It’s a hard call to make when pastors and church leaders have to decide whether or not to call off worship services. At my congregation we call off church, on average, less than once a year. This is Vermont. We are a hearty state. We expect snow.
Last night we looked at the weather forecasts for the night, and tried to tell how bad the roads would be by morning. Churches in less-snowy areas down the mountain from us were already canceling. We decided to take a “wait and see” approach. But this morning, after literally pushing my door open through the snow, trudging through a foot of it to get to my car, shoveling out, and taking a test drive on the questionably-safe yet most-well-plowed road in town, it was clear; to ask people to come to church this morning would have meant putting them, and others, at risk.
I don’t like canceling church. Most of that is that I love gathering for worship with my church family, but, truth be told, part of it is that it’s hard to set aside all the work and preparation I’ve already done. On the narthex table there’s a stack of untouched bulletins. In the sanctuary there’s a candle on the Advent wreath that won’t be lit today. Back in the fellowship room the coffee hasn’t brewed. And, that sermon I wrote just won’t get preached. I sat in front of the church for a while waiting for anyone who hadn’t gotten word, but, aside from a very few who had missed calls and texts and emails, it was strangely quiet for a Sunday morning.
It’s hard to set aside our best laid plans. What’s true for snowed-out pastors is, I think, true for most. We like making plans, and we don’t like anything keeping us from sticking to them. Of course, sometimes those changes in plans, those inconveniences and distractions, result in something even better that we could have expected.
On the third Sunday of Advent, today, the church focuses on the idea of “joy”. And often churches read the story of Mary, and the holy change of plans that the angel told her about when she learned that she was carrying Jesus. Mary was engaged to Joseph, and an unexplainable pregnancy was bound to change everything for her. And Joseph’s first reaction to the news was to resolve to quietly end the engagement. But both Mary and Joseph ended up responding to the change of plans in unexpected ways. Joseph himself heard the news of what this child would mean to the world. And Mary responded to the news with these words:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for God has looked with favor on God’s lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is God’s Name. (Liturgy of the Hours translation)
What would it look like to greet each change in plans that way? What would it mean to say, “Things aren’t going to the way I thought they would, but I believe God can use this for good.” How would things be revitalized if we viewed change now as a crisis, but as an opportunity?
In my message to my congregation this morning I told them, “stay home, put on some Christmas carols, drink hot chocolate, and give thanks for all God’s blessings, including snow.” I hope that, in their own way, each person found time to worship at home this morning. For me, on a Sunday when I find myself not in the pulpit, but sitting at home by a lit Christmas tree, I remember Mary and the way she responded to the unexpected. A canceled church service is nothing compared to bearing the Savior, but in her response, we can find an example of how to adapt to a change of plans: praise God, give thanks, and say “yes” to what comes next.
Question: When has an inconvenient change of plans turned into something wonderful in your life?
Prayer: God, thank you for snow days. Thank you for unexpected announcements. Thank you for blowing apart our best laid plans, and replacing them with something better. Thank you for inconvenient interruptions that turn into joy. Amen.