“When You Don’t Know What to Do”

1998 Covenant Conference
Opening Worship, 5 November 1998

“When You Don’t Know What to Do”

[2 Chronicles 20: 1-­12]

by Douglas Oldenburg
President, Columbia Theological Seminary and
Moderator, 210th General Assembly

It is my distinct joy to bring you greetings from the 210th General Assembly, from your 2.6 million sisters and brothers in 11,300 congregations from Alaska to Puerto Rico, from Long Island to the Hawaiian Islands. On behalf of that whole Church, I want to thank you for your witness to Jesus Christ and your service to the Church, the mission of your Church, wherever you are and whatever you do. I am grateful for your love for the Church and your commitment to justice issues, issues of peacemaking. I’m grateful for the ministries of compassion that you have in your local communities. I am grateful for your preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, your commitment to ecumenism in all its shapes and forms.

In my speech before the General Assembly prior to being elected Moderator, I said that should I be elected Moderator, I would try to focus on those things we have in common. I would try to focus on building up the Church of Jesus Christ. I have tried to do that during my tenure as Moderator. How grateful I am for your words of encouragement. How grateful I am, even more, for your prayers. I have felt the prayers of this denomination as I have undertaken this awesome responsibility and great privilege.

May the peace of Christ be with you.

[Congregation] And also with you.

Let us pray.

We acknowledge, O God, that sometimes we listen but do not really hear. We listen to words, we listen to sounds, but do not hear their meaning or their message. At times it’s because our words are unclear and garbled. At other times, it’s because our minds are flitting from one thing to another. By your Holy Spirit here within us and among us, help me to speak clearly, and all of us to so concentrate that we may not only listen to human words but hear your Word addressed to our lives. Amen.

It was not what you would call a typical rousing speech of a politician. It came at a moment of crisis in Judah. She was about to be invaded by her enemies, and King Jehoshaphat of Judah was afraid. He knew that his forces were outnumbered; he knew that the odds were heavily against him. And so he called all the leaders of Judah together to discuss the situation, and they came. They came looking to Jehoshaphat for decisive leadership, for, after all, he was their king. They came expecting him to rally them together with a rousing speech about patriotism and courage and confidence. They came expecting him to lay out a detailed plan of action for dealing with the crisis the nation faced.

But what a shock. Instead of the decisive leadership they looked for, instead of the plan of action they needed, instead of that Winston Churchill’s “England’s finest hour”-type speech, they heard their king confess in a public prayer, “Lord, we do not know what to do.” Can you imagine that? Can you imagine in some decisive hour of crisis in our own nation, our President’s coming on television before us and saying, “My fellow Americans, we just don’t know what to do.”

I’ll bet in this recent election campaign, you didn’t hear one single candidate say that he or she didn’t know what to do about any of the problems and challenges facing our nation. If they did, we’d be shocked out of our wits. Their popularity in the polls would fall to zero, and the prospect of being elected would go out the window. Some of you recall Jimmy Carter came close to that confession during the Iranian crisis some years ago, and look what happened to his political career.

You see, that’s just not our definition of leadership. Kings, presidents, politicians don’t do that. We look to them for decisiveness, for telling us what we must do; and they always seem to do just that. We elect people who have the answers, who know exactly what we should do, or at least they tell us they do. And yet even though it may have been shocking to the people of Judah, and even though it could be argued that it was an irresponsible capitulation of leadership in that moment of national crisis, I confess that I find something refreshingly honest in Jehoshaphat’s confession. For it is often so true, we just don’t know what to do.

Yes, I well know, as you do, that there are times when we know precisely what to do, but we lack the will and the courage to do it. I understand that, and I deplore it, too. But there are other times, many times, many situations, many problems we face as individuals, as a Church, as a nation, when, frankly, we just don’t know what to do.

Surely you pastors have experienced that as I did for twenty-six years, in trying to help a husband and wife, for example, work through their conflict, bring about reconciliation, in trying to help your local congregation work through some kind of crisis, or in trying to decide whether to accept a call to another church or stay where you are a few more years. At times there is clarity about those things, but most of the time, we see through a glass darkly.

I think we all experience that confusion in our individual lives, laity or clergy. The Bible says, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Indeed we should; but what does that mean when a young boy stands at the door of your home in order, he says, to “work his way through college”? Our heart responds one way, but our head wonders whether we’re being conned another time, and we just don’t know what to do.

Or what does it mean to a politician to love your neighbor when deciding whether to put money into education or welfare or more police? Or what does it say to the business people in your churches to love your neighbor when deciding whether to employ more people at lower wages or fewer people at higher wages, or deciding whether to lay off hundreds, perhaps thousands, of employees or risk the company’s future by becoming less competitive? You know and I know that doctors confront incredibly difficult medical decisions, ethical decisions regarding what therapy to use, the prolongation of life; and the list goes on. There are many times when we are simply confused, and we just don’t know what to do.

