By Sharon Gartland

Reflections: Great Plans

I have the audacious habit of assuming I know what the plan is. I try to discern the things I am called to do in life and then fill in all the details of how it will be accomplished. A recent example of this has been my dad’s heart surgery. I am definitely called to be a supportive daughter. I am also called to care for my own family. And then there are the work and ministry opportunities God seems to put in my path.

My plan was to have Dad go through this major surgery right after the holidays. It was not an urgent problem, just one that could not be put off indefinitely. Waiting until January meant I could get through the holidays, pull off my part in the Following Christ 2008 conference that InterVarsity was hosting in December, teach at the university in the fall, and then be a loving supportive daughter to my aging parents. My plans were actually pretty good ones, if I do say so myself.

But as usual, God did it his own way. The heart situation deteriorated and I suddenly had to free myself up to be gone for over a week, at my busiest time of year. Besides the logistics of finding teaching coverage, locating a coffee shop with wireless access near my parents’ house, and organizing life at home, I was simply not ready to emotionally process the possibility of losing my dad. God, however, did not make his plan optional. I tried politely saying to him, “Is there another way we could do this, please?” But it was not to be.

The pre-conference event I was working on involved inviting women to take an in-depth look at Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary had to figure out her call, walk through the unexpected way that the story unfolds, and finally give birth to the one who made a way for her and all of us to walk in the light. One might think that God would pull some strings so that the birth of his son would be as pleasant and stress-free as possible. It seems like a reasonable plan for Mary to receive the immediate full support of her fiancé and the community as well as the provision of the best maternity facilities possible. But it was not to be. Still, I suspect Mary was better than me at trusting God’s plan over her own.

What God’s plan always provides is his “own dear presence to cheer and to guide,” to quote a line from a favorite hymn of mine. As I adjusted my plans to accommodate the needs of my parents, I began to inform God that my tank was on empty. How would I care for others when I had nothing left in the reserves of my own soul? My plan had included time to rest, regroup, and be ready to serve the needs of my parents from a full cup.

A few nights before leaving to join my parents, I was given the gift of a “God dream.” In my dream, I was on the airplane heading to Denver and was served a large glass of wine. I greedily chugged it down, rather like a stressed-out character in a sitcom. When I came up for air, I realized that Jesus was in the seat next to me, holding a giant bottle of the best wine. I held my empty glass out to him and he refilled it, letting me know he would be doing this throughout the whole trip. Anytime my cup was empty, he would fill it up. Sort of like an open bar, only better.

Mary prophetically sang about a God who filled the hungry with good things (Luke 1:53). I am certain she too was puzzled at times by the way events unfolded, but was also blessed by a deep trust in the one in charge. She knew God to be worthy of her trust, and was living proof that he kept his promises. God was literally with her, growing inside her, cheering and guiding her from inside and out. She could submit herself to his plan, knowing she would not be left alone in the midst of it. All that she needed, God’s hand had provided.

My dream was God’s reminder that he would do the same for me, as he had done years before for a young, frightened, unmarried virgin. His plan might lead me through some dark and scary places, situations I was definitely not equipped to handle. But all any of us has to do is remember that the little baby whom Mary gave birth to grew up to be a man who miraculously turned water into wine when supplies got low. His shed blood on the cross becomes our full cup of wine, over and over again, as much as we need.

Does your cup feel empty? Do you, like me, find it difficult to submit to God’s plan rather than your own? Take time to reflect on the advent story and be reminded of the powerful promise fulfilled through God’s infant son. My hope is that we can increasingly learn to trust in God’s plan, knowing he will be there to fill us with the full measure of his presence.

About the Author

Sharon Gartland, OTD, OTR, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Occupational Therapy Program at UW-Madison where her specialty is in developmental disabilities.  She enjoys the combination of teaching, administrative and clinical responsibilities that makes up her job. She is the former national director of Women in the Academy & Professions and continues to participate in the ministry as a volunteer and frequent contributor. She is married to Craig Gartland, a local church pastor and former long-term InterVarsity staff and leader. Together they have four children who are gradually getting launched into the world as functional adults but continue to store a lot of their stuff in the basement. She believes strong prayer practices and a supportive faith community are key to flourishing in career and family life. 

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