The name for this blog comes from the Hebrew word merchab. Merchab is a masculine noun that appears most often in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures. It means a broad or roomy place, an expansive place, a wide place. Read more...

December 8, 2008

The Uncertainty Principle

The one thing about which we can be absolutely certain, is that there is little about which we can be absolutely certain.

Everywhere we see uncertainty. Ottawa is in flux. Bay Street has collapsed. The job market is shaky. Relationships are insecure. The health of someone we love is at risk. We may be unsure about the direction of our own lives and what the future holds. As the hymn that is often sung at funerals declares, “Change and decay in all around I see.”

Mary, the mother of Jesus, was no stranger to uncertainty. Her pregnancy before marriage placed her reputation, even her life, at risk. Her son’s birth was surrounded by intrigue, political scheming, violence, and eventually exile for his entire family. Mary was poor, vulnerable and insecure.

The Gospel writer says Mary found her life situation confusing and puzzling – “she was much perplexed.” (Luke 1:29) There is much about which to be perplexed. If I do not find life at times confusing, bewildering, and even a little frightening, I am not paying attention. Things often do not turn as I planned. I am overwhelmed by circumstances, confused and troubled by the world.

Mary asked the question I ask, “How can this be?” How can things be so confusing? How can there be so much upheaval and turmoil? Why can’t things be more orderly and predictable? Why can’t I relax and feel safe and secure in this world?

Mary does not get a satisfactory intellectual resolution for her question. She is never given a tidy intellectual formulation to answer the questions that ring in her heart.

But somehow, Mary moves from fear to a place where she is able to sing with joy, declaring, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46,47) Nothing has changed in Mary’s circumstances between “How can this be?” and “My soul magnifies the Lord.” She is still young, pregnant, unmarried, at risk for her life.

How has Mary moved from “How can this be?” to “My soul magnifies the Lord”?

One small shift accounts for the transformation in Mary’s heart. Between “How can this be?” and “My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary has said, “let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) This changes everything. In the midst of uncertainty, chaos, confusion, doubt, and fear, Mary has surrendered to God. She has chosen to let go of her need to make sense of life. She has given up her desire for control. She has simply accepted that there is a will at work in the affairs of her life that is greater, wiser, and more kind than anything she can understand.

It is a fundamental fact of life in this uncertain world that I cannot orchestrate the circumstances of my life to be exactly as I would like them to be. This reality confronts me with a foundational life choice. Either I will resist the circumstances of my life as they are, or I will accept my situation and trust in God’s presence at work in the world and in my life, even when I cannot begin to understand or to see the trace of God’s hand at work. There is no other option.

I can fight, complain and become bitter and resentful against the awful state of life. Or I can surrender. To surrender is not the same as defeated resignation. To surrender is to do what Mary did, to open to a deeper place within her spirit where she knew God’s mercy and strength at work in her being. In surrender I give up needing to fix things, because in the depths of my being, I know that God has already “helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.” (Luke 1:54)

The only place the uncertainty principle never applies is in relation to God.

The hymn “Abide with me” is popular at funerals because it does not conclude with the gloomy note of “change and decay.” It goes on to declare triumphantly that, even in the face of the unknown mystery of death, “I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless; / Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;/ Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?/ I triumph still if thou abide with me.”

Christmas promises that, even in the midst of uncertainty, confusion, doubt, chaos, and fear, we are not alone. Christmas declares “ ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:23) Circumstances do not need to change. The One who is with us is greater and steadier than all the uncertainty that may ever afflict our lives. There is solid ground upon which we can stand. When we surrender our determination to force life to conform to our will we find deep in our innermost being the security and steadiness of God’s abiding presence. That is the one security in the midst of all uncertainty.

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