Sunday, November 25, 2007
LIFE'S LOOSE ENDS
'How long are you going to keep us in suspense? Tell us the plain truth: are you the Messiah?'
'Tell us, 'they asked Jesus, 'are you the one John said was going to come, or should we expect someone else?'
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice... 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'
Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be made whole, like God's knowledge of me.
'I do not know if he is a sinner or not,' the man replied. 'One thing I do know: I was blind and now I see.'
'Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?' they asked him. 'No,' he answered, 'because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them. Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together until harvest.'
I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
O Lord, how long must I call for help before you listen, before you save us from violence?
I still rebel and complain against God... How I wish I knew where to find him, and knew how to go where he is. I would state my case before him and present all the arguments in my favour. I want to know what he would say and how he would answer me.
(John 10:24, GNB; Matthew 11:3, GNB; Matthew 27:46, RSV; 1 Corinthians 13:12, NEB; John 9:25, GNB; Matthew 13:28-29, GNB; John 16:12, RSV; Habakkuk 1:2, GNB; Job 23:1-5, GNB)
We all live in a world of loose ends. It seems that God is not very tidy, any more than nature is neat and tidy. He leaves us with many questions unanswered, and they are the deep and important questions. It is perhaps one of the sure signs that we have left infancy and childhood behind that we not only recognise but are also grateful that this is so. This is part of our growth as persons.
There is something in most of us that would like to have everything tied up in neat parcels, and tucked away in appropriate pigeon-holes, so that these matters no longer perplex us, or compel us to think about them any more. But this is not how God works. How comforting and safe it would be if we were always told what to do, particularly in the field of ethics, but God does not absolve us from the responsibilities of the freedom he has given us, compelling us to make our own decisions, and live by faith rather than sight. There is no infallible guidance for fallible men and women which will ensure that we always know the right course to take.
It would seem clear from a reading of the gospels that our hankering for plain, straightforward and authoritative answers to our religious questions and perplexities would not commend itself to Jesus. He sometimes declined to give any such simple and direct answer. Instead he referred people to his teaching as a whole, to his whole attitude and manner of life, and then sent the question down again to the court of their own judgment for a verdict.
It is not that we are reduced to struggling through life on a balance of probabilities. Chesterton reminded us that the only virtue of having an open mind is that, like an open mouth, you can close it on something. We come as close to the certainty we crave as we are ever likely to do at the point of our commitment to Christ, when we can say, 'One thing I know: I was blind and I can see -- however dimly,' and trust him for the rest.
Man has an inveterate habit of what I should call a premature tidiness. He is a little previous, strapping up the luggage of his mind before he has everything in, summing up and pronouncing judgment before he has heard all the evidence, dabbing on labels without noting the contents of the parcels. We classify too hurriedly; it saves the bother of tedious discrimination -- tares, wheat, sheep, goats, those who are right, those who are wrong.
A.E. Whitham, The Pastures of His Presence
In recent years the magnificent pine trees in Kensington Park... have been dying. Experts say there can be little doubt that this is due to the misdirected tidiness of the gardeners, who swept up the old dead pine-needles and left the roots without natural comfort and protection.
Old newspaper cutting
Never get things too clear. Religion can't be clear. In this mixed-up life there is always an element of unclearness... If I could understand religion as I understand that two and two make four, it would not be worth understanding. Religion can't be clear if it is worth having. To me, if I can see things through, I get uneasy -- I feel it's a fake, I know I have left something out, I've made a mistake.
Baron von Hugel, in Introduction to Letters from Baron Friedrick von Hugel to a Niece
I went to the theatre
With the author of a successful play.
He insisted on explaining everything;
Told me what to watch;
The details of directions,
The errors of the property man,
The foibles of the star.
He anticipated all my surprises
And ruined the evening.
Never again! And mark you,
The greatest author of all
Made no such mistake.
Christopher Morley, No Coaching
Coherency is God's gift; he gives it freely but it can only be received by those who preserve an untidiness of mind. The tidy mind is not the truthful mind; the utterance that leaves no room for doubt or place for question is the fruit of a mind that is full of unwarranted conclusions. To think truly, and to speak and act truthfully... a minister of the Word must deliberately preserve an untidy mind. This untidiness of mind will irritate him; he will often be weary of living in what seems a mental muddle... Generally his respite consists in the realisation that to bear the burden of this muddle is the true way of preserving real knowledge.
