One of These Things is not Like the Other

Which one are you?

You walk into your favorite restaurant, and you sit down at a table. The server hands you a menu, and after studying the menu carefully, you: A) order the same thing as last time, or B) order something different?

Recently, my husband and I went to a Thai restaurant. I am not a prophet nor a daughter of one, but I could predict that my husband would order chicken satay for an appetizer. That’s right . . . He belongs to group A. When I asked him his reasoning, he said, “I don’t like risk.” In other words, there are no questions or uncertainty but instead predictability and stability. Now, I confess, I usually gravitate towards group B. You know . . . the one who says, “Choose something different, Pam. You only live once. So . . . go ahead . . .  live a little . . . even if it is only selecting a new item off the menu. Live dangerously!” Of course, this has its own hurdles. I find myself time and time again paralyzed by choice. If I say “yes” to one thing, then that means I am saying “no” to something else. Oh, what to do? What to do? On this particular day, would you believe that while my husband was predictable by ordering the same appetizer, I, too, was predictable when I ordered my main course?  It’s true. You see, when I go to a Thai restaurant, I cannot seem to order anything but curry. Oh, I get tempted by ginger chicken or something like spicy Thai basil chicken, but in the end, I end up with curry. I may change it up a little: Beef for chicken. Red curry for green. But my ultimate favorite is panang curry, and if it appears on the menu, I am like a moth to flame: I cannot say “no.”

Oh, how we gravitate toward the familiar. We like it. It is comfortable. It is safe. Cozy. Secure. Like a newborn being held by Mom, we like the security sameness brings. An infant believes, “Mom and I are one. Mom is an extension of me,” as Margaret Mahler’s theory holds. This is security at its finest. It is not until after five months or so that baby begins to realize, “Hey, you are different from me! You take a shower and leave me in my crib. I wake up, and you are not there.” Such a realization brings tears. Anxiety. A lack of security. This separation, or difference, is not safe. Yet . . . it is through difference that we learn, “I am not you. You are not me.” It is through difference that we learn who we are.

Consider, for instance, mathematics. Remember as a kid being presented with four objects and being told to identify which one of these is not like the other? Remember that little ditty from Sesame Street?

                                                 One of these things is not like the other.

                                                 One of these things doesn’t belong.

                                                 Can you tell which thing is not like the others

                                                 By the time I finish this song?

Difference, then, becomes an important part of our human development by teaching us to say: I am me. You are you. You are not me. I am not you.

But somewhere along the line, we come to believe that difference means less than. How this happens, I am not sure. After all, when we study mathematics, what does the following equation communicate:  A ≠ B, C, nor D? It simply says that A is not equal to B or C or D. It does not say, A is less than B, C, or D. When ≠ is used, it does not mean: A < B; A < C; or A < D. Simply put: ≠ is not the same as <.

In spite of the rule of mathematics, we still have this human tendency to believe that ≠ is the same as <. Let us be honest with ourselves: human history repeatedly plays this out, and we do not need to look very far into our history to observe it. If there is a different race or ethnicity, the race or ethnicity with power has oppressed the other. Unfortunately, if the one who has been oppressed is able to gain the position of power, the oppressed usually becomes the oppressor. And the pattern tragically continues. The difference may be in age groups, such as the young and strong dominating the children and the elderly. It may be a difference between genders. It is no secret that the subjugation of gender and of children continues today as human trafficking remains a real issue. In American suburbia, women and children are being used as human slaves, including for labor or for sex.

Too often, the merely different becomes the less than, the voiceless.

As I reflected on the idea of difference, my mind was drawn to that of being a child once again. While we sang “which one of these things is not like the other,” at some point we embraced another song “difference is equal to less than.” Many of us as adults recall our own stories of when difference was equated to less than. Maybe we were the child who was different, the less than. And just maybe we were the child with the power, the greater than. A girl’s clothes were deemed not the latest fashion. A boy was seen as not the fastest or the strongest. A girl was labeled as not thin enough. The boy was considered not bright enough. Her skin was a different color. His religion was unfamiliar. A child’s grades may be too high, or a child’s grades may be too low. It was as if there was a dance, but the steps to the dance were unclear. Only those with the power seemed to know the dance steps for the day. Thus, on any given day, a child may remain clueless as to why his or her uniqueness was seen as . . . less than.

How this evolves, I am not sure. It could be our natural aversion to uncertainty and our longing to be secure. I mean, experiencing something different is risky, and if we have an aversion to risk, then we are more likely to opt for predictability. According to attachment theory, we are hard-wired for a desire for a secure base; thus, uncertainty presents a certain amount of anxiety, generating a longing for security. Perhaps we seek to gain that security by asserting our power over those who are different, becoming the greater than.

Difference does not need to engender a power differential. It can be utilized to create power with. Consider my previous blog on empathy in which sympathy sees us as the same, but empathy views both the similarities and differences. Difference, then, is included in the means to encourage the other through the expression of empathy; it is part of the vehicle to empower the other through validation and communication that “You matter.”

If you are a Christ-follower as I am, difference is repeatedly seen in Scripture and in our theology.

Consider 1 Corinthians 12:14-18:

For in fact the body is not a single member, but many. If the foot says, “Since I am not a hand, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. And if the ear says, “Since I am not an eye, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. If the whole body were an eye, what part would do the hearing? If the whole were an ear, what part would exercise the sense of smell? But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided.

It is here we see that the body of Christ has different members, and the beauty is found in the differences.

In the Gospel of John, difference is utilized as a literary device. There are two individuals with encounters with Jesus in chapters 3 and 4.

Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Judea Samaria
Man Woman
Jew Samaritan
Night Mid-day
Pharisee, ruling member of Sanhedrin Married 5x, living with a man
  Messiah revealed

Here the Gospel writer uses two stories, inviting us to pay attention to the details by way of difference. Two religious conversations, yet different. Interestingly, the one we might naturally view as less than (the Samaritan woman) is the very one to whom Jesus reveals he is the Messiah and is the one who is used via her testimony to cause others to come and see Jesus.

The Gospel itself embodies difference. It is the Good News of God, who is not us, embracing humanity by becoming human while still remaining God. That is, God walks among humanity as the person Jesus Christ, the one who is the human-divine one. Jesus Christ, then, becomes an expression of God’s empathy: embracing difference and similarity.

Theologically, orthodox Christianity holds to the doctrine of a triune Godhead, in which the Trinity consists of homogeneity and diversity; thus, we could say that when we embrace the differences of the each other in the catholic church (the whole body of Christ), we are reflecting the imago Dei. We are reflecting the beauty in difference.

So, my invitation to us is: May we resist the pull of our culture that says difference = less than. Instead, today, may we see how we may participate in the ministry of Jesus Christ through the presence and power of the Spirit by embracing difference, seeing its beauty.

Oh, and in case you were wondering . . . I ordered the panang curry.

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The Unmapped Experience: An Escort to Empathy

It was . . . to say the least . . . a difficult experience.