Parents, you’ve experienced that — if you’re a parent, surely you have. God knows we want to do the right thing for a teenager. We want to bring them up as healthy, wholesome, responsible adults. We want to react to the problems and crises in the family in the right way, but sometimes we just don’t know what to do.

National problems — it’s the same way. I believe that most Americans honestly want to do something about homeless people, about poverty, about the ecological problems we face, about improving the criminal justice system and reducing the spiral of violence, and improving our public schools. But the question we face is: How do you do that? Many suggested solutions, you know as well as I, are being offered today. But as soon as you start looking beneath the simplistic answers, which are plentiful, you discover the confusing complexity of it all, the conflict of competing values, the trade-offs that are required, the elusiveness of solutions. And often I’m afraid we end up confessing we just don’t know what to do.

Isn’t that true for the problems we face in our Church? How do we awaken the sleeping giant with all its potential? How do we renew the Presbyterian Church (USA)? How do we help the Church to become “a provisional demonstration of what God intends for all humankind”? How can we be God’s instruments to enable the Church to live up to her high calling, or — the theme of this gathering — what does it mean to be faithful in a Church when we disagree?

Yes, plenty of folks claim to have categorical answers. They seem to know exactly what we ought to do all the time. But for most of us, there’s plenty of ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty. And that’s why this surprisingly honest confession of Jehoshaphat rings a bell within us. We resonate to it, don’t we? It’s often so true of the human experience, so many times in life, in many situations, in many problems, when we just don’t know what to do.

But there is more to the king’s prayer. Thank God, there is more. For after his honest confession of confusion, the king adds a theological affirmation of confidence: “O Lord, we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are fixed upon Thee.” You see, in the midst of a sea of uncertainty, on the verge of drowning in engulfing waves of confusion, Jehoshaphat reaches out for an anchor: “but our eyes are fixed on Thee.”

Now, you know as well as I do that that can be taken in a very pietistic, simplistic way. All you have to do is turn to the Lord and read your Bible and pray, and everything will become crystal clear. You’ve heard that, and so have I. Perhaps it works for some, but that’s not my experience and probably not yours, either.

But still, I want to say to you that added phrase makes all the difference in the world to me. So let me just share a few things it means to me and, I believe, to those of us who claim Jesus as Lord as we seek to be faithful in the Church when we disagree.

In the first place, to fix our eyes on the Lord means that we will always focus on a common center and adopt a common spirit. Even though the issues which we confront are important ones, we must always keep our focus on the center of our faith, “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” I confess to you that in my own life, and I trust for many of you, too, it is very tempting for those of us who care deeply about issues of justice — gender justice, economic justice, racial justice — to lose touch with that center. Christ is the center of our faith, the source of our unity in the Church, the one that binds us together in spite of all our differences.

Paul keeps writing that to the early Church in the midst of all their divisions and differences. To the Colossians he writes: “In Him all things hold together.” To the Ephesians he writes: “Christ is our peace who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility,” and he makes it clear that the unity Christ brings is not achieved by elimination of diversity or a denial of it. It’s a unity achieved in the midst of our diversity. It’s held together by a common center, a common commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior. It’s what my colleague Ben Kline calls “a centering diversity.” That’s what we are called to practice and embody in the Church today, a centering diversity, by keeping our focus on the center, on Jesus Christ, the source of our unity.

And when we keep our eye on that common center, I believe we will adopt a common spirit. It is a spirit of openness to all God’s children, a spirit of support and love for all God’s children. It is a spirit of humility. I read the kenosis passage in Philippians a few days ago, and it struck me again, that the primary reason Paul wrote that beautiful passage about the humility of Christ who became one of us is to encourage the Philippian readers to adopt the same spirit of humility that they had seen in Jesus Christ. Over and over again, Paul talks about that spirit. To the Ephesians, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called. With all humility and gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain a unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. Speak the truth in love. Say those things that build one another up.” To the Corinthians, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, cracked crocks.”

What does that mean? It means to me that we will live with a deep assurance about God combined with a modesty concerning all the statements we make about God. It means that we will trust in God utterly, and at the same time, never absolutely trust any human account of God, including our own. It means living totally committed to Jesus Christ as Lord, and yet recognizing that all our statements about that commitment must be somewhat tentative. It means the assurance of an ultimate security and the likelihood of a continual immediate insecurity.

Yes, it means taking a stand, casting a vote, making a decision, but never being categorical or dogmatic about the place you stand. It means a willingness to share your commitments, but always an eagerness to listen to others for correctives and insights that may come from our sisters and brothers who disagree with us. Yes, to keep your eyes on the Lord, on Jesus Christ, means that we will have convictions, to be sure, but we will hold them with humility. He is our unity and our peace.

But in the second place, I want to suggest that when our eyes are fixed on the Lord, we do receive some guidance for the journey ahead. No, Jehoshaphat did not receive from God a detailed battle plan for the next day, but he did receive some guidance for his decision. He found a reference point and a direction to follow, and so can we. I resist the notion, and probably you do, too, that we should expect God to give us a detailed blueprint to follow in life, to follow for the Church, or a detailed prescription for solving all of our problems. The Bible is not meant to be the kind of book to which we go to find simple answers to all our complex questions when we don’t know what to do. Such simple answers are not there. To go to the Bible with that expectation or to force it into that role is to distort it.

The Pharisees tried to write us a blueprint for life through a thousand little laws to cover every possible situation. The Christian community rejected that notion in the name of Christian freedom, and thank God we did. Furthermore, I do not believe that prayer was meant to be a simple way to provide you with God’s clear, unqualified answer to your confusion. I haven’t found it that way. Yes, we must pray about our problems, our challenges, our decisions. We must pray for guidance as Jehoshaphat did; but to expect God to answer our prayers with a detailed description of what to do is usually unrealistic and disappointing. It may happen for some people that way, but it doesn’t happen for most of us, does it?

But having said that, let me affirm with equal conviction that the responsible study of the Bible in the community of faith, the disciplined practice of prayer individually and corporately, the reflection on our theological affirmations as Christians, the sharing of our questions and problems with sisters and brothers in the community of faith as we are doing at this conference, the thorough study of the issues using the best reason God has given us ­ all that does combine to provide us with some critical guidance which we desperately need when we don’t know what to do.

For I have found that they do give me some needed perspectives, some theological benchmarks, some Biblical reference points, some Christian values and concerns and insights that guide us as we make our way through a maze of confusion in the push-and-pull of ambiguity. Yes, even though you confront situations when you don’t know what to do, fix your eyes on the Lord. For I believe the Lord does guide us into the future.

And finally, when our eyes are fixed on the Lord, we receive the grace that frees us to make decisions even when we’re not absolutely sure. How easy it is to become paralyzed and immobilized through doubt and uncertainty, to become so afraid of making the wrong decision that we end up by making no decision, so afraid of moving down the wrong path that we always stay at home, never take a risk. Soren Kierkegaard had strong words for the academic dilettantes. He said they “dabble in truth, know all the sides of every issue, but commit themselves to none of it, never jump off the fence.”

It’s almost as if we believe our salvation depends upon making right decisions, which we know it doesn’t. Thank God. The Gospel affirms that our salvation does not depend on making right decisions at all, but wholly on God’s grace, and that alone. You see, what that means for me, and I trust for you, is that we are set free from shackles that would bind us and paralyze us, free to support partial solutions to our problems, even though we know they’re not perfect, free to make difficult decisions and then work hard to make them the right ones, free to make responsible compromises, and to choose the lesser evil or the greater good. Free to take a stand, to make a decision, to cast a vote, even on the most ambiguous issues, for we are confident that, while our actions cannot bring in the kingdom of God, God somehow does work through God’s spirit, and brings about something good from even our fumbling, enfeebling efforts.

You see, by God’s grace, as we struggle to know what to do, we are finally free to decide, to make a decision, to cast a vote, to move in a direction, even when we are not absolutely sure. For this we do know, that even if we see in retrospect that we were wrong, we know that we are forgiven by the grace of God, and even if we discover that we have followed the wrong path, we know that God is still with us, and that makes all the difference in the world.

When the army of Jehoshaphat marched out the next morning, the king did something quite strange. He placed his musicians and his choir at the very front of the army. Can you see them in your imagination? Can you hear them? For as they marched in long procession, not knowing what would happen around the next corner, the next bend in the road, their choir chanted out in rhythmic cadence: “Give thanks to God, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

My friends, that’s still our only ultimate confidence in the midst of our confusion when we don’t know what to do. Let us pray.

Thanks be unto Thee, O God, that your steadfast love revealed clearly in Jesus Christ endures forever. Amen. 

Charge and Benediction

I charge you now as you walk into the future to remember one thing above all else, that no matter how frightening this world may become, no matter how frightening the individual circumstances of your own life may be today or may become tomorrow, you need not be overcome with fear, for God goes with you.

God goes before you to guide you; God goes beside you to be your best friend; God goes behind you to protect you; God goes beneath you to support you and give you strength; and God goes above you to give you vision and courage and hope. Remember that. No matter how frightening the world may become, no matter how frightening the circumstances of your life may be today or may become tomorrow or next week, next month, you need not be overcome with fear, for God goes with you.

Remember that, and the peace of God that passes all understanding will go with you, too.  Amen.

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