March 22, 2008
The Beauty of Ambiguity (Mystery)
I am back in the warmth of the cabin, watching through the window as early spring rains drench the surrounding landscape, low hanging clouds darkening the day. A late snow is coming, but not quite yet. Even though the fire crackles and snaps as it eats through its main course, I still snuggle deeper into the heaviness of the quilt that Papa left for me. She is soon back with a cup of tea, something that smells of wood and mint and a hint of jasmine. I grin. She knows me best, and whatever it is that she is handing me, I trust.
I take a sip. It’s very hot, just the way I like it, and the flavor is perfect for the dreary day and for my mood. I swallow the warmth and can feel it fall inside and reach fingers of comfort into even the hidden places.
“Want to talk about it?” she coaxes, sitting down with her own cup of something that I can smell is at least part coffee.
“Nope…and yes.” I don’t really know where to start and she’s patient. I love just being with Papa, knowing that he knows, even before I say anything and yet respectful as she waits. I still don’t know where to start and finally she helps me with a little verbal push.
“The book seems to be doing well?” I look up and she is grinning. Papa is talking about The Shack, the little fiction story that I wrote for my children.
“Nothing or no one does anything on its own, not even me.” The statement makes me smile and I am comforted in the knowledge that Jesus and Sarayu are also present though unseen. Her observation is one of those invitations to go deeper, but I decline and go another direction.
“Of course you know that people are writing and saying all kinds of things about me…and some of it is simply not true. They make assumptions about my beliefs and motives and character as if they know me, and some of them are my friends.”
“I take it,” she continues, “that you aren’t so much bothered by the good stuff they’re writing and saying. Very complimentary, some of that.”
This time I laugh. “I get your point. Lots of that isn’t true either. I’m not that brilliant for sure. But even though compliments are a little hard to receive, they are definitely easier than the negative stuff.”
“Such as…?” she is leading me, but I am more than ready to follow.
“You know, there a few that are saying that I have a subversive agenda to destroy orthodoxy…”
“Maybe, but have you read some of those articles and blogs…of course you have, and the emails where people think that I should burn in hell.”
“Well, if it’s any comfort, it’s often true that the way people positively or negatively respond to a story tells you something of where they are at, more than about you.”
I pause and take another sip of tea. “Yeah, that helps some. I know that the overwhelming majority are wonderfully positive; folks whose lives you are touching, people taking significant steps in their healing process.”
“As wonderful as that is, it doesn’t mean that the vocal minority are not valuable and important…they matter to me.”
Whatever reserve I thought I had, she had just punched a hole it. “See, there you go…being all loving n stuff. Sometimes I would like you to just be on my side. People are saying that I believe all kinds of things that I don’t and sometimes they are just mean. Why don’t you do something about it? Why can’t you protect me better?” My emotional flurry ends and I am not even looking at her but at the floor. Some old patterns take time to break.
I have come to know Papa well enough to know that my little tantrums are never anything that divides us. It’s like ‘open up the window, let the bad air out’. Anyway, thoughts harbored inside always seem more justifiable and brilliant than when exposed; then they often look like the silly little rascals that they are. But she never shames me, even in this.
“Child, I am always on your side.” She shifts toward me and I look up into her teasing smile. “Would you like me to smite them, would that make you feel better?”
I laugh and begin to cry at the same time. “Yeah, a little smiting would be good…with a touch of wrath…yeah I think that might help. Isn’t that always what we self righteous people want?”
“Way too often,” she states, and hands me a tissue to blow my nose. “It’s always a good thing to know that you’re still in a process of healing, isn’t it? Like I said, I know exactly how you feel. But emotions don’t always tell you the truth. They tend to point you in the direction of what you perceive and believe.” She pauses and then continues, “So, tell me what in particular is being said that’s bothering you.”
“Let’s see,” I begin, running through my mental list, “Uh… that I am a universalist that I am an adherent of various religions, that I hate the Church…” I continue until I have exhausted everything I can think of. When I am done, Papa adds a few items that I’d forgotten or hadn’t even heard yet.
“Thanks, that makes me feel better,” I respond a little sarcastically.
“No problem. I just figured if you are going to make a list, you might as well put everything on it. Do you want me to tell you some of the stuff they’ll come up with in the future?
