All Possible Futures
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | April 23, 2020One of the most common reasons folks reach out to me to talk or to pray is when they can tell something significant is on the horizon, and they’re unsure what to do about it. Sometimes it’s a joyful something; sometimes it’s a matter of discerning a needed change at work or at home; sometimes it’s just putting into words the hard decision they know they need to make. What these have in common is that they’re about preparing for a future she or he knows will be different, even though it’s still largely unknown.
This week I’ve spoken with a couple different folks whose lives are at the cusp of a big decision or transition of some kind, the kinds of unknowns that have a great deal of gravity even without a pandemic afoot. As I talked with and prayed with them, I found myself returning to words I’ve used a lot in different pastoral conversations. They boil down to this: God has already sent the Holy Spirit before us into all possible futures, and already Christ is preparing a place for us there. That ‘place’ could look like repentance, like joyful fulfillment, like any number of things—the particularities of that future aren’t written yet. What is already true is that Christ will be with us there, and we will not be alone.
I want to be clear: this is not God has a plan for you language. I never say that to people because I do not believe it. I’ve seen too much of human suffering and the realities of human agency to believe that each of our lives unfolds according to a plan devised by the God Jesus calls Father. God is too free, too creative, too in love with us for that. To recall Holy Week: it is not God who decrees Christ’s crucifixion, but us and Pilate. It is God who is sovereign even over death and so raises Jesus even after we crucified him.
In short, we human creatures cannot create a world in which God ceases to be God. This is what we see play out between Good Friday and Easter morning, and this is perhaps the very best news.
So: when I say God as sent the Holy Spirit before us into all possible futures, I really mean that the future is unknown and that any number of things are possible, even really bad things. But I also mean that God is so utterly free that, no matter how the course of things goes, God can and does always respond to us with the Truth, the Love, the Way back home given to us in His Son. Neither this pandemic, nor the future it is creating, is part of a script God is willing upon us. (The entailments of that are appalling.) But into whatever future we are headed, God is already sovereign over it. God is already working resurrection there. God is already rolling the stone away.
All these things I say as your priest, and I believe them. As your friend and fellow befuddled and sometimes anxious pilgrim in the time of the coronavirus, I have to do extra work to believe them and also act as though I believe them. Lucy and I are at the cusp of her seminary graduation, moving, getting her ordained, beginning life as a two-clergy household, etc. Even without the pandemic, much would be unknown.
This is a long-looked-forward to transition for us, and it is not happening as it should. I’m angry about that, and beneath the anger is sadness. I’m mourning the fact that I won’t get to see Lucy graduate from seminary. We’ll celebrate it as best we can given the circumstances, but whatever the future holds, it won’t hold pictures of a proper seminary graduation day, of her and Thom and the rest of her classmates in their gowns and academic hoods, smiling and a bit dizzy and ready for a big brunch.
I don’t hold this up as any more or less significant than anything else; it’s just what is mine to carry. It’s one of the pandemic particulars that makes faithful living more difficult than it usually is. I imagine you have your own.
Part of our task right now is to carry our griefs, anxieties, angers and hopes with honesty and faithfulness, for Christ is preparing a place for them, too. What I mean by that is to pray, and to pray from the life you’re actually living, not the life you think you’re supposed to have. Here is an example: when I pray about being sad or angry that Lucy’s seminary isn’t ending with the celebratory bang it should end with, I don’t say to God, “Now I know I shouldn’t feel bad because there are so many other who have it worse off,” etc. This does me no good, and it’s usually a way of diminishing, and therefore trying to escape from, the unwanted emotions I am actually having.
This doesn’t give me license to unfettered drama or self-pity or whatever else. It just means that I’m trying to offer to God—to surrender to God—my heart as it actually is and not the heart I think I should have, which does not exist and is therefore no offering or surrender at all. Giving back to me, little by little, a heart that is more grateful and more peaceful and more steadfast and more holy, that is God’s job, not mine.
“The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Thus the Psalmist (51:18). What is unsaid is that returning to us hearts that are more loving, more faithful, more peaceful, more grateful, more holy even in the midst of pandemic—that is God’s prerogative in all possible futures, no matter what the present is like. The end is always God’s.
 Those beautiful verses in Jeremiah 29 where God says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” occur in a prophetic book premised on the fact that things in Israel have not gone according to plan.