In particle physics or what is now called quantum mechanics, there is a principle known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It basically concludes that a degree of uncertainty is guaranteed. If you are measuring the SPEED of a particle, you cannot measure its position. If you are measuring the POSITION of a particle, you cannot measure its SPEED. You can measure one or the other, but not both at the same time. German physicist Werner Heisenberg introduced the idea in 1927, noting that the more precisely the position of a particular particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. [i]The principle explains that there is a certain inherent degree of uncertainty, even in science. Uncertainty is something of a given, even in scientific inquiry.
Uncertainty, even if guaranteed, doesn’t really feel like a gift. We hear “the Gift of Uncertainty” and inside we think, “Yeah right.” In our experience, nervousness and anxiety increase as the degree of uncertainty increases. It feels like a problem, not a gift! We would rather KNOW what is going to happen, or even likely to happen. Even more, we like to help DETERMINE the course of events, and are more comfortable when we are in control or some semblance of control.
John 5. In the story in John, chapter 5. We find a man with a high degree of certainty in his life. For 38 years he had done the same thing – gone to the Healing Pool at Bethesda to beg. It would be logical to assume that in 38 years he had achieved some seniority, even prestige, among those who came there to beg. It was believed that at the pool at Bethesda or Beth- Zatha, when the waters moved, and one account says that the waters were stirred by an angel, that the first person in the pool would be healed. Yet this man had been there for 38 years. Do you think that in 38 years no one ever let him take his turn to go into the pool, that no one would help him in? We’re suspicious. After 38 years he probably had the prime location for begging and obviously received enough to survive. He didn’t have to wonder when he got up in the morning what his day would be like. He would go to the pool and beg.
But one day, Jesus came to the pool at Bethesda. Jesus heard that this man had been there for 38 years and asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” There is a normal answer to this question – It’s “Yes!” Ask our folks with challenges walking or seeing or hearing if they want to be fully restored and there would be no hesitation in their answer. But this man doesn’t say that. He says, “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” (John 15:7) Does that sound to you like an excuse for why he hasn’t been healed? He never says, “Yes, please heal me. I want to be well.” But Jesus heals him anyway – no recourse to the pool or spitting in the dirt, or laying on of hands. 8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. And when this man is questioned, he can’t even say who healed him! He didn’t say “Thank you!” He didn‘t respond, “Let me follow you for you have given me back my life!” When he was questioned by the Jewish leaders about carrying his mat on the Sabbath, he says “The man who healed me told me to pick it up and walk.” When Jesus sees the man again, it is at the Temple, perhaps a new begging location, as if he hadn’t been healed – and the man tells the Temple authorities that it was Jesus who healed him on the Sabbath – probably trying to get Jesus in trouble. His actions indicate a man who actually DIDN’T want to be made well.
Jesus took away his certainty – being healed was a disruption. Jesus took away his excuse not to live fully. Jesus took away the infirmity that had paralyzed him. He also took away the predictability of his life. He took away his certainty and replaced it with uncertainty that had more possibilities, wanted of not. Uncertainty can feel like a problem to be solved, a curse, not a gift.
(Slow down a bit, thoughtful) What makes Uncertainty a gift is that it offers more mystery and possibility than we ordinarily see. In the midst of uncertainty, we tend to look for God’s presence…especially in the darkness. Brian McLaren’s comment, “Certainty is overrated,” comes from his understanding that it is our uncertainty that opens us up to God. When we are less sure of ourselves and the world around us, we actually look for God.
My Grandad explained that sometimes it takes life driving us to our knees for us to look up for God. As the saying goes, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” God often gets pushed to the margins of our lives because God is not visible, not understandable, more mystery than known. God cannot be understood the way that we understand that “two atoms of hydrogen plus one atom of oxygen make water.” God is beyond our ability to put into a formula or argue in a proof. Our attempts to make sense of God in that way are doomed to failure.
And “blind faith” isn’t helpful either. It is too easily shaken. I was told as I headed to seminary that first-year seminary students often lost their faith. I was more curious about that than afraid. I wondered what could cause a loss of faith at the very point that we were poised on the edge of a still greater faith commitment. What I learned was that for students who had come out of traditions where “blind faith” was the norm, or where there were “right answers” to matters of belief – that learning about the facts behind the biblical stories, the different manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts that were assembled to create the scriptures, and the inconsistencies led to a loss of “blind faith.” But for those of us for whom faith was less certain, more of a voyage of discovery in which learning was more important than having the correct answers, our faith was strengthened immeasurable. Curiosity and wonder were avenues to find greater faith.
In our Confirmation program we encourage questions, in part for this reason. To have young people memorize certain answers to questions, as in the old-fashioned catechism, doesn’t help them when they either reject the premises on which they are based or something new enters their lives when they are rethinking what they believe. They tend to walk away from God and the church as outdated and irrelevant. The certainty of blind faith doesn’t hold up for seeing people in a complex world.
When we move outside of certainty and into mystery, which is only explained by story, relationship, and beauty, we can conceive of a God of compassion and love who cares deeply about all that has been created: the natural world, animals, people, sun and stars, wind and water. And yes, its messy.
Poet/Singer/Songwriter Carrie Newcomer has a song entitled, “Learning to Sit with Not Knowing.” If you would like to hear it, it is up on the public Facebook page with all of the verses, and the audio of Carrie singing it. Hear the first two verses and the chorus.
