Embracing Uncertainty

Mark 1:14-20

When I was nine years old, my parents cashed in their retirement fund, packed up our family’s life into eight suitcases, and traveled to the other side of the world. My dad took a sabbatical, working at two universities in Australia, and my mom, brother and I accompanied him on the yearlong odyssey that spanned from Hawaii to Perth WA, across the continent, to Brisbane on the East coast, and to Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan on the way home. It was a leap into the unknown and an amazing journey.

As an adult, I have often thought it was kind of a crazy decision. It is, in fact, the kind of decision that the James and John, Simon and Andrew make in our gospel lesson today.

In this first chapter of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry. It coincides with John the Baptist’s arrest; John exits to an untimely end, and Jesus takes center stage. His first order of business is to gather a few disciples.

He calls four fishermen: Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John. While it seems likely that the two sets of brothers had heard of Jesus prior to this invitation, perhaps even heard him speak, they were clearly stepping into the unknown. They did not plan their departure, they did not prepare—Mark says they left ‘immediately.’ They just abandoned their boats and nets—and even father Zebedee—on the shore. They left without asking questions. They left practically their whole life behind, their profession and family, to follow Jesus into a new job to ‘fish for people,’ and to be a new family with him.

Leaving their nets and boats wasn’t just an individual decision; it was an abdication of responsibility to others as well. You see, boats and equipment were passed down in families. Simon and Andrew, James and John were abandoning not only their own livelihood. They were throwing away a generational investment. It was as if they cashed in their retirement and their kids’ education fund, all to follow an unproven teacher into a profession they had no qualifications for and no information about. If I had been on the beach that day, I would have called it a rash decision, one that would lead the disciples into an uncertain future.

But sometimes that uncertainty is the space where the Spirit works best.

I recently listened to a beautiful interview with Maggie Jackson, author of the book “Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure” that explored the physiological, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of embracing the unknown. Jackson argues that while our culture favors the certainty of data and black/white answers, our best selves show up when we allow ourselves to be a little uncertain. Life is unpredictable. Our main opportunity, Jackson argues, is in how we respond to that unpredictability. Instead of sticking with the tried and true, what we know already, embracing questions, doubt, and uncertainty opens up creativity and new possibilities. Recognizing the limits of what we know creates within us the impetus to learn. It invites a kind of playfulness as we experience the world as surprising and fresh rather than overwhelming and frightening.

I think back to my parents as they considered this crazy idea to live abroad with two kids in a time when there were no ATMs or credit cards, when long-distance calls cost over a dollar a minute, where all arrangements were done via letter with strangers, and where they wouldn’t see any friends or family for a year.

It could have been a paralyzing prospect, and there were times during that year abroad of great uncertainty—like when our car broke down in the outback and no cars came by for over an hour, or when my mom went to the bank every day for a week to see if the wired money had come through so that she could buy groceries. But somehow my parents mustered the courage to face those uncertainties, and as they navigated them one by one they found a growing strength, a renewed sense of confidence and trust: confidence that they would figure it out, trust that God would provide what they needed, when they needed it.

Today’s gospel story is for me about an essential element about following Jesus, about being a disciple and learning from him. That essential element is embracing uncertainty as growth space. It is where we get out of our preconceived notions and old ideas and cover new ground. This is an important spiritual concept to consider always, but especially at this juncture in the life of our congregation as we engage in strategic planning. The answers of the past must yield to the questions of today. Our focus needs to be on being open to what we can learn as disciples rather than what agendas or past ministry models we might be tempted to protect. Like the disciples, we may leave some things behind on the beach, but we can do that because we know that we are stepping out with Jesus and that we have all we need when we are with him.

On the full last day of my dad’s life, my brother, mom and I gathered around the bed and swapped stories about our year abroad. We remembered the people we met and the places we’d lived. We even looked up the locations on Google Maps Street Finder to see the school we attended and the house we lived in.

That experience of yearlong travel was formative for our family because that is when we banded together and faced the unknown. And in that year, our parents taught my brother and I an important lesson: that choosing the unpredictable over the tried and true wasn’t something scary or to be avoided. It was an adventure to be shared.

That’s the way I look at this ministry with all of you at Epiphany. This is a busy place, with a lot going on right now: strategic planning and call committee and constitution overhaul and rejuvenating the planned giving ministry of the Apple Tree Legacy. This is a new chapter in the life of our congregation, and we are shaping it together. In this sense, it is an uncertain time. We don’t know yet what our goals will be or exactly how we’ll get there. But together we have re-articulated some important truths about our congregation. We’ve seen how God has been faithful in the past, and this time of being a bit unsure will inspire deeper questions, deeper engagement in prayer and with one another. And that is what the Holy Spirit uses to shape our mission for the future.

This time of questions does not need to be a time of anxiety. It is not a time to tune out or circumvent with simplistic solutions. It is a time of holy adventure, of journeying with Jesus and learning again what it means to be his disciple; to grow in our capabilities and in strength and in trust, knowing the one most important thing is that we have a calling to fish for people and that Jesus is with us.

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