The Witness of Uncertainty

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 7.31.33 AM "Do you think people only live once?" she asked me.

I paused. Both because I was caught off guard by the question, and because I wasn't immediately sure how I wanted to answer.

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Last week I posted a Confession that I didn't really get poetry. As a result of not really getting it, I tend not to enjoy poetry. In the post I briefly mentioned that this was, in part, because I seem predisposed to want to understand, analyze, and figure things out. That is my starting position. Over the past 10 years, however, I have worked on being intentional about moving away from this default position and learning to embrace mystery, settle in to ambiguity, and hold tension with open hands.

Which has been (and remains) a challenge. I like answers. Even more, I like being the one with the answers.

So then, when I first read A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren back in 2005 it was truly revolutionary for me that the option of answering a question with the phrase "I don't know" was a viable option as a Christian (specifically, even, as a pastor). I'm still recovering from that paradigm shift.

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I had just met her only five minutes ago, and now she's dropping this small-talk-is-over sort of question. We'll call her Julie, and Julie works at the same office space I do. She brought her pet in for the day (weirdly uncommon here in San Diego) and that's what initiated our introduction. Inevitably, after some brief exchanges around her pets, the conversation-killer was asked.

"So what do you do?" Julie asked, as is want to happen in conversations like this.

"I'm a pastor," I replied.

Although I'm strongly considering changing that answer to something like, "I'm an entrepreneur who launched an enterprise with my wife and about 15 other people where I function in several roles, primarily as a public speaker, a life-coach, a director of communications, a community builder, and an educator... while also operating as a graphic designer, a volunteer recruiter, a fundraiser, a networker, and a team leader for a several different teams."

But I digress...

Her reaction was pretty standard. The head sort of nodding back while uttering a surprised "oh." I've learned my vocation is unexpected for strangers, so I brace myself for any number of follow up questions.

Yet in 10 years, I've never received this one...

"Do you think people only live once?"

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I've been told more times than I can recall that I am "wise for my age," or some variation of that statement. This may be due to the fact that, beginning with my first pastoral job out of college at a mega church up in Oregon, I've always been the youngest person in the room. At 32 years old that is just now starting to shift, but for the past 10 years I've become acquainted with this vibe I give off that I am simultaneously young and smart.

It's felt good, too. I've enjoyed my years as the Answer Guy. The Smart One. It feeds my need for affirmation.

But often times I would find myself making up an answer for fear of losing the perception that I was "wise" or "smart." And so even though McLaren's seminal work inspired me to embrace the "I don't know" approach to questions that I really, truly didn't know the answer to, actually living in to that reality was easier said than done.

Yet, the more interactions I have with the Julies of the world, and the more I see the result of this sort of approach, the easier and more natural it becomes.

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"Do I think people only live once?" I repeated, probably subconsciously to buy myself more time.

I knew how default-Colby of 10 years ago would answer that question. He'd riff about death being the end of us all, but that the Bible talks about two alternative endings for humanity. He'd find a polite, but also no-frills way, to confidently declare that of course we only live once, and so we have to maximize this life and ensure that we are found in God's favor in the after life.

But I've been working on a new default-Colby.

So after repeating the question back to her (and her affirming that yes, indeed, that IS what I asked you), I said slowly, "I don't know."

Whatever surprise she showed when I revealed my vocation as a pastor was now dwarfed by her current state.

"Wow," she exclaimed, "I did not expect that answer. But I really appreciate that answer. Because you're right, how can any of us know for sure. But I did not expect you to say that."

The conversation lingered on a few moments later before I had to take off, but I get the sense that whatever impression I made with Julie it was now mostly going to be about that one pastor that one time who admitted he didn't know something, and didn't even try to make up an answer.

Which seemed refreshingly honest to her. It wouldn't surprise me to one day learn that she's had previous experience in the church, perhaps even with a pastor or leader that let her down in some way and so she's grown a (well earned?) mistrust of religious figures.

And I could see the way my choosing to live in to the I-don't-know posture disarmed her just a little.

Or, as Paul put it when he unpacked what it looks like to live in a community defined by love in the 12th chapter of Romans, "don't think that you're so smart." (Rom 12:6, CEB)

Try it out, won't you? Next time you're having a conversation with someone that perhaps doesn't share the same worldview as you and they ask you a question that you genuinely just do not know the answer to, just go with, "I don't know."

Humility goes a long way. It's a lesson I'm learning, anyways.