Not one we had been prepared to have . . . after all, who thoroughly plans for these difficulties? And yet . . . such an experience significantly altered us, putting us on a new trajectory. Maybe it was like we were on this journey through a wilderness with a map. We trusted the map. In fact, it was someone we trusted who gave us the map. We had been told, “This is a good map.” We spoke with others who had followed similar maps, and they had informed us of their experiences, which provided us with a few little rules, or maybe axioms, of the journey    . . . you know, like things to do . . . things not do . . . bits of wisdom. In other words, the patterns of their journey informed our journey, generating some expectations.

So with a map in hand and feeling confident with a sense of purpose, we plunged into the wilderness. We were excited. We were tenacious, particularly at first. Granted, the wilderness was not quite how we had envisioned. After all, a map can only give us so much, right? It wasn’t until we were in it that we saw what the map left unsaid. The hills were little more treacherous than we had imagined. The caverns were a little deeper. There were some sizeable boulders that obstructed the path. Some large timbers that had fallen in front of us. This was to be expected, we said to ourselves. So . . . despite the harsh terrain, we still trusted the map because we trusted the one who gave us the map. We remained determined, and we continued . . . we followed the map.

Now, on this journey, we had some ideas of what we would see . . . you know . . . some expectations. We all have them when we take a trip. Others had told us their stories of similar journeys. They said, “Now, make sure you see this!” “Oh, you must take the time to see that!” “If you take this alternate route, then you will see this.” Thus, there were some things we expected to see along the way. As it would happen, some of those things we just did not have the opportunity to see. At times, the item was just a little too far off course. During other times, our progress on the journey was slower than we had imagined it would be. The terrain was a little more arduous, so we were forced to slow down, hindering our ability to complete all we had planned. Of course, this was a little disheartening. But . . . still . . . we forged ahead.

We had people supporting us, cheering us on. They had expectations for us, too. And well . . . who wants to disappoint others? Don’t forget the one who gave us the map . . . Certainly, he must have had expectations for us. After all, he chose to give us this map. These thoughts pushed us. Besides, many needs were being met through the map. Security. Respect. Approval. Acceptance. Fulfillment. Purpose. Contribution. Guidance. Direction. To matter. Meaning. Identity. Add to those needs the support, the encouragement, and the expectations. They all played a part in our perseverance to remain on this journey.

Then . . . maybe on a day when we least expected it . . . the map disintegrated . . . or for whatever reason, the map was no longer accurate. The journey had not only been disrupted, but it had ceased. Life, as we knew it, would be forever changed. It did not continue according to the map. Amidst all this, we found ourselves unprepared. This was not how we had envisioned our journey through the wilderness with what we had considered to be a reliable map in hand. This was not how it was supposed to be.

Without a map . . . well . . . we were lost. We had entered into unmapped territory.

Unmapped territories.

They can take so many forms. We do not enter a marriage saying, “Oh, this will end in divorce,” or “This relationship will contain domestic abuse.” We do not throw ourselves into a career thinking, “I will file for bankruptcy in five years.” And we certainly do not love someone with the plan that person will die a premature death. It isn’t like we set out for these things to happen, right? Maybe we believed in the American dream. Maybe we held implicitly to the belief, “If I live right, life will be good to me.” Maybe we unconsciously thought, “Bad stuff happens . . . but to others.” We just did not think it would happen to us.

For me, I believed in a God who gave me the map. I trusted God. I trusted the map. And I even saw God as the Creator of my map. Since it’s God, then how can it go awry? But one day . . . the map was gone. I was angry with the Creator and angry with me. Who wouldn’t be? I had invested my whole being in the Creator’s map. Had God abandoned me? Had I failed God? I had obeyed. I had trusted. Now . . . here I was in the wilderness without a map. What kind of deal was that? I was quite disoriented. Very little was familiar, and this infuriated me.

What about my supporters? You know . . . those who were encouraging me on my journey? We all have them. Well . . . I did not experience most of them venturing into the wilderness to find me. They knew I had disappeared in the wilderness, but many did not seek me out. Of course, I was quite ashamed for being so lost. And those who did venture into the wilderness to find me . . . well . . . I did not find many of them to be very helpful.

There was one. He spoke with me right after the map dissolved, but that was when the impact of my new reality had not yet sunk into my being. When he heard the story, he said one of the most helpful things that served as somewhat of a signpost in my lostness. It was sorta like a you-are-here sign: I was still lost, but I knew where I was . . . here. Where was here? The friend said, “It sounds like you are experiencing the death of a dream.”

The death of a dream.

Such a death had not been on my map. This death left me out in the wilderness, not on the other side of it. I was lost.

Okay. I now knew I was here, but this was still unmapped territory for me. Later, another supporter informed me that it takes an average of three to five years to mourn the death of a dream. In some ways, this information provided me with a cursory map beyond the you-are-here signpost. Yet, it was cursory, which meant it did not take me out of my wilderness. I remained lost.

This experience was a number of years ago now, but it changed me, and it continues to have its impact.

I am reminded of how I have heard it said by more than one individual, “Now that so-and-so (family member) has died, I now get it when others lose a loved one.” Some individuals have even apologized for their failure to be present with others during their grief. I can imagine this could be said of many of us about our own unmapped experiences. Journeying into unmapped territories changes us positively, or even negatively. As others besides myself have discovered, these unmapped experiences can open our eyes to be present to others in ways that we had not been previously, particularly through the power of empathy.

As a Christ-follower, I suspect that the triune Godhead has understood this. While I have stated elsewhere that I believe Jesus is God’s embodied expression of empathy, I also see in the Hebrew scriptures where God calls a nation to allow their unmapped experiences to lead to empathy for others. In providing commands to the Israelites on how to live, we read in Exodus 23:9:

You must not oppress a foreigner, since you know the life of a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.

This is not the only time God instructs the Israelites to draw from their own unmapped experience as a foreigner, so to speak. Similar commands appear in Leviticus (e.g., 19:33-34) and Deuteronomy (e.g., 10:19). In Deuteronomy they are repeatedly reminded in various ways, “Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do all this” (e.g., Deut 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22). God, then, reminds the Israelites to draw from their unmapped experiences of being slaves in the land of Egypt.

For me, this is empathy. I define empathy as including,

both cognitive and affective aspects in that it involves a skill as well as one’s emotions in which a caregiver identifies within herself similar feelings and experiences to the one receiving care but separates her feelings and experiences as being different from the carereceiver’s.

Empathy, then, involves both similar feelings, needs, or experiences and uses them to help identify with the carereceiver while recognizing that my feelings, needs, or experiences are not exactly what the other is experiencing. It is as if someone is drowning, and I am reaching out to help them by standing with one foot on the shore and one foot in the water so that I am simultaneously in the water but not in the water.

In the Israelites’ unmapped experience, they had lost their freedom. Now, since they were liberated from that experience, God is, in essence, instructing them to empathize with others who are currently foreigners in their midst. For me, this is a description of empathy because I see the presence of both similarities and differences.

