I Love a Good Mystery
A few days ago, to my great delight, I came across a new mystery writer—new to me, anyway—and now I have a whole series of her books.
I love a good mystery! I go for the classic British “whodunit”—the body in the tranquil English village, that sort of thing. You see, I like being puzzled; I hate being scared.
But even my tolerance for puzzlement is limited: I like all the loose ends nicely tied up at the end.
And it’s this very longing for order that makes mysteries so appealing, I think. A mystery writer told a group of avid readers that a good mystery novel should make them say two things: first, a surprised “Oh!” and then, a satisfied “Of course!”
I’ve often thought there’s a link between my love of mysteries and my love of theology. After all, God moves in mysterious ways, and I long to figure out his plot—and even to figure out him. (But that’s a little presumptuous when you come to think of it.)
As Frederick Buechner says in his insightful book Wishful Thinking:
Theology is the study of God and His ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study man and his ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.
Of course, it wouldn’t occur to us to study God and his ways unless he called us to come and learn from him. But even as we follow God's leading, we must accept the fact that we won’t figure him out. (If we could, he wouldn’t be God.) But we can take comfort in the knowledge that God is a good mystery. Although we might be puzzled, we don’t have to be scared.
No doubt some of our questions will be answered in this life as we “grow up in him.” But much will have to wait for Heaven.
In Heaven we’ll be able to look back on the private mysteries of our lives and the divine mystery of God at work in us. Then we’ll understand.
On that great day the celestial city may ring with exclamations of “Oh! . . . Of course!”
Bed of Nails, Bed of Roses
Growing up in a Christian surrounding, I heard martyr stories. They came from such sources as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and missionary speakers who had escaped from China. But they all ended on the same ominous note: Would you deny the Lord, or would you be strong and faithful?
To a hypersensitive kid with an overactive imagination, the stories were torture. I was convinced these awful things would happen to me, and I knew that I’d be a lousy martyr—neither good enough nor strong enough to withstand.
A friend of mine must have heard many of the same grisly tales I had, because she grew up believing Christians never die natural deaths. Interestingly enough, she now believes Christians should never die of anything but ripe old age. That is, if they live right and pray right, they will be preserved from suffering and even unpleasantness.
I don’t think either view—seeing life as a bed of nails or as a bed of roses—gives enough credence to the Holy Spirit’s ministry. Both views put too much emphasis on us.
In the first view, the bed of nails, we’re declaring that it’s a sign of weakness to need supernatural aid. But we were never meant to tough life out alone. That’s why Jesus sent us “another Comforter” (John 14:16), one called alongside to help.
And the Holy Spirit’s help isn’t reserved just for dungeon, fire, and sword. I have no doubt he’ll be with me if I face a firing squad, but for now he’s with me during an unbearably slow 10-items-or-less line at the supermarket. Of the Holy Spirit’s comfort there is no measure.
But the Spirit is our Teacher as well as our Comforter. In the second view, the bed of roses, we’re trying, through our own willpower, to live a life of ease. But life—even the new life in Christ—isn’t easy, and many lessons are learned only though struggle. The Holy Spirit’s great lesson plan is to take the stuff of life and use it to make us more like Christ.
First Things First
The worst theology I’ve ever heard emerged in the late-night talk sessions in my college dorm. I suppose that’s because we were long on youthful earnestness and desperately short on knowledge and experience.
I particularly remember a girl who believed that if she loved her boyfriend more than God, the Lord would take away her ability to play the piano.
How the Lord must have shuddered at our woefully inadequate pictures of him! But I like to think he was touched, too, because we wanted to know what it meant to “put God first” so that we could go out and do it.
Ecclesiastes says putting God first is the whole purpose of life, and it’s accomplished by fearing God and keeping his commandments. I think fearing God—putting him first—in the twenty-first century involves shunning idols as much as it did in Old Testament times.
