Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage (Psalm 20) transports me to the Scottish countryside of Robert Burns, where the poet is lamenting the fate of the poor country mouse whose home he has just inadvertently destroyed with the plough. If you haven’t read “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough,” you have surely heard or said a phrase from one of its stanzas – the best laid plans often go awry – which, in the original Scottish brogue, goes the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley. I thought of the Burns poem when reading verses 4 and 5 in the Psalm for today – May God give you the desires of your heart and make all your plans succeed. . . May the LORD grant all your requests.
I have to wonder, what world was the Psalmist living in? I sure don’t live among people whose plans have all succeeded; I also shudder at the prospects of a world where all our plans did succeed and all our requests were granted. But not to worry, in the world I live in, most of the schemes and dreams and strategic plans I’ve been party to, like those of the Scottish field mice, have gang aft agley – gone awry.
The Burns poem also puts me in mind of those so-called Scots-Irish descendants of mine, who were neither Scotch nor Irish, and whose plans hardly ever succeeded, and whose homes routinely got plowed up. They were actually called Borderers, and were an ethnically mixed and diverse collection of hard-living folk who survived on the border of Scotland and England. Caught between the crossfire of the 500 years of warfare between these two countries, they managed to create a common culture. When the wars ended, the British sent the Borderers into Ireland, in hopes that these rough and resilient country folk would subdue the troublesome wooded people of Ulster. When the Borderers did just that and started creating a thriving economy of their own, the Brits didn’t like the competition and drove them out again, this time to the New World, where they settled in the Appalachian mountains and came to be known by the misnomer Scots-Irish.
The ploughs of progress won’t take five hundred years to make the best laid plans of the Appalachian Borderers gang agley. The gangs of gated communities and golf course development are seeing to it that small sustainable farming communities go agley, and the coal companies who feed our country’s addiction are burying communities and miners alike in the process. Again, I don’t know who the Psalmist was thinking about when he prayed that God would grant thee according to thine own heart and fulfill all thy counsel, as the authorized version of the Bible bearing the name of the Scottish King James who consolidated the empire and expelled the Borderers puts it. It seems like the wrong people, the oppressing folk who put their trust in chariots and horses, are usually the ones who get their hearts’ desires granted. The border people of the world, those caught between the crossfires of this power struggle or that, certainly don’t get their requests granted very often, unless their request happens to be the presence of Jesus. Well-laid schemes to be in the company of Jesus are sure to succeed for these dream-deferred folk, because they are the people Jesus gravitates toward, tragic figures like Lennie Small in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, displaced, dismissed, discouraged, filled with unrealized hopes and best-laid plans gone awry.
In contrast to the large, imposing tragic figure of Lennie Small, though, Robert Burns’ field mouse puts me in mind of the Borderer-like but mouse-sized people in Terry Pratchett’s books. The wee free men as they are called are suspicious of the whole notion of planning. Rob Anybody, their fearless leader, finally submits to putting together what he thinks is a plan. Having learned to write the letters, PLN, he figures he has the planning process down pat. His quote is one of my favorites – We have a Plan! Now we just have to figure out what to do… I suspect that is the kind of plan that gets God’s blessing.
Ach, ’tis a good plan.