  1. They share the similar experience of living in a different culture, being an outsider. The Israelites are being invited to reflect upon their experience in order to feel with those who are having the experience of living as strangers or aliens among them. The notes for Exodus 23:9 in the NET Bible speak of the word “life” as being “soul, life,” and it could be translated, “You know what it feels like.”
  2. They are commanded to feel with those who are different from them. Just by the mere fact that the word “foreigner” is used, it means they are not the same as the Israelites. Of course, sameness is attractive, and maybe God understood this, which is why we see God appealing to their unmapped experience and calling them to empathize. Let’s face it: humans like sameness. It is easy. Differences, however, are another story. They are harder. I think it is a human tendency to fear difference, which can result in wanting to rule over the difference or make it more like us. This means, it takes work to overcome that fear and to empathize. However, differences can produce incredible fruit in that we can be enriched and transformed.

How does this play out for you and me?

Maybe you are presently journeying through an unmapped experience. I may be tempted to say, “We are the same,” but in that moment, I am no longer empathizing but sympathizing. I am being pulled into my experience without considering you and your experience. That is, I begin to drown with you. I am trying to pull you into my experience and make it more like mine.

OR

I can say, “I have experienced loss, but I have not experienced your loss.” I can tap into my experience of loss to help bring limited understanding to what you may be experiencing. Simultaneously, I am recognizing your feelings, needs, and experience of loss are not mine; thus, I am attempting to listen to you and hear what feelings, needs, and experiences you are having inside your loss. Such an effort enables me to feel with you in a limited way while honoring your experience. My unmapped experience, then, becomes my escort to empathy as I join alongside you in your journey in an unmapped territory.

Holy Spirit, today may I participate in what you are doing in the lives of others who are in their own unmapped experiences. May I allow you to use my unmapped experience as my escort to empathy, embracing difference while fostering healing.

 

An Unlikely Marriage

It was an unlikely marriage. They were polar opposites. One was all about honor. The other was all about greed. The honorable one married the greedy one so that she would continue to matter in a patriarchal world.

The unlikely wedding about which I speak? A Klingon marrying a Ferengi in Deep Space Nine’s episode “The House of Quark.” The Klingon’s husband had died; thus, she would lose her house’s holdings without a male head. In essence, she, as a female, did not matter, and so in order to maintain her voice and to be seen and heard, she married a Ferengi, who is the opposite of an honorable Klingon warrior. While a fanciful story of make-believe, “The House of Quark” illustrates how a core need of all of us, the need to matter, may cause us to surrender our own integrity.

Before I progress any further, perhaps it would be helpful to discuss this word, “integrity.”

Consider the word “integer.” Remember that word from grade school arithmetic? And here you thought you left the vocabulary of mathematics behind you! What is an integer? It is a whole number, like 1 or 1,000,000,001. It is not a fraction like ¼. What does math have to do it? Integrity comes from the Latin word for integer which means “wholeness, perfect condition.”[1] Thus, rather than simply having good morals or values, which is included in its meaning, integrity carries an understanding of being whole. That is, our actions and our beliefs line up completely. Our whole being does not compromise or surrender to be less than we were intended to be.

Granted, there is not one single human who can say that he walks with complete integrity. Nevertheless, a high standard remains.

  • Fifty-four percent of 3600 high school students surveyed in New England agreed that cheating is morally wrong, yet 95% of that same 3600 reported to having cheated.[2] While other studies demonstrate there is a belief that it is necessary to cheat to succeed, there is an underlying cultural understanding that remains: cheating is wrong.

I was reminded of the need for integrity while participating in a course about online teaching, in which my colleagues and I wrestled with the problem of cheating. Cheating is an issue.

  • A report by Kessler International that was published in early 2017 notes that in a survey of 300 college students, nine out of ten (86%) said they cheated, be it in an online or a seated class. This same article also reports that students spoke of faculty who accepted bribes and sexual favors as well as pressured students to buy books they had authored in exchange for giving higher grades.[3]

Neither is cheating any longer just for students who struggle academically.

  • This is the thrust of a NY Times article in 2012 called “Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception.” It reveals that students cheat because they are experiencing added pressure and more competition; this is accompanied by culture’s decreased emphasis on honoring authority and increased weight on “material success.”

In other words, once again this implicit need to matter appears, in the seeking to succeed by rising above others.[4]

This causes me to wonder how this happened. How have we become a culture that cheats?

David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, speaks of a cyclical pattern that transpires in a culture: as cheating increases, it becomes more accepted. Then, since cheating is increasingly accepted, more people cheat.[5] Donald L. McCabe, co-author of Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About It, seems to agree when he states:

As long as they think others are cheating, students feel they have no choice but to cheat as well.[6]

So, it seems that cheating, or a lack of integrity, has become a new normal.

Consider for a moment a popular TV series called Suits. Its theme? A brilliant, young man who becomes a law associate while never having passed the bar exam. For over five seasons, the show centers on maintaining this secret and his avoiding being caught.

Entertainment has not always championed a lack of integrity. Think about the classic Frank Capra 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” starring Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart. A politically naïve Boy Rangers leader is asked to fill the remaining term of a deceased congressman. Why? Because the powers-that-be believe he can be manipulated. Amidst Stewart’s character being slandered, he discovers corruption in government, the lack of integrity, particularly in the life of the much-admired Congressman Paine. We see how integrity wins the day when during a filibuster, Mr. Smith’s stand for integrity turns the tide. Capra, the director of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” another Stewart movie, is known for films that make a statement about culture and humanity, and this one is no different. It is a reminder for us to cling to honor, respect, and integrity even when society has turned against us.

Unfortunately, we see it not just in make-believe television and movies, but we also see a lack of integrity in real life.

Consider the realm of politics. Granted, the lack of integrity has been present in this arena since . . . well . . . forever . . . I mean, why else would Capra generate such a film? Still, I wonder if there has been a shift in my lifetime.

Reflect with me on the 1988 presidential race in which Gary Hart was forced out by public outcry over his extramarital affair. Then in the era of former President Bill Clinton, he was impeached over private failings but was allowed to remain in office. Now, today, I hear that one’s private life is nobody’s business. I watch as politicians, who say one thing but later deny what they said, remain unchallenged by supporters and seemingly avoid any consequences. Instead, other politicians announce their full support of those who demonstrate material, temporal success while blatantly falling short in the areas of integrity, honor, and respect. Again, I wonder, “What need are we trying to meet by placing success over integrity? Is it a need to matter?”

As a Christ-follower, I notice that the church is not immune to this shift.

True, the church has always been accused of hypocrisy. After all, Jesus Christ himself calls out the hypocrisy of several churches in the Book of Revelation (chapters 2 and 3). But I have watched as the church who decried Bill Clinton’s immorality remain silent or supportive of our current President’s apparent faltering in this area. I experience this as a curious thing, generating wonder, “Is it in part because of our need to matter in a culture that has relegated Christ-followers to irrelevance?”