I’m not talking about bowing at the first blast of music to a 90-foot-tall statue; we’re too sophisticated for that. But we’re ready at the first sound of the zither to bow to our own, more subtle idol of Self-fulfillment.
The irony is that there’s nothing wrong with fulfillment per se. In fact, God has promised us fulfillment—rest for our souls and quenching for our spiritual thirst—when we worship him.
The problem comes when we veer off course and go chasing after fulfillment as an end in itself. We worship false gods when we begin capitalizing things such as Success, Family, Work, Art, Money, or even the Church. And idolatry—a failure to put God first—is the surefire way to end up spiritually parched and exhausted.
Putting God first also means we obey his commandments and accept his great goal for our lives—that we become more like his Son. Putting God first means that it’s more important to become richly human in the way Christ was—loving, patient, wise, gentle, giving—than it is to be successful, wealthy, powerful, or any of the other things our self-seeking nature deems worthwhile.
It means we can stop fretting about the meaning of life and get some rest.
I once worked with a woman who absolutely had to have the last word. She would argue about anything under the sun and was almost always wrong—but maddeningly insisted she was right. Time and again she pulled members of the staff where she worked into rambling, vehement arguments.
I recall one in particular that was probably her masterpiece:
“I understand you’re taking some more courses,” she remarked to a fellow worker.
The girl looked up in surprise. “No, I’m not.”
“Oh, I’m sure I heard that you are.”
“I don’t know what you heard,” said the girl, “but I ought to know if I’m going to school, and I’m not.”
“But you’re planning to.”
“Then you must have just finished a course.”
“No! No! No! I haven’t taken a course since I was enrolled in business school several years ago.”
“Business school! There—you see? I was right!”
It’s interesting how often letters to “Dear Abby” or “TV Mailbag” begin with, “Please settle an argument . . .” and end with the hopeful words, “We have agreed to abide by what you say.” There seems to be a human hunger to get things settled, to have the truth acknowledged.
This acknowledgment is satisfying when we’re discussing trivia, but it’s crucial when we’ve been wronged. If we confront someone with our hurt and the person apologizes with, “Well, I’m sorry if I offended you,” we find the words ringing hollow in our ears. For the “apology” implies there’s something wrong with our perception or character if we think that we’ve got cause for complaint.
But if we long for justice and truth from one another, it’s because that’s what God longs for from us: an acknowledgment that he is right in his judgments and we are wrong in our sin.
The words “I was wrong” may taste awful, but it is the miracle of God’s grace that when we repent, we’re given the sweet taste of his forgiveness.
My, How You’ve Grown!
A middle-aged woman who hadn’t seen an old friend since high school greeted her with the ultimate compliment: “You haven’t changed a bit!”
The friend smiled, showing her lovely, well-earned laugh lines and said, “You mean I looked like a 50-year-old when I was 16?”
It seems we’re so afraid of aging that we consider standing still a virtue. But time actually isn’t our enemy; it’s God’s gracious gift. Without it, we couldn’t enjoy growth and change.
I’ve changed. Take my budding organizational skills. I’m proud of them because they have been so hard won. I didn’t get organized until a couple of years ago, so I’m bothered that some people probably remember me up to my flapping elbows in bits of paper. I’m tempted to call those people and ask, “Wouldn’t you like to see my color-coded to-do lists?”
Of course an orderly office hardly compares with my learning to pray instead of fretting—a sure sign of my spiritual growth.
My pleasure in accomplishing such feats reminds me of one of my former first graders. She approached me, clutching an easy-to-read book, eyes shining, and said, “Mrs. Murphy! I can read this whole book all by myself!” I wonder if that little student’s delight could have possibly matched my own as her teacher.
Christ is our Teacher. Could it be he wants to share moments like that with us? I think sometimes we get so worried about displeasing the Lord that we forget we can please him. We’re often afraid of spiritual pride, and we draw back from the pleasure of saying, “Lord, someone was rude to me today, and I didn’t snap back. We’re making progress with me, right?”
