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Reflections

 

One of the delights of being a congregational minister is that sometimes you are the recipient of interesting tidbits – articles, quotes, pieces of music, poems – shared by your congregants.

And it’s even more delightful when such a piece has been created by that congregant.

Recently such an offering was made by our John Kirk.  He shared a copy of his Gift of Fire lectures, which was part of the course work he taught to his theater students.

The first introductory section is entitled “Why Know Anything?”   It was a launchpad into the learning process that would ensue throughout the extent of the class.

In his commentary John makes a fascinating differentiation between training and education as it pertains to earning a college degree, and

asserts that becoming educated is actually down on most people’s list on why they endeavor the formidable task of earning a degree.

According to John, the pursuit is far more about acquiring skills with which to earn a living  than becoming educated.

He then makes a bold statement: Education frees us while training enslaves us.

This deserves a closer look.

Let’s take on the dangers of training first.

A big pitfall is the risk of entrapment.  Yes, getting ensnared by our sought after, worked for, finally earned…skill set.

It’s the golden handcuff theme where we stay in jobs because our static skill set determines what that job is, and the income from it helps us to be

(or at least feel) secure.

So, perhaps you outgrow the job for which you have been trained, but it is known, it brings certainty, it pays bills, we feel secure.

Jackson Browne’s song from 1976 called The Pretender speaks to this:

I want to know what became of the changes
We waited for love to bring.

I’ve been aware of the time going by
it’s the wink of an eye.

Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
While the ships bearing dreams
Sail out of sight

I’m gonna be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender,
and believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Where true love could have been a contender.

Say a prayer for the pretender
Who started out so young and strong, only to surrender.

Our skills, birthed from the training of our college days, are not of course inherently wrong. There’s nothing wrong with doing a job, earning a livelihood, building a secure future.

Unless…we slide too many of life’s poker chips over to that side of the table, and the haunting question What was it all for, what does any of it mean? seeps in, and can’t be silenced with retail therapy.

To balance that, let’s look over to the other side of the table.

If the risk of training is devolving into handcuffs, how is it that education holds the keys to the cuffs?

John would say that education increases our capacity for uncertainty.

To which you might say, “That doesn’t sound solid. Keys are about certainty- it’s locked, it’s unlocked. And doesn’t education bring knowledge, which is solid?”

These keys unlock doors that take you to higher levels, beyond the lower floors of black-and-whiteness.

The process of becoming educated is becoming dissatisfied with static answers.  Education brings dynamic fluidity, promoting evolving outcomes.

A skilled person seeks concrete answers, finality.  It’s too scary to live in a world without certainty, known-ness, containment.

Conversely, a person who embraces education appreciates the ever-unfolding nature of the Universe, a world enveloped in mystery and wonder.

I agree with John that those folks often pay a price for espousing such openness, and can be marginalized by the masses because the hard-and-fast answer-seeking majority isn’t keen on mystery.

It seems loosey-goosey, base-less, void of a fundamental foundation.

As I continued to read through John’s writing, I couldn’t help but run it through a spiritual filter.

The leap isn’t a big one….religiously there’s a range of fundamentalism and progressive faith.

And John’s observation about the masses embracing static answers more than dynamic questions applies here, and it came up in a meeting recently.

Our new marketing team was discussing who we wanted to advertise to, and what the bigger ‘successful’ churches are doing to reach the people.

I shared my thoughts that liberal religious groups like NCC are typically smaller because many people prefer a religious experience in which answers are proclaimed, as opposed to questions being heralded.

You don’t see these words on many congregational websites as you see on ours:

NCC is a community where questions regarding faith are valued more than expectations of doctrinal observance. 

 

There is compelling online commentary which underscores the folly that faith is fodder for certainty.

The unnamed author contends that there is nothing particularly virtuous about the ability to make yourself feel certain about things.  A skill set in mental gymnastics might be relevant, but not virtue so much.

Another contention is that people believing that their salvation and other things—like whether your friend with cancer lives or dies—is dependent on how certain one feels about faith is both psychologically torturous and fostering of an allusion of an unloving God… a God that requires us to do and believe just so in order to be lovable, thus fostering a manipulative dynamic instead of a covenantal one.

So what you’re left with is a rigid approach to faith, rendering it more vulnerable to being broken (verses if it were more malleable).  This reminds me of the Rubber Soul album of the Beatles….soulfully malleable. Off of that album comes the song “Nowhere Man”…                                                              He’s as blind as he can be
Just sees what he wants to see
Nowhere man, can you see me at all?

Certainty.  Blinders.  Can you see me at all?

This next one is my favorite.  Doubt-shunning faith tends to be hypocritical in that these folks see it as sinful for them to doubt, but virtuous for those who don’t share their beliefs to doubt theirs.

The list closes out with an old-fashioned religious word – idolatrous.  And it’s the one the mystery author identifies as the most important of them all.

