Posts Tagged ‘certainty


Certainty, Wisdom, and the Fugue

Three tinhornsMy wife and I had some fun over the weekend. We were part of a local musical revue that featured songs and dances from several well-known Broadway shows.

One of my favorite parts of the show was when I got to sing the Fugue for Three Tinhorns from “Guys and Dolls” with two other men.

Even if the name of the song doesn’t ring a bell, you have probably heard it before. It is the song that features an amateur horse race bettor singing, “I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere, and here’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear…” The other two guys join in, fugue-style – singing the virtues of THEIR picks in the upcoming race; horses named Valentine and Epitaph.

The concluding line of the song is when the three point to their tip sheets and sing in harmony, “I’ve got the horse… right… here!!”

It was fun and (I thought) went rather well.

Thinking back on that show and our song, I suddenly realized our frivolous moment onstage might have actually concealed a deeper message.

That message is about CERTAINTY and the ways we arrive at it.

In the song, each of the bettors believes they have a foolproof source of information. For the first guy, the race day weather is the key. The second bettor’s friend is the jockey’s brother so he feels secure with his “inside” information. The third guy relies strictly on the odds displayed in the tip sheet.

The point is, each bettor believes his horse is THE horse.

In fact, they are each certain of it.

Thinking about the song in those terms brought to mind a phrase I read recently in the book, A Failure of Nerve. This book, written by Rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant Edwin Friedman, includes insightful prescriptions for those who lead during turbulent times.

Friedman says, “An anxious system demands certainty.” Naturally, that anxious system looks to its leader(s) to provide them with the sought-after certainty.

More often than not, leaders are very willing to provide certainty to the anxious system. That certainty usually comes in the form of strong declarations of righteous, unshakable principles. It comes in the form of definitive lines drawn to help us understand who is on the “good side” and who is on the “bad side” of the issue. It comes in the form of vague, but bold-sounding statements of steps that will be taken, “… going forward.”

Sound familiar?

The problem, according to Friedman, is that certainty is almost always the antithesis of wisdom. When we allow anxiety to drive us toward sure and certain answers, we find that we must also silence the voices that challenge our certainty.

The tinhorns in Fugue sought certainty about an uncertain horseracing event in the future. But by definition, the future cannot be certain until it gets here. And when it gets here it is no longer the future!

Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity is absolutely necessary if we hope to achieve wisdom. According to Friedman, our comfort with ambiguity is, “… critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience.” (A Failure of Nerve, New York: Seabury, 1997).

As I see it, racism, intolerance, xenophobia, and all forms of hate have their roots in the desire for certainty AT ALL COSTS. We look around us and see a dynamic, uncertain, and changing world… and it seems threatening. The dynamism of that world leads some of us to rush out and erect walls of protection against a world that looks less and less like the one we grew up in. It also makes us hostile to the forces of change.

The good news is yes, there is a timeless truth. Yes, there is omniscience and ultimate wisdom. But it does not reside with you or me or anyone equipped only with this puny three pounds of gray matter we have inside our skulls. It resides only with the One who created us and placed us here in love.

Psalm 111:10 reminds us that: “Fear [meaning awe, or respect] of the Lord is the foundation of true wisdom.” Proverbs 3:5 tells us, “Trust in the Lord… do not rely on your own insight,” and a little later that, “… wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” (Proverbs 8:11).

I believe God calls us to be wise rather than certain. I further believe that the first step on the path to wisdom is HUMILITY… in other words, knowing that we do not know.

May your path lead you to wisdom today.


When you don’t know… lean

“I don’t know.”

Frankly, I hate that answer. I hate hearing it. I hate giving it. I try to do everything in my power to avoid it.

Because it is an answer that is not an answer. And depending on who just said it, “I don’t know” hints that there might actually not BE an answer to your question.

And really… what with Google and Facebook and science and wild imaginations of really bright people what are the odds that there is a question in existence that doesn’t have SOME KIND of answer?

I am a pastor. I am a father. I am a husband. In each one of those roles I frequently experience the demand to be both a provider and a seeker of answers to a whole host of questions.

Right now though, “I don’t know” is all I’ve got. And oddly enough I am pretty OK with that.

Today’s question is “WHY?”… always one of the toughest of the five standard queries of journalism. It is being asked in connection with the horrible events over the weekend here in Overland Park, Kansas in which a raging anti-Semite shot and killed three people… two United Methodists and a Roman Catholic.

Today is also the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing that took three innocent lives.

The “WHYs” are multiple. “Why did they do it?” “Why those people?” “Why then?” “Why didn’t anyone stop them?” “Why violence?” “Why killing?” And I know that there are a lot of people who also ask, “Why did God allow something like this to happen?”

Let me get back to you on that last one. As far as the other ones go though, all I’ve got for you is, “I don’t know.”

I don’t want to appear to diminish the need for finding those answers. Those answers might go a long way toward helping prevent future tragedies like these from happening. But for right now, I am not sure answers are the things that will do us the most good.

In fact it might even be better to avoid answers right now.

You see, Frazier Glenn Miller (or Cross as he also called himself), the alleged shooter in Overland Park, HAD lots of answers. He KNEW with utter certainty what was wrong in the world. He had NO DOUBT whatsoever about the solutions. According to interviews I have read with people who knew him, there was never any room in his vocabulary for “I don’t know.”

I believe our wiring as human beings leads us to abhor vacuums in our storehouse of knowledge and to seek answers to life’s persistent questions. This wiring is the reason we know there are microbes that both help us and harm us and planets that orbit the sun. That wiring is why we can now drive cars, fly airplanes, communicate across time and space, repair damaged hearts and brains, build skyscrapers and highways, and perform many other amazing feats.

No question… the drive to quench our “thirst for knowledge” has improved the quality of human life in countless ways.

But today I want to counsel us to be OK with “I don’t know.”

Because see, when we don’t know (and when we are willing to SAY we don’t know) we feel needy. We feel powerless. We feel vulnerable and dependent. And we yearn for nothing so much as a pillar on which to lean and from which to draw strength and support.

Something like a loving God perhaps?

Earlier I said that one of the “whys” in tragedies like the two today is, “Why did God allow this to happen?” I do not for one moment believe that God either allowed these events to happen or caused them. I believe that God’s heart is broken when innocent life is taken and needless suffering of people is caused.

However, one of God’s most precious and most dangerous gifts to humanity has been the gift of free will. With that gift we freely pursue paths of knowledge and joy. With it we also pursue paths of hatred and destruction. It is up to us.

I believe that when tragedy strikes us because of the existence of evil and hatred, God is there, waiting to enfold us in loving arms, to provide comfort and assurance in the middle of the storms. As the Wise One tells us: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.” Proverbs 18:10, NRSV. I reject as forcefully as I possibly can any idea that suggests God caused these tragedies in order that people might turn to him.

The thing I DO know with absolute certainty at a time like this is that God’s power to redeem is unlimited. God can and HAS – throughout the ages – taken the broken pieces of a fallen and sin-soaked world and used those same exact pieces to create something new… something beautiful… something life-giving and rich out of them. It is, in a nutshell, the story of Easter.

God’s done it before. God will do it today. God will do it again and again and again. Blessed be the name of God. AMEN.

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