“It’s Okay Not to Know Things.”

“(B)ecause as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” – Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, Dept Of Defense news briefing, 2-12-2002

“It’s okay not to know things.”  – Sesame Street’s Grover, NPR’s Morning Edition, 5-18-2020

“Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you?” – Jesus

I graduated college with a  B. A. degree in Mass Communications and Political Science. As a former student of Mass Media and requisite news junkie for most of my life, the above two statements would normally be anathema to my ears. How can anyone exist in this world without the urge to know all the answers? It is our civic responsibility to be well-informed citizens of the world, and as one who grew up with dinnertime conversations around current events and reading news magazines and multiple newspapers a day for fun, I like to think that I know more than a few things about being a citizen of the world. But I have to admit, COVID-19 has shaken my well-informed certainty. I don’t know who or what to believe. I have fallen victim to the overload of information, pontification, and supposition that seems to be invading every newscast, social media feed, and friendly conversation.

Crisis moments call for strong, well-informed decisive actions. We want to know that someone is in charge and things are being managed. The trouble is, this pandemic has thrown us into two seemingly paradoxical states of being: disorientated chaos and intentional stopping. Most of us have one foot rooted in something trying to end while our other foot is caught mid-step waiting to land in a thing not yet defined, something waiting to begin. Normally, I like to be the one in control – I like to be the one in charge – at least of my own life – but I would not for one minute want to be the one in charge of managing this crisis for our community, our state, or our nation. I will not even fancy the idea of little ol’ me could doing a better job of handling this spiky red viral ball’s calamitous invasion of our lives.

And so that leaves me feeling rather unstable – not able or willing to control what is happening on the grander scale around me and not able to pursue the things that ground me – or if I am really honest with you – distract me from feeling ungrounded during this time of uncertainty. Nor am I able to rest in the way things are going to be or be okay with not knowing things.

When this pandemic began shutting our lives down and wreaking havoc on our economy and everything we hold dear – like relationships and accomplishments and dreams, I recall feeling unmoored.  I wrote about appreciating how very precious the present moment is. Yesterday has passed us by and tomorrow is going to be very different from today – if we get the chance to see it. The present moment is all we have for certain. And in this present moment we are told it is safer to be still – to not do what we normally do.

Well, we’ve been saying that for over three months now with no real end to the great unknown in sight. How long can we go on living in the present moment not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring? How do we navigate the unknown of today and tomorrow?

First, accept that this present moment is just the place we need to be and trust that what we are doing is enough. When this pandemic began, we hoped our industriousness, busyness, and surges of creativity and compassion would protect us from the difficult reality of COVID-19. We adopted new ways of being with one another, we banded together to celebrate front-line workers and survivors, and we learned to do our work in new and different ways. Even television commercials morphed into feel-good celebrations of a new way of living that none of us were quite ready to embrace. We have done good work but now we are reaching the limits of our own resourcefulness and knowledge. We must be willing to learn new things to replace the old things that have gone away.

This virus has brought chaos to the status quo. But study after study in relation to science and business show that in chaos, the components of living systems self-organize and cause new conditions to emerge. Use the disorientation in your life to your advantage. Rather than clinging to the old ways of doing things, find refreshment in the discovery of the new ways of being emerging in our lives. Letting go of the old way of doing things is painful – but if we cling to structures, identities, and relationships formed in our past we limit, pandemic or no pandemic, who we can become. There are parts in everyone’s lives that just need to die in order for new life, new experiences to spring forth. Take a risk and lean into the opportunity before you to redefine yourself and how you are going to be in this world.

Just as we let go of some of our old ways, we have every right to grieve what we have lost. We have also lost the connection with others that defines us as human beings – the celebrations and rituals that mark our journeys through life together. While difficult, this time of separation can inspire us to make our connections deeper and be more committed to maintaining the friendships and ties that bind us together going forward.

Many of us can no longer participate in the activities that gave richness and meaning to our life. While their absence no doubt leaves a great void in our daily lives, it also frees us to reexamine our lives without the distraction of our normal busyness. We can also reflect on what else we might pursue given the opportunity until we can once again resume that which once and still gives us joy.

