Recency Bias, Laughing at God, and Birthing New Possibilities

Genesis 18:1-15 [21:1-7]
And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Read the whole passage)

This is the first Sunday of green. Which means that the green banners and paraments are out, and I have put on my green stole. A number of other clergy online remarked about the change. Keeping track of time in the church isn’t always measured by the same calendars. And in this case, many folks noted that the last time we gathered for in person worship it was in Lent, and the colour was purple. Since then we have worn Red, White, Red and white again, and now finally green. And for many this new season of green will be another few months of online only worship. 

In that realization there is lament. Lament at what has been lost, lament at what is now, lament at what might not be recovered when and if things “go back to normal.” 

And so we enter into the next season of the church, the long season of green or ordinary time. A time for hearing the stories of the bible and hearing our own stories in them. Because while we have been experiencing something that no one alive has really known, we are certainly not the first people of faith to face trial and tribulation… in fact there are more stories about that than just normal boring everything-is-fine stories in the bible. 

This season begins with the story of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah, then Abram and Sarai, who were called by God to pack up everything they had and follow God’s call into the wilderness. 6 chapters later the pair are well into their journey when they are met by three strangers asking for hospitality. So Abraham and Sarah welcome these passing strangers into their tent. Abraham and Sarah care for their visitors — mysterious messengers from God, with a message to deliver. 

Once the strangers have received the good grace and care of this wandering couple, one stranger promises to Sarah that she will bear a son in due season. 

At this Sarah laughs. 

Sarahs laughs because it is an absurd promise. She is old, she is past her child bearing years. She cannot have a child at this point in her life, that ship as sailed. 

Yet, when Sarah laughs, the stranger hears it and he wonders why. She denies it but stranger says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

It is mean to be heard as  comical interaction with between an elderly couple in the desert and unknown strangers. 

Sarah and Abraham, remind us of ourselves. As they follow God’s call to faith, God’s call to go out into the world, they give of themselves trusting that God will care for them as they go. At the same time, they struggle to trust that God’s promises of them are true, that there is something more for them than just waiting for the end of their lives. So as this stranger and unknown messenger promises something unimaginable happening, Sarah cannot help but laugh.

Their past, their experiences of life thus far are telling them that new life in this way, in Sarah’s body in impossible. They believe that the things that have just recently happened to them will continue to happen forever. 

There is a name for this phenomenon , it is called recency bias. 

We as human being tend to think that whatever has just happened to us will continue to happening forever. Sarah knows she cannot bear children because her body is no longer fertile. 

Recency bias affects us too. 

It is the reason why change is so difficult, our brains convince us that our recent experiences will be our truth forever. It is why people so often buy high and sell low on the stock market despite the adage. It is why when our favourite sports team wins a few games at the beginning of the season we start planning the championship parade. Or why when we have a bad meal at our favourite restaurant we might choose to stop eating there altogether.  

It is why we had such trouble believing the coronavirus was much worse than a flu, when the flu is what we already know as respiratory virus. It is also why with a few days and weeks of low case numbers,  we think we are quickly on our way back to normal and the end of this pandemic. 

We simply cannot stop ourselves from believing that whatever our most recent experience of something is will become the new truth forever.

And it is one reason why we  struggle so much with change and we struggle to anticipate what is coming next for us.

And it is also why declining churches cannot seem to turn things around despite trying “everything,” because they believe that their recent decline is their only future.

We simply assume that whatever has just been happening to us will keep happening forever. 

But now, like Sarah, we are being confronted with a different promise for our future… we are being told that what will come next for us cannot be determined by what just happened, but instead it is mostly unknown to us and rather known only to God. 

Only 6 chapters into the story of their call,  Sarah and Abraham have already forgotten the covenant. The covenant with God, where God made promises to Abraham. The promise of blessing, a relationship with God. The promise of land, a promised land for God’s people. And the promise of descendants. 

Descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky. 

A promise that was going to have to start somewhere. Start in someone’s body, someone’s womb. 

Even when Sarah and Abraham cannot imagine a different future, God has already set it into motion. Even when it seems as though all possibility for life has been taken away and all there is left is faithfulness to death… 

God has different plans. 

God brings the promise of a nation into the world from Sarah’s frail and old body. God brings new life into existence when all there seemed to be was waiting for death. God brings Isaac into the world to be the next generation to receive the promised covenant. 

And all of sudden, everything is different. Sarah and Abraham’s recent past no longer determines their future (it never really did…), instead everything is unknown, unpredictable and impossible to anticipate… but also life-filled and hopeful and on the way to something new. 

Yet, it took taking Abraham and Sarah away from everything they knew, to unknown places and unknown path… 

And in that place of the unknown, in that place where the even the past was left behind, God begins the first steps of the new thing. The first steps towards the birth of a nation, to a chosen people constantly turning and returning to God, and to the eventually sending of the Messiah, to the one sent to save God’s people and all creation. 

And so here we are in our own wilderness. Here were are with our own laughter at the idea that God might have something new and unexpected in mind us for… 

And even as world longs for our recent past, for those pre-covid halcyon days when the world was great…. (it wasn’t that great).

And even as our recent past as the church makes us believe that slow decline is our only future because nothing we have tried has got the young people to come back…

We are discovering that in this moment, when so much has been put on hold, taken way and changed, that our future is unknown to us. That the people we will become on the other side is known only to God. 

And in this opportunity when we are in unknown places and on unknown paths, God just may be planning to birth something new and totally unexpected in us, in the church. 

And yes, this is laughably absurd. 

But look at what happened to Sarah and Abraham. 

That in the just a few faithful servants waiting to die, God began a chosen people, a promised and chosen people to whom the Messiah – the savour of all – would come. 

If Sarah’s laughter and this pandemic have taught us anything, it is not to trust our recency bias, not to trust our limited vision of our future… but to expect that in this moment of unknowns God just might be making us ready for the next thing. God just might be beginning in us something so new and unexpected that we too might laugh. 

So today, on this first Sunday of green, as our way forward is as uncertain and unknown as it may ever have been, and when all there seems to be is lament about what is lost…

God is inspiring us to laugh… to laugh at the absurdity of it all… And God is also beginning in us, something new and unexpected that will change us and change the world. 

4 thoughts on “Recency Bias, Laughing at God, and Birthing New Possibilities”

  1. Hi, Erik. Good thoughts in this post. Can you share with me the source of the wonderful photo? I would like to project it during my reflection, and it ought to have a source so the photographer can gain credit for it.

    Please reply: revbobw@telusnet

    Like

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