A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Questions, faith and Twilight

Confession time: I read the first three books of the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer last week and am now impatiently waiting for the fourth installment to be available at a local library. These are the young adult vampire novels that set off the whole current vampire craze. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and well, I'll admit it, the books have totally taken over and consumed my evenings for the past few days.

The story is set in Washington state in a small coastal community where rain falls far more often than the sun shines. Living in this town is a small coven of vampires that intermingles with the locals, keeping their true identity revealed. While Meyer discards much traditional vampire lore, she also describes at length the voracious hunger for human blood that is part of a vampire's nature. However, this particular coven is unique in that they have committed themselves to a higher ethical calling, learning to discipline their instinctive drive, existing instead on the blood of wild animals so that no humans are harmed. In book one, the plot revolves around the tentative romantic relationship between a 17 year old human girl and a 17 year old vampire boy, who also happens to have been 17 for around 90 years. Meyer advances the plot through endless questions. Entire chapters are spent with first Bella spending a day asking Edward questions and then Edward reciprocating with a day's worth of his own questions, before repeating the whole process again and again. They are insatiably curious, not only about each other, but about the species each represents, about what constitutes normal and what might be considered extreme. They are completely alien to one another with only an unexplainable but irresistable force of love to serve as common ground. As I read, I got caught up in the spirit of things and kept wanting to interject my own questions. How long does it take for the humans to question why the vampires never age? How has civilization fared from the perspective of the 3,000 year old vampire - improved, gotten worse, both? Do vampires use the restroom?

So many questions to ask and so many questions with no apparent answer. In C.S. Lewis' book, A Grief Observed, he writes, "Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask - half our great theological and metaphysical problems - are like that."

It's like God and ourselves are two alien species with only this unexplainable but irresistable force of love to serve as common ground. Now God, of course, has an unfair advantage. God actually became human. And while the quest for answers wasn't God's primary objective, still, God got to discover what it felt like to be us. Christ was physically fragile and limited. He felt hunger and impatience. He got excited and exhilarated and exhausted. Christ/God got all his questions answered. But people on the other hand....not so much. We're still teeming with questions and those questions spill over into every facet of our existence. Questions leap from every page of the Bible - just one of the reasons I love the book so much.

Here's another analogy I'll offer up thanks to an article a friend mailed me this week from Muse magazine about emergent patterns. The author, Steven Johnson, defines emergence as "the movement from low-level rules to high-level complexity." Emergent patterns are created when elements, following a simple rule, create something more complex than the sum of their parts. Johnson uses the example of ants, writing,

"Take an ant colony. There are tunnels and nurseries, a secluded queen, a garbage site, and a cemetery. Worker ants move from building to cleaning up to foraging for food to feeding the pupae in perfect harmony. No one is telling them what to do. This is a key feature of emergence--there is no commander with a perfect plan. The individual ants are responding to simple signals they receive from other individuals ants. No ant is able to assess the overall situation of the whole colony, and yet the work they do comes together in a coordinated way."

Let's say in this equation, we're the ants and God hovers over us much like we hover over....well, ants. Like ants, our world is very small. Given the whole scheme of things, we have been given such an infinitesimally small piece of the puzzle. Unlike ants perhaps, we long for more information. We regularly conduct research, create experiments, innovate, ponder, question, in an attempt to make our little piece just a bit bigger. But still, all too often I'm sure, our most profound attempts at honest questions sound to God's ears like, "How many hours are there in a mile?" If we are comparing ourselves to God, we are simple beings responding to simple signals, unaware of and unable to assess the overall situation of the cosmos.

But that doesn't stop us from trying! Each of the lectionary texts from last week works within the context of questions. The psalmist in 126 calls to mind a time in the past when life was wonderfully good and wonders aloud to God (hint, hint) why it can't be like that again?

In Isaiah 61 the question is found in the context. This portion of Isaiah was written post-Exile. The exiled Hebrews have returned to Jerusalem and hope to rebuild the temple. On the surface, everything looks great. But dig down just a little and you find things aren't going so well. The Jews can't get on the same page about anything. Disagreements and feuds pollute the atmosphere as those who never left clash with those who have returned. So we have Isaiah 61 which describes God's character and you get the feeling the speaker is attempting to lift the citizenry's collective eyes from their petty squabbles to something or Someone higher. The question writ large is, "Why do we keep getting in our own way when the Promise and its fulfillment rest so tantalizingly close?" Good question!