R.E.C. Browne, The Ministry of the Word
But all that seems to make nonsense of the world, all the irrationalities and defeats, the waste, the sheer negation and futility which makes life seem like a tale told by an idiot, are concentrated in the cross of Christ. That was utter, irrational meaninglessness, the apparent denial of any faith in God, any confidence in truth or goodness.
It is no use asking, What sense does it-make?. The whole point is, surely, that Jesus made sense of it, working negatively and non-meaning into the ultimate pattern of God's purpose.
F.R. Barry, Asking the Right Questions
Job never found an answer to the problem of unmerited suffering. The problem remained insoluble, but in it he met God. That is where man always meets God. That is where man most frequently meets his fellows. For he is so constituted that he needs problems more than solutions. His soul thrives on questions, but grows sickly on answers -- especially answers served up by others and, most of all, answers laid down by authority.
John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God
Whenever we are confronted by a crossroads, whenever we are in doubt, whenever our mind sees two alternatives, instead of saying, 'Oh God, make me blind, Oh God, help me not to see, Oh God, give me loyalty to what I now know to be untrue,' we should say, 'God is casting a ray of light which is a ray of reality on something I have outgrown -- the smallness of my original vision. I have come to a point where I can see more and deeper, thanks be to God.' That is not perplexity, it is not bewilderment, it is not the anguished doubt of the believer who hides his head and hopes that he will be able to revert to the age of eight.
Metropolitan Anthony, God and Man
It must be acknowledged that this is an ambiguous world. If atheism is improbable there are times when theism does not seem very probable either. In the face of suffering, waste, and apparent aimlessness it is hard to have faith in God... and obviously it is harder for some people than for others... Although I have said that theism is the more reasonable of the two beliefs, I do not think the arguments have ever been conclusive; by its very nature faith falls short of certitude and has its own vulnerability. The world remains ambiguous, and it is part of what it means to be a finite creature that we have to take our stand in this world and decide for faith or against it, without knowing in advance the answers to all our questions. Only in the end, the Christian believes, will faith be changed to sight.
John Macquarrie, God and Secularity
We are not in a rigid and static universe, but one that is dynamic and growing; the important thing is not to have correct information about God' but to be susceptible to God's spirit, to be growingly aware of his pressures upon our life... we are travellers, always on the road, and rejoicing to be on the road, for there, as on the Emmaus Road, Christ reveals himself, not in absolute information, but in the burning heart.
W.B.J. Martin, Five Minutes to Twelve
To these questions (the ambiguities of life) only two answers are possible. The first is, 'I do not know', and the second 'I believe’. God is ambiguous even in his Son. He is so concerned that we should love light rather than darkness that he creates a world in which the two are not to be distinguished, save by the fact that one is light, and the other is darkness.
E.L. Allen, Thou Must Venture
We can do worse than remember a principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us the maximum flexibility for our minds. The principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.
Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History
Thank you, Lord, for the times when I sought a clear word from you and received it. Help me to thank you even more for the times when I did not. Help me to understand what you are saying to me when you are silent. Help me especially, if I am something of a perfectionist who likes to have everything neat and tidy, to accept that this does not seem to be the way you work. Let me remember always, with a wholesome check on my dogmatism, that there is a wide sweep to your purposes that defies my little calculations.
Give me the courage to act on my own insights, without needing to be told what to do, and not to pretend to certainties I do not have. Above all, make me sure of Jesus, who passed this way before me and made sense of it all. And when I crave for more light on the way I travel, let me be honest enough to ask myself if I am true to the light I already have.
Make me more patient and understanding with those people who keep asking, 'Why?' Forgive me because I often try to fit people into neat categories, hang precise labels on them, and dismiss those who don't readily fit into my little scheme of things.
Thank you for the opportunities you give me to grow according to the gracious design you have for my life, and for the assurance that one day I shall truly see.
Now the God of peace, who brought back from the dead that great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus, by the blood of the everlasting agreement, equip you thoroughly for the doing of his will! May he effect in you everything that pleases him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Still Waters, Deep Waters ed. By Rowland Croucher pp. 155-160