Humans cannot exist without meaning. We have defined ourselves for too long by what we do instead of who we are and how we live with another. With every day of not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring and what part of normal we are ever going to get back to, I am redefining how I want to be in this world – even amidst the uncertainty of it all. What I do know for certain is who I am – that never changes – a beloved child of God. A child of God who wants to be at peace and can be at peace in a time such as this because I know from where my certainty can come.

Jesus said: “Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.” (John 14:1-4) “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. (John 14:6)  – The Message

Jesus’ words are part of his promise to his followers before he went to the cross and continue to empower us to live in confidence in Jesus’ abiding presence today. These words come from someone well acquainted with isolation, sorrow, confusion, and disappointment; the One who took on flesh and shared our lot and our life so that we might know that God not only cares but that we may see that he does. These promises came from the One who hung on the cross to fulfill the promises he made throughout his life.

Amid the not knowing – amid your uncertainty, unsettledness, pain, grief, fear, confusion, and frustration at how messed up things are – perhaps these words can help you find promise in tomorrow and peace for now.  The God Jesus showed us throughout his life is not unmoved by our troubles or dispassionate towards our doubts. The God Jesus brings to us is not a distant God, but rather one who is engaged in our lives and committed to bringing us through all things. This is a God who took on all our trouble in the most visceral way to remind us that this present darkness does not get the last word and that this unsettled way we are living is not the final way.

Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the road alone. It’s okay not to know things when Jesus is guiding our way. He will help us find our new way of being and give us peace in the way things are going to be.

Let your light so shine!

Living the Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart… Try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them — and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

As I sat down to pen this seasonal reflection a feeling of melancholy was working its mirthless magic on my mood. My “Instrumental Christmas” playlist on Pandora was keen on playing songs to cry to, and the grey sky that hung low on the mountain outside my window further repressed the joy that should be dancing inside me. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been a favorite time of year for me from the time I was a child and still is. My immediate family had a rich heritage of Christmas tradition, involvement in the church, and musical activities, and I have carried on in the same manner as best possible. Alas, much of my family is gone now and the rest live on the other side of this great big state of ours – so trying to recreate what once was just doesn’t have the same effect on the heart. But I have digressed from the story at hand…

In that state of melancholy, I dared make things excruciatingly worse by scrolling through the daily version of The Greatest Story Ever Told, also known as Facebook. After reminding myself that I rarely post about the tragedies going on in my life either, with a heavy sigh, I noticed a message waiting for me. And the rest really is one of the greatest stories ever told – at least in this month in this chapter in the book of my life!

Say what you will about Facebook but through its wonders, I was given a glimpse into the lives of my great grandmother, Emma Wilhelmine Pedersdatter Mørck and great grandfather Frederich Vilhelm Phaff Mørck, from a woman living in North Jutland, Denmark who happened across their photos and records in a family collection she was going through. She was inquiring as to whether I might know who she was as she was not related to anyone in her family. She found me on Facebook after finding my name on our Geni family tree. It turns out this woman is a bit of a genealogy buff and has access to all sorts of records. Denmark kept very good records on its populace and they are readily accessible to the public. – and so, I spent the better part of the weekend learning all about my father’s side of the family’s livelihood in Denmark. My father’s dad, Frederik Mørck immigrated to the US from Denmark around 1910 and was one of the founders of Antelope, MT. He died when my father was just six years old so all we really know is my grandfather’s story of arrival and settlement. It turns out my family in Denmark was quite wealthy and made their mark on Danish society with ownership of large farms and manors, working as merchants, millers, and grocers, and perhaps most importantly as the founders of Carlsberg beer (on my great grandmother’s side)!  That this woman would spend so much time researching my family history is quite something, and we are not even related. She presented me with a wonderful Christmas gift – a whole new perspective on life and my place in this grand timeline we are traveling on. I couldn’t help but wonder if Emma was as ponderous as I am? What did she think of her son leaving the homeland – never to return?

This unexpected gift gave me a new perspective as I reflected on life in the waning days of my 48th journey around the sun and the closing days of a decade that for me, embodied the most dramatic changes to life as I know it than any other decade before. In the last ten years, I found my voice, I took flight and moved west, I ventured into the unknown, I began a new career, I faced down a frightening illness,  death made its presence known with the passing of both my parents and dog all within two years’ time, I bought my first home, I brought a new dog ( a gift from God) into my life, I found and lost love not once but twice, I got married and had a marriage end, and I fulfilled a dream that has carried me through much of this by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And now with this new perspective on my past, I could look at it all through a much broader lens.