Christ calls us to growth. And when you look at it that way, there’s probably nothing worse a Christian can hear than “You haven’t changed a bit.”
A Story to Tell
I once was interviewed as a potential guest for a high-powered Christian talk show. I didn’t make it past the first screening.
When asked about my conversion, I explained, “I was raised in a Christian home and made a commitment to Christ at an early age.”
There was an awkward pause. Then the interviewer asked, “That’s it?”
That was it—for my spiritual beginnings and my talk show potential.
I’m certain the apostle Paul would have made it past that first screening, but I’m not sure about Timothy, especially if he told the interviewer, “Well, I’ve been reading the Bible for as long as I can remember.”
The danger is that we “Timothys” begin to think that because we haven’t experienced God’s activity in a “Paul-like” way, we think we have no story to tell.
But different as the stories are, the same grace reached the hardened persecutor and the tender little boy. Moving them to conversion. Sustaining them day-by-day.
It has been said that a Christian has two stories to tell: Christ’s and his own. We are wise to tell our stories periodically to ourselves.
When the psalmists needed comfort and courage, they looked back over God’s faithfulness in the past. They remembered his words, “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”
The same God who parted the Red Sea got me through this past week, and my psalm might say:
“I am the Lord your God, who helped you face your work each day when your spirits felt as dreary as the autumn fog.
“I am the Lord your God, who helped you and a friend talk through the tension between you.
“I am the Lord your God, who gave you the determination to make the doctor’s appointment.
“I am the Lord your God.”
And as I read that last line it suddenly occurs to me: if that’s not exciting, what is?
Do Not Disturb?
Nothing makes me angry faster than a neighbor’s blaring stereo or a party that’s out of hand.
Fortunately, this problem doesn’t come up very often, but when it does, I’m always amazed at how instantly I become furious. It’s as if the offender pushes a negative emotion button inside me.
For example, when the dog across the hall barks her head off for no reason other than that it’s Thursday afternoon, the Irritated button gets pushed. But when the renter next door threw an exceptionally noisy party, I skimmed over Irritated and went straight for ENRAGED.
Needless to say, I spent a wretched evening. None of the resources my husband and I tried was effective. It was all very upsetting, but my own anger probably disturbed my peace more than the noise did.
A party like that would get on anyone’s nerves, but it showed me that I am almost inordinately fond of peace and quiet. One of my favorite hymn lyrics says, “Take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of Thy peace.” Ordered lives. I like that.
The problem is that I get so set in my tranquil ways, I don’t want anything disturbing my peace. Not even the Peace Giver himself can bother me, and he insists that a peace getting along with only itself isn’t really peace at all.
A peace worth having is one that can cope gracefully with disturbances. And there’s no getting around it—people are great disturbers of peace. They pick fights, hurt feelings, demand attention, ask for favors. Perhaps the test of how much we truly value peace comes when people threaten it. Then we can get so upset at being disturbed that we join the rumpus as the biggest noisemaker of all, or evaluate the situation and rouse ourselves to extending peace to others, too.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged his disciples to go beyond hoarding peace to making new peace. Maybe it’s the difference between hanging out a Do Not Disturb sign and spreading the Welcome mat of Christian love.
Running on Empty
My husband’s family once had a strict old car that harbored a no-nonsense, letter-of-the-law attitude toward its gas gauge. The moment the arrow hit empty, the car stopped dead in its tracks. Out of fuel. No reserve. That was that.
Most cars are more generous, but unfortunately some drivers take advantage of the benevolence to ask, “How far can I drive on empty before disaster strikes?”
There’s an analogy between the spiritual life and gas gauge risk taking. When it comes to spiritual power for living, I know what it’s like to “run on empty.”
I’m taking risks when I assign communion with God a low priority on a crowded list of things to do—when I get so caught up in the noise of living that the “quieting time” I most need is the item that’s left out.
During these too-busy times, I may not be living in the midst of a disaster, but I’m not operating at my best, either. And always there’s the anxiety that my fuel will run out when I need it.
