Responding to uncertainty

Uncertainty is a fact of life. I’m reminded of the saying: nothing is certain but death and taxes. These days, things that I once saw as certainties – like America’s democracy or ample supplies of goods and services –  are not certain anymore. I never imagined that I would live through a global pandemic or an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power from one U.S. president to the next. Yet here we are.

Uncertainty was the topic of a recent sermon at my church. After the last supper, the disciples argued about which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24-30). Jesus had just told them that he would suffer and that one of them would betray him. The disciples initially responded to this uncertainty with pride and self-interest.

The message of the sermon was that uncertain times reveal three things about us: our desires, our certainties, and our purpose. I would add that the way we respond to uncertainty reveals a lot about our character.

Some of us have a desire to be first. Some of us have a desire for control. Some of us desire what’s best for others. Some of us want what is best for ourselves. Some of us want God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Some of us don’t want anyone on earth or in heaven to tell us what to do.

What do your desires say about your character? Are you proud or humble, selfish or selfless, judgmental or forgiving? How do you react when your desires aren’t fulfilled? With fear, anger, worry, resignation, hope, resolve?

What are your certainties – besides death and taxes? How about the laws of nature or a friend who would never let you down?

I am certain of Christ’s immeasurable love for me. I am certain that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. I am certain that he is with me. I am certain that he will work things out for my good. I am certain of eternal life.

My pastor said that in uncertain times, our purpose is revealed when we model Jesus. Jesus served others. He didn’t put himself first even though he had the power to do so. He didn’t avoid pain and suffering but took it on for our sake. He was merciful and compassionate.

My pastor said that the battle ahead is not a physical fight; it is internal. We all feel the angst. We need to be on guard. We need to prepare our hearts and minds for the challenges ahead.

I believe that the forces of evil in this world are using their most effective tool – deception – to wreak havoc and sow division. Look at all the people today who fall for conspiracy theories!

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Ephesians 6:12

I can attest that uncertainty causes internal struggles. The recent decision by the U.S Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade is a perfect example. My desire is that there be fewer abortions because I believe that life is a precious gift from God. At the same time, I have compassion for people who don’t have a relationship with God. I want them to see Christ in me. To model Jesus, my response has to be compassion and mercy not condemnation and judgment.

My pastor left us with a few questions. Do your desires align with God’s? Of what can you be certain? What purpose might God yet reveal?

Season of Singing

In another life, I would have been a botanist. In this life, I am merely a fan of wildflowers. The unfamiliar lexicon of botany makes plant descriptions read like a cross between a scientific journal and a tantalizing novel.

I have learned to identify dozens of wildflowers, primarily found on hiking/biking trails. I also find wildflowers in roadside ditches, in vacant lots, and even in my own back yard. Because I am always seeking, I notice any little speck of color or interesting leaves that don’t seem to catch the eye of other people.

As a kid, I learned that thistles had to be controlled on farmland because they were invasive. Now I know that many weeds are labeled noxious – any invasive, non-native plant that threatens crops, wildlife habitats, or other local ecosystems.

This month, I have been squeezing through the barbed wire fence separating my yard from a pasture to dig up noxious weeds so they don’t spread to our yard. Until last year, the pasture behind us was owned by an old rancher who leased the land for cattle grazing. He sold forty acres to the local school district, which has no immediate plans to build on it.

Common mullein and houndstongue are two examples of invasive plants that grow in the pasture. According to the Wisconsin Horticulture description of mullein, “Individual plants produce 200-300 seed capsules, each containing 500-800 seeds, so that 100,000‑240,000 seeds are produced per plant.” Houndstongue does not produce as many seeds as mullein (only 2,000 seeds per plant) but it is toxic to livestock and wildlife.

A couple of weeks ago while digging up houndstongue, I saw a plant with hairy leaves that I recognized from my days searching for wildflowers in Colorado. I tried unsuccessfully to identify it with a plant app so I turned to my own photo collection. I remember struggling to identify the plant when I first saw it. Someone said it was spearshaped phacelia, a member of the Boraginaceae family. It is actually Western Marbleseed, another member of the borage family, described in detail on the IllinoisWildflowers website:

Each flower has a white corolla that is ½–¾” long, a hairy green calyx with 5 slender lobes, 5 inserted stamens, and a pistil with a strongly exerted white style. The corolla is cylindrical-angular in shape, becoming slightly and gradually wider toward its tip. At the tip of the corolla, there are 5 triangular lobes that extend outward and inward, effectively closing off the opening of the corolla, except for the exerted style. These lobes are often tinted green or yellow. The outer sides of the corolla are densely canescent, except where its lobes occur; the latter are hairy throughout. The lobes of the calyx are linear-lanceolate to linear-oblong in shape. Including its lobes, the calyx is about two-thirds as long as the corolla. The pedicels of the flowers are up to ¼” long (rarely longer); they are whitish green, terete, appressed-pubescent, and covered with appressed to slightly spreading hairs. At the bases of these pedicels, there are solitary bracts up to 1″ long that resemble the leaves….

