Knowledge and uncertainty

March 28, 2012 | Young Voices
Kirsten Hamm | Special to Young Voices

One Sunday morning I was sitting in the pew trying to pay attention and think critically about the sermon I was listening to, and my mind started to wander. As the sermon moved to the topic of interpreting a parable in Mark 2, I caught myself thinking that I knew this already, that I understood the parable and the interpretation, and could learn nothing new about it. As soon as this thought entered my mind, I knew it was wrong, not just theologically but literally as well. And yet if I thought I knew nothing, that would not be right either.

There is a tension that is created when you know enough to know that you hardly know anything at all. In a weird way, I enjoy this paradoxical living. But I do not envy those who preach, those who have the courage to speak into a microphone and say something about this paradox while living and breathing it at the same time. Preachers often have to walk the line between knowing and being uncertain.

We, the people of God, have been given a wonderful book that is 100 percent ours, and yet it was not written for us in the 21st century. We have the joy and the challenge of interpreting something that was written for a people who lived thousands of years ago. Some truths are transcendent; they are timeless and there is nothing context can do to change that. But where do we draw those lines? And who are we to say that we know where to draw them?

The Naked Now by Richard Rohr describes God as both “the solid foundation we build upon and the utter abyss we find ourselves lost in.” The poet Minnie Louise Haskins wrote, “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” Darkness being safer than light, an abyss that is our foundation, and we wonder that the disciples had trouble understanding what Jesus was saying!

I spent a summer as an intern at Langley Mennonite Fellowship, B.C., where I learned many things. I learned that if you have five or 10 people preaching on the same text, you will have five or 10 completely different sermons.

I learned that you can pick apart a passage word for word, but you have to be ready to see that in the next gospel, or in another translation of the Bible, the same logic might not apply. I learned that the best you can do on any given day is your best, and that your best will look different every day.

Congregations are like people; they live and breathe and grow together. I believe it is the job of the leaders of our churches to understand this and be able to go to Scripture on behalf of their congregants and present their findings, whatever they might be.

That is the best they can do. I can preach a sermon that I think is full of wisdom and profound truth, and someone might think it makes no sense. I can preach a sermon that I threw together in an hour or two, and have someone tell me it was exactly what they needed to hear. All preachers can do is their best for their congregation and hope and pray that they have done something—said something—that will awaken the Spirit within.

Preachers are at God’s mercy, maybe even more so than the rest of us everyday laypeople. Preachers have to understand grace, and this tension between knowledge and uncertainty, because they have to live in it.

As people of God, we know that we have something good, that we have something to say. And yet we know that there is so much we will never be able to understand.

As a young person trying to find my place in the church, this is a tricky thing to come to terms with, but I think the first step is realizing that there will never be a neat and tidy resolution. The ends do not meet, they are frayed and uneven, but that is where God meets us. God fills the spaces of uncertainty that he has created, and invites us to meet him there. All we can do is our best.

Share this page: Twitter Instagram

Add new comment

Canadian Mennonite invites comments and encourages constructive discussion about our content. Actual full names (first and last) are required. Comments are moderated and may be edited. They will not appear online until approved and will be posted during business hours. Some comments may be reproduced in print.