Earlier this afternoon (Thursday,) I officiated a memorial service for a member of my congregation. Julie was not quite 50 years old when she died last week after a prolonged battle with cancer. And while we knew her death was coming, it has been a difficult week as I have been forced to open the vault of memories.
Julie and I first met as middle schoolers when my family moved to a new town and church. As teenagers, we participated in many of the same student activities at the church. Julie was always confident, independent, and talented. I confess I was a bit intimidated by her. She was definitely way out of my league. I think she might have even told me so once. But she was always gracious and considerate.
I was appointed back to this same congregation many years later to serve as the Senior Pastor. One Sunday, I looked at the choir and saw Julie’s familiar face. Maybe she had more curves and a few more gray hairs than before, like many of us from that era, but the unmistakable kindness in her eyes gave her away. I looked forward to getting reacquainted and to learning what she had been up to all these years.
However, shortly after our initial reunion, Julie received a devastating cancer diagnosis. And her life was immediately consumed with tests and procedures and treatments and medications. I would check in on her from time to time. The last time we spoke was just a week or so before her death. I asked if she had any fears. She said, “Sure, I’m scared about what will happen. I’m scared about what’s next.”
We had a nice talk about faith and the assurance of God, especially as we reach the end of this life. We laughed, cried, and prayed together. I told her we would miss her, but that we would be ok and she need not worry about the family and friends she loved. I reminded her that she would be ok too, and she replied, “Yes I know. I just wanted to be sure.”
In “Not Knowing,” D’Sousa and Renner shift from the false assurance of knowing to the opportunities created in not knowing by outlining four key themes: empty your cup, close your eyes to see, leap in the dark, and delight in the unknown. They were not writing from a religious perspective, but these ideas run parallel to the life of faith. We are most able to receive when our hands are open, not closed. We often hear God speak more clearly when we cultivate our inner world. The very definition of faith is stepping out into places where we cannot know the outcome. And there is an indescribable joy that comes from encounters with the unexpected. This is the path to transformation. But it is not an easy road.
We might prefer to navigate through this life with some level of certainty about things- how things work, what we might expect to happen, how thoughts ought to be. But the reality is that life comes with no promises. We are not promised any days or any breaths. Nor are we promised good health, well-adjusted kids, secure financial portfolios, or freedom from hardship. And there can be a great amount of fear that comes in not knowing, anxiety in facing the reality that life comes with a considerable amount of uncertainty.
But there is also joy in the adventure. There is a new freedom in exploring what comes next, in stepping out in faith and trusting God with the outcome. And underneath it all, despite her fears of the unknown, this is path Julie walked. She did not live as though God owed her anything. She lived simply in the things God does promise:
“I will not leave you or forsake you.”
“I have prepared a place for you.”
“I am always with you.”
In this world of quick fixes and soundbite answers, this is the only certainty that matters. The certainty of God’s presence, God’s strength, God’s comfort, God’s grace unlocks doors we shut for security’s sake and sends us out to the next adventure. It loosens us from the lifelines that may prolong an existence, but do not make a life. It invites us to ask perhaps the most hopeful question of all- “Okay, what’s next?”
Diana Renner and Steven D’Souza, “Not Knowing: The Art Turning Uncertainty into Opportunity,” (New York: LID Publishing, 2016.)