Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Blessing of Uncertainty

A Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight
Preached on the Fifth Birthday of Urban Abbey
November 13, 2016

Psalm 1 They are like trees planted by the water and they bear fruit in due season, and in all they do, they give life. 

This has been my prayer and I found it because things were not going so well. I prayed it because this adventure of starting a new church and a new coffee shop was harder than I had ever imagined. I prayed it, I drew it, I wrote it over and over, I carried it in a note in my pocket. I prayed this prayer because I was so uncertain, not unsure but uncertain. I have prayed this prayer hoping to be that tree planted by the water. I have prayed that prayer waiting for the “due season.” I have prayed that prayer and looked at the branches and thought “where is the fruit?” And sometimes that prayer has an expletive right before fruit.

This is a new church start, and it is important to know that while every church job has its share of uncertain space, new church starts are statistically likely to fail. New things are fragile….think about babies and how new parents check on them and worry when they sleep too much or too little. Really, most new church starts fail. And then we added this element of a coffee shop… also pretty likely to fail and then a year ago we added campus ministry…which as you can guess, is not something people do because it is so easy. This is a new church start and in addition to a high likelihood of failure, there is something else unique about our church start which has nothing to do with coffee. Most new churches (regardless of denomination) are started by cute, youngish, white guys with a tattoo or a piercing…but not both…that would be too much, and they play a guitar. I don’t play guitar, and I often think they just ran out of boys to ask. All of this is to say, I am often shocked that we are here and that the Annual Conference not only said yes but said yes with a huge gift of support.
When we started, we had a plan. I wrote a plan and got feedback on the plan and edited the plan and met with people about the plan and changed the plan and took classes about how to make a plan work. It was a great plan. It was 20 pages single spaced front and back. It was such a good plan that our conference staff person shared it with everyone everywhere…even people in Texas. And I can tell you nothing….ABSOLUTELY NOTHING has gone according to this plan…and I couldn’t be more grateful.

It has given me real uncertainty. In an early discussion with our Bishop, She said, “Debra, I know you are not used to failing.” And she was right. I was not thinking about failure, as much as I was thinking about my career and the path to being a Senior Pastor of a large church. I had to get comfortable with failure. I had to get comfortable with risk. I had to get comfortable with uncertainty, and I had to ask new questions about my life and my future and what I might be letting go of and what was really important to me.

I needed this uncertainty. It has been a gift for me. It has required me to pray, really pray, an earnest prayer. It has required me to let go of the notion that if I worked harder I could make this go on my own power. It has required me to reach out and ask for help. It has required me to name that failure isn’t really the worst thing that can happen, but fearing it might be the worst motivation. I imagine if you look into your own lives you can find those uncertain places. Those moments when the choices were heavy and hard to make. Those moments when you had to reach out for help or care or support. Those moments when the future seemed fuzzy and the next step unclear. The dictionary says certainty is about confidence in an outcome and links it to a sense of clarity, which implies some things about uncertainty. When speaking of faith, it is not uncommon to hear people name absolutes, clear steps that trump doubt. But I think uncertainty is faithful. I think it has a spirituality and might be received as a gift.

I would argue that uncertainty doesn’t mean we lack confidence or clarity. It means we can be real and vulnerable and honest about needing other folks along the way. Uncertainty is not new to faith. Every story in our Biblical Narrative from one end to the other, engages this great uncertainty. The stories of the most interesting people are not easy; they do not follow a predictable pattern, and they keep you guessing. Jesus struggles, his disciples struggle to the point that we doubt them ever getting it right. Paul struggles, and the churches he starts struggle with what it means to be church so that he must write them over and over about love and faithfulness and letting go of their petty ego garbage. Uncertainty is woven through our story. David is most interesting when he is struggling, and Abraham and Sarah dwell in epic uncertainty…wondering where and when their faithfulness will bear fruit.

It is Jacob’s story that connects me into this spirituality of uncertainty. I want to go to the place in Genesis where he is wrestling with God. It comes at this key point where he can’t go forward and can’t go back, at least not very easily. Behind him is an angry father-in-law and in front of him is an angry brother. His life, his wellbeing, his family’s wellbeing…all of it hangs in the balance, and so he spends the night wrestling with God. Though we get the sense he has done it before. He is born holding his twin brother’s heel, implying that wrestling starts at conception. He is always wrestling, always hustling, always striving and struggling. He is a trickster, Mama’s boy, not a man’s man like his brother. And there are times it seems like she might be the only one that loves him. He hustles his brother’s blessing by cooking a good soup. I guess Home Economics really paid off for him. He tricks his brother and his father out of a blessing, and even with a blessing he ends up sleeping on stones and traveling to his Uncle’s where he meets his match, his Uncle. He marries, and even his wives wrestle and struggle and hustle. He wrestles away from his father-in-law with sheep and goats, and his wives hide some gods. And now he is stuck: this life of struggle and wrestling culminates in this night where his life hangs in the balance. Perhaps we have had these moments, these moments of wrestling, of wondering, of worry all night long. Perhaps we have had these spaces of doubt and grief and depression and struggle that we would name as so powerful we must wrestle with them. So here, all night long, Jacob wrestles. In the morning, he will not let go. He holds on and asks for a blessing. And the blessing comes. He is transformed from Jacob to Israel. He hangs on in the uncertainty. He holds on and wrestles with what is real all night long.

Jacob wrestles, and it changes him. I think that is the essence of uncertainty. It is a willingness to wrestle: to hold on for the blessing, to face the future regardless of what it might bring. Now this may seem ok here and now while we are together and about to eat cupcakes. But I bet if we really look at it we will have to remember that the world does not like uncertainty. We make plans, and they don’t happen. We make plans for families and for marriages, we make plans for careers and communities and elections and businesses, and they don’t happen. We make plans, and they don’t work out. And God is with us anyway. Guarantees are hard to come by. And faith, I believe, is too complicated for easy absolutes or five step plans. Faith is about wrestling. Jacob’s life names a spirituality of uncertainty. I know, for me, the most uncertain times have been the places of the most growth, the deepest sense of God and the widest reach to friends and allies along the way. When I am uncertain…I am most faithful. Perhaps you are too… perhaps we can value uncertainty, questions and wonder and worry and hope in the midst of everything.

I pray for us five more years of blessed uncertainty. Five more years of getting comfortable with failing, making mistakes and taking chances. Five more years of wondering who might show up when we need them most. Five more years of hearing hard stories and wondering if the world will ever be changed, and how we can be a part of that. Five more years of wresting reminding us, each of us, you and I, in our corporate life together and in our individual journeys, that we need help and can’t do it alone. Five more years of real and honest and vulnerable and uncertain. Five more years of waiting for fruit and for our due season. So we are going to wrestle and hold on and ask for a blessing. We will be relentless in the uncertainty. Because, I swear that is where we meet God. I swear that is where we really start to care about each other, when we know we need each other, and that is a blessing.

Questions for reflection:
Where have you experienced uncertainty? 
What was it like and what did it mean? 
What did you learn from it and where are you looking for more? 
What does Psalm 1 mean for you? What season are you in?