The Gift of Uncertainty – February 28, 2021

Before I met Kathy, I had a pretty sketchy dating history.  Nothing against my former girlfriends, but they were not exactly marriage material.  My first girlfriend in college was a little unusual.  For example, I remember sitting outside my dorm building with her one night.  And when I looked over, I saw her eating something.  I wasn’t sure what that would be since, as far as I knew, she had brought no food with her.  But upon closer examination, I saw that she was eating some of the flowers planted in the landscaping where we were sitting.  When I asked her why she was eating them, she told me it was because they were beautiful.

Some of my other dating choices were a little more harmful.  One became a stalker who tried to bust down the door of my apartment while I was inside because I refused to let her in after we broke up.  Another was carrying on a relationship with her ex-boyfriend at the time she was telling me she saw us getting married.  But while these women certainly kept me guessing, there was one way they did not leave me with much uncertainty.  There was a very good chance we would not be getting married.

When I decided to give online dating a try, I figured I would keep much of that same certainty.  Some of the first profiles I saw held little hope for lasting love.  Before having open communication with someone we were matched with, we submitted questions to our potential mates to see if we wanted to pursue the relationship further.  Sometimes the questions I was asked were warning signs.  For example, my first question for a potential dating partner would never be their favorite flavor of jelly bean.  Nor would I ask someone their yearly income.

But while I received many matches which were consistent with my prior bad dating choices, I was also matched with someone who seemed to have no obvious defects – no apparent tendencies to eat flowers or peer inside my windows in the middle of the night.  And while there was a lot of excitement, there was also some fear which came with finding someone who was a real possibility for a mate.  There was some anxiety which arose when faced with the uncertainty of what may happen.  Did I really want a relationship that would change my life forever, that would cause of lot of uncertainty for my future?

Today we continue with our series, The Gifts of the Dark Wood, with the gift of uncertainty.  We generally look at uncertainty as more of a curse than a gift.  When we don’t know where the path we are on will lead, or if the path we are on is not clearly marked, it is normal to feel anxious.  If we don’t have assurance that everything will work out how we hope and that the path we are on is safe, our natural human tendency is to dig our heels in where we are or to rush to any destination we can find.  The dangers we feel surrounding uncertainty make us want to avoid it all costs.  But what if we looked at uncertainty as a gift?  Not a problem to be solved, but a gift helping us to let go of all we cannot know so that we can live more fully?  What if we embraced uncertainty and instead found something far more valuable?

In our text for this morning, we read that there was a pool which we commonly call the pool of Bethesda.  It was believed at the time that an angel of the Lord went down at certain times into the pool and stirred up the water.  And whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.  At this pool is a man who had been ill for 38 years.  Illness was all that this man knew.  It was the certainty around which his life centered.

As the story opens, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to celebrate a Jewish feast.  And he passes by this pool of Bethesda.  The pool was actually comprised of two pools surrounded by four porches and one porch down the middle separating the two pools.  The story recorded in the book of John says people would lie in these porches waiting for the water to be stirred, for their opportunity to be the first in when the water moved so they could be healed of their afflictions.

While Jesus passes this pool of Bethesda, he sees this man begging beside the pool, this man who had been there so many years.  And when Jesus sees him, he asks an unusual question.  He asks, “Do you want to be made well?”  Our first response may be to think that this is a rhetorical question.  Of course, this man wants to be made well.  It seems to be almost insulting.  He had been waiting at this pool for an incredible amount of time for just that opportunity.  But is the answer really that clear?

I share this story from John not as a story of healing, but as an examination of what may have been going on in the man by the pool’s mind, the reason John records Jesus asking this question.  When we stop and think about it, we begin to question why after 38 years this man remains by the pool.  Why has this man not been able to make it into the water first in that great length of time?  Don’t you think over those many years, someone would have helped him into the pool?

Based on these circumstances, it is reasonable for Jesus to ask this question.  And I think we can assume this man was at the very least conflicted about the possibility of being healed.  His entire life has revolved around his presence at that pool.  If he is healed, what would he do next?  Even if his circumstances aren’t perfect, he was familiar with them.  Being healed would change all of that.  It would remove his sense of certainty, even if that certainty was less than ideal.

