“Sometimes We Just Don’t Know” (Rev. Sue Browning, preached at UU Chester River, December 3, 2023)
“The Shadows of Unknowing” by Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox (from her book Evening Tide)
“Grey, the color of the lake before sunrise; grey, the underside of the gull that flies overhead while the earth blindly searches for morning.
Give me grey. Grey the color of not sure, don’t know yet. Grey the color of compromise, maybe, let me think about it; grey for talking things over, listening again, thinking some more. Grey for the shaded areas of the other point of view, for the possibility of change. Grey for the smudged edges of what once was dogma, and now is doubt. Grey.
In the bright red and green, and blue and gold of the season, and the noise and the festivity, give me grey, for the quiet of my soul, the moment of heaviness before sleep, the peace of meditation.
The steel grey of the lake mirrors the grey clouds overhead, and the bird meanders through the grace of morning flight, waiting, watching the movement of a grey walker watching him. The earth bows to find the dawn and feels its first slanting beams.
Can I take this as a promise, I wonder. That after the questions, the doubts and the hours of contemplation, there will be gold through the grey, promise fulfilled and truth revealed. I don’t know, but I believe in small epiphanies, a single beam of light in the darkness, some sought-for star, some one certainty emerging from the grey. Meanwhile, let us embrace doubt and cherish our unknowing and patiently await the dawn.”
Sermon “Sometimes We Just Don’t Know”
Yesterday morning I was honored to be a part of the opening ceremonies at the new Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum Welcome Center in St. Michaels. The ceremony was at 10:30 a.m. Weather forecasts had anticipated a clear, mild day, yet it turned out to be a grey, foggy morning.
The high school ROTC color guard presented the colors, we all said the pledge of allegiance, Officer John Coleman from the sheriff’s office sang the Star-Spangled Banner, and there were citations from Annapolis, other remarks and finally I offered the blessing of the new space.
Through it all you could not see the water surrounding the maritime museum campus.
Somehow the grey, foggy morning felt right. The flags stood out against the gentle gray skies. The beautiful rendition of the national anthem was ‘held’ in the dense, mist-filled air. There was a special stillness as President Greenaway shared her remarks, her voice cracking as she expressed gratitude for the six years of shared effort.
Those gathered, wearing their array of bright jackets, added color to the day; their readiness to show up in the fog demonstrating commitment and excitement for the potential of something new in community.
On the museum grounds is a lighthouse. In the fog yesterday, you could imagine the need watermen have had for centuries for lighthouses to guide them when visibility is low. In the fog we need to slow down … we need to patiently seek the next harbor or pier.
The fog – what a good reminder that so often we need to take our time to navigate slowly in uncertainty.
In our reading we heard, “Give me grey. Grey the color of not sure.”
Yet it’s the holiday season. It’s a season of reds, greens, blues, golds, and of lights. With the colors, come the expectations to celebrate, engage, appreciate – to spread joy, and be a part of joy. Grey is just not a festive color. Grey is the not noticed part of the tableau, and yet it is the foundation to so much of life.
We need the grey. We need to name the ‘not knowings’ and ‘not sures.’ all around us.
There is the ‘not knowing’ of the essence of the universe – how far the galaxies stretch, and the wondering of other life. Many hypotheses, yet mystery. More unknown than known.
There is ‘not knowing’ which of our appliances will next break in our homes…
The ‘not knowing’ of another’s thoughts or worries…the ‘not knowing’ of another’s motivations…
The ‘not knowing’ of natural disasters and interruptions…the what, when, and where of nature not predictable with any specificity.
The ‘not knowing’ of how many will come to church, or whether the pledge drive or fundraiser will go well…
The ‘not knowing’ of our future health challenges…or those of our loved ones…
There can be anxiety in so much being unanswerable. It can come with a heaviness –a feeling that these grey ‘unknowing’ zones are the defeat zones; the puzzle not complete, the proof that is just not there.
Not liking uncertainty, we may set up ‘just in case’ precautions and safety nets of protection. Fire extinguishers, and travel insurance have a place to be sure. We may avoid the risks of relationship or investments in relationship, because, well, the unpredictability torments us.
We try to control what we can. We analyze some more. We try and learn from the past. We attempt to control even what we can’t.
The cycle – fix and solve, solve and fix.
It can lead to a sort of whack-a-mole life. While at the beach in the summer whack-a-mole has a place, it’s tiring as a day-to-day practice.
At times it is all to avoid the sitting with not knowing; to admitting how little we control.
There is value in uncertain times. These are the times when creativity has the most opportunity. In the grey, is where possibility lives.
Often, we find ourselves in the grey zone during times of change. With change, especially with loss, we need to let the feelings be real. Grey can hold us. Grey is neutral – not asking us to rush anywhere.
In time, ‘not knowing’ may offer a background to see in fresh ways. Or not.
What if we embrace ‘not knowing’ as a gift? Seeing the grey as mystery, and holding that some mysteries are just not to be solved, or are not solvable. Ever.