I find it challenging to develop a theology of integrity. I mean, how does one formulate said theology while staying away from the riverbanks of grace as a license to sin and its opposite shore of legalism? It is a challenge, to be sure. My own tradition has historically waded close to the shore of legalism and earning salvation while other traditions, fearing any appearance of being saved through works, closely hug the other bank. Both of these extremes are in Scripture—one extreme is seen in the religious scribes (and Luther may have included the book of James) and the other in Romans 6. Let’s face it: it is hard to swim down the middle, holding both in tension. While I will attempt to do this, I recognize that for some on one bank I may appear to be on the opposing shore, while those on the opposing shore may perceive me to be on the first bank. But here goes . . .

For me, a theology of integrity begins with the concept that doing flows from being.

Jesus states in Matthew 15:18-19: But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things defile a person. For out of the heart come evil ideas, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. It would seem, according to Jesus, we cannot separate private and public, being and doing.

This lack of integrity does not exist in God, but humans have not a little trouble in this regard. This is why God sends Jesus Christ: we are incapable of being whole on our own; thus, Jesus becomes humanity’s response to God while at the same time being God’s response to humanity. Jesus is whole, complete as a human (integrity) while remaining whole, complete as divine. As Christ-followers, we believe that in Jesus Christ we are now in the divine life, our life is hidden in Christ (Col 3:1-4). At the same time, because of this new life and nature, Colossians 3:5 reminds us to put to death the old nature. So, because of our being in Christ, the result is a different way of doing.

But how? I think there are some things that can help us in this regard.

Some studies point out that religiosity, not spirituality, influences a student’s higher level of academic integrity.[7] Religiosity references those who embrace a religion’s symbols, rituals, and beliefs whereas spirituality includes the finding of meaning, purpose, and connection in an effort towards self-transcendence apart from a religious foundation. Of course, one can still have religiosity but mirror Jesus words in Matthew 15: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me’ (v.8). But I would like to think that if we are sincere with a longing for integrity and more conscientious about allowing religiosity to impact our being, the result would be movement toward less and less dichotomy between being and doing—an increase in integrity.

One way to challenge our lack of integrity is to ask: What need am I attempting to meet by this action? I believe that all we do, each act, is striving to meet a need. If I cheat, it is a strategy to meet a need, maybe to matter (notice how the need is universal; the action, the strategy, is specific). If I see I am attempting to meet a need to matter, for instance, I may ask myself, “Is there another way to meet this need that maintains my integrity?

As I reflect on the incongruity of humanity, I wonder if in some ways we could say we are like the Ferengi, greedy and in it for ourselves? Yet, we have been invited to be wed to One who embodies integrity, who is complete and whole. Through this marriage, we are invited to participate in the Spirit’s ministry in us who is moving to restore us and all of creation to be whole by saying, “Come and see. Come and participate in what I am doing in you, making you whole . . . you matter to me.”

 

[1] See “integrity” in the Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 14, 2017.

[2] See David Wangaard and Jason Stephens, “Academic Integrity: A Critical Challenge for Schools,” in Excellence & Ethics, (LaFayette, NY), Winter 2011, http://www2.cortland.edu/dotAsset/317302.pdf.

[3] See Audri Taylors, “College Students Admit To Cheating, Instructors Are Prone To Do The Same, Survey Shows,” University Herald Reporter (New York, NY), February 27, 2017, https://www.universityherald.com/articles/66716/20170227/college-students-admit-cheating-instructors-prone-same-survey-shows.htm.

[4] See Richard Pérez-Peña, “Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception,” NY Times (New York), Sept 7, 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/08/education/studies-show-more-students-cheat-even-high-achievers.html.

[5] David Callahan, “Changing Culture to Promote Integrity,” in “Research,” Plagiarism, video, accessed June 14, 2017, http://www.plagiarism.org/plagiarism-research

[6] See Maria Blackburn, “Why College Students Cheat,” John Hopkins University Gazette (Baltimore, MD), January 2013, https://hub.jhu.edu/gazette/2013/january/cheating-in-school-no-easy-answers/.

[7] See Millicent F. Nelson, Matrecia S. L. James, Angela Miles, Daniel L. Morrell, & Sally Sledge, “Academic Integrity of Millennials: The Impact of Religion and Spirituality, Ethics & Behavior,” Ethics & Behavior, March (2016), DOI: 10.1080/10508422.2016.1158653; see also Linda Williams, “Academic Integrity: A Correlational Study of Private Christian College Students’ Religiosity and the Propensity to Cheat,” EdD diss., Liberty University, Lynchburg, 2018, accessed June 14, 2017, http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/doctoral/1732/

Lost!

It seemed like a normal trip to Osco Drug in downtown Huron, SD. I mean . . . I had  made previous trips with my family, and as I recall, on this particular occasion, I was with my mom.

As the reader, I ask for you to indulge me for a moment while I set the stage by reminiscing.

It was probably a Friday night because that is when the stores were open past 5:00 PM and when my family usually went to town after school. Note: I said, “went to town.” An important phrase as we lived on a farm, thirty miles away. This may explain why these Friday night trips were weekly highlights. On those nights, my brother usually had a guitar lesson from Dick Dugan, a local pastor of the Huron Mission Church, and of course, my Mom needed to stock up on groceries. She had, after all, three kids and her wavy, black-haired, hard-working husband to keep well-fed. She did not drive (that’s another story for another day); therefore, Dad usually dropped her off downtown, and after running a few errands, Mom and I (as the youngest, I usually was with Mom) walked to the downtown grocery store, O. P. Skaggs. I assume it was named after a person, but I do not recall meeting O. P., and I probably never have since the store was part of a small chain . . . But I digress.

I am not sure how it happened.

I found myself in Osco Drug on this particular evening. Perhaps I was bored with whatever my mother was examining . . . taking way too long to make up her mind, in my young, humble opinion (probably under the age of 6). Or maybe we walked by something that caught my eye, causing me to stop while she kept going. However it happened, I was not expecting it. For me, Mom was nearby, and this was not my first rodeo, so to speak. In fact, if given a choice between a woman’s clothing store and Osco Drug, I preferred Osco. It at least had some interesting things . . . You know, like a small toy section, a high priority for me . . . Plus, they had enough variety to attract my short attention span.

As far as I can recall, every other time that I had been distracted in a store I felt secure. My mom was nearby, so it was safe for me to explore my world. As long as she was near, I had a sense of security to investigate other, more interesting things. Well, on this occasion, unbeknownst to me, my Mom went out of the store. When I realized Mom’s absence, panic set in. My secure base was gone. I was lost.

I have this vague memory of a man asking me if I was lost. I do not know if I was crying. Or maybe it was the look of sheer terror on my face that was a dead giveaway. Or perhaps I was wandering around aimlessly while appearing a little too young to be doing such a thing alone. Whatever it was, this man saw a little girl in trouble. I remember he contacted a clerk, and eventually I found myself sitting on the counter with the store clerk standing by my side, attempting to reassure me that someone would come back for me. I do not know if I believed this stranger. After all, this person was not my Mom, from where my sense of security derived.

I was scared. Confused. Disoriented.

This story is a great illustration of John Bowlby’s attachment theory.

