The Scottish poet Robert Burns is probably a poet almost all of us are familiar with, even if we don’t recognize his name. Have you ever gotten together with friends on December 31 and at the stroke of midnight sang Auld Lang Syne? If you have, you have sung a Robert Burns poem.
A line of Burns’ that you may be even more familiar with is this: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain for promised joy.”
A century or more after Burns penned those words in his poem “To a mouse,” a Prussian Field Marshall named Moltke put them into the context of combat saying, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
Both are telling us the same thing: no matter how well we plan or strategize, everything changes when the rubber meets the road.
When battle plans drawn on a map become real people engaging in life or death struggles the plan doesn’t survive.
We can plan all we want, we can script it down to the tiniest detail, but when the machinery begins to move, when the reality sets in, more often than not those plans change, they must adapt to the new reality or be swallowed up. “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
So just to give you a little more insight into how my mind works, as I was thinking about this idea of “battle plans not surviving first contact” I couldn’t help but think of weddings.
Love is a battlefield, or so the song says. Weddings are expensive things. Horribly so. Dresses and suits and great halls. Food for hundreds. Beautiful cake and beverages galore. Gifts for attendants and centerpieces for tables. Rice, or bubbles, or a releasing of doves. Transportation and pictures. DJ’s and bands and photo booths.
There is an awful lot that goes into planning our modern wedding celebrations, and it can be staggeringly expensive. I remember seeing “Bridezilla” type shows with Bri a few years back where the bride just had to have two dresses for the wedding. One for the ceremony and one for the reception and both costing in excess of $10,000 each.
For a long time now we have been fed a steady diet of fairytale wedding nonsense. This diet has caused weddings to escalate from small family affairs to giant week-long festivals in exotic destinations.
The plans get more and more elaborate, the dresses and suits more and more costly, all in an effort to plan the perfect day. The perfect day, with the perfect dress, and the perfect pictures and the perfect party.
But no wedding survives first contact with reality… right?
With all of those moving parts there is bound to be something that falls apart. So the bride and groom have more and more stress added to them as the day approaches and then they spend the day waiting to see what goes wrong and where. They anticipate and they agonize and they forget to be there, to be present in the moment.
One of the first things I tell couples who ask me to do their wedding is that a wedding is just a day, it happens and it’s done; marriage is a different story altogether. I tell them that premarital counseling is something we do to help make sure that they are looking and thinking and planning beyond that one day. That they are not merely trying to plan a great party but that they are working at making a loving and lasting marriage.
At the rehearsal, I usually do another version of this where I tell the bride and groom that things are going to go wrong on the actual day.
Grandpa Fred is going to be in the bathroom at the exact moment he is needed for pictures. The floor runner might get a tear in it. The flower girl may stand the center aisle picking her nose during the vows. One of the attendants may pass out. Or things may be fairly smooth.
But regardless of what works and what doesn’t at the end of the day, you will be married and that is the most important part. Like Christmas isn’t about the presents, the wedding isn’t about the celebration, it is about the marriage, the life that they will have together.
And I tell them, in no uncertain terms, that no wedding plan survives first contact with the wedding day. We have a good laugh, and we all get to relax because of the truth, that in the end, we will accomplish what we really came here to do. The couple will be married and starting their new life together.
We are not all that dissimilar in the church. We like to have our plans drawn out to anticipate what is going to happen. And that is all well and good, so long as we remember that no plan survives its first contact with the reality of the event. And we have to be ready to adapt, to change our thinking, to realign our priorities – or we will find ourselves mired in disappointment and in feelings of failure.
When Jesus’ disciples began preaching the gospel, it was a gospel that had a great amount of urgency to it. The disciples had been hanging out with Jesus; they saw him ascend into heaven, and they had heard the promise of his return.
And so they assumed that Jesus meant he would be back real soon.Surely many of them anticipated Christ’s return within their own lifetime, so the church spread and grew and people watched and waited for Christ to return.
As the days and weeks gave way to months and years with no return of Jesus, people started to worry. Many had walked away from Judaism and other religions to follow this Jesus. And many of their friends and relatives had done the same or had shut out those who believed. And then, other believers, family members, friends, neighbors, began to die.
Not of persecution, not a martyrs death, but the death of old age, of an accident at work, of a severe illness. And those early Christians had some worries, some big concerns.
First they wanted to know what happens to their friends who have died before Christ’s return? Are they just out… too bad so sad? Are they in some weird limbo state? What is going to happen to them? And more importantly, what is going to happen to me if I die before Jesus comes back?
The second thing they wanted to know came right on the heels of that question: When exactly is Jesus coming back? Right!?
We hear that one a lot. Every few years it seems someone claims to have figured out the date of Christ’s return from cracking some secret bible code or another and the countdown clock begins.
These were urgent questions, important questions, and Paul answers them in his first letter to the Thessalonians. It is his first letter to the Thessalonians and his first letter to the church historically. It is about 20 years after Jesus death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, around the year 50 CE.
