts before us, which is, how can we plan during a time of unpredictability? In a season when our plans are constantly threatened and interrupted, how can we face the future? Again if you’re taking notes, here’s James’ third answer to the questions before us:
Moving forward, let’s hold our plans with open hands, trusting the Lord to lead.
“Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’…
If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” – James 4:15, 17
James concludes with the wise alternative to planning the usual ways. Verse 13 describes how we typically plan, presuming on the future. Verse 15 suggest how we ought to plan, trusting the Lord with the unknowable future, welcoming his leading along the way.
Are you humble enough to accept that God might have a plan for you that’s different from what you’ve imagined or expected or planned? Are you teachable enough to accept that God is in control of the future, and we’re not? And do you believe that God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love him, as Romans 8:28 declares?
We’re the kids in the car
Every parent can tell the story of loading your kids in the car to hit the road for vacation, only to have them an hour in ask, “Are we there yet?” You know it’s a 14-hour drive to Orlando. They have no way of understanding that. With regard to our future, James says enjoy today, and trust God to lead into the future. He’s better than Waze at getting us where we need to go!
We have a Father in heaven who loves us. You have a heavenly Father who loves you, and knows what you need even before you ask.
We have a Savior who has been given all authority both in heaven and on earth, that is, history is His story, in his able hands.
We have the Holy Spirit, God’s personal presence and promise, with us today and in whatever the future brings.
Do you want greater peace in this uncertain season? Then face the future like this, hands open, plans held lightly. Clinging tightly to imaginary certainty, failing to submit our plans to God who knows the future, is foolish, short-sighted—sin, James insists.
So how do you do that? What does this even look like? Speaking personally, I’d really like to take my wife and daughter on a trip out West before our daughter starts college next fall. I really want to do that. But as of today, there are too many unknowns. I’m not used to that. But in this passage, this reality check from James, I find some comfort.
Planting shade trees under which others will sit
So let’s pivot to what it can look like to live today in light of eternity, to act decisively today despite not knowing the future. The best picture I’ve heard so far comes from Elton Trueblood, who says, “A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.” You’ve made a start on living a meaningful life when you plant shade trees under which you know full well you will never sit. But others will. And they will thank God…for you, for how you lived your days in light of the future, the next generation, and eternity.
We actually know someone who did this. His name is Jadev Payeng. Jadev lives on a large island in a river in India, that due to constant soil erosion was at risk of becoming wiped away. Over a 70-year period, more than half of the island was swept away, and the prediction was that it would take only the next twenty years for it to all be swept downriver. At 16 years old, Jadev decided to do something about it.
He began planting trees. For the next 30 years, he personally planted trees across an area the size of 15 football fields. And what started out with a few bamboo stalks has grown to become a full-fledged forest. The Molai Forest has now naturally become home to Bengal tigers, Indian rhinoceros, reptiles, deer, rabbits, monkeys and several varieties of birds. A hundred wild elephants spend six months each year on the island, where they have birthed 10 calves in the safety of the forest that he planted. Still today, Jadev Payeng is planting shade trees under which he knows that he will not sit. But others will. Today, Jadev is known as the Forest Man of India.
What are the shade trees that you’re planting in this unusual season?
You don’t have to pretend to have this all figure out or pretend that you’re in control.
We don’t know exactly what the future holds. And that’s okay. We’re the kids in the car. And thank God, He’s at the wheel. He will lead us.
Let’s go ahead and make our plans the best we can, so long as we hold them with open hands, open to redirection, trusting the Lord to lead us along the way.
And in it all, let’s be sure we’re planting shade trees for those who will come after us. Let me wrap up with a few shade tree seedlings we need to be about planting today, tomorrow, and each day to come—from 1 Corinthians 13 and Galatians 5, let’s devote ourselves to planting the seedlings of:
Day after day, let’s keep coming back to these fundamentals. In a season of uncertainty, we can be certain that these are worth pursuing, worth planting. Would you pray with me?
Father God, we thank and praise you that you know what we need even before we ask. We thank you that even as we, though we wrestle with evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will you give good gifts, and the Holy Spirit, to those who love you? We need you, Lord. We pray together for the hurting and shaken. We ask you to set each one’s feet on the rock of your care for them. Give each one a new song to sing, a hymn of praise as they see you come through for them. Defend each one against the enemy’s attacks. Fill each one with your Holy Spirit, and with him, renewed trust in you.
More than this, we pray for our impact on others, the legacy we are building even now. Keep bringing us back, Lord, to the basics of our faith. Keep us alert to opportunities to plant shade trees for those who will come after us. By how we live in this uncertain time, may those who are watching us be drawn to you. Hear our prayer and be honored in us, we ask, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen!
God bless you this week and make you a blessing!