Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Living With Ambiguity by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts

One of the best signs of maturity is the ability to live creatively with ambiguity. People who feel unduly anxious about not knowing with certainty the answer to all the big questions of life tend to be drawn to people who think they know everything. Uncertainty makes us look around nervously for experts.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Holy Land. I wanted to stand in those special places where Jesus stood and remember what he said and did on certain important occasions. Every time we arrived at one of those sites and I was about to experience a moment of spiritual ecstacy knowing that I was standing where Jesus stood, our guide would inevitably destroy the moment by saying: "We are not really sure this is the exact spot where Jesus stood. It may have been ‘over yonder’ or it could have been some other place altogether. One of the traditions is that he stood here on that occasion." There was another group near us led by a minister with a thundering, authoritative voice who, when he came to the same place where we had been, would clutch his Bible over his heart and point the forefinger of his right hand to the heavens and pronounce with authority: "The Lord, Jesus, stood right here, on the very spot where I am standing and preached to the multitudes." I had sense enough to know that our guide was probably right, but I must confess there was something in me that made me want to be with that other group whose leader was absolutely certain. Do you understand that?

"Doubt is not a pleasant condition," said Voltaire, "but certainty is an absurd one." Human beings are never more dangerous than when they are absolutely certain beyond a shadow of doubt that they are right, and everyone else is wrong. Life is strewn with uncertainties. The bridge we must cross to get from uncertainty to meaningful action is "Faith." When two people stand before the altar to be married it is not unusual for one or both of them to have some lingering doubt about what they are doing. What makes them get married anyway? Faith and Love. Without this no one would dare embark on such a risky venture as marriage.

The older we are the more likely we are to realize the extent to which we are really ignorant about so many things. My adult children still ask me profound philosophical questions, to which I often answer: "You should have asked me that question 30 years ago when I knew the answer." The Apostle Paul was so right when he opined, "Now we see through a glass darkly . . . Now I know in part . . ." (I Corinthians 13:12). Paul went on to suggest the remedy for such ambiguity is "Faith, hope, and love."

If we wait until we are absolutely sure, we will always be waiting. In his novel, "The Trial," Franz Kafka has the hero, Mr. K, wander into a church where he hears a priest tell a parable which is frightening to those of us who are prone to wait until we are absolutely sure. There is a man who was told to enter a kingdom through a certain gate. When he arrived, he found the gate but he noticed a sentinel guarding the entrance. So he sat down and waited for the sentinel to give him instructions, or to grant permission to enter. But the guard did nothing and said nothing. So the man continued to sit there waiting for something to happen, waiting for someone to come. For a whole life he sat there. Then the guard closed the door. He said to the man, "The door was made for you, and for you alone. And because you chose not to enter it, it is being closed forever."

Don’t let your door to life close before you enter because you were not absolutely sure.

AN ENCOURAGING WORD for August 30, 2007 - written by Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church

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