Summary: For World Communion Sunday: God restrains us from destructive behavior; but even if we ignore that, His hand continues to hold us back.
You may have noticed that I am a creature of habits. I do what I do according to the clock and by the book. If it is time for staff meeting, I will be here, seldom early, sometimes late because of traffic, but I will be here. It’s on the calendar, so I do it. I am a creature of habits. If it is October, and my carefully computerized To Do list says that I should put away my summer clothes and get out the fall wardrobe, into the closet I go, regardless of the temperature. It’s what the list said to do! I am a creature of habits and a devotee of the To Do list. I literally print out a To Do list every day. I prioritize everything and pursue each item doggedly throughout the day. If you ask me to do something before its time has come, I will resist you. If you require me to do something that is not on the list, I will complain that I cannot do it. Why? Because it’s not on my list!
My wife calls that compulsive. I say it is being disciplined. Whether it is compulsive or disciplined, I am a creature of habits and a devotee of To Do lists.
But every now and then my disciplines are interrupted. Every now and then the compulsions are frustrated. Something will happen that will throw my carefully constructed plan into chaos. A member of the church I served as pastor stopped by my office to tell me about another church member who was in trouble and who needed an intervention. This was someone way out of control, and really needed someone to step into his life and call him out. That did not easily fit into my plans. I got my schedule and started to muse about whether maybe on Thursday, right after a committee meeting, or Saturday, after discipleship class, or next week – and her hand came down on my list. She put her hand down on the papers and said, “Listen. Some things just don’t fit your plans. Some things have to be done, whether they are convenient or not.” And that hand stayed right on my To Do list until she had captured my full attention. That hand stayed right on my calendar compulsions until I had been freed from my self-imposed chains. That hand stayed right there until I saw that there was a claim on me more compelling than my habits and more important than my usual paths. That hand stayed on me.
It was not just the hand of my parishioner. It was the hand of God. For the God who searches us, knows us, discerns our thoughts, and is acquainted with all our ways – that God lays His hand on us to hold us back from headlong plunges into meaningless routine. The God who knows us better than we know ourselves demonstrates His love by holding us with His hand and keeping us from foolishly wasting ourselves on things that are not productive.
We will never know what the Psalmist had been up to when he spoke about the God who would hem him in and lay his hand on him, but it feels as though he had been trying to live out of his own wits. It feels as though the psalmist had been trying to plan his work and work his plan, but somehow he always found himself blocked by the restraining hand of God. “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” Our psalmist got it – that God will lay His hand on us to hold us back from our own stupidity and to restrain us from doing something destructive.
When we moved here from Kentucky in 1971, we needed to move quickly. I was to begin my ministry at the University of Maryland in March. We had made our plans. We would come here in late January and find a house, move the first of March, and be all set. It was right there on my calendar, ensconced on my To Do list. Today, go find a house. Well, you can guess that it was not that simple. First, we encountered a little reality called weather; in January it snows on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and my determination to press forward in my little lightweight car vanished when tractor-trailers passed me on both sides simultaneously! We didn’t get here on the day we planned to get here. And then, when we did begin to look around, my car ran out of gasoline on some suburban road, and I had to knock on a stranger’s door to ask for help. That was not in the plan! All of these things should have been signals, but we plunged ahead. We looked at several houses that we liked and thought we could afford, but there was one thing wrong with all of them: occupancy ninety days after sale. Ninety days?! No, we needed thirty days! The calendar said thirty days. The To Do list said thirty days. Another hand laid on our plans.