Sermon: The Gift of Uncertainty

“The Gift of Uncertainty”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
1Corinthians 13:11-12
Feb. 14, 2016

The Word in Song: “Call to Lent”


On Friday I was headed to Atlanta to have lunch with my friend Melissa Allen. We have been friends since the third grade. After she moved to California when we were in high school, we lost touch, but just in the last few years we have reconnected along with another elementary school friend, and have managed to get together once or twice a year when Melissa is on this side of the country instead of at home in Olympia, Washington.

I drove my familiar route from my home, out of my subdivision and on my way to Atlanta Highway. I was thinking about where we’d be meeting, the things I needed to do when I got back home, the events of the last few days, and all of a sudden, I awoke! I wasn’t on my way to Hwy. 78 as I had planned; I had turned in the wrong direction and was headed towards 316. My brain had been on automatic pilot and I was traveling in a direction I’d not meant to go.

I thought it kind of a funny coincidence that this had happened at the very time we are starting Lent and focusing on what happens when we, as Dante described it, awake to find ourselves lost in a Dark Wood. And I admit, I complimented God on having a great sense of humor.

Everybody gets lost at one time or another. Sometimes it is easy to recover, as it was for me on Friday. Other times, there is no going back, no retracing steps, we’re completely lost. Our maps are out of date, our sense of direction is shaken; the past is gone and the future is not clear. All the bright certainty has faded away and we can’t see any farther than the end of our outstretched arms.

There are all sorts of paths that lead to this uncertain place – on a personal level, unemployment, illness, loss of a loved one, betrayal by a friend; on the corporate level, – a company moves it’s production to another country (Carrier Air Conditioning announced 1400 layoffs this week in Indiana). For us as a congregation, we experienced it with the fire three years ago. You can’t turn on TV or read a newspaper without seeing the national controversies over immigration, gun violence, rights of minorities, religious freedom. At any moment, some of the touchstones of life can be shaken or slide away and we’re left without many, if any, solid rock assurances.

In those times we are forced to realize that there is so much more going on, more twists and loops, more torturous curves and dangerous turns to life than we’d ever imagined. We are confronted with uncharted territory  we had not planned for and where we are not in control. But it is there in the darkness of that place that potential for newness exists. It is there that God waits to meet us; it is there that the Holy Spirit begins nudging us in the right direction. It is there that Paul’s words in 2Corinthians become real “we walk by faith, and not by sight.”

These kinds of unsettling experiences tell us that faith is not certainty.  Faith is not a magic talisman that keeps us safe and protects us from life’s difficulties. The various heroes of scripture illustrate the truth that faith indeed is the opposite of certainty, for they all lived with uncertainty – Abraham, Moses, Esther, Ruth, Jesus’ mother Mary, Paul,  Peter, even Jesus himself. No one would say that they did not have strong faith, but their faith did not exempt them from uncertainty and struggle. Actually, it’s usually the very certain ones who do not come off so well in the Bible. Remember Job’s friends? Remember the Pharisees? Remember Saul before he became Paul?

In our passage from 1Corinthians, Paul says that the higher our need for certainty, the greater our immaturity. My grandson Lukas, who is five, likes to have things a certain way. As a great lover of Mickey Mouse, he prefers to have his milk in a Mickey cup, and he makes life very difficult if the Mickey cup is in the dishwasher – Ninja Turtles won’t do. Toy Story won’t do. Even Frozen won’t do – even though he knows all the words to “Let it Go.” Same thing with his clothes – Mickey shirts are preferable.  Life is simply better with Mickey Mouse at every step of the way.

When we’re adults, Paul says, we put away childish things. We can drink as easily from a Ninja Turtle cup as a Mickey cup. We can tolerate gray areas in our lives; we can get along without having all the answers; we can live with uncertainty.  We can live with the fact that for now we see through the glass darkly or dimly, a word which in Greek is the root of our word “enigma” – something mysterious, ambiguous, not easily understood or interpreted.

We might think that we prefer certainty to uncertainty, that we’d like to script our lives so that we know the outcome. We’d prefer no difficult challenges, definitely no defeats, no sorrows, no losses. Joan Chittister says that we prefer to live with the “illusion of benign unchangability,” but that it is always being interrupted by obstacles and interruptions that at first seem to “make every next miracle impossible, every next point unreachable, every present situation unbearable.”[i]

But the paradox is, that the next miracle or milestone in our lives is often dependent on the interruption that threatens the present miracle, the place where we are now.[ii]  Knowing that these times of uncertainty are a part of living, does not make them any easier when they come, and the pain comes from having to let go of the way we wanted things in order to give way to something else that is being born, created new. And God is there in the darkness of that creation, making something new. God does some of God’s best work in the dark.

Maybe you can remember a time of great uncertainty when all of your bright plans had been dashed and you could not see beyond the catastrophe.  But now, sometime later, you can look back and recognize and even give thanks for the blessings, the new miracles in your life, that came out of the loss. Hindsight is always so much clearer, isn’t it?

We all have some kind of story like that. In my life, I spent a good bit of time in the dark wood when my husband died at the age of 49. We had plans for the future as our children left home and we would become empty nesters. But with his death, that certain plan was gone. And as with any time of grief, you just kind of go through the motions for a while. I could have done as Job’s friends suggested, “Curse God and die.” But instead over the following year, I was able to identify and accept my cal to ministry that I would never had recognized before, and with God’s help, I took the first tentative steps toward that new life. Now, that doesn’t mean it was a good thing for Bruce to die! But that unchangeable, beyond my control to stop event became a catalyst in my life for something good that I would never have dreamed of in a million years. I am here to tell you, if you are right now in a dark wood, your struggle, uncertainty, or grief can become the source and occasion of the next miracle in your life.

How is anyone able to do that: Perhaps the clue lies in one of Paul’s greatest statements about the endurance of love that immediately follows his observation about uncertainty. Love is based on trust, not certainty.  Trust allows for growth and change, it allows for freedom that certainty cannot produce. [iii] Trust and love can be developed amid uncertainty – we know that from our experiences over the last almost three years now. We lived through a very uncertain time. Who would ever have thought the church would burn; it might have been the one thing in life that you know would always be here.  Other places might come and go, various people might let you down, but right here on this corner in Athens Georgia, there was a little piece of certainty. And then it burned.

It was trust and love that got us through. Trust in God and in one another. Love for God and one another. And God’s love for us and trust in us. There was no going back, the path ahead was not yet visible, but the love and the trust were there.  And the rest, as they say, is history. Here we are. Is it a path we would have chosen? Of course not. But are we Ok with where we are? Absolutely. And now we face another period of uncertainty as I retire and another pastor stands in this pulpit. It would be the height of ingratitude to doubt that the same love and trust that saw us through the fire will see us through now.

Today we give God thanks for of all things, the gift of uncertainty! For what it teaches us – to let go of what we cannot control; to face the future with hope and not despair, to find the power and courage to face our challenges, and to live into the trust and the love that surrounds us every day.

[i] Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 2003, 12.

[ii] Chittister.

[iii] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers), 2015, 28.