I’m learning to sit with not knowing. When I don't see where its going Cool my heels and start slowing I am learning to sit with not knowing I'm learning to sit with what’s next What if and my best guess Be kinder when it’s a process I'm learning to live with what’s next Chorus: Here's a clear space I've chosen Where the denseness of this world opens Where there's something holding steady and true Regardless of me or you[ii]
Uncertainty, not knowing, offers gifts of possibility. And there’s more! When we inhabit this place of mystery, we find ourselves longing to connect with a being greater and beyond ourselves. We may even develop a sense of God’s presence in the mysterious darkness. Because Darkness and faith are NOT incompatible. It is often in the darkness that our faith grows.[iii] Not that this growth is easy. It often requires leaving things that are dear to us behind as we value new things. And in the DARK WOOD we often find ourselves confronting things that we might now wish to confront. Those are the places where we experience spiritual transformation and a powerful sense of the presence of God, often experienced in new ways.
Beyond Uncertainty to Trust.
There is a path in the dark wood that leads to a precious gift. It takes courage to walk the path because certainty must be left behind. And the path that leads there does have dark and unknown places. “I will give you treasures and darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by name.” (Is. 45:3) We have to let go of our desire for certainty in order to move into TRUST. We have to confront our desire to control our path and our destination in order to be able to trust God. We have to relinquish our desire to be god so that God can be God.
John Ortberg says that “We all think that we want certainty. But we don’t. What we really want is trust, wisely placed. Trust is better than certainty because it honors the freedom of persons and makes possible growth and intimacy that certainty alone could never produce.”[iv]
It takes a place of darkness where we cannot see what is before us: cannot see the path ahead, or the future, or even hope to develop deep trust in God who loves us. And LOVE shows up – usually in ways we would never have expected.
Donny’s birth came with circumstances of deep darkness for us. I went into labor two weeks late -- as we were loading the moving van to move from Clarksville to Nolensville, TN. Randy’s dad and our neighbor drove the moving van to a house where neither of them had ever been while Randy and I and the girls went to the hospital. It was a long and difficult labor and Donny was blue when he was born, not breathing on his own. His APGAR scores were low and it was frightening. Then Donny had a tonic seizure and was airlifted to Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville before I was even released. I couldn’t go with him, and had to wait until Randy drove back up from Nolensville to pick me up and take me to Vanderbilt. It wasn’t long before the doctors told us that he had massive brain damage. It was one of the hardest weeks of our lives. Definitely a DARK WOOD.
But there were a lot of gifts as we walked that path. Our District Superintendent from Clarksville got to Vanderbilt before we did, and had already prayed over Donny. Our bishop met us there, along with the Nashville District Superintendent. Randy’s parents, some people from the tennis club and the adult Sunday school class at Nolensville United Methodist Church unpacked the new house while we were at the hospital. When I got home every night for two weeks there were meals prepared, even with our gluten allergies. They fed us the two weeks while Donny was in NICU, and then for two weeks more. And they prayed. Fiercely prayed -- for Donny, for us, for our families. They prayed us through the Dark Wood when we didn’t have enough strength for another step or the ability to speak a worded prayer. And we were surrounded by God’s presence in the midst of it all.
Worry. Psychologists say that around 85% of the things that we worry about never happen.[v] We spend a lot of time and energy worrying – imagining scenarios, playing out responses, creating high stress for ourselves. For things that never happen. Michel de Montaigne, philosopher of the French Renaissance said in the mid 1500s: My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.[vi] Wasted time. Wasted energy, Unnecessary stress. Eric Elnes, author of The Gifts of the Dark Wood, says that he made a decision not to “worry about anything until it presents itself to be worried about.”[vii] That’s easier said than done, but it would reduce our stress and increase our joy if we could manage it.
Our text from Matthew suggests that it is worth a try. Neither the birds of the air nor the lilies of the field worry and yet have all that they need. In Madeleine L’Engle’s book An Acceptable Time, Bishop Colubra shares this thought with Polly.
“My dear, I’m seldom sure of anything. Life at best is a precarious business, and we aren’t told that difficult or painful things won’t happen, just that it matters. It matters not just to us but to the entire universe.”[viii]
Perhaps that explains the gift of uncertainty as well as anything. We can’t know everything we want to know – but we do know that we matter. We matter to God. And we remember that better when we have a high degree of uncertainty in our lives.
It is when we let go of our need to determine, to know, to be the captains of our own destinies, that there is room for us to discover the presence of God, who loves us and for whom we matter. It is when we give up our need to know that we can trust – and let go of the NEED to know the path. We simply fumble our way along, knowing that it matters. We matter. God is with us in the Dark Wood. And without so many distractions, we may feel that presence.
May you find this precious gift, this gift of uncertainty, in the Dark Wood. Amen.
[ii] Words and Music by Carrie Newcomer ©2019 Carrie Newcomer Music (BMI), BMG Chrysalis
[iii] Tara Souhers, Treasures of Darkness: Finding God When Hope Is Hidden.
[iv] Jon Ortberg, Faith and Doubt. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. 137.
[v] Don Joseph Goewey, The End of Stress, Four Ways to Rewire Your Brain.
[vi] Quoted in Goewey’s article. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montaigne/
[vii] Eric Elnes, The Gift of the Dark Wood, 39.
[viii] Madeleine L’Engle, An Acceptable Time, Harrisonburg, VA: Square Fish, 2007. P. 245.