S/he says that convincing ourselves that we possess THE true beliefs can be idolatrous because…

when people feel loved and secure (or “saved”) with God because they’ve chosen THE right set of beliefs, their faith is more about their beliefs about God rather from a relationship with God.

A listing like this gives a whole new lease on the adage ‘the benefit of the doubt.’

I sniffed around Google images to see what would come up with a ‘Faith and Certainty’ search.  And the results run the gamut.

Anne Lamott says that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but instead is certainty.

Another image says Finding Certainty From Faith: Believing Through it All.

Another one, a bit more ambiguous, says…When I lean on certainty and faith, I change my mind about the world I see. (I wonder how the mind is changed).

As we know from our reading earlier, the Bible tells us that ‘…Faith is the certainty of things hoped for, a proof of things unseen.

The Miracles are Brewing folks say that faith is believing with certainty based on knowledge of the soul, which is beyond the need for physical proof, while

Surprise, surprise…the Unitarian Universalists say that there is no certainty in faith.

Similarly, Dave Rolph maintains that uncertainty opens the door for faith.

Conversely, the Sufi sect of the Muslim tradition has a book entitled The Book of Certainty: Sufi Doctines of Faith, Vision and Gnosis (or knowledge).

Ping ponging back, the Desert Direction folks have in their Trusting God in the Wilderness seminar a segment called The Temptation of Certainty: From Certainty to Humility.

We could go on and on, but you get the picture.

As Progressive Christians most of us here likely embrace uncertainty in our faith.

Many of us migrated from our congregations and traditions-of-origin to this Community because of such leanings.  So I’m preaching to the choir…to the questioning faithful, as it were.

It’s good, nonetheless, to be reminded from time to time, about who we are, and what makes our particular brand of faith-ful hearts tick.

Here’s a question that might not be so easy to sit in your chair and nod to…

What in your life do you struggle with where certainty is concerned?

It’s probably not theological certainty.

How, though, can you apply your openness of spirit exercised in the theological domain of your life to other domains, where certainty may be limiting?

I found good answer, not in scripture or spirit-inspired poetry, but in a Harvard Business Review.

The author of this review, Ted Cadsby, indicates that a mindful way of being and doing requires that we defer the feeling of being right.  He acknowledges that we are not hardwired to do this, to suspend judgment and resist conclusions.

We’re hardwired in the other direction for survival.

But we no longer live in the wilds where first-glance, locked-in decisions and perceptions could be the difference between life and death.

The beauty of Cadsby’s commentary for our modern world is that it applies just as much to religion as to business.

And, relevant to the question about other domains of certainty in our lives, he also applies this to…our relationships.

Yes, he makes space for this in his business-minded discourse, saying that our personal relationships that would run much more smoothly if we weren’t so certain that we were right all the time

Take this in a myriad of relational directions…the confusing betrayal of a friend, the promotion your boss didn’t give you, an argument with your partner, the disappointing or bewildering behavior of your children.

Cadsby says that the need to be certain gets in the way of the opportunity for accuracy with issues (like the complexity of another human being) that have multiple, difficult-to-untangle, interwoven causal factors.

I love the intersection of applicability, be it business, God, or relationships, when he says, “Questions arise that require exploration, multiple perspectives, and a variety of possible explanations, before it is prudent to draw conclusions. 

But a closed mind is shut off from the more subtle and complicated explanations that can better inform the situation.”

This is not a news flash, friends, but it is so easy to fall into.

Our challenge this morning isn’t so much to work on abandoning a black and white approach to who God is, and what God wants from us.

Where the God-thing goes, our greatest certainty-challenge is remaining open to religious folks who espouse being certain about God.

And also to apply our openness of heart to each other.

The significance of Cadsby’s comments about the multiple, hard-to-neatly-unbundle causes behind someone’s behavior cannot be overstated.

And speaking of black and white, in that relationship the difference made of appreciating the complexities versus being certain can be night and day.

I’m trying to get to daylight in my relationship with my sister.  She has a gender-fluid offspring, and isn’t happy about it, and is doubly unhappy with me for being supportive of her kid.

So, she’s pulled away from her connection to me for over a year now.

I spend more time being mad and sad about her distance than cultivating understanding about the myriad of factors that surely goes into her behavior, both to her child and to me.

If I’m going to live like Jesus lived, my calling is to look with wider-opened eyes, to see more broadly, to love her more deeply.

The surprising applicability of a business review maybe shouldn’t be so noteworthy.

As a person of faith, I am called to make it my business to have love as a foundation to my movement in this world,

And to ask myself “What does love look like?” when I’m engaged in this or any relational wrinkle, and I feel myself locking in.

Yes, it’s easier said than done, as is so many aspects of living a life of faith.

Each of us here have our own private lives of faith and relationships, thus bringing much wisdom in this room.

I certainly look forward to now hearing some of your own comments.

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