The letter contains a lot of what we might consider Pauline boilerplate. That is elements common to all of Paul’s letters to the churches. The greetings and the praises and thanksgivings for the faith of that particular church and Paul’s desire to visit them again soon.
What makes this first letter to the Thessalonians unique, other than being Paul’s first, is that it specifically addresses those two issues.
What happens if we die before Christ comes back, and when exactly is Christ coming back?
To the second Paul gives the only answer that he can give, the only answer any of us will ever get when we ask about God’s schedule… it is not for us to know the day or the hour or the season. It is for us to watch and wait and be ready.
The question about what happens when we die before the second coming though is interesting. Paul tells the believers in Thessalonica that those who have died in Christ will rise first.
That in fact, they will know of Christ’s return before those who are alive. So not only are they not out, but they are the first in. One of my favorite lines from Paul comes in the middle of chapter 4 where he explains why he is telling them about the dead in Christ rising first, he does it to let us know that we “do not have to mourn like others who have no hope.”
Essentially telling us that we can grieve, but we grieve differently; we grieve like those who have hope, which is vastly different than those who have none.
So when our plans fall apart, when Jesus doesn’t come back before our loved ones pass, it is ok. We mourn, but we mourn with hope, a hope that those who have died are going on ahead of us and we will meet them again.
I talked about weddings earlier. When Bri and I got married it was simple. Her dress was simple and inexpensive (at least compared to the ones I’ve seen on TV) my suit was also simple and inexpensive.
Our reception was in the church basement. We scheduled our wedding to coincide with the church’s tent meeting so we could utilize extra seating under the big tent in the yard.
Church folks cooked our meal for us, and we had M&M’s for our centerpieces. It was a simple plan. And I don’t remember much of the day but I do remember our plan for the first few years of our marriage.
To get married. To move to Oscoda where she would start her first appointment. To wait until she was ordained to start having our two children. All of that went well.
Bri was about 4 months pregnant with Michaela when she was ordained. And then we planned out the right time to start trying for number two so that they would be two years apart.
Because that would make our niece Celia two year older than her brother Daniel, who was then two years older than his cousin, our daughter, Michaela, who would then be two years older than her brother Carl.
It was all going to plan. Just about perfect.Lots of moving pieces but we had planned well. I had finished my undergraduate studies and was plucking along at seminary. I had lost a bunch of weight. Life was good.
And then it wasn’t.
At ten months old Carl was diagnosed with Leukemia. And we went from planning out the next 5 years of family life together to planning out how to make sure one of us was always at Mott with Carl so that he was never alone. And how we could make whichever one of us was there as comfortable as possible in such a place.
All of the planning. All of the dreams. They had to be adapted to the reality of the situation. We could no longer expect the plans we laid out on paper to reflect what reality was going to be.
I remember a point when we thought we were pretty sure Carl had beaten the cancer. I actually began planning the party. I designed a banner that said “Carl Kicked Cancer’s Keister.” I was all set to order it when we got a call from the oncologist explaining to us that Carl wasn’t in remission. Actually the cancer was even stronger and more aggressive than it was before. And so I didn’t order the banner.
We went back to Mott after a much too short week home and we got back in the trenches. In the end, the only way Carl escaped that cancer was in death.
Friends we grieved; we grieved and we mourned (we still do). But we did not mourn like those who have no hope. We mourned in full and sure knowledge that we will see Carl again. That Carl is still being cared for and loved. That folks, is why Paul can say things like, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, [and] give thanks in all circumstances.”
Because in the end we are with Christ and we are with each other. There is a lot of evil in the world, and that evil wants us to live in fear and to live in misery, it wants to steal our joy whether that misery comes from chronic pain in our joints and muscles or from the loss of dearly loved family and friends.
But joy – joy is where we live. It is our home.
And homes are messy. Home is where the rubber hits the road and the plans fall apart.I don’t know about you but sometimes there is yelling and screaming in our home. Sometimes you trip over a cat, sometimes you trip over a three-year-old pretending to be a cat, sometimes you get burned taking a pan out of the oven, sometimes you sit in silent tears after getting a phone call about a relative passing away.
But at the end of the day, when I look at my family, at my home, when I let all of the other stuff go, all I see is the joy. It’s where we live. It is what we come back to.
Joy is our home. And I rejoice in it always. Joy isn’t the same as happiness; it doesn’t mean that everything goes according to our master plans.
Joy is much, much deeper than that. It’s what we feel in spite of everything that’s gone wrong; and sometimes it means we smile even when we have no reason to, and sometimes it just means we find the strength to get out of bed each day.
Joy is knowing that, no matter what goes wrong, it will all be all right in the end. I tell my couples coming to get married, “If you’re married at the end of the day,it was a perfect wedding.”
And I think that life is a lot like that: it doesn’t always go according to plan – sometimes in really gut-wrenching ways… but I believe that, at the end of the day, love wins. Love gets the last word, not pain or grief or death. But Love.
And that’s what gives me hope. And that’s what gives me joy. That’s the home I keep coming back to, the place I find the strength to carry on.
May you come home to joy, and to hope, this holiday season, too. Amen? Amen.