Predictable?

We’re just back from a trip to our 2010 family reunion. With a family of five, this means lots of driving to get there and back, staying in hotels, and eating out. Come mealtime while on the road, we tend to look for places we already know. We look for a place we know to have food the kids will eat and where we can predict there will be clean restrooms. Some places maintain pretty high standards wherever we find them (Chick-Fil-A currently heads our list). Other places vary greatly from place to place. We value the predictable.

But sometimes we stray across the line.

Since we were going to Paducah, Kentucky for the reunion, we could have taken the kids to the 6 Flags amusement park outside St. Louis. They’ve been to 6 Flags parks before. They know what to expect. Two out of three of the children would have been happy. Instead, we went to Silver Dollar City in Branson.

While SDC had roller coasters, it was not aimed entirely at teenagers and lovers of thrills. It was a park apparently designed for the whole family, for many age ranges. The layout of the park gave it a tinge of mystery. When I drive by a 6 Flags park, I can see several roller coasters and rides as I pass at 60 mph. When you approach SDC all you see is trees. Even as you’re in line for a roller coaster at SDC you can see very little – if any – of the ride. You don’t know what the ride is like until you experience it. It has a level of unpredictability I hadn’t seen at other amusement parks.

Can we handle unpredictability? In the current economic downturn most of our institutions have become extremely risk-averse. We perceive ourselves to have fewer resources – and doubt whether our resources, once expended, can be replenished. So we wait for the sure thing, the thing we see as predictable. Big business, though itself fragile of late, is much more predictable than anything new. So we go with the tried and true, the folks we know. Want to be creative, want to do something different? Well, just make sure you do it exactly like everyone else if you want any funding or support.

Predictability gives us a sense of calm. It delivers us from anxiety. We have enough stress and worry now that the more stability we can find, the better.

I read a book on Chaos Theory several years ago (I think it might have been the one by James Gleick). When researchers began examining the patterns of human heart rate over time, their initial expectation was that greater regularity would reflect greater health, while instability in the pattern would signal impending problems. They found exactly the opposite. Apparently a heart verging on unhealth was more easily predictable than a healthy heart.

Max Weber told us of movements started by charismatics that turned into institutions as succeeding generations turned their charisma into rational routines. Routinization makes things predictable as they run smoothly. We’d be in trouble without any routines to follow. I’d suggest, however, that we’re in just as much trouble if all we have are routines. In fact, one reason churches are declining so much in the US is that we have so majored on routines that we routinized away our need for God. We have all of church life entirely predictable, entirely routinized and rationalized. We are mortally afraid of being in a place of needing God. While God might be ok as an assumption of a transcendental argument, an actual living, guiding, providing, communicating, judging God is the last thing we want. At least that’s the conviction one might read from our actions.

I don’t know if it’s just because I’m a P in a world of J’s, but I don’t want to settle for the predictable. I don’t want to settle for a safe, secure, predictable life, a life where I can have God as my “buddy” or “heavenly Father.” I want a life of faith where if God doesn’t come through, I’m sunk.

That’s what I see in Jesus. When we look at Jesus we see plenty of predictability. If he crosses the authorities, they will stop him. If they aim to stop him, they won’t do it gently. They’ll act decisively. If they crucify him, he will die. If he dies, he’ll stay dead. Can’t get much more predictable than that. And yet Jesus went that way. He bet on the sure thing – against himself. And he won.

I want to walk the way of Jesus. No, I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want the world to turn against me. I don’t want to be crucified. But if that’s what it takes to follow the Jesus who said, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross and follow me,” then that’s what I want.

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