What if that reality is not only ok, but a relief? A laying down of the need to control so much. Maybe in the embrace uncertainty we resist less, and dream more?
In ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge centers himself in his own story. He’s relentlessly materialistic in perspective and dismissive of those around him. No joyous colors of the season penetrate his narrow focus. His black and white clarity drives his callousness and cruelty. His total assured-ness isolates him.
Then he dreams – he enters the world of ‘not knowing.’ Scrooge is not in control that fateful night…his mind (the ghosts actually) take him back through his childhood – a view of the gaps in his foundation.
Then he is taken to the present; to intimate glimpses into the lives of others – their poverty and health struggles, the pain he’s caused, and the ways the values of Christmas have stayed in the forefront despite such obstacles. With barriers down – in the blurri-ness, he witnesses joy, senses need, and sees possibility. Might just such a time be when we touch the holy – the sacred – understood in many ways?
As Scrooge’s assumptions were suspended that night, he could see new meaning.
In the Zen Buddhism. intentionally being in this ‘not knowing’ zone is deeply valued. We hear it called the Beginner’s Mind.
There is a value in returning to being new to a situation, and to do so especially when we’re so assured and so expert we’ve narrowed our views. The goal of Beginners Mind is to observe and not judge, to peel back assumptions and toss them aside, to question and question some more and be truly curious in what is uncovered in the questioning – the fresh view. There are Buddhist and other practices which help people step back and re-enter the situation with a fresh look.
For Ebenezer Scrooge, the movement to a space of ‘not knowing’ opened a new way, and a kinder man emerges – a more empathetic man – a person open to change.
Ok, Dickens pulls this off all in a single night’s dream. My hope is Mr. Scrooge continued the practice of finding ways to refocus perspective and energy again and again. It’s not usually a one-night turn around.
Hanging in the grey zone (beyond novels and movies) takes time if we want to feel something is revealed.
Yet, so often we feel such urgency to solve issues and move on. In staying with the unknowing, we worry we’re slowing down just exactly when we need to get so much done.
It’s at that moment we need to remind one another there is time to slow down.
Sure there are the times when we need to react quickly – in traffic to avoid an accident, or to help a neighbor who has slipped on the walk, or pull burned food out of the oven, but mostly what we think of as urgent just is not.
Deadlines can be set aside – priorities aligned to allow us more time for ‘not knowing’ – even emails ignored. Even if for just a bit.
If only we had the patience and waiting skills to trust in the value of ‘not knowing’ – if only.
As we head toward the shortest night … as long afternoons turn a murky grey earlier and earlier, it’s a good time of year to embrace ‘not knowing’… and to be patient. As lights are turned on each night, maybe we can lift-up our appreciation of the mystery surrounding us and linger there?
In the space of being ok with uncertainty there is room for doubt – for big questions, that lead to more questions – and, in time, some direction.
Often we’ll see that the full outcome is way beyond our control anyway.
The Beginner’s Mind invites us to value openness over assuredness, to value flexibility over rigidity and to let go of the weight of feeling responsible to be expert and in full control 24/7.
A few final thoughts about doubt and its connection to uncertainty – doubt’s angle on ‘not knowing.’
Unitarian Universalists value doubt. We say aloud (often) that we value doubt. It’s often said with a little UU edge. In history, we’ve doubted certain interpretations of scripture, and understandings of God. We’ve doubted there is one way to worship or pray.
We, at times pridefully, claim our ‘doubt’ and skepticism and view it as a virtue. We hold out science and reason as the antidote to ‘what they think.’
It’s true doubt and drilling down the questions is a part of our theology. It’s not always are best side. At worst, this is a ‘doubt’ that is continually critical of others’ ways. More positively it can be part of a wholehearted search for truth leaving space for others’ truths.
In these instances ‘doubt’ is used to push us toward certainty. It’s a doubt that puts certainty, and answers and cleanly solved problems on a pedestal – markers of success and righteous correctness.
What if rather that using doubt as a path to certainty, we see doubt more as a path to possibility, and gate to a gentle unfolding of new ways?
There are so many ways doubt plays in. We have doubt when we are ladened with sadness. We doubt our own courage to speak up. We doubt we can change, or that others can.
Our body can feel doubt.
At the most basic level, what if when we feel doubt we train ourselves to slow down. When in doubt, slow down.
When in doubt we are invited to hold the uncertainty as a gift – a needed gift to be savored in a spirit of curiosity.
The holiday season surrounds us with lovely vibrance. The bright colors are around – offering warmth, and care and belonging. The season comes with music, and concerts. The season offers stories of miracles. The season, if we’re lucky comes with a dusting of snow.
And too grey is all around.
In the preparation and the waiting of this season, may we have the patience to be uncertain. May we trust that in the pause and reflection something amazing may just be revealed.
Often unknowing is a special gift – a gift which at times comes wrapped in beautiful festive grey paper.
May It Be So