According to this theory, children tend to rely on an attachment with a caregiver in order to have a sense of security to explore their world. With this security, the child will be curious, wander, explore, and seek to discover his world, resting in the knowledge that the parent is present. The child may become consumed in her playtime but periodically looks over her shoulder to check to see if the caregiver is still there. If so, all is right with the world.

The caregiver is like an anchor point, a secure base, a shelter, a place that is reliable, steady, and stable that enables the child to investigate and discover new things. However, if that secure base disappears for a period of time and the child is unable to find that security, a sense of loss and feelings of grief may follow. The child may have feelings of anger, anxiety, or fear which triggers loud protests and/or uncontrolled sobbing.

By the way, I will not keep you in suspense any longer: My Mom returned to Osco Drug, having realized at some point that I was not with the family. And all became right with the world once again.

As adults, many of us continue to form attachments both with things and with people, which generate for us a sense of security.

It may be a person, a dream, a career, or even a goal. For instance, a pastor has a goal to expand the church building. As the project begins, the pastor becomes consumed with this goal. But upon its completion, it is said that many pastors leave their congregations. Could it be the pastor lost her connection with her secure base, and it is gone? The pastor is . . . well . . . lost?

Or maybe a husband is a caregiver to his wife for many years. What do you suppose may transpire when the wife dies? The husband was fulfilled as a caregiver; thus, he not only lost his lover and friend, but he also lost his job, his purpose, and security. He knew what was expected of him and what he expected of his day, but with her gone, his world may no longer be predictable and stable.

A sense of security may result from a dream or an internal calling, such as a pursuit of a particular career or a certain status. This may be seen in the life of a professional athlete who sustains a career-ending injury. Her sport had provided her with a sense of security, enabling her to push herself—to practice hard, to propel herself beyond her perceived limitations, or to take chances. Now in its absence, this former athlete, who once exuded confidence, finds herself paralyzed by decisions and shying away from risks.

This security, then, provides a sense of certainty, stability, and predictability that enables us to explore our world.

With security in place, we may stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone and boundaries by trying new things. We may have more confidence and assurance, which may cause us to be more willing to take risks, become emotionally exposed, or embrace uncertainty and/or ambiguity.

In the above examples, we see that security may also be connected to expectations. It was not part of my plan that day to become lost. I expected my mother to be nearby which enabled me to take a minor risk by being away from her side. When we derive our sense of security from a stable base, we make no contingency plans. Mom will be there. There is no reason to fear as I expected my secure base to be near.

However, in the wake of a disrupted expectation, there is a loss of security.

There is chaos. A fog. A wilderness.

One becomes like a ship without an anchor on a vast sea with no land in sight. We are directionless. While it may be true that on some level we acknowledge that nothing lasts forever, on another level we may not know what we have until it’s gone. When the person, the goal, the career, the dream, the marriage, or health is gone, we may question if anything is stable. A void appears when security is absent, and when we stare in the void, we become frightened, confused, and disoriented.

Sometimes our sense of lostness may become an existential crisis.

It may become closely tied to questions of “Who am I? Does my life have purpose?” Alan Wolfelt speaks of a search for self, meaning, and security as the three main secondary losses that may transpire during the journey of grief. (And just when we thought these questions were reserved for our teenage years or a mid-life crisis!)

The answer to these type of questions does not come easily. I fear that too often when we or someone else is wrestling with these type of questions, we become impatient.

We may try to will a person (including ourselves) out this crisis.

We may ask, “What do you want to do?” as if the person just needs to make a decision. While in some cases this may be appropriate, such a question tends to overlook the confusion and disorientation. The person is lost. Anchors are absent. Clear signposts are obscure. We used to know, but now we do not. In essence, I want Mom, but Mom is gone, and the world is too big for me to find her.

I want to suggest that what may be the most helpful may not be the most intuitive. That is, learn to be.

It is said that if we become lost in a wilderness, we are to sit in one place until someone finds us. In many ways, this is what the store clerk did with me. After I was found, she stood by me, and together we waited for Mom.

It is also what Job’s friends did . . . they silently sat with Job . . . well . . . at least for seven days and seven nights.

Let’s be honest: It is hard to be.

But as a Christ-follower, I believe I have found an invitation to be: Psalm 88.

This is what one would call a lament psalm. However, it is different from other laments in that it does not end in praise or thanksgiving. We tend to highlight those laments that end well . . . You know, like a nice story (which my husband loves, by the way) with everything all tied up in a pretty, little, red bow. No ambiguity. No uncertainty. No mystery. Predictable. Stable. Secure.

But life is not always like that.

In reality, if we allowed ourselves to think about it, life has many insecurities. Thus, expectations, predictable patterns, provide us with some security. And to be frank, without them we would probably lose our minds.

Psalm 88 is that kind of reminder. Life has insecurities.

But I think it also can be an invitation: An invitation to simply be with others in their disorientation, something we all could experience. To plop down beside others in their fog. To sit in the vast wilderness in their state of lostness.

So, I leave you with the final verse of Psalm 88:

You cause my friends and neighbors to keep their distance; those who know me leave me alone in the darkness (v. 18).

It is a verse not of hope but an opportunity to be, like the store clerk did with me. Being alongside others in their fog. Their wilderness. Their lostness. By doing so, you participate in Christ’s ministry by helping to provide a sense of security for them.

The Borg, Losses, and Pentecost

We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Probably any serious Star Trek fan is able to cite these words. The Borg, an enemy of the Federation, is a species that operates as a collective, united by one mind. As such, each member of the Borg is not alone in his/her thoughts since he/she experiences the experiences of all other members of the collective. The members are linked . . . connected.

The stark contrast of the Borg to an individual is seen in a particular episode of Voyager (“Scorpion”) in which a Borg member (a drone) is disconnected from the collective (the hive mind). The drone, realizing her new reality, responds in anger: “What have you done .  .  . [This is] unacceptable. You should have let us die . . . This drone cannot survive outside the collective.” As this scene unfolds, we observe the attempts of the captain of Voyager (Janeway) striving to connect with the Borg drone (Seven of Nine):

Janeway: I want to help you, but I need to understand what you’re going through.

Seven of Nine: Do not engage us at superficial attempts at sympathy.

Janeway: It’s obvious that you are in pain. That you’re frightened. That you feel isolated. Alone.

Seven: You are an individual. You are small. You cannot understand what it is to be Borg.

Janeway: No, but I can imagine. You were part of a vast consciousness. Billions of minds working together. A harmony of purpose and thought. No indecision. No doubts. The security and strength of a unified will, and you’ve lost that.

Seven: This drone is small now. Alone. One voice. One mind. The silence is unacceptable. We need the others.

For much of the remaining seasons of Voyager, we watch Seven discovering her humanity—what it is like to be alone with the need to communicate outwardly her experiences to those outside of herself; who is she is as a person; from where does her sense of security and trust derive; and what is the meaning of her life.

Upon being disconnected, Seven immediately discovers an aspect of humanity…to be alone in her own being. For those of us who are not Borg (and I would guess that would be all of us), we are accustomed to the isolation of our own thoughts. It is all we know. When I have an experience, I am the only one who is intimate with that experience as I experience it. Even my words in this blog pale in comparison to the actual experience of which I attempt to communicate. I am alone. You are alone. We are not Borg.

