Faithfulness in Contingency
July 16, 2020
Jesus put before the crowd another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.”
All summer I’ve been thinking about the power of decisive moments, those times when we actively choose to be brave. We all want to be brave when it counts, to be one who steps up, leans in, does the right thing when it matters most. While we rarely know in advance when such courage is required of us, when we look back on the moments that defined us, we realize that they are not isolated events. There are often long seasons of preparation beforehand and equally important moments that follow. Nor can we always trust our perceptions of what’s decisive and what’s not, for those perceptions are astonishingly fluid.
A wise bishop once told me that his motto in life was you never can tell. It was his way of reminding himself not to judge a given situation by how he felt or what he thought at the time. First impressions are often wrong. The seemingly best of circumstances may not turn out to be so. What initially looks like a disaster may, in the long run, work out for the best. Likewise, with our decisive moments. We don’t know, in the end, how decisive they’ll turn out to be, or which decisions are, in fact, the decisive ones.
In church this Sunday, we’ll hear Jesus tell a parable about weeds and wheat growing together. It’s easy to mistake one for the other, he says. Best let them be until the harvest. In other words, don’t rush to judgement. Your perceptions of reality can change. You never can tell.
Human beings are unique in our capacity to interpret events and circumstances through more than one lens. Our inner landscape of self-awareness is also subject to change. Sometimes those changes are gradual. Other times they’re sudden and dramatic. We speak of a light bulb going off or a veil being lifted to describe the experience of revelation--seeing something we didn’t see before that had been there all along. Sometimes our shift in awareness is a source of liberation. It can also be a source of shame and need for reckoning.
When this shift happens in our individual lives, it’s dramatic enough. But when it happens for us collectively, the world seems to spin faster. Things that were once impossible to consider begin happening at warp speed.
This summer, surely the most decisive in recent memory, it seems that we are experiencing the possibility of a collective shift in the way we see ourselves and our understanding of what must change. Our sense or urgency is rising, as are our expectations, anxieties, and fears of disappointment. Our collective perceptions of what’s needed or possible are also changing, sometimes overnight.
Thus we find ourselves wanting to speak truth, and we must, while remembering that our understanding of what is true and what is needed is limited by our perceptions and subject to change. We find ourselves wanting to be brave, and we must, while realizing that as we step up to the plate, we’ll miss more balls than we hit.
But here is a surprising truth: acceptance of our imperfect perceptions, incomplete understandings, and woefully inadequate actions can be paradoxically empowering.
For when a decisive moment comes in the midst of such a whirlwind and we feel called to act with courage, we do so trusting less in ourselves than in the Spirit that’s compelling us forward. We don’t have to be perfect, which is a good thing, because we won’t be. We don’t have to take on the entire world; only our corner of it. And we’ll never know the ultimate significance of our words and action, if we’ll turn out to be among the weeds or the wheat. “But what a relief it can be to accept contingency,” writes the poet Christian Wiman, “to meet God right here in the havoc of change.” (1)
Threshold is a word I often hear to describe the moment we’re in, to convey the possibility of crossing over from one reality to the next. We are collectively focused as never before on “the two pandemics,”--the biological pandemic of COVID-19 and the sociological pandemic of white supremacy that has plagued this nation since its inception and lives to this day.
Surely the Holy Spirit is stirring among us and calling us to be brave. I also feel and see in others a desire to do our part. If this is, indeed, a decisive moment for change in our nation, we want to help cross the threshold and realize dreams for equity and justice so long denied.
The truth is we don’t yet know if this will be the time, whether we are ready and willing to make the kinds of changes we desperately need. We don’t know whether our efforts will bear fruit. We cannot tell.
But we do know this: wherever we are in the continuum of change, there are ways to be faithful to the dream God has entrusted to us. Whether this is the turning point or yet another season of disappointment; whether we are successful today or whether we fail, we can do what God asks of us. We can do our part--faithfully, imperfectly, in an ever-changing world in which we, too, are being changed.
(1) Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), p. 17.