“You know that I’m not. I know that faith in Jesus is the only way into your embrace; that only what you did on that cross saves us.”
“So let me ask you this. I take it that it wouldn’t bother you if I decided to save every human being that ever lived?”
“Nope. I actually hope that you’ve figured a way to do just that.”
“Yeah, because I used to think that I was better than other people and that I needed to be rewarded for my efforts. I used to think that if I had to resist the ‘pleasures of sin’ then it wouldn’t be fair if you saved those people who got to do what I wasn’t allowed to. That was before I realized how hurtful and enslaving those ‘pleasures’ really are and how all my ‘religious’ efforts were ineffective at actually changing me.”
“Okay, then let me ask you this. Would it bother you if it’s my purpose to allow the majority of the human race to experience a place in which they will be tormented for infinite duration?”
I think carefully before speaking. “Emotionally, yes. Sorry, but the very idea troubles me a great deal. You’re talking about people that are precious to me, and people I know ‘you are especially fond of’…so yes it would bother me a lot… if I had my way no one would end up in hell for eternity.”
“But, what if that’s exactly what I am purposing to do, to allow people because of their ongoing choice of independence to experience and be lost in that independence forever with no possibility of escape? Would you trust me in that?”
I am silent for a while as I wrestle with the question. “Yeah, as much as I wouldn’t understand it, I do know that I can trust you and I am convinced about your character. Our only and final hope is that you are Good and that you are involved and loving. So if that is your intention and purpose, as hard as it is for me to understand or emotionally comprehend, I know that it’s motivated by both your goodness and love. I still don’t like it, but I do trust you.”
We both pause to take a sip of our drinks, steam lazily rising from the rims. I am thinking about what I have just said and it has sparked a new question.
“I guess here is my real question in all this…why couldn’t you have made things clear? People go to the Bible and find all these ways to disagree with each other, even or especially theologians. Everybody seems to want to acquire their little piece of doctrinal territory and put fences around it so only those with the secret handshake can get in. Some find support for Universal Reconciliation; some find proofs for eternal torment in hell, and some find it just easier to annihilate everyone who doesn’t make it.” Now I am ranting, but can’t seem to help myself. “The Calvinists find all their verses to debate the Armenians, who find their list. Then there are the ones who believe in eternal security fighting with the ones that don’t. Every silly idea of eschatology finds its own proof texts and in the middle of all these debates it seems that love is all that gets left behind. We even find ways to fight about grace and love. Couldn’t you have just made it simple and clear; unambiguous?”
I look up and Papa has a big grin on her face, but I don’t return the smile. Without really understanding why, this question is suddenly important to me and I can sense that it has threads connecting many of my internal conflicts.
Papa simply let me tread water in my rant for a while, until some of the emotional residue subsides. “Do you think that all this has surprised me?” she asks gently? “Do you think that I thought, ‘There, they now have the scriptures; they will totally get this’? Human beings are very creative. They have an incredible facility to take some of the simplest and most obvious truths and make them ambiguous. If I didn’t know better, it would surprise even me.”
“But,” I am struggling to keep my question from becoming an accusation, “Why couldn’t you have made it clearer? How hard would it have been to just have one of the writers put truth down in such a way that there would be no confusion?”
I look up and she is still grinning, obviously enjoying the conversation more than I am. “Like a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) at the back of the Bible?” I roll my eyes, even though part of me thinks that might have been a good idea. Papa pauses to take another sip of her steaming whatever. “Have you ever thought that ambiguity, that mystery, might have purpose?” she posed.
The question actually surprises me and I begin to feel the uneasiness that usually precedes my paradigms being challenged. “Nope. I’ve never thought about that at all. I’ve spent most of my life so focused on certainty, that ambiguity and mystery have always been, sort of…the enemy. Are you telling me that ambiguity is a good thing?”
“Just think about it. I have embedded ambiguity in everything, even physics? Do you really think that was a mistake? Do you really think that you humans have caught me off guard; that I am wringing my hands in heaven because some of your theologians have managed to misunderstand so much of what I have revealed? Do you think that your propensity to find ways to fight with each other is shocking to me? Could I have written scripture outside of a story, in bullet point outline, or had the prophets produce a massive FAQ? When Paul was killed by stoning and ascended into the spiritual dimension and I showed him things that for him would no longer be ambiguous, when I returned him to his body to finish the purposes we were working out together, why did I require that he not speak of what he saw? When John heard the thunders speak in Revelation, why was he forbidden to write what he heard?”