Take, for instance, Kate Bowler’s words in her recently published book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved: “I sometimes feel like I’m the only one in the world who is dying.” In Bowler’s writing of her experience of living with Stage IV cancer, I believe she has captured a reality about humans. That is, our own disconnection from the other. When I experience something, I am wrapped up in that experience, creating a sense that I am the only one experiencing it. And in some way, I am. No one else feels like I feel. No one else thinks exactly like I think. No one else is me. So, in the experience I have, be it one of mourning or celebration, I am alone in my experience because I am the only me. No one else is inside of me experiencing it with me (i.e., we are not Borg); thus, my experience consumes me in the moment. I am alone. We are not Borg.

Not only has Seven discovered what it is to be alone, she has also experienced a monumental loss. At the same time, she is grieving the loss of her identity, security, and meaning. She was Borg, as she repeatedly reminded the Voyager crew. She had security in the collective because it was a stable and safe environment. She had a purpose, to assimilate other species, and she had a designation, which described her specific job within the Borg collective. Not only did she lose the Borg collective, but she also is grieving these other losses.

So it is with us when we experience a major loss. It may be a physical death of someone close to us. A divorce. A long-term goal met. A purpose unfulfilled. Unemployment. Retirement. These major losses are not just limited to individuals but may include groups as well. It may be a nation that grieves the death of their leader; a company which undergoes a takeover; or a church whose pastor takes a different call. These losses generate questions such as: “Who am I?”; “Where do I fit?” “What is my purpose?” “Who do I trust?” Both the major loss and the secondary losses may generate feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety, confusion, discouragement, or even relief.

I am in this place. On the twenty-first of May a year ago, I was traveling to my graduation (a completion of a long-term goal) when my siblings and I made the decision to place our father on comfort care at the suggestion of the medical community. Our father passed away eight days later. Two major losses. While I grieve these losses, I am also currently undertaking the daunting, slow task of grieving the loss of my previous identity, security, and meaning while I am also teaching and writing. These are the hidden losses that few people discuss but are nevertheless very real.

As I ponder such losses at this time, the church is also approaching an event in its liturgical calendar called Pentecost, and I find myself drawn to the Gospel of John’s emphasis on the Spirit, and I am encouraged. In chapters thirteen through sixteen, we observe the disciples experiencing a major loss: Jesus is departing. Imagine the connection they have with Jesus and the expectations they have formulated. They have an identity as Jesus’ disciples (13:15; 18:17, 25), and some had even given up their identity as disciples of John the Baptist to follow Jesus (1:35-40), and Peter got a new name (1:42). For the disciples, Jesus had become their Teacher, Lord (13:13-14), Messiah (1:41; 4:25ff), and friend (15:13-15). Now, he announces he is leaving??? During the Passover? After he has just washed their feet and expressed his love for them? Dare I say that their world is being turned upside down?

This is a major loss, and John gives us signals that the disciples react with feelings of grief. In chapter 14, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be distressed” (v. 1) and “Do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage” (27). Jesus even acknowledges their current sadness (16:6). There is an indication of confusion and perhaps anxiety, as Peter says, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now?” (13:37); when Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (14:5), and when the disciples keep asking, “What is the meaning of what he says, ‘In a little while’? We do not understand what he is talking about” (16:17-18). Could it be they have entered into the fog of grief?

When considering their loss, it is not a surprise that after Jesus died and was resurrected that several of the disciples returned to what was familiar: fishing (John 21). As fishermen, their identity, security, and meaning were predictable and stable. I mean, let’s face it . . . right now . . . Jesus is unpredictable. He appears. He disappears. Things are not like they were . . . but yet they are. Jesus is back . . . but not. So much ambiguity and uncertainty. Why not return to a path that is well worn?

While I have no idea if this is what the disciples thought, it is a human tendency to go back to the familiar amidst ambiguity and uncertainty. If I am to be honest in this blog, I, too, have toyed with returning to what I know: my father’s farm. It speaks identity, security, and meaning to me. Yet, I know, “This is grief talking.”

But in John’s Gospel, Jesus is one step ahead of his disciples. In these chapters (13-16) Jesus offers reassurance: His disciples will not be alone. There will be one who will be with them, even more intimately than Jesus has been; thus, it is better that Jesus goes away so that this one can come (16:7). John calls the one who is coming the Paraclete, a name referencing the Holy Spirit in the Fourth Gospel. The Paraclete will not leave them (14:16) and will teach them (14:26), and they will join the Paraclete’s ministry of testifying about Jesus (15:26-27).

According to commentators, the title, “Paraclete,” is difficult to capture in our English language. While words such as Advocate, Counselor, or Helper have been used, each of these words is insufficient in and of itself; however, for this blog, I will highlight Advocate. Concerning the word “Advocate,” there is overlap in the Johannine writings between Jesus and the Spirit both being an Advocate. Jesus is described as a Paraclete (Advocate) in 1 John 2:1, and as Pentecostal Craig Keener notes, we see Jesus being an advocate in John 9 as he comes to the aid of the man who was born blind who Jesus had healed [see Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pp. 965-966]. Unlike the man’s family and the religious leaders, Jesus does not abandon the man, but becomes the man’s advocate by being present to him. The stress on presence is immediately seen in chapter 10 as we learn that Jesus’ presence is one of abundance, which is not like the hired man or that of thieves (the religious leaders). This is also the type of presence of the Spirit, the Advocate, who will never leave them (14:16).

But why send the Spirit? I think I would be remiss if I did not also mention a commonality among the three words of Advocate, Counselor, and Helper. They implicitly recognize human limitations. Our own finitude. Our lack of omnipotence. Our need for another. In other words, through the sending of the Paraclete, the triune Godhead recognizes our own inability, and God seeks to come alongside us and dwell in us (14:17). This is a connection so deep that the Spirit is in us, sharing our experience of an experience. In short, God sees our limitations and sends the Spirit who abides in us.

May we take courage, Church, we are not alone. God has sent the Paraclete, an intercessor, a teacher, a deposit of what is to come, and one who is ministering in and to the world with whom we have the opportunity to participate in that ministry.

 

Be All You Can Be and Other Such Thoughts

I am introvert.

I married an introvert.

Yes. It is true. On a continuum with one end being introversion and the other being extroversion, I am on the side of the former.

For those of you who are bloggers like myself who enjoy sharing who you are, this is not a surprise. In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, bloggers are more likely to be introverts, willing to reveal who they are via a keyboard. She writes:

Studies have shown that, indeed, introverts are more likely than extroverts to express intimate facts about themselves online that their family and friends would be surprised to read, to say that they can express the ‘real me’ online, and to spend more time in certain kinds of online discussions. They welcome the chance to communicate digitally. The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice.  The same person who finds it difficult to introduce himself to strangers might establish a presence online and then extend these relationships into the real world (p. 63).

