I've hacked through some pretty good study time in preparation for tomorrow's sermon on I Kings 17:17-24. It's the passage where Elijah raises the son of the Zarephath widow to life. I find it interesting that this woman is--for all practical intents and purposes--a relatively new convert to faith in God. One wonders then, why God had to bring such horrific suffering on her by taking her son so early during her spiritual journey. She's certainly grasping at straws in the wake of her boy's death.
I'm sure those of you familiar with the story (or who linked to it above and read it) know of course that Elijah's intervening prayer restored the lad to life. But that's a really shattering time to live through! Why does God do that? Why does he protect people and then perplex them? Why does he preserve life (he had provided food for the widow and son in the previous passage) and then extinguish it...and then give it back? Why the pendulum effect? Doesn't God's mysterious behavior baffle you?
Listen, I say this from within the circle of Christian faith. I think God is off the hook sometimes and yet I still move forward for whatever reason. Why? What keeps me following a Mystery?
(1) Maybe there's something about my personality that I like to dive into something that's not too clear and find clarity. I tend to binge on Sudoku puzzles and find a perverse delight in filling in these 9x9 puzzles where numbers can appear only once in a block or linear sequence. In a way, that kind of mystique doesn't bother me, but it's for a couple of reasons. One, I know there's a solution that makes sense every time. Two, Sudoku puzzles are different from God. You can't restrain God within the lines of a puzzle, or any contraption. He just sort of spills over any reservoir we set to contain him.
As my father said once, "I know two things: The Lord is good, and the Lord is strange. And it's the latter that scares me."
And he's speaking as a believer, too.
(2) On the other hand, I've been less and less inclined to see faith as a precision effort, or as a question-and-answer sequence that makes complete sense, like a car manual that will show you how to fix life if you but follow the diagrams. I don't think this is how God constructed faith as the path to him. In the book of Job, when the eponymous character questions why God allowed him to go through the suffering he did, God doesn't explain it in terms of a game-board-like path. He blows up and says, "I run the universe. Would you like to explain to me how things should go?" Whatever rational explanation is not going to be good for Job. He doesn't need God's answer; he needs God himself.
Leonard Sweet puts it well in his book Jesus Drives Me Crazy! where he says "Life is the living of the Mystery. As one Greek Orthodox theologian puts it, 'We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us more progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.' What are doctrines but vestibules to the mysteries. To follow Jesus is not a paint-by-numbers path. To follow Jesus is to live the adventure and to experience the mystery of faith."
(3) There's also the sense in which mystery is better because that's how the deepest, most constructive, most loving relationships are built. This is especially true in our cyber-age where we can crumble to the misguided sensation that because we connect with people on Facebook or Twitter, then we know them. Nowhere close. You know what those people deign you to know about how their present themselves; it takes more face-to-face work to make the friendship work. When Christy and I first met, I was--admittedly--a little frustrated because the initial process of getting to know her wasn't as crystal clear and smooth. Then again, I came to discover that I wasn't giving away as much of who I was, either, especially when Christy initiated a heart-to-heart asking if I was comfortable around her. But through those initial weeks we came to recognize that getting to know and enjoy each other took work. And it takes work because people want to be known, but the way it works is that people want to become known. They want others to take the time, to climb the hills of inquiry, the mountains of personhood, and the cliffs of one's past stains and future dreams.
And that's what made dating my future wife so wonderful. I had to take the time and make the effort to know and love her. And it was easy, but only because we both wanted--and still want--to pursue the mystery that is each other.