It’s by God's grace that I then begin to feel my loneliness for him. And incredible as it may sound, I sense that God has also been missing me.
It’s a remarkable idea, isn’t it? A God with feelings. A God who can be hurt by my indifference. A God who doesn’t need my friendship, but still wants it. The fact that he is sovereign makes his anguish over me more poignant. And it emphasizes that my spiritual laxity disrupts an undeserved friendship.
Of course, my neglected friendship with God becomes all-important in times of turmoil. But if I haven’t talked to him during relative calm, I stammer awkward apologies when I call on him to help me with a crisis.
My goal is to make every day echo Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians: “to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that [I] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19, NIV).
The Week after Church Camp
Recently a fourteen-year-old friend, whom we hadn’t seen in over a year, visited us for the weekend. The conversation lagged from time to time as my husband and I cast about for a subject that would get us all talking.
We hit on a good topic when we asked Kirsten about her plans for church camp. She regaled us with stories from the previous year.
Like the time her best friend got so tangled up in an oversized sleeping bag during the night that her feet stuck out the opening and her head was at the bottom of the sack. Jennifer suddenly awoke with screams of terror at being buried alive, which so panicked the other girls that they began screaming right along with her.
Talking with our young friend awakened old memories of my own church camp days. Considering the hours we kept and the hype of the week, I doubt if our counselors would have believed how much camp inspired us. But it really was a time when we glimpsed God’s glory.
The intense feelings culminated at the campfire on the last night. Most of us spoke a variation of: “Last year at the campfire I said I was going to live for the Lord, but I didn’t do so well. But this year will be different.” By which we meant perfect.
I doubt if any of us made it past the following Monday before we were once again yelling at brothers and sisters or wailing about having the least understanding parents on earth. And with all that turmoil came a feeling of defeat—the valley after the mountaintop.
What we didn’t realize as kids (and maybe still need to learn today) is that even though we are privileged from time to time to glimpse God’s glory, we don’t have to live on just a glimpse. He has promised to dwell in the midst of us forever.
Spiritual renewal doesn’t mean a life of lonely, teeth-gritted perfectionism. It means a life of growth—through all the ups and downs—based on God’s steady companionship. Yes, we have to come home from church camp, but we don’t go home alone.
Why I Don’t Have a Dog
Given my gurgly enthusiasm for small animals and a regrettable impulsive streak in my personality, it’s a wonder I don’t have a dog. If anyone is likely to succumb to puppy power, it’s me.
My husband is also a dog fancier, but he’s made of sterner stuff. He reminds me of something I’m likely to overlook—that we live in a high-rise in the middle of the city.
Our building, unlike many others, allows pets. Riding the freight elevator to the laundry room, I’m likely to find myself up to the ankles in Yorkshire terriers. Their owners are off to the daily dog-walking ritual. Not an unpleasant prospect on a bright October afternoon, but quite another experience at 6:30 A.M. in the dead of a Chicago winter.
But if we had a dog, my husband is sure we’d emulate suburban friends who bought one to teach their children about commitment. Unfortunately, the dog developed a skin disease requiring tedious attention. The dog’s fur was shaved, and every day they had to paint him with a smelly, green solution.
Of course, the parents kept it up. What would it teach their kids about commitment if they didn’t?
When thinking about dogs—and decisions ranging from magazine subscriptions to marriage—it occurs to me that commitment has two parts. There’s the initial burst of enthusiasm that says, “Yes! That’s what I’m going to do!” And then there’s the second part—the follow-up. Without this second step, the first becomes meaningless.
It was one thing for the Israelites to declare, “We will serve the Lord!” It was quite another to keep it up (as Joshua so sternly warned them).
Of all the commitments we’re called on to make, it’s the most serious to say, “I will serve the Lord.” And then to follow through day by day by day.