Papa opened her arms wide, “Because I delight in ambiguity. I relish what mystery brings to the table. It’s not that I don’t delight in clarity; after all, the Scriptures themselves are about revealing me so that you can know me. But part of that revelation is that I am completely different than you and you will never completely comprehend me or my ways.”
I am still at a loss and struggling for some ground that is firm. “I’m sorry but I don’t get it. What exactly is the value and purpose of ambiguity?”
“For one, it reveals the heart of the individual. In fact, mystery is at the center of both relationship and faith.”
“Are you saying,” I am stunned and struggle for the words, “you introduced all this ambiguity… on purpose?”
“Of course! I didn’t want you to become ‘people of the book’, in the sense that everything is reduced to some form of performance as mandated by written words, where you would end up in the seats of the judges to mete out retribution on all those who failed to live up to those words. I didn’t want you to replace tablets of stone for tablets of paper.”
“Of course he does. But you cannot separate him from love. For anyone to stand up on my behalf to protect me or defend me, and not express love inside the embrace of Truth, it is better they remain silent.”
I sit back a little stunned. I want to argue but can’t find anything that counters the simplicity and elegance of Papa’s words. “Okay, I think I get what you’re telling me; that we aren’t very good at loving, but a lot better at defending our turf.”
“See, another great reason for mystery. The ambiguity of belief, of doctrine, reveals the motives and the dark places of the heart…the places that need to be healed. Religious self righteousness and intellectual snobbery are kissing cousins. Intelligence was never created as a justification for the absence of kindness and respect and love. Do you remember the community of faith at Ephesus. I wrote a letter to them in which I commended their ‘orthodoxy’, that they wouldn’t put up with the Nicolaitans…”
“Not important right now, “ she cuts me off and continues. “The point is that they were all about theology and doctrine, but I removed their light, their influence, their very life; not because of doctrine but because they no longer knew how to express the love who is Truth that indwelt them. Ambiguity and mystery constantly raise real questions. In the face of uncertainty and differences of idea and belief, will we stop loving? Will I descend to the acquisition and defense of territory and turf? Will I even stop loving my enemy, let alone my brother or my sister?”
“Like you stated yourself, it is because love doesn’t come naturally to you. The closest you have is how you love your own children but even that is only a reflection of what love truly is. Turf and territory have always been about independence, while love is only present in dependence.”
We are silent for a few minutes while I try to organize the jumble of thoughts crashing around inside my paradigm. Papa, aware of my struggle, speaks first.
“Not everything is ambiguous or a mystery. There is much that is clear and evident. I even wrote it down for you. Very clear, very unambiguous. It is all over the scriptures. Start with I Corinthians 13…clear as the nose on your face. The question is why have you turned the clarity of love into something ambiguous?”
Again I am silent for minutes, allowing the words to penetrate in some deep and special places. “I still don’t like being lied about,” is all I can finally say.
“Ah…” Papa leans back, “The ambiguity of human existence. Not knowing everything or having all the answers. Now you might begin to understand that mystery is not only the center of relationship but also of faith. Faith grows in its embrace of the certainty of my character in the face of the uncertainty of existence.”
“Okay, I am beginning to understand why you love mystery and ambiguity. But I still find it unsettling.”
“That is such a wonderful place to be.” She pauses long enough for me to understand and then adds, “If it helps a bit, you do realize that no one can do anything to you unless I allow it?”
“And if I allow it, I already have purposes that will work these matters out in the best and most loving way, for all involved. Are you alright with that?”
I again finally nod as I submit to Papa’s love and hug. I hadn’t even heard her approach. “Anyway,” she whispers, wrapping me up in her tender but firm embrace, “the presence of pain doesn’t indicate the absence of love. Often pain is present because of love. I also don’t remember promising anyone that there would be no crosses to bear. But don’t let that concern you either. I’m good with crosses. Together we can do this.”