However, for those of you who know me, it is possible you may be surprised by my personal revelation. After all, some of you have heard me preach and/or teach. Others have witnessed my engaging of topics with a passion. How can it be that I can stand in front a crowd and deliver a sermon with zeal and animation and still be an introvert?

Easy. I have a manuscript.

I am energized by teaching and preaching, but I am not an extemporaneous speaker. Believe me, I have tried, and it was not a good experience for all involved, particularly me. I have beat myself up for my inability to speak extemporaneously. In my PhD program, I watched with envy as my classmates were able to speak in front of the group and share about their projects with seemingly little effort. Me? It’s just not happening. My attempts at extemporaneous speaking seem to portray me as one who stumbles over her own words with very little to say . . . except for the obvious. The less comfortable I feel, the more likely I will experience brain freeze (and I am not talking about the kind of brain freeze that transpires when you are eating ice cream too quickly).

For introverts who are unable to speak extemporaneously, Cain describes them as being overly stimulated. Each of us has a sweet spot, says Cain. We can be under stimulated in which case we more than likely will be bored, or we can be overly stimulated in which case we are unable to excel. Whether or not you are an extrovert or an introvert, it is good to know when you are in that sweet spot because it is from here you are able to do optimal work. (see Cain, Quiet, 120-129)

Besides needing plenty of time to prepare in order to teach and relying on a manuscript for said situations, my introvert proclivities appear as I appreciate being alone, studying, researching, and writing. They also emerge in my enjoyment in interacting one-on-one or with a couple of others about the deeper issues of life . . . our places of vulnerability     . . . uncertainty . . . questions . . . anxieties . . . fears . . . struggles . . . loss . . . grief . . . death . . . dying . . . transformation . . . finitude . . . the intersection of life and theology . . . etc. It was on these types of discussions on which my husband and I built our budding relationship during our pre-dating days, and, I might add, such discussions have not stopped . . . 31 years later.

I also have an aversion to crowds (on Black Friday you will find me shopping online) and a distaste for multi-tasking (and some studies seem to indicate that no one can). An all-encompassing persistence as well as a resistance toward speed are also qualities I embrace, both of which Cain notes are characteristics of the introvert.

As I type out my own introverted qualities, I admit that it was Cain’s Quiet that has provided me with a mirror, resulting in increased freedom to be. She points out how American culture lifts up the extrovert, putting it forth as the norm, and the church culture is not immune either. Cain talks with Adam McHugh, author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, and he speaks of evangelicalism’s holding forth the extrovert personality as the model of a mature Christ-follower. McHugh explains, “The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people. It’s a constant tension for many introverts that they’re not living that out. And in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like ‘I’m not doing well as I’d like.’ It feels like ‘God isn’t pleased with me’” (66). Cain even notes how some churches are encouraged when seeking a new minister for their congregations to find extroverts (65). While Cain does not mention my own tradition of Pentecostalism, I wonder if we have implicitly supported an extrovert personality with a preference for charismatic leaders, extemporaneous preachers, exuberant worship, loud audible prayers as well as stressing doing more so than being and evangelism over discipleship.

These thoughts got me thinking . . . was Jesus an extrovert? Consider with me carefully some of the things about Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as living by the philosophy: No reward for speed. The Fourth Gospel frequently uses the concepts of time or hour to speak about the fact that Jesus’ time or hour has not yet come (e.g., 2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20), but as the story unfolds, such an hour arrives (e.g., 12:23; 13:1). In Matthew and Luke, Satan invites Jesus to worship him so that he may have all the kingdoms of the world—the speedy way to fame and reward; however, Jesus rebukes Satan, resisting this temptation, and chooses the slow, painful path. I also notice Jesus had twelve close followers and three who were even closer. After ministering to the crowds, what does Jesus frequently do? He isolates himself—he seeks to be alone. Does this imply, unlike extroverts, crowds did not rejuvenate him?

Of course, I have no idea if Jesus was an introvert or an extrovert. It is possible that each Gospel’s portrayal is more indicative of the author’s own personality style. Consider with me John’s use of the word “hour” and his writing of only seven miracles and Mark’s use of the word “immediately” and his having more miracles than any other Gospel. Is this a reflection of John being the introvert while Mark is extrovert?

Putting that wondering aside, I think John does teach us the concept of doing flows from being. In 2:23-25 we are told that many people believed in Jesus because of all the miraculous signs he did, “but Jesus would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people. He did not need anyone to testify about man, for he knew what was in man.” Jesus knew himself. He refused to be swayed by the people. In John, he knew when his hour would come and insisted that he wait until then. This is one of the areas that highlights Jesus being in control, which is different from Mark’s Gospel. I believe one of the ways Jesus was able to accomplish this is he knew who he was, and he knew people. Jesus knew he and the Father were one (ch. 10). He understood he was God. This is implicitly indicated in his healing of the lame man on the Sabbath (ch. 5). Hebrew scholars believed that God did not stop working on the Sabbath because God’s providence also remained on the Sabbath. For instance, people continued to be born and to die on the Sabbath, indicating God’s work. When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, he was stating he was equal with God through this action (see NET Bible notes for 5:17). Jesus knew who he was in that his very being was God’s act of ministry to the world (3:16). Jesus’ own words point toward his being as “the resurrection and the life” (11:25). One could say, then, that he never stopped ministering since his very person is God’s act of ministry. Even when he slept, he continued to be God’s act of ministry. His being cannot be separated from his action. I reiterate: his being is God’s act of ministry.

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 12 we see that as members of Christ’s body who we are cannot be easily separated from what we do. In verse 7, Paul writes, “If the whole body were an eye, what part would do the hearing? If the whole were an ear, what part would exercise the sense of smell?” If we are to be the member that God intends (e.g., the foot, the hand, etc.), it is out of who we are that doing flows. A hand does what it does because it is a hand. A foot does what it does because it is a foot. That is, the foot’s doing flows out of its footness, and the hand’s doing flows out of its handness.

In contemplating the concepts of introvert and extrovert, I think Paul’s words may be applicable to us as contemporary Christ-followers. Within context, the Corinthians were struggling with comparison and competition. (Is that not what we do with the ideas of introvert and extrovert?) In chapter 11 they were not respecting each other during the eating of the Lord’s Supper, but instead there were divisions. Some of these divisions may have involved who the people were, such as the Jews and Gentiles as well as the slaves and the free (12:13), and how people’s gifts were being used, such as those who were more vocal and visible and those who were not (12 and 14). This causes Paul to admonish the Corinthians that they all were not the same member, but diversity was present. The Apostle, then, invites the Corinthian church to embrace each other with a love (13) that involves equality and mutuality. He advocates for no division as shown by a “mutual concern for one another” (12:25). This mutuality is seen in that, “If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored, all rejoice with it” (12:26).

So, my invitation for consideration: Who am I? How may I allow my doing to flow from my being? In what ways may I offer grace to others as they, too, allow their doing to flow from their being?

When Uncertainty Fosters Hope

Ahhh . . . the clear, Coloradan blue sky.