Holy Bible, Book Divine
I don’t know how the subject came up, but I clearly remember a classmate in elementary school telling me that his mother said you should never, ever put anything on top of a Bible.
I hadn’t heard this before, but being of an earnest bent, I immediately began making up for my 11 reckless years. I went about nervously plucking gloves, pens, church bulletins, and other things off all Bibles within my reach.
This anxiety concerning Scripture brings to mind another classmate, this time years later in Bible school. He was distressed to hear that we have retained none of the original manuscripts of God’s Word.
“God could have preserved them!” he cried. “Why didn’t he?”
To which the professor responded: “Probably because God knew that if we had the actual papers we’d worship them instead of the One they tell about.”
I think there’s an important truth here. The Bible was never meant to be worshiped. It was never meant to be an end in itself, but rather a divinely inspired means to an end. “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31a).
There’s nothing wrong in feeling a twinge when a television script is called a bible, or when we see so many abandoned copies of the Word lying in the church lost and found. But some of our sentiments about the Bible border on the superstitious.
In a society as secular as ours, the Bible, year after year, tops the best-seller lists. Who’s buying them? And why? And how does this tie in with such widespread ignorance of the Gospel?
It could be that people earnestly, even nervously, buy Bibles. They display them; present them on religious occasions; record family histories in them; maybe even take oaths on them.
Anything but read them.
Excuse me. I just felt a twinge. But not of superstition this time. It’s a call from the Author, wanting to know if I’ve read His Book.
Seeing Things Through
At dinner the other night I was telling a friend that I like to work on one big project at a time rather than on lots of little bits and pieces of various jobs.
“That’s because you’re a perfectionist,” she said, a self-avowed perfectionist in her own right. “Perfectionists like to see things through from start to finish.”
“I’m not a perfectionist,” I protested.
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m not. Maybe I used to be, but I’m not anymore.”
We dropped the subject. But I found the conversation unsettling because I believe perfectionism is unrealistic and self-defeating. Who can live with it? So it bothered me to think that my efforts at not being a perfectionist were having less-than-perfect results.
The struggle for perfection is complex. But I think at its heart is a longing for acceptance and peace. The perfectionist cries, “If only I could be perfect, then I could relax.”
That’s why it’s ironic that Christians struggle for God’s acceptance, unwilling to admit that they can’t attain it on their own or that they already have it in Christ.
Perhaps one problem with the Good News is that it sounds too good to be true. As author Frederick Buechner says of grace: “A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.”
The paradox of this God-given perfection is that it is both instant (justification) and gradual (sanctification). Or to put it another way, once we accept God’s gift of legal perfection, the big project of actually making us perfect has begun.
Paul summed up the idea in Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (NIV).
Unconditionally accepted. Even I can live with that.
The Dark Thing
Several years ago a Chicago television editorial suggested a solution to the vexing problem of congestion at our airports: have all the arrivals fly into Midway and all the departures leave from O’Hare.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought, Well of course! That would work! Then the speaker gleefully wished everyone a Happy April Fool’s Day.
Needless to say, O’Hare is still the world’s busiest airport, and congestion is a continuing problem. There have been no easy answers.
That’s true with a lot of things. Take the nightly news, for example. Hearing about a world of violence and corruption is a bit like reading the Old Testament prophets.
When I watch the news reports, I sometimes think of a powerful image in Madeleine L’Engle’s award-winning science fiction book, A Wrinkle in Time. Children traveling through time and space are allowed a glimpse of their home planet, Earth. They discover that their beautiful world is covered by an ominous shadow known as The Dark Thing, the presence of evil in the universe.
With so much evil, no wonder we get scared. We can avert despair with the question, “What are we going to do about this?” But it’s in this moment that we are most gullible—ready to grasp the first easy solution.
But, of course, no simplistic solution can deal with the downward spiral of sin in society. There is, however, a very difficult first step we can take: to number ourselves with the sinners.
