Ah, Sweet Mysteries of Life

MysteriesEvangelical scholar John R. W. Stott’s profound influence on pastors, students and laypeople around the world is beyond measure. In a 2011 tribute to Stott who had died at age 90 just a few days before, journalist Wolfgang Saxon wrote in The New York Times, For him, Christianity means probing the mysteries of Christ. He is always exploring paradoxes… For all his fame on several continents, Mr. Stott’s travels and appearances were remarkably devoid of pomp, befitting his simple message of reason and faith and his unassuming demeanor… In his later years, he lived in a two-room apartment over the garage of a London rectory, and for many years he kept a small cottage on the Welsh coast, where he did much of his prodigious writing in longhand and, until 2001, without electricity. Many years ago, an acquaintance attempted to deepen what he presumed was my obviously weak and shallow reading interests. He somewhat smugly announced that the only reading he allowed himself was “Christian.” I figuratively slumped because I’d just glowingly described my enjoyment of a work of fiction…a mystery novel, no less. Some time after this I heard about John Stott’s reading habits. Reading habits of the renowned, intellectually unsurpassed, holy Reverend John R. W. Stott! I learned that he loved the mysteries of Agatha Christie, someone I cut my reading teeth on while still a teenager. Could it have been in that small Welsh cottage where he turned the pages of Miss Marple’s or Hercule Poirot’s adventures? So what’s the connection between all this and mysteries of the faith? I grew up in a church where the word “mystery”—as connected to the Christian faith—was mostly unheard and suspect when whispered. I learned the certainty of scripture. Words like “know” and “truth” were essential to that certainty. “Know the truth…” “The Spirit will lead you…into all truth.” “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” While I deeply and fervently believe all that, I also believe that in our quest to be “sure” of what we believe, we far too quickly skim over parts of the Bible, topics like unanswered prayer, even essential tenets of our faith, because to not have an answer, to submit to the mystery of God, is uncomfortable. In a well-written mystery, there are many moments of discomfort: who did this? why? what will be the outcome? In some stories, many of those questions will be answered, although often only when the last page has been turned. Except for that pesky “why” question. Often it lingers in my reader mind long after the book has been returned to the shelf. Sociologist Robert Withnow writes, Christianity…leaves people with a set of questions they cannot escape… (Living the question) means pursuing the intellectual life because the questions are inherently important, not because one hopes primarily to advance a career or even because one necessarily expects to discover a definitive answer. One of my favorite authors who wrestles with the question of doubt, or at least “not knowing everything all the time,” is Philip Yancey. In answer to the question Why don’t more Christians discuss doubt (and maybe ‘mystery’??) honestly and openly? Yancey responds, Christians tend to be propagandists.  We want to convince others, put on a good face, inspire.  And we also tend to ignore the Old Testament, which is where many of the questions (and questioners) are.  The Old Testament proves that God honors questioners.  Remember, grumpy Job emerges as the hero of that book, not his theologically defensive friends. In another interview, Yancey says, at the end of Job, where God (gives) that magnificent speech where he basically says:Job, you have no idea… My job is to run the universe and I’m doing that quite well.” He then turns to Job and says,That’s not your job, you couldn’t understand it, there’s no way you could understand it; your job is to believe me and trust me.” I suspect that John Stott, for whom all mysteries are now solved, would heartily agree with Yancey and Withnow. And he applauds when I read Christie, Stout, Sayers and P.D. James.

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