The State of Unknowing
A few years ago, I had to return something to a big box store right after Christmas. I had finally made it to the head of one line, and there was a lady next to me who had made her way to the head of another line. The young man who was trying to help her was very new to the job and had been thrown in the deep end of the pool. Not only did he have to deal with customers who were sometimes very frustrated over the wait, but he also was charged with answering the main phone.
As we stood there, the woman could tell he was lost. As she was just getting him to help her with her return, the phone began to ring. He froze in the moment … completely overwhelmed. Fortunately for the young man, the woman happened to be an HR executive. She took charge as he looked at her and then the phone, clearly not knowing what to do next.
She looked him square in the eye and said, “Pick up the phone.” He picked it up, still frozen in the moment. She glanced at his name tag and scripted him: “Thank you for calling Hypermart, my name is Matt, how may I help you.” He repeated her word for word. As the person on the other end of the line spoke, he suddenly regained his composure, transferred the caller to the right place, and looked back at the woman and said, “I am so sorry. I just suddenly didn’t know anything. Thank you for helping me not get fired.”
It was a humorous yet enlightening moment. While it highlighted the sometimes overwhelming world we have created for ourselves in a capitalist economy, it also reinforced for me the value of “knowing” as opposed to “not knowing” in our culture.
As I have now embarked on my 6th decade in this world, I have begun to learn the value of not knowing.
In my training as a certified coach, I was taught that coaching is different from consulting. The consultant is the expert we bring in to tell us how to do our jobs or live our lives better than before. They are people who operate out of a place of knowing.
Coaches, on the other hand, specialize in not knowing. This comes as a challenge for me, especially in my role as a pastor because of my training in all things church and religion. I am supposed to be the one who knows, and it seems counterintuitive to move to the place of unknowing.
The interesting thing here is that unknowing here is more intentional than ignorance. It is the capacity to glimpse the reality that is greater than what my eyes can see or my mind can grasp. It is then a curious and intentional way of saying “I don’t know” that invites the mysterious sacred unto the moment.
This is the place of wisdom. Faith … pure faith … is that leap into the darkness and mystery of God without knowing where it leads. It is facing the moment of death without knowing what awaits us on the other side. In our lives, we each face small deaths without knowing. We lose a job and don’t know what is next. We face an addiction not knowing what life will be like without the object of our addiction. We face the loss of someone we love dearly without knowing what life will be like on the other side of that loss. We then face our own physical death without knowing what awaits us beyond the darkest of darknesses.
As we talk about the brokenness of the church and other institutions that have held our allegiance, we ultimately don’t know what is on the other side. As we face the brokenness of United Methodism … which feels a lot more like my typical typo, “Untied” Methodism … there is a certain anxiety in admitting that I don’t know what awaits us on the other side.
As a pastor, I think my people expect me to know, and the answer, “I don’t know,” doesn’t always come off as comforting to them. But if we are to grow as a church, I am inviting us to the place of unknowing.
In the place of unknowing, we might be able to see one another and listen to one another. In the place of unknowing, the story of others … many who live in the margins … can take center stage. In the place of unknowing, we can let go of privilege and power and the need to be right.
The place of unknowing is exactly where God meets us. So perhaps the brokenness we experience in life, both individually and corporately, can be a springboard from which we can take our first steps into a new community. I think Jesus’s vision of the Kingdom of God and Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community define that new community.
So join me in the place of unknowing. In this space, God who knows every fiber of your being and every particle in the universe offers us a wisdom that comes, not from knowing or understanding, but from unknowing. That is the definition of faith.
In the silent place of unknowing, may we practice a moment of stillness and fold ourselves into the mystery of God.