Sin in our world is not something apart from us; we can’t fight it simply by marching smugly on other people’s vices. If we’re going to proclaim God’s Word and be prophets at all, we have to be weeping prophets. And before we can weep for the sins of others we must first weep in shame over our own.
Then, by God’s grace, we can face The Dark Thing, shining “like stars in the universe,” holding out the Word of life (Philippians 2:15, NIV).
With ALL Your Mind
This week there’s a story in our local news about a young teenage girl who was murdered near her home. Before any suspects were arrested, the girl’s brother and his friends beat up the men they thought were guilty. This attempt to “get even” is an all-too-real reflection of current movies and TV programs in which the nasty bad guys are done in by good guys who are even nastier.
It doesn’t work in real life. A girl is dead, one of her alleged attackers lies in a coma, and her brother is held for attempted murder.
When confronted by the evil around us, it’s easy for us to get sucked into a get-even or “go ahead, make my day” kind of thinking.
But being “conformed to this world” will only leave us lost and bewildered.
That’s why Paul says thinking—right thinking—is at the core of our Christian way of life.
Several years ago, I came across the following poem (author unknown), and I was struck by its insight:
O God, I offer Thee my heart—
In many a mystic mood, by beauty led,
I give my heart to Thee.
But now impart that sterner grace—
To offer Thee my head.
This offering of our heads, this renewing of our minds, means accepting God’s way as the true way and applying his will intelligently in our lives. It means adopting a Christian ethic of overcoming evil with good—whether or not the idea is in vogue. When we have a renewed mind, we have a stable base on which to build a life. Scottish theologian John Ballie demonstrates this when he says, “I am under obligation to love my neighbor as myself . . . contrary to natural inclinations. But in my heart of hearts, I know that it is true. In spite of myself, I am more certain of this than of anything science or philosophy could tell me.”
Brothers and Sisters in ChristA Scottish Presbyterian Grows Up
in the Midwestern America
of Billy Graham, Youth for Christ,
and Moody Bible Institute
In flipping through a collection of writings by Scots on Scottish life, I settled down (or doon) to read the chapter on Scottish Presbyterianism and realized with a start that it was describing me.
I was born in Scotland but raised in the Midwestern America of Billy Graham, Youth for Christ, and Moody Bible Institute. That so much of the Scottish national character (if there really is such a thing) could have taken hold in me is a bewilderment, but apparently it did.
Of all the Reformation countries, Scotland most intellectualized the faith, with the sermon held aloft as the peak of the worship service. This talky theological heritage may account for my compulsion to explain everything.
Also, the Scottish faith has a stern, pragmatic outlook on life, with little time for everyday miracle and mystery. This might explain why, though wholeheartedly believing in miracles, I’m a little shy about coming right out and asking for one. And the lack of mystery in my background might explain why I stay up to watch hour after hour of The Nun’s Story in bleary-eyed fascination whenever it’s on TV.
There’s something to be said for denominations, I think. They define us by helping us see what we’re like, what our strengths and weaknesses are. They allow us to respond to God in ways that mean the most to us.
The danger, of course, is that we’ll take our preferences too seriously and put even such a mundane thing as church government on a par with the Resurrection or the new life in Christ. When that happens, our precious unity as Christians is threatened.
We need to remember that our backgrounds may define us, but they can’t define God. He belongs to all of us, just as all of us belong to him and to one another.
The fact that God is not a Presbyterian came home to me one day when we pulled up at an intersection behind a battered old sedan. Almost every square inch was covered with screaming bumper stickers. Christ died for your sins! yelled one above the rumble of the engine. Jesus is coming back! cried another, the bold, black letters fairly leaping off the neon-pink background in their excitement. Jesus saves! Christ is King!
My Scottish Presbyterianism winced at such a flashy statement of faith. (After all, when did you last see a bumper sticker that says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever”?) But then I was suddenly ashamed of myself, for the Spirit reminded me that, though I might express myself differently, I believed every word the car was saying and that the old driver, rattling off down the street, was my brother in Christ.