In the first chapter of John, questions hang out all over the place. John begins his gospel with an opaque, though admittedly beautiful description of God and Christ, a description that leaves us scratching our head. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.".......what?!

But we reach our question climax in John 1:19-22. Paraphrasing, we have Jews who come to question John the Baptist. They ask,

"Are you the Messiah?"
John responds, "No."
"Are you Elijah?"
"Are you the prophet?"
"Who are you then? Give us an answer!"

Can you hear their anguished frustration? Their spoken questions hint at a well spring of unspoken longings and unfulfilled mysteries.

The Thessalonians come with questions as well. They want to know about the future. They want to know if there is meaning to be had in their present. They want to know if their physical death is the end of the story. Paul responds to their questions in chapter 4.

Reading from The Message Bible, "And regarding the question, friends, that has come up about what happens to those already dead and buried, we don't want you in the dark any longer. First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus dies and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus. And then this: We can tell you with complete confidence--we have the Master's word on it--that when the Master comes again to get us, those of us who are still alive will not get a jump on the dead and leave them behind. In actual fact, they'll be ahead of us. The Master himself will give the command. Archangel thunder! God's trumpet blast! He'll come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise--they'll go first. Then the rest of us who are still alive at the time will be caught up with them into the clouds to meet the Master. Oh, we'll be walking on air! And then there will be one huge family reunion with the Master. So reassure one another with these words."

Paul continues on in chapter five acknowledging that while this will happen at some point in the future, we can't know when it will happen, so we must live in the present, leaning towards the future. The message of Advent. Thessalonians concludes with instructions on how to live in faith, with the tension of questions.

I think there are people in our lives who embody a greater flame of faith than the rest of us. John speaks about the light shining in the darkness. The light is God and in us the light shines. But maybe it shines a little brighter in some of us than in others? There's a reason people flocked to hear John the Baptist speak. There's a reason Paul's ministry was so powerful. We're all given different gifts. Surely the ability to hold unwavering faith in tension with questions is a gift as well. John, Paul, the Old Testament prophets, Abraham, three different Mary's from the New Testament, they all drew people to them because of their faith. Believers and non-believers alike were assured by these faith leaders' assurance, intrigued by their convictions and comforted by their confidence....even in the absence of answers that thoroughly satisfied their burning questions.

Maybe we even need to take a lesson in faith from ants. Ants work with the instinctive trust that their efforts are not in vain, that there is a point to their daily toil. And out of that simple mindset, a complex system emerges.

Paul tells us to labor in the present - to rejoice, to pray, to abstain from evil and do what is good trusting that our efforts will contribute to a higher purpose we aren't able to completely appreciate, much less, understand. Paul encourages us to act in faith.

We are creatures of instinct as well. What do our instincts tell us? Bella and Edward, Twilight's primary characters, intuit that a love so pure and intense must mean something, must be able to bridge differences in ways they cannot yet comprehend. That's faith.

Our worship theme yesterday was about sorrows transformed by the eventual inevitability of our hope realized in the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises. I wonder if that promise doesn't lie in the high level of emerging complexity created by our collective acts of faith, a time and place so tantalizingly close and yet still, just hidden from our eyes. That's a statement of faith.

Ultimately life is a test of faith - being able to live with the tension of questions, immersing ourselves in the promise of new life and a new Kingdom on the "here, but not here" horizon. While my mind likes to linger and flirt with questions, my instinct, my intuition, the deepest interior mystery of myself yearns and strains towards that Loving reality that holds us all close.

I don't have many answers. I do have faith.

1 comment:

Sheri Ellwood said...

What does it say about me that I immediately decided I think yellow is round? I love the idea that some of our questions about God are that nonsensical if we had the big picture. It is also intriguing to think that all our little actions and efforts may be working together to do something beautiful, even working together with those whom we think we are working against. Not sure that made sense, but it makes sense in my head:)