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If there is one word to describe the world right now, that’s it. We are immersed in Uncertainty. Climate change. A Global Pandemic. Culture Wars. Political division. Drought. Derechos. Random violence. Daily revelations on social media. The economy. Add to that your own personal uncertainty—job changes, growing kids, aging parents, that twinge in your right knee on your early morning run. What once seemed rock-solid-certain now seems to be fractured and shifting.
The United Methodist Church faces fracturing and shifting too as churches consider disaffiliation. Being United Methodist in Iowa once felt as “all in” as the annual church supper. “United” was more than our first name. It was how we felt when we came together at Annual Conference. We are (were?) a big franchise. Drive across Iowa and you will see small road signs shaped like stain glass windows on the edge of just about every community announcing that there is a United Methodist church nearby. That is changing. (I wonder what will happen to those signs. Will someone take them down?)
Take a moment to acknowledge the grief.
Uncertainty is driving the bus. It’s a good time to get to know the bus driver.
The first problem with Uncertainty is it points us toward the future and the future is THE BIG UNKNOWN. That alone is intimidating if not downright scary. We’d like to control the future, and if not control it at least have a good sense of what it will be like. But the future is as uncertain as a phone call in the night, a patch of ice in January, the outcome of the next election. We just don’t know.
A curious thing about us humans: any conversation about the future invariably reverts to the past, the way things once were. We tend to embellish the past more than it deserves. Weren’t there more children in church back then? Weren’t more people willing to help? Weren’t the pews more comfortable?
That points to the second thing problem with our bossy friend, Uncertainty. It is always accompanied by questions. Most of which have no answers. Why was there a pandemic? Will there be another one? Why isn’t “We’ve always done it this way” working anymore? What will the UMC look like five years from now? Two months from now?
Weren’t things once more certain? Actually, I can answer that question. No. There was never more certainty. We may have thought so. We may have lived within an unconscious privilege that made us think all was certain. Being white, male, CIS, financially comfortable, can place us in a social stratum that creates a sense of certainty, but it blinds us to the uncertainty so many others face. Certainty based on privileged social status is artificial. It sets us apart from real life.
In our longing for certainty, we may have taken up residence in a comfortable place called Denial. Denial is a big country we all visit sometimes. Sometimes we escape to the Land of Denial just to rest for a time, like binging on a season of Ted Lasso. Sometimes we go there to protect ourselves and others when the truth is too harsh, like when we tell someone it will be all right after a loved one has died, when it really won’t be all right, at least not for a long time. Sometimes we just hide in Denial Land because it's easier and we can delay facing reality, like when you have already spent too much on your credit card this month, but you really want to go out for dinner and one more charge on your card, can’t make that much difference, can it?
Like hiding the McDonalds bags under the car seat. Uncertainty and Denial are close friends.
I know Uncertainty is uncomfortable. As much as I wish I had answers, I also know that those answers might not make us happy. I once had a fantasy that I could line everyone in the world up and tell them how they should behave (according to me, of course.) It never happened. Even Jesus couldn’t do that.
Uncertainty is not new. It plagued Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Joseph, Peter, and Paul. They manipulated, negotiated, hid, ran, tossed and turned as their dreams spoke truth to them, denied, and faced identity crises. We are in good company.
Uncertainty can infect us with anxiety, that nervous feeling that all is going wrong unless we fix it. “Fixing it,” whatever it may be, becomes our mission. Reprinting the bulletins because of one typo? Sure, I am on it. Making sure Mrs. McGillicuddy is happy about the paraments? Got it. Finance Committee meets tonight. I will run home and bake a coffee cake this afternoon. Maybe that will help calm nerves. Even though we try very hard to orchestra everything, deep down we know we can’t. That truth leads to more anxiety. Move faster. Do more. Fix it!
Uncertainty can convince us that there is someone to blame for all of this, the difficult parishioner, another clergy, the other political party, or a vague catchall under the heading of “The Conference.”
The biggest danger of Uncertainty is grabbing on to some sort of certainty with a tight grip. I can grab on to my view, my way, my interpretation of scripture or the Book of Discipline or my sense of what a church should be with a clenched fist. And with a tight-fisted mind set, I lose sight of important things, like grace and mercy and the people around me I have been commissioned to love. I can be so convinced I am right, I forget to talk to you, or break bread with you, or that I shared communion with you. I can stop seeing Christ in you.
A little humility please. Afterall, the whole world is facing Uncertainty.
One more thing Uncertainty does (and I bet Uncertainty hates this part). Uncertainty clarifies. We human beings are not designed to do all, be all, know all. That’s God, not us. So faced with Uncertainty, we are forced to sort, to prioritize, to decide what is important, and what can be set aside.
Even in these Uncertain times of fracturing and shifting, there is still something rock solid. Isaiah advised “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn and to the quarry from which you were dug.(Isaiah 51:1). I know. Beautiful right? It’s my current favorite verse.
We come from a very solid place. We’ve been quarried, dug up from between thetectonic plates, hewn, and set down in these uncertain lives and uncertain times to live and hopefully love.
When I was five or six my parents bought me a green Schwinn bike. It had a bell and a basket. It was shiny and beautiful. It stood proudly on its kick stand on the front porch. I admired it, but I was afraid to ride it. Sitting on that bike, trying to gather the courage to take my feet off the ground, that scary wobble that happens when a bike is going too slow, scraped knees, that was my first encounter with Uncertainty. One Saturday morning my parents took me and the bike to a little slope beside our house. A little slope—this was not a sadistic act. They encouraged me to climb on the bike while my dad held on to the fender. My hands gripped the handlebars. My feet were solidly on the peddles. And my dad let go. Down the slope I went. My parents were yelling “Peddle. Peddle! Balance! Go! Go!”
I also heard someone saying “Wheeee!” I have always wondered if that was God. I learned to ride a bike that day.
I know these are uncertain times. I have lots of questions and my own fictional view of the past. I miss the “all in-ness” of the UMC. I am tempted to FIX IT even though I am not sure what “it” is. And to blame (I have a list of names in my head.) I imagine Uncertainty pushing us around and sneering at us.
But what if God is in the Uncertainty, using it as a tool to bring us to a new time? What if God is forcing us to sort through the unhealthy stuff we carry around? What if uncertainty is God’s way of clarifying?
What if God is saying to God’s little rockheads (us) “Wheeee!”