What happens when all your plans land right in the toilet? When everything you were working towards gets upended and now you’re forced to start over? It happens to many of us and maybe even often enough that it is frustrating.
My colleague, Fr. Brett Hoover, CSP used to say that his favorite image of God is “God is the one who pulleth the rug out from under my feet!” And I suppose it is one of mine too. Mostly because I know when that happens, God is offering me something else. God is offering me an opportunity to look at things in a new way when plans unexpectedly change. But most importantly, God is asking me to use more of my skills and smarts to be successful or even just to stay sane.
Take my friend, Fr. Tom Ryan who visited me in Buffalo recently. He was supposed to lead a retreat by Niagara Falls but, the retreat center didn’t get an overwhelming response to the invitation. This was the first leg of a series of traveling that Fr Tom had in store. Now his plans were all thrown off. So what did he do?
He turned disappointment into a time for retreat. He visited friends near Niagara Falls (like me), he relaxed and he simply used the time differently than he had expected. Rather than be frustrated by rebooking and rescheduling he eased his way into a new way of thinking. And he had fun to boot.
One of my heroes was the great basketball coach, Jim Valvano. Jimmy V as they called him once said in a radio interview, “You know, I once lost my top player to an injury, another good player went down with an illness, I had to redshirt a top prospect and we were facing a team who was far better than us when we had our BEST players on the court. But you know what? They pay me to win anyway. I need to be successful despite what the odds might say.”
I’ve remembered that quote for more than 20 years now and it always inspires me. Valvano is of course, correct. At the end of the day, we either have succeeded or failed in our endeavors and that is how our bosses will judge us. There can’t be any excuses. They don’t want to hear them. It doesn’t matter that the star is hurt, the team needs to win anyhow. They pay Coaches to be successful anyway.
This attitude is hitting me directly at the start of the semester. I had a bunch of things I initially thought would be great for this upcoming semester all planned out. And then slowly many of them just went down the tubes. It was disappointing. A close colleague at the University was even offered another position and left our school very quickly. It felt like whiplash when I found out, as I had planned to do a lot of collaboration with him this year.
But that only meant that God was calling me to new places. I’ve been more intentional about meeting students at masses and I have gotten more involved on campus. I needed to simply invite people into more intimate relationships with me and with our parish. After all, that is what Jesus did. He went down to the docks and called to a bunch of fishermen that he did not know and he somehow got them to drop their nets and follow him.
If only people today would do that, our problems in the church would be over.
But therein is the problem: the issue is not with the people we’re trying to reach… often the issue is with US. Numbers are low in our church because, let’s face it…some days the church is kind of a drag. We’ve got infighting and scandals and negative press. We always seem to be picking a fight with politicians and others we disagree with instead of more peacefully trying to find common ground to work on together. Do we ever talk with those of another faith or do we keep them at arm’s length?
Do we spend more time in our offices working on programs that we’ve already developed and have been running for years, or do we spend more time looking outward, meeting people where they are instead of hoping that they’ll come to us?
Let’s not forget that Jesus talked with everyone–at great personal risk to his reputation. Plan as much as we might, things are not always going to be neat in our ministry. And perhaps that’s the good news because it awakens us to new possibilities.
And that makes us much better ministers and maybe better people as well.