There are more than a few things that confuse me in life. Granted, there are folk who would suggest that I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer and therefore it would be no surprise to them that I should confess to being easily muddled. While I unhesitatingly acknowledge that there are many people who are far more incisive, discerning, and intellectually brilliant that I could ever hope to be, (and indeed, I count it a particular blessing to call many such folk friends), at the same time, I would humbly refute the suggestion of being the dullest knife in the drawer.
Still, there are some mysteries with which I struggle. For instance, how is it that a two foot child can seemingly manage to have an arm’s reach of at least five feet? Or why is it that within a week of preparing a garden bed and transplanting seemingly healthy bedding stock, that the weeds have sprouted and overtaken everything? Why do hot dogs come in packages of ten while hot dog buns come only in packages of eight, and why is there an expiration date on sour cream? Why are there interstate highways in Hawaii? I’m sure you have often heard other examples of the curious head-scratcher question, such as why is it that when you transport something by car or other motor vehicle, it’s called a shipment, but when you transport something by ship it’s called cargo? Or why do we park in driveways but drive on parkways? And so on.
There are, of course, some logical answers to some of the poser-type questions in life. Why, it has been asked, are the buttons on men’s shirts on the right, while they are on the left on a woman’s blouse? The answer had to do with the likelihood of wealthy women being dressed by their maidservants, while generally men, even the wealthy ones, still self-dressed, and since it is easier to button right-handed, thus the difference. Men’s buttons were on the right to make it easier for them as they did up their own buttons; but were put on the left on women’s clothing for the benefit of the maids.
Other questions are less easily answered, even with the benefit of the internet. No one seems to have any answer to give, for instance, as to the discrepancy in packaging of buns compared to hot dogs – in other words, some mysteries are apparently just that.
But it did send me thinking about some of the mysteries in my life that are far more important to accept than the problem of mismatched dogs and buns. St. Paul, who was no slouch in the intellectual department, was particularly confounded by the mysteries of that grace which had seized hold of his life, and in his writings, he marveled over many of them. Job, that suffering saint of old, also understood there were some things simply beyond the keenest mind – thus he questioned his questioning friends whether any of them could fathom the mystery of God.
Certainly for Paul, the mysteries of God included the hardening of the hearts of Israel until the day when “the full number of all the Gentiles should come” into faith (Romans 11:25). The mystery of God’s way was that at the last days, “we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, [when] the dead will be raised imperishable and we will be changed … and Death will be swallowed up in victory” (I Corinthians 15: 51ff). To the Ephesians, he named the amazing relationship of intimacy between Christ and his church as a deep mystery (5:32), even as was the wonder that in Christ, God had made known the manifold wisdom which had been for ages kept hidden but was now revealed in Christ (3: 9-12). Greater mystery still, Paul told the Ephesian church, was God’s holy purpose to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ (1:9); to abolish the law through Christ’s flesh and reconcile Jew and Gentile into one new humanity (2: 15-16); and to bring peace to all who were far away and all who were near, and give both access to the Father (2: 17-18).
The most profound mystery and wonder of the universe, to my mind, was well articulated by Paul in his letter to the Romans when he penned that incredible truth: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:6). The mystery is not just that some of us might dare to sacrifice our lives for a loved one or for a particularly noble and holy and good person. The mystery is that while we were lost, broken, sinful and absolutely incompetent and incapable of willing, let alone doing, anything by which to save ourselves or make ourselves righteous or otherwise purify our souls before God, God did the unimaginable. He gave his own precious Son to bear our sins to death on the cross and pay the penalty for everything in the whole of our human nature and in the whole of our individual living which had separated us from God and made us worthy only of hell and eternal damnation. More to the point, Christ died for us when we did not deserve and because we never could and never will deserve such an outpouring of love, mercy and grace.
Sadly, here arises another tragic mystery, though on one level it is not terribly difficult to comprehend. The mystery is how desperately most of us still try, as it were, to make up retroactively by good deeds this debt of love which we can never repay. The mystery is how we will confuse the gospel of grace by turning it into the gospel of the mere second chance – that is, God has forgiven our mistakes of yesterday, so now we better shape up and fly right and don’t dare step out of line this time! And then we will enslave ourselves to some pitiful facsimile of the law all over again, as if Christ set us free, not for freedom (Galatians 5:1), but for fresh servitude and simply a new variety of frustration of trying to be good enough for God through our own human effort. As a pastor, one of my most heartbreaking experiences is watching people still slaving away in their heart of hearts trying to earn, win and merit God’s favour, which according to Paul, has already been simply lavished upon us, through the mystery and miracle of God’s grace given in Jesus. It is as if we simply dare not believe that God could be that good and loving, or that those holy gifts of mercy and salvation, peace and joy, could be truly offered us, no strings attached – all we need to do is simply receive them, rest in them and rejoice over them and the Lord who gives so freely.
Which reminds me there are some mysteries that just are. God’s incredible love that gives itself unconditionally to us, is the most holy, wondrous and happiest of all.