I’m certain of uncertainty

Brian has a drawer in his dresser full of t-shirts that he’s either had since before I met him in 2004, or that I bought for him early in our relationship. Many of the shirts are wearing thin; many have holes forming in the reinforced collars because of age, wear, and that time he lived in a basement with a moth problem. They all have that unmistakable “worn” feeling and dirty smell even as they come hot out of the dryer, that condition that sends me to Google looking for the best deep cleaning tips that won’t simply dissolve the shirt within minutes.

While he’s agreed to purge a lot of his old clothes, he still hangs on to far too many. “I hate shopping,” he says as he pulls another out of the drawer. And I sigh.

Right now I’m rereading Gifts of the Dark Wood by Eric Elnes and preaching a sermon series on the different gifts. This week, we tackled the gift of uncertainty. I only wish I would have thought of the t-shirt drawer sooner, because it epitomizes for me the struggle we all have when we face uncertainty in our lives. Brian keeps some of those shirts because of what they represent to him (old band t-shirts and the like), but he clings to quite a few of them for no other reason than they’re worn in and comfortable and he just doesn’t know if he’s going to find something he likes as much to replace them.

Sound familiar?

I certainly don’t like the feeling of uncertainty. I build itineraries for trips a year before they happen, complete with maps and venue descriptions and a to-the-minute plan of where we will go and what we will do. I’ve been checking my student portal obsessively (like, multiple times a day) for weeks and twitching that I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 3/5 of my classes for the first week. Only a firm grasp on social conventions like “don’t become the stalker student that every professor hates” has stopped me from sending half-desperate, half-snarky emails suggesting they at least post a syllabus.

In 2008, when my life was on a much different path and I thought I wanted much different things, I was accepted to the Elliott School at George Washington University. I was going to get my Master’s in Transnational Politics, become a Foreign Service Officer (i.e. diplomat), and eventually settle in D.C. as a policy wonk-turned-elected (or appointed)-official. And then fear set in, encouraged if not outright suggested by someone I trusted at the time: what if you fail? What if you get homesick? What if you can’t afford to come home? After thinking about it for a few weeks, I sent my regrets to GWU and enrolled at Kent State. It was a bad fit for many reasons, and I withdrew during my first semester. The fear of my failure became a self-fulfilling prophecy, one I don’t regret in hindsight because of where I am now, but a low point nonetheless.

Even parenthood strangles me with the weight of uncertainty. Every cry in the night, every cough, every errant possibility that crosses my mind turns me into a quivering mass of doubt. Just the other night I crept down the hall at 1:30 in the morning to make sure that Arthur was still breathing, because he has a cold and Brian said he sounded a little wheezy. He was fine. Sometimes I feel physically paralyzed at the worst-case scenarios that play on constant loop in my head. Even when I broadcast assurance, I’m usually just trying to convince myself.

If the Gospels happened today, I fear I would be the beggar at the pool. Jesus would walk up to me and say, “Shannon, do you really want to be healed?” It hits me now (conveniently, 3 days after the sermon) that when Jesus told the beggar to take his mat and walk, it was remarkable because the man had no faith that it could happen. In his wildest dreams he wouldn’t ever allow himself to trust that it was possible…and even if it entered his imagination it would be quickly stifled by his other uncertainties about food, shelter, and the person he would have to be if he wasn’t protected by his infirmity. It was also notable because Jesus didn’t say to him, “I’m going to heal you, and everything is going to be okay.” No reassurance, just “Get up! Take your mat and walk.”

Jesus wanted the man to feel his uncertainty and to step into it rather than running in the other direction. To examine it, rather than hiding it. And He calls us to do the same.

When we encounter uncertainty, we can’t just act – we have to stop, we have to listen, we have to think. If a work venture or a personal relationship is in turmoil, we can’t just escape into the relative comfort of the familiar. We have to let uncertainty settle into us and acknowledge that we don’t know which way to go. By doing that, we open ourselves up to spiritual direction/intuition/gut feelings that will guide us. When we take a step back from a personal relationship, for example, we can begin to see areas of dysfunction or toxicity that were so familiar to us that they never threw a red flag. We can’t see the gusts of wind when we are standing in the eye of the storm, and our own physiology protects us from that sick feeling that something’s not right when we are caught up in the center of it.

Once we have answered the Holy Spirit’s whispers and we find validation, it becomes easier to trust when those whispers urge us to follow a path that we may not have otherwise considered. And then we learn that our spiritual journeys are not meant to take us from uncertainty to certainty…but from uncertainty to faith. 

Happy traveling, friends.

Oh, and if someone has a good deep-clean formula just…send that over, m’kay?

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