Miraculously, I still haven’t spotted a gray hair, but I don’t feel much wiser than I did at the cusp of this life-changing span of years. If anything, I find myself not only full of questions but questioning everything! I seem to have lost the certainty with which I once approached life except for the certain discomfort in the realization that I am not God and I have far less control over what happens in my life than I once thought. The transience of life itself – the impermanence of it all – is so disconcerting that it makes me wonder aloud to God and anyone else who will listen – just what on earth am I here for, anyway?

I know I am not alone in this eternal pondering – that is after all THE question behind every man’s search for meaning. It is what inspired the great thinkers of all time – whose wisdom at least brings a sort of perpetual empathy to our daily struggle, a ray of light into our present darkness.  And I am sure it may have been the inspiration behind my grandfather’s voyage to a new land and new life over a century ago. While I don’t know if he ever found the answers he was seeking, he did find life by living into the questions.

It is easy to let questions of meaning weigh heavy on your heart when an unexpected loss or an unimagined future takes away your certainty in life. Yet time immemorial has proven that despite our best efforts to plan and prepare for the future, we live in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing. But as I wrote last month, life is not diminished by darkness or death, nor is it by uncertainty or the unimagined.  It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings are signs that everything is forever being made new.

Ten years ago, I could never have imagined the path my life would follow in this journey.  I’m quite certain there are aspects of your life today that you never imagined until suddenly they were a part of your life as well. Some good. Some bad. And yet we live on. The poet John Keats wrote about the difficult work of living with negative capability which is the ability to sustain uncertainty, to live with not knowing, to stand in the mystery, to keep the questions and possibilities open, to embrace ambiguity, to not be too quick to resolve or shut down doubt – and to do all this without running away and trying to escape, without grasping for facts and reason.

Life is unpredictable, unknown, and impermanent, but these very characteristics intensify life, heighten its value, and bring deeper meaning to our days. In the year ahead I am going to focus on living into the uncertain and unknown. Will you join me? It goes against our human nature and won’t be easy, but we can face the unknown in hope and with the promise that through it all we have Emmanuel, God with Us. Our greatest gift – God is with us – in our uncertainty and in our hope, in our unexpected present and our unimagined future. May this assurance live in your heart this Christmas and throughout your days.

A simple prayer for your uncertain days and years:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  –The Lutheran Book of Worship

Let your light so shine!

Minding our Mortality

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

It seemed innocent enough. It was, after all, just a Google Maps picture. But the picture in front of me made me gasp. I don’t know what I was expecting to see or how I could have expected a different reaction; it was and always will be my family’s home and Google seems to know that. My husband and I were showing one another the different houses we had lived in growing up by Googling our old addresses on the internet. Some of our former residences looked so small – compared to our memories of them from our childhoods. But this picture of a place and not so distant time in my life caught me unaware.

There before me was our home – not just a house – but my family’s last home as a family on a sunny mid-September day (according to Google). The lawn was freshly mown. The lawnmower sat in the shade waiting to be rolled back to its storage place under our deck. The garbage bin was awaiting one more dumping of grass clippings. The flower pots lining our front walkway dazzled with their patriotic display of red, white and blue petunias – Dad’s perennial planting.  Dad’s Buick sat in the garage and the SUV sat in the driveway – looking freshly washed. And if I looked hard enough, I swear I could see Dad sitting at his desk in the front window still wearing his sunhat and sunglasses and munching on an oatmeal raisin cookie with his afternoon cup of coffee.

To anyone driving by – such as the Googlecam car – 4150 Audubon Way was just an address to map. There were signs of them but there were no people. My family did not exist to whoever was driving by. It was sort of like the last picture I took of our home, only different. The Googlecam photo was void of life before death. My photo was void of the lives that once called this place home after death.