Corollas and calyxes and pistils, oh my!

I also saw something purple peeking through the tall grass and weeds. This time, the plant app correctly identified the flower as spiderwort. When the flowers opened the following week, I confirmed this ID. What a shame that this beautiful flower is hidden in the weeds. And how delightful that beauty can be found by those who actively seek it!

Why am I so enamored with wildflowers? The beauties catch my eye but it’s more than beauty that attracts me. It’s their uniqueness and diversity. It’s their resilience, the ability to thrive in less than desirable conditions. Flowers are evidence of God’s creativity.

The fields declare the glory of God; the flowers proclaim the work of his hands.

Flowers appear on the earth;
    the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
    is heard in our land.

Song of Songs, 2:12

Whom shall I fear?

The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?

Psalm 27:1

Lord, I seek your face. My heart has heard you say, ‘Come talk with me,’ and my heart responds, ‘Lord, here I am.’

Father, you light the way in a world that is dark and bewildering. I am safe and secure with you as my refuge. You rescued me from the bondage of sin and I am forever yours.

Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.

Psalm 86:11

Nations are in uproar; kingdoms fall. Though the world shows signs of falling apart, I rest assured. You are my ever-present help in times of trouble. The Lord Almighty is with me. Of whom shall I be afraid?

You will be exalted among the nations. You will be exalted on the earth. You lift your voice and the earth melts. Whom shall I fear?

I will not fear the future, for you are with me. I will not be distressed about current events, for you are my God. You will strengthen me. You will help me. You will uphold me with your righteous right hand.

No matter what happens, I am still sure of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Your perfect love drives out my fears. I praise your holy name.

Lord, my light and my salvation, I pray that the horrific events around the globe will lead people to seek your light. Comfort those who mourn senseless violence. Fill your people with wisdom, courage, and hope.

Amen

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Based on Psalm 27, Psalm 46, Isaiah 41:10, 1 John 4:18

Working things out for my good

June 1st marked the end of my first year working part-time after thirty six years of full-time employment. As I considered retirement, I read that I might want to tiptoe in instead of jumping right in. I’m glad I did. I still like working, but at this stage of my life, I want more free time and less stress.

Working part-time has given me the flexibility I wanted. I can participate in group Bible studies during the work day. I can take advantage of good weather to hike or trail run. I can volunteer. It’s easier to schedule appointments and to run errands. But honestly, one of the greatest pleasures is starting each day more leisurely.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

If I had searched for part-time work, I doubt that I would have found anything comparable. I had actually told my boss that I intended to retire early. He was the one who suggested that I consider working part-time.

God knows what I need. He knows what makes me tick. He knows that sometimes I need a nudge in the right direction. In retrospect, I can see his hand guiding me.

Thank you, Father for loving me and for working things out for my good.

An Audience of One

A recent sermon on Luke 20:1-9 held an unexpected message. Jesus had been teaching the people in the temple courts when the religious leaders challenged his authority. The sermon focused not on Jesus’s response to the chief priests and teachers of the law but on why these leaders responded to Jesus as they did.

“Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”

He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”

So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

The religious leaders did not answer Jesus honestly. They crafted their response to the crowd. If they had questioned John the Baptist’s authority, the people would have been angry.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

William Shakespeare

The response of the religious leaders reminds me of today’s politicians who say one thing among themselves but say the opposite to the public. Politicians constantly play to their audience, sometimes to an audience of one.

The pastor said we all make this mistake. I have to admit that I am guilty of this. We pay too much attention to what the crowd thinks of us. We practice “impression management,” trying to maintain a desired image of ourselves. Perhaps we act as if we have all the answers. We share the most attractive pictures of ourselves. We share our successes and not our failures.

Nowhere is impression management more evident than on social media, a stage where people perform in a socially acceptable way. Social media does not make you a truer version of yourself and it won’t make you happier. Social media often makes people feel inadequate compared to friends who seem to have it all.

The lesson is to make God your audience. When you live your life with God as your audience, you are free to be the real you. He sees both the best and worst versions of us and still loves us unconditionally.

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Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash