Pastoral Commentary: The graciousness of uncertainty
Kim Hurley Andrews, Pastor for Stafford, St. John, Antrim United Methodist Churches
Years ago, my sister introduced me to a guy I’d never met, on my own. His name was Oswald Chambers. Cheryl gave me this little pink leather book containing his writings, which were dictated by his wife, as he preached. Oswald lived a hundred years before me but, somehow, almost every day that I read, he had something meaningful to say to me, on that particular day.
I read each day’s writings over and over, sometimes marking in the margins. (I know; not everybody can bring themselves to do this. I like to add my thoughts so I can see what I was thinking, where I was, a year or more ago.)
One of my favorite days has this heading: “The Graciousness of Uncertainty.”
I don’t know how much you like to count on things being the way you expect them to. How much you like sameness, whether you crave consistency. Live long enough, interject enough other people in your life, and you might find your Jenga tower wobbly at best, or at times, even tumbling down.
I was like this, once upon a time, leaning toward the familiar. I suppose because my parents provided a pretty stable, perhaps even boring household to grow up in. Now I see that as a gift. Back then, it made me yawn.
I assumed, when I went to college, that the class listing guidebook wouldn’t change, semester to semester. I was a novice. So I sprawled across the bottom bunk in my dorm room that September day, and drafted out what each semester would look like, over the next four years. I was pretty proud of myself, when I was done.
And then, something changed. The whole schedule, the following semester!
No one told me about this! I stomped and fumed, inside. Certainly my parents couldn’t have told me; neither had been to college. My older siblings had moved beyond the place where I was, more than a decade before. I was alone, trying to find myself somewhere in this new wilderness. I was beginning to learn about the graciousness of uncertainty.
But still, I sought out the things I could count on. I wanted to know what was up ahead, long before I reached it. I got married, and as we anticipated the birth of our first son, I dove headlong into “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” But not everything happened as they said it would. We all made it through that birth experience full of health. But life, I was learning, did not happen “by the book.”
If you had hopes of walking across the stage this month, and still hope to, maybe this fall… if you’re the parent of a graduate, or if you’re just worn out from having your world upended this spring, I have some good news for you: there is a graciousness to be found, in uncertainty.
I’m going to take you now, to April 29, in Oswald’s little devotional book. Here, he leads with a smattering of scripture from I John 3:2: “It does not yet appear what we shall be.”
Most of us look at uncertainty as a bad thing, he writes. We think we need to reach some end, some goal, but that’s not how it is, in the spiritual world. The nature of belonging to Christ is that we can be certain… of uncertainty. (“Everything changes,” my mother-in-law, my own mother, and anyone with wisdom and age will tell you, often. Trust me on this.)
This is why we don’t get too comfortable with where we are, Oswald says. (“We don’t make our nests anywhere.”) We think we can imagine what something must be like, long before we’re there. But of course, we can’t.
If you want to live a “commonsense life,” you will aim at certainty. If you want to live a spiritual or Spirit-filled life, you will live in gracious uncertainty. We can be sure about God, always, but we can also, at the same time, be uncertain about everything else—including how we will live and what we will do, next. Honestly, aren’t you convinced at this point that you really don’t know what tomorrow will bring?
Rather than seeing this as something to be sad or wistful about, Oswald says, we ought to view our uncertain lives with a certain amount of “breathless expectation.” We may not know what the next step will look like, where it may take us, but again, we can be certain of God. When we immediately become abandoned to God, and do whatever thing God is calling us to, next, he will be sure to fill our day with surprises. Hopefully, good ones! All he is calling us to, is the next step.
I like good, solid theology as much as the next theological nerd, and I treasure the faithful work of men and women from the early Church. However, if I put too much emphasis on some creed, Oswald warns, I run the risk of not being constantly attentive to what God is doing in the now. When we are only focused on all that he did in the past, “we do not believe God; we only believe our belief in him.”
Our goal is to become like children, with childlike faith. Spiritually, we are to have a mind like theirs, that waits in anticipation to see what God is up to, this time.
If all the emphasis is on our beliefs, rather than on the One we believe in, we become pompous, too self-assured, too certain we already have all the answers. Dare I say… unteachable? Crusty, dusty, and worn? Back to believing that everything, including God, is predictable.
Jesus, Oswald writes, wants us to believe in him—not believe certain things about him. When we leave things up to the Lord, we don’t know how he will break through, nor where he will enter. We can be certain, however, that he will come. Our only job is to remain loyal and true.
When we are rightly related to God—the definition for what being truly righteous is—we will wait with bated breath, leaning in, our noses touched to the glass. Waiting and watching. Wondering, “What is he up to, now?” Our lives will become less fearful, as a result. More filled with joy, and hope, and spontaneity. Like an expectant mom. Waiting to see what God will do, next.