The Googlecam photo brought me back to a time before the lives of my parents ceased and reminded me once again that they and my family as I once knew it are gone – even though pieces and memories of them remain. It reminded me that I too, will one day be gone. The house I now live in will be void of my life. Who I am will no longer be. Indeed, we can try to forget, ignore, or deny that death is in our cards from the day we are born to the moment we draw our last breath – but no one escapes a final ending.

But death doesn’t just come at the end of our physical life. We experience it all along the road of life. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our lives as individuals come to an end. When a relationship ends a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. Death makes itself known in our failures, shattered dreams, and lost opportunities. Death haunts our regrets and disappointments. A part of us dies each time we betray ourselves and live contrary to who we truly are or want to be.

And yet, with each of these deaths, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

Theologian John Caputo writes in his book, Hope Against Hope, that death is not a diminishment or negation of life but is its intensification. Our mortality is what gives our life its vitality. Death focuses our attention and forces us to prioritize what matters. Death does not diminish life’s value, it gives life value.

The overtly objective glimpse into the past of my life reminded me of its fleeting. There will never be another moment like the one captured for “map-eternity” or like the now I have right now. It reminded me that this moment, this now, is priceless. And of course, this caused me to ponder – even more deeply – is there really life in my life?

Is there life in the way I am living in this moment; in the way I see the world and relate to others? Am I growing or just being? Am I bringing life to others or taking from theirs? Am I embracing the opportunities for life in those moments of death along life’s road? And if not, why not? What needs to change, to be let go of, to be done differently?

Fortunately, the place I spend the majority of my nows – at least five days a week – Coco Enterprises – espouses a way of living that helps me give life to my life. Joe Coco built his financial planning practice on the foundational pillars of S.P.R.I.F.  – a model of living in which we guide our clients towards achieving balance in the areas of their lives that they value while striving for the same balance in our own. Though iconic and evoking an aura of power and Wall Street wealth, The Coco Enterprises logo consisting of five Greek pillars is actually meant to represent each pillar of S.P.R.I.F. – the Spiritual, Physical, Relational, Intellectual, and Financial components of our lives.  By aiming for balance, strength, and stability in each of these areas, Coco Enterprises employees and our clients live lives that flourish and inspire instead of lives encumbered with regret.

I try to employ the SPRIF model of living in my daily life and I add two more pillars to it – vocational and avocational. If I am spending too much of my focus and energy on any one of these aspects of life over a prolonged amount of time – I know am not giving life to my life but rather, pulling life from it.

What do YOU want to do with your life? How do you want to live? Will you have life before death?

The important point of giving life to life is not how you plan to improve yourself based on standards set by others – this sort of focused living invites us to a life tainted by fear, arrogance, pride, delusion, ignorance, denial, wounds and pain; a life filled with the illusions of success and accomplishments based on an unwinnable human race. We clamor for the public and passing opinions of others. In our quest to succeed we practice our life before others; hoping to be seen, recognized, and praised.

The joy of being seen, recognized, and praised by others feels good today but by tomorrow the shine will have worn away, and you’ll have to do more to achieve that same feeling of satisfaction and success. This is not putting life in your life. This is the presence of death in our lives – taking with it our joy in living.

The point is not to become obsessed by winning at the unwinnable human race. Having life in our life does not mean working really hard to always get it right or always having the answer. Having life in our life does not mean that we will always know what to do or be able to speak the right words. Having life in our life does not mean that we have to always be strong and in control.

We should try to do the right thing, make the best choices, and accomplish everything we set out do to but we must acknowledge that at some point – death will come and our quest for perfection and success in all things will have far less meaning to us and have been far less than life-giving. Having life in our life is about savoring all that we have in the now and accepting what we don’t. It’s about flavoring your life by sharing it and opening it to the lives of others – others who are living through life’s deaths before death – as well as giving life to life.

For me, the answer for giving life to my life and the only one whose standards can ordinate my life is Jesus. As an Episcopal priest recently shared with his congregation, Jesus never said, “I came that you might be a good, better, or an improved version of yourself.”

No, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That is the freeing truth of the gospel. Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls us to a meaningful life in the now, in this time and in this place. Life is now.

What does life before death mean to you? If you are given the opportunity to see this moment of your life through another’s eyes will you see life or death?

May the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes” inspire you to have life before death.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Live and let your light so shine!