We will often go to great lengths to hold onto our security.  Even if the circumstances we find ourselves in are not ideal, even though if we are honest with ourselves we are filled with doubt about aspects of our lives and our futures, it is easier to cling to what we know.  We would rather have a certainty which is joyless rather than an uncertainty which could lead to something worse.

But at our core, is certainty really what we want?  Is certainty really our best option?  Think of the difference between what people want in general versus the certainty we want for our own lives.  One of the most irritating things for me when watching a movie or reading a book is when ten minutes in I can predict what will happen at the ending.  The certainty robs me of any enjoyment, any joy in the journey.  The most popular movies, the ones that most people talk about, are the ones with the ending no one saw coming.  The ones which provided no certainty from the beginning.

Uncertainty has always been one of my biggest struggles, possibly my greatest fear.  Developing strategies to deal with uncertainty was one of my goals in clinical pastoral education that I carried with me through each of the units I completed.  That may be why the poem by Maggie Smith is one of my favorites.  I particularly love the line, “I carried my fear of the world as if it would protect me from the world.”  The best way for me to overcome uncertainty was to have certainty of my fears.  To make choices premised on the assumption that my worst fears will come true.  I often expect the worst, without even hoping for the best, as a means of protecting myself from the hurt which may come if my hopes are not fulfilled.  And as the poem says, I have carried that fear without knowing how to set it down.  And that fear of uncertainty shaped my life, the decisions I made.  As Smith says, my fear became my teacher, teaching me how to be quiet and still.

But by the end of my residency, that goal had shifted.  I began to recognize uncertainty is not a problem which needs to be addressed, but rather a means of discernment which I can embrace. I came to recognize that rather than addressing uncertainty, I wanted to develop a greater sense of grounding in myself, separate from external sources of authority which I have always turned to in order to receive that grounding.

Love grows out of uncertainty.  Not uncertainty that leaves us feeling surrounded by chaos.  But uncertainty which allows the development of trust.  One of the most memorable conversations I have had as a pastor happened when someone asked me how I can have certainty in my beliefs, how I can know everything I believe is true.  I think she was surprised by my response.  I simply said, “I don’t.”

I don’t know everything I believe is true. Like most of you, I don’t have certainty in all my beliefs about the Divine.  But I have grown to trust myself, in my experiences, to be present in the moment, and to be grounded in to those things rather than in my fears.  And that trust is more important to me than certainty.  Just as I cannot know that my wife loves me, by my experience I trust that she does.  And it is the same with our spirituality, indeed every aspect of our lives.  We cannot have certainty, no matter how much we want it.  Because as I have come to know, that need for certainty leads only to fear.  As our poem states, we can allow that fear to be our guide, shining only when we prove ourselves right and our fear of the world which we carry bites down hard.  Or we can embrace our uncertainty, trust in who we are, and stop holding on to that fear so tightly.

Maybe all those times I dated people who really weren’t in a place to be in a relationship were for a reason.  I wonder if subconsciously I chose those people because there was a certainty that came with dating them.  A certainty that things would never get that serious.  The first time I met Kathy in person was in the parking lot of a restaurant in Peoria.  The restaurant we were supposed to meet at was closed, so I walked over to her vehicle to come up with an alternate plan.  As soon as I looked into her window, I had a sense that we would get married.  And there was some fear that came with the uncertainty of knowing how she would feel about me, what changes may come to my life if this relationship worked out.  But if I had not embraced that uncertainty, been willing to experience a little discomfort that came from that uncertainty, I may have remained in bad relationships forever.  By willing to trust that she could love me, I experienced a relationship I never thought possible.

Today we tie our ribbon as a prayer that we will embrace the gift of uncertainty.  That like the man by the pool, we can accept some uncertainty.  And that by being willing to embrace it, we will find something far more valuable.  A trust founded on love, which means more than knowing.  A groundedness which allows us to be healed.