This occasional series explores what we don’t believe — and why — in order to help us understand what we do believe, and why we do.
The church does not teach that we get to enjoy certainty in this life.
One of my great joys in ministry is the gift of talking with people about their life in faith. Recently, I was in such a conversation with a person who was considering undertaking a new ministry. At one point, he turned to me and said, “Here’s the thing. I like the person I am now. But what if I don’t like the person I become when I do this?”
It is The Question, isn’t it?
We know that what we do changes us, for good or for ill. The experiences of our daily life shape us inexorably, just as a potter’s hand shapes the damp clay, or the wind sculpts even the most obdurate stone. But none of us can know how.
In a recent column, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote about a moral bucket list, asking what kind of life we would need to lead in order to cultivate, not the virtues we need for our resume, but the virtues that make for a good eulogy. (You know the ones: she was a compassionate person, always reaching out to help her friends and anyone she met who was in need; a bit quirky, with a good sense of humor; always up for an adventure; a person of deep integrity…) Resume virtues tend to be things we can say about ourselves, but eulogy virtues are the things only others can say about us.
What does it take to cultivate the virtues we really hope to embody? We cannot be certain, but we do know one thing: stasis won’t do it. There is a deep fidelity that honors relationships, work, the place in which we live, but even that involves us in the constant work of finding new ways to express and live into our commitments. And we cannot know the results ahead of time. We can only try.
There is a passage in Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale that I have loved since I was in high school. In it, a mother is speaking to her grown daughter, who is passing through a time of crisis, and she says, “No one ever said you would live to see the repercussions of everything you do, or that you have guarantees, or that you are not obliged to wander in the dark, or that everything will be proved to you and neatly verified like something in science. Nothing is: at least, nothing that is worthwhile. I didn’t bring you up only to move across sure ground. I didn’t teach you to think that everything must be within our control or understanding. Did I?”
Jesus gives us relationship, not certainty; friendship with God, rather than a secure future. If you are looking for a way of life that is safe, stable, predictable, then the Way of the Cross is not it.
If you wish to follow Jesus, you need to take your courage in your hand. He will ask you to risk your heart every day. Like the original companions of Jesus, who walked with him away from their homes, away from their villages, away from the neighbors of a lifetime, we, too, follow Christ into the Great Unpredictable, knowing only that the One with whom we walk can open our hearts, clear our minds, and heal our souls if we are willing to let him.
So take heart. The certainty you craved would have bored you to death. Take heart, and live.