Archive for January, 2014

Moving Forward in an Era of Uncertainty

January 5, 2014

The New Year is a time when our culture likes to celebrate.  People get together with friends or families or at parties to celebrate the passing of another year.  We celebrate that we are still alive.  We celebrate that we have survived another year.  We celebrate that the problems and the difficulties of the past year are behind us.  We look forward with hope that the new year will be better – more loving, more gentle, and more amicable.  We hope for less stress, less tension, less disease, less death, and less pressure.  We hope for accomplishments at work and at school, more money, more possessions, and more progress.  New Year’s Eve is a night followed by a day of hope and optimism and making resolutions that we are going to thrive in the new year.

A few days later, we return to work and school and our community organizations and discover that all the uncertainties of our complex world are still there – waiting for us right where we left them at the end of last year.  We see uncertainty in our families, in our relationships, in our health, in our finances, and in our jobs.  We don’t know if our country will work this year, if our economy will work, if our political system will work, and if our health care system will work.  We don’t know if our world will be safe – if we will be attacked here at home or if our loved ones will be attacked abroad.  It would not be hard to shrink back from the world in a kind of paralysis – not knowing what to do, and thus not doing anything.  We simply withdraw out of fear and indecision, unable to move forward.

In the book Great by Choice, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen write these words, “The premise behind this book is that instability is chronic, uncertainty is permanent, change is accelerating, disruption is common, and we can neither predict nor govern events.  We believe there will be no “new normal.”  There will be only be a continuous series of “not normal” times.  The dominant pattern of history isn’t stability, but instability and disruption.  Those of us who came of age amidst stable prosperity in developed economies in the second half of the 20th century would be wise to recognize that we grew up in a historical aberration.  How many times in history do people operate inside a seemingly safe cocoon, during an era of relative peace while riding one of the most sustained economic booms of all time?  For those of us who grew up in such environments – and especially for those who grew up in the United States – nearly all our personal experience lies within a rarified slice of overall human history, very unlikely to repeat itself in the 21st century and beyond.”

While these words are not necessarily comforting, I think it is helpful for many of us Americans to realize the predominant pattern throughout human history has not been stability but instability.  What if we are moving out of an ahistorical time, back into a more historical time?  What are the skills and the mindsets and the faith that are needed to thrive and minister in a world that is continually being turned upside down?  When the world becomes less predictable and less controllable, how do you make plans for the future and move forward, when you are never sure about who or what you can count on?

In the book Great by Choice, Collins and Hansen also write, “Our work began with the premise that most of what we face lies beyond our control, that life is uncertain and the future unknown.  But, if there’s one overarching message arising from more than six thousand years of corporate history across all our research – studies that employ comparisons of great versus good in similar circumstances – it would be this:  greatness is not primarily a matter of circumstance, greatness is first and foremost a matter of conscious choice and discipline.  The factors that determine whether or not a company becomes truly great, even in a chaotic and uncertain world, lie largely within the hands of its people.  It is not mainly a matter of what happens to them but a matter of what they create, what they do, and how well they do it.  Life offers no guarantees.  It’s always possible that game-ending events and unbendable forces – disease, accident, brain injury, earthquake, tsunami, financial calamity, civil war, or any of a thousand other possible events – will subvert our strongest and most disciplined efforts.  Still, we must act.  We are not imprisoned by our circumstances.  We are not imprisoned by the luck we get or the inherent unfairness of life.  We are not imprisoned by crushing setbacks, self-inflicted mistakes or our past success.  We are not imprisoned by the times in which we live, by the number of hours in a day or even the number of hours we’re granted in our very short lives.  In the end, we can control only a tiny sliver of what happens to us.  But even so, we are free to choose, free to become great by choice.”

These words reminded me of something I have heard before.  They are the words of the Apostle Paul in the book of Philippians.  Paul wrote the book of Philippians while being imprisoned in Rome.  Philippians is sometimes called the book of joy.  It seems odd that someone could write a book about joy while being in prison, but that is what Paul did.  In Philippians 4:6-7, 12-13, Paul writes, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, and of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.”

The message here does not seem to be an exhortation to try to control the uncontrollable.  Our task is not to try to predict the unpredictable.  Without changing or altering our external circumstances, we can find certainty in the midst of uncertainty.  When Paul wrote these words, his future was very uncertain.  He didn’t know what was going to happen to him.  He was awaiting trial.  He knew he was innocent, but he didn’t know if he would be found innocent or guilty at his trial.  And yet, he found a sense of certainty in Jesus Christ even though his external circumstances were highly uncertain.  There is a peace that only comes from God that goes beyond our ability to comprehend.  We can learn to be content in the midst of the most unstable times.

We do live in an era of great uncertainty.  We do live in a very unstable time.  Historically, perhaps this more common than we realize.  We may need to make some mental adjustments to learn how to cope.  But, God is providing a way for us to move forward with hope, into this new year, a time of great peril and promise.  We may not know what we can count on, but we do know Who we can count on.  We may not know what will happen to us, but we do know Who will walk with us.  We may get blindsided this coming year, but we always know who “has our back”.  As Saint Patrick once said, “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.”  Happy New Year!