We recently moved back to Colorado after we concluded that my husband suffers from Seasonal Affect Disorder. In fact, the above photo was taken during one of our visits to Colorado a few years ago, and he kept it on his bulletin board at work to remind him, “Yes, Virginia, the blue sky does exist.”

Notice: No cloudiness. No fog. No haze. No smoke. Only a crystal, clear, blue sky.

If the truth be told, I like clarity. No ambiguity. No uncertainty. Cut and dried. Hard and fast. Black and white. If I had my way, life would be painted with an absence of grays. In fact, I fantasize about my own kitchen and bathrooms being transformed into a color scheme of black and white. Such a perspective results in part from my own upbringing, but as I have aged, grown, and studied, I have learned to embrace other colors (this means that my bathrooms and kitchen contain other hues as well). Yet, if you were to ask those who really know me, they will testify that under stress, I may revert to my old familiar patterns . . . black and white.

Having said that, this week I was sorrowfully taught that there may be occasions where uncertainty has its benefits. A situation that had some confusion—characteristics of cloudiness—abruptly came to an end. I confess I had a desire for clarity, but I did not want an ending. Now, too late I fear, I realize that the presence of uncertainty was accompanied by a presence of hope. In the aftermath of this so-called clarity, I am reeling from this loss. I feel helpless. Powerless. Robbed of my voice. Yes, there is a measure of clarity, but there is also the absence of a hope I once had in the situation.

Yet, this incident is not one of isolation in humanity’s journey in this life. The characters and the circumstances may be different, but the results are similar.

  • If a person hoped for a resolution to an ongoing conflict, a death of the other removes any hope of healing in the relationship.
  • A child may desire respect, affirmation, or approval from a parent, but the parent’s death creates a realization of a loss on top of a loss: this desire will remain unfulfilled.
  • After missing for years, a body is found and identified as being that of the family’s loved one. Such a reality closes the door that the person is still alive.
  • If the marriage has been a constant struggle, then a divorce is a decree that the marriage is over and any semblance of light in the marriage surviving is extinguished.
  • As long as retirement is on the horizon and not a reality, the spouse can keep her head in the sand (by the way, I make a wonderful ostrich); however, once her husband retires, she finds herself wrestling with loss, aging, and anxiety.

Many of us in these types of situations have a longing to turn back the clock as we realize that the uncertainty had a degree of hope attached to it. Now, as we stand in the wake of clarity, we may realize that uncertainty may seem to be better than the ending we now have been dealt.

Unfortunately, when an ending arrives, it may be accompanied by the phrase: Now you can move on.

Frequently, such words are uttered after a person dies from a long illness. Don’t get me wrong: I think we mean well. However, while it may be that the bereaved feels relief, I caution against mistaking this relief for a lack of shock or an absence of the need to mourn. If we were to ask those who have experienced anticipatory grief, many would speak of the shock at the reality of the death. This is particularly illustrated in the first few months of the bereaved repeatedly reviewing the manner in which the person died: the person lying in the bed; the words spoken; the actions taken. The telling and re-telling of the death is how we as humans take our inward grief and make it outward, thereby moving towards healing. Thus, to say, “Now you can move on” fails to provide a safe place to go say “hello” to the death before saying “good-bye” [See Alan Wolfelt’s The Paradoxes of Mourning]. Instead, “Now you can move on” may be pushing the person toward good-bye prior to his being ready. If, however, the bereaved speaks the words herself, “I can move on now,” it is different, and we, as caregivers, may meet the person in that place by inquiring, “What does moving on look like for you?”

I bring this phrase to the fore because in my situation I actually heard, “You can move on now,” which causes me to pause and wonder what this phrase communicates. Is it a telltale sign that we are we uncomfortable with uncertainty as it exposes our own limitations? Are we saying that we believe an ending brings us a measure of control because we feel out of control by the pain? Does the phrase imply that we perceive that the state of uncertainty lacks motion in that we are standing still? But does uncertainty hinder movement, or does it actually generate movement in the form of transformation in the one who is experiencing the uncertainty? Perhaps in our longing for stability and in our eagerness to rid ourselves of uncertainty and pain, we fail to see that the embracing of uncertainty provides movement within our own being.

When I link these thoughts with theology, I begin to see more clearly the benefits of uncertainty when combined with the concept of faith. There is a little phrase in my tradition that I have heard, and admittedly have used, that says: I know that I know that I know. When I have spoken this phrase, I have been attempting to capture in my words an intensity of an experience of knowing. Such knowing is not only with my mind, but it is also deeply sensed within my body. It is as if I am saying that my experience is so real to me that I have moved from the realm of faith, which is mixed with doubt, to a certainty that envelops my whole being. The experience becomes one of truth for me so that all hint of doubt is cast away. It is a way of knowing . . . an epistemology that seems to defy modernity’s upholding of only logical reasoning and head knowledge. It says, “I no longer need to be convinced. I simply know in my knower.” This epistemology flows not merely from my mind but my feelings as well, encompassing my whole body. As James A. Smith notes, this is an “affective knowledge” that is a type of “countermodernity” [see James A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy].

While I revel in the handful of occasions that I have had such an experience, I attempt to resist the urge to lift them up as the norm for the Christ-follower. For me, my experiences of I know that I know fall into the realm of specific revelation, the domain of miracles, which are intense instances of God’s Spirit interacting in the world [see Smith, Thinking in Tongues]. While Pentecostals are known to stress this type of intense divine participation in creation, they also speak of (albeit in my experience to a lesser, and maybe implicit, degree) general revelation, of Jesus Christ sustaining God’s creation. In this way, as Smith points out, God is continuously active in the world for a Pentecostal. Yet, it is this latter understanding for me where I locate myself when I am experiencing uncertainty in my walk of faith.

I have frequently heard it spoken in Pentecostal circles that the type of faith that is necessary for a miracle is that which has no doubt. In light of the above discussion, could it be that our push to expel doubt from being mixed with faith reveals our own discomfort with uncertainty? It is my belief that if there is an absence of doubt, this is not faith but certainty. And certainty sounds an awful lot like my Pentecostal experience of I know that I know that I know. For me, while Pentecostalism frequently underscores a definition of faith that departs from the realm of uncertainty into certainty, I hold that faith exists in uncertainty alongside doubt. This type of faith says, “It is just as much of a miracle that God instantly heals me as God sustains me, and I believe that God is sustaining me because I awoke this morning to find that the earth is still rotating around the sun.” Note the absence of I know that I know. Instead, there is an embracing of an underlying uncertainty that lives out an embodied faith. Herein lies the hope. I cannot see Christ upholding creation, and I will be honest, I have not had the I-know-that-I know experience concerning Christ’s sustaining of me. Thus, there is uncertainty. Yet, there remains hope, a living out my faith that combines with uncertainty to bring hope (Heb 11:1). I cannot see Christ sustaining all of creation or sense it in my knower, but I have a faith combined with this uncertainty which produces a hope simply because I opened my eyes this morning. It is the embracing of this uncertainty that generates growth, movement if you will, so that I may become more genuinely human as God intended.