Embracing Uncertainty & Exile

The following article was written for the October 2020 issue of Roqueta, Menorca’s English-language magazine.

A year ago, I wrote this for Roqueta:
“For young people today, it must at times seem almost pointless to try to plan for a future that appears to be increasingly variable and almost impossible to predict. It is rather like the weather in Menorca in early September this year: during the week with the storm, the forecast changed from a week of apocalypse to a storm on Tuesday and quite pleasant weather by the weekend. Two wedding couples were deeply thankful, of course, with ceremonies planned in outdoor venues. A week in the life of Menorca is one thing. A lifetime of similarly variable forecasts carries rather more trepidation.”

Oh, my! I was simply trying to express the fragile nature of our relationship with the future and evoke sympathy for a generation that faced more uncertainty than those before them. Little did I know that I was seriously understating the unpredictability that would face not just the younger generation, but all of us, within a year.

Someone posted a comment on social media recently to the effect that no one who was challenged five years ago to describe where they saw themselves in five years could possibly have imagined the current situation.

Well, the truth is that we live with uncertainty all the time. We just recoil at having the insecurity that accompanies the unpredictability of life thrust in our faces.

This is perhaps where we need to be challenged. When we sit in a comfortable place, we can beguile ourselves into thinking not only that this is a good place to be, but that it is the best place to be, and even the only place to be. We stop looking for growth and evolution. If that happens at a cellular level, then death occurs. If it happens at a social, environmental, emotional, or intellectual level, then we sentence ourselves to a slow process of atrophy, attrition – and a kind of death. We either learn to change and evolve, or fade from life.

I copied this quote from a now lost, or forgotten source: “We live unawakened lives marked by self-perpetuating lies about who we think we are, how we wish to be seen and how God is just like us. Whatever spirituality means today, it implies some assault on this unattractive ego.” Those might be rather harsh words, but they contain a truth, which is that we can tend to immerse ourselves in a world in which we only experience and see what we want to see – and create some sort of higher power in our own image. We are now experiencing a mass reawakening that is rather brutally exposing those “self-perpetuating lies.”

This might well be where the question of how we express the spirituality that exists at the heart of every human being (no matter how much we try to suppress it) becomes relevant.

Rev. Dr. Jane Leach, who is the Principal of Wesley House, Cambridge, recently pointed to the writing of the prophet Isaiah in the Bible as an analogy of sorts for our current situation. Isaiah was writing for a people who had been taken into exile, which is not too far removed from the way that many of us feel at present.

They were taken to Babylon, which was a consumerist society in which the temptation for the people was to assimilate and simply make the best of situation in which they found themselves. The prophet Isaiah wrote to disturb the people, reminding them that they were exiles, reminding them that whilst they might be tempted to settle for less, they were not in the world to which they really belonged, and trying to instil in them a longing for freedom, justice and home that would unsettle their status quo and keep alive a way to think differently from the dominant culture of their exile.

Dr Leach issued a challenge that we should consider ourselves exiles in the present, energised towards a re-imagined home, like the people of Israel in Isaiah’s time. To do so we need to stop complaining about the disruption of a former status quo, and look for opportunities for new growth, new ways of thinking and being, and new ways of becoming better neighbours for one another.

A former colleague of mine in British Columbia, Rev John Sovereign, died in mid-September of pancreatic cancer, a particularly cruel form of the disease. I was in touch with him shortly before he died, and he said, “God has had his hand on me all my life.” He also said, some while ago, “Our faith has lost its way the minute it becomes content with what it has.” Like the people of the prophet Isaiah, we might try not to be satisfied with less than our potential. Our world needs us to re-examine our spirituality, our approach to religion, our pursuit of truth, justice and peace, and our relationship with the created order around us.

Recently, I was pondering what to preach on a passage from the book of Proverbs that includes this prayer: “Give me enough food to live on – neither too much nor too little. If I’m too full, I might become independent, saying, ‘God? Who needs him?’ If I’m poor, I might steal and dishonour the name of my God.” It is the only prayer in the book of Proverbs, and it might be paraphrased as the saying of Euripedes: enough is as good as a feast.

It drew me to a prayer that Sir Francis Drake is alleged to have offered before setting sail around the world:
“Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true, because we have dreamed too little; when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore. Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity; and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes; [that we may] push into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love.”

Humanity has never prospered when people become complacent and comfortable. We cannot sit in the dark with our eyes closed, pretending that everything will return to some sort of imagined past. Let us be willing participants in having our horizons stretched and our opportunities enlarged. We can embrace uncertainty and join with a younger generation in working to shape as best we can their “future that appears to be increasingly variable and almost impossible to predict.”

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