03 October 2013

The Problem with Knowing the Right Answers

Some years ago, I think I inadvertently freaked out our pastor while giving him a compliment. He had just preached a sermon on the Transfiguration, and had gone in a different direction with it than I had heard before. I told him that I had heard many a sermon on the story of Jesus’s Transfiguration—there’s a Transfiguration Sunday every year on the liturgical calendar, after all. Most sermons I’ve heard on it go in one of maybe two directions—both of which I recited to the pastor. But he had brought something new to it, so I appreciated it.

Over the next couple of years, he mentioned that conversation a number of times, and that’s when I realized that maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. After all, he still had to preach a sermon on that story every year, and I had just shown him that I was a bit jaded with the usual interpretations. I think I took away his fall-back position.

This is the challenge with “growing up in the church”: after a while, you know all the right answers. Or, rather, you’ve heard enough sermons and/or spent enough time in Sunday School that you can predict what lesson the preacher/teacher is going to highlight from the most frequently read Scripture verses.

The Transfiguration? Can’t always stay on the mountaintop, gotta take that glory and insight with you when it’s time to muck around in the valley of real life.

David and Goliath? God will fight for you.

Abraham and Sarah? The importance of faith.

You get the idea. But what happens when you go beyond the “right answers”? That is, the answers those of us who grew up in the church learned in Sunday School? That’s when the real wrestling begins. (There was this guy named Jacob…)

We went to a newly formed “small group” last week (church-speak for combo Bible study/social club/support group…a way for people to actually get to know each other outside of sitting in pews facing forward). Our church is reading through “The Story”—basically a Reader-Digest-condensed-version of the Bible, long on action and short on “begat” lists and tabernacle-building instructions—and the small group discussion focused on the story of Joseph. And as I said to the discussion leader later, I felt like the downer of the group. A good part of the discussion focused on how Joseph’s bad experiences—being sold into slavery, later thrown into prison, and then becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man, though still a slave—saved him and his family from starvation (and not incidentally, Egypt, as well). I’m sitting there thinking, “Yeah, it says God was with him…but he was still in prison!” And I’m the one who pointed out that, yeah, Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery, but he did mess with them a good bit, first. (And good for him…they deserved it.)

I guess I have a knee-jerk reaction to easy answers. And the Joseph story is easy to simplify, because Joseph himself says it, to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Ding, ding, ding! Correct answer! And then he and his brothers hug it out. Happy ending.

Maybe the problem is not in the story—it’s in the fact that we can read about a person’s entire life in 10 minutes. But when we’re in the midst of our own lives, it’s not that simple. Some of the members of the group told stories of hard times which turned out to have had blessing and purpose. And sometimes, we can look back and see how something desperately hard worked out for good. Sometimes we see it. Sometimes we don’t—the meaning, the purpose escapes us.

Then, too, I wonder about the practice of examining each Bible verse for a life lesson, a practical application. Should the vivid people and grand adventures of many of these Bible accounts be reduced to “but what does it say to meeeeee?” I believe the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Bible, but I think that often we are too quick to jump to the end of the story, to recite the pat answer, to speed through the uncomfortable parts.

Joseph was enslaved for over 20 years…and probably for the rest of his life (although once Pharaoh plucked him out of prison, he wasn’t exactly making bricks). I bet those years he spent in prison seemed awfully long and even hopeless, but in the Bible, those years are given just a few sentences. How did Joseph cope? Traditionally, we’d say that he had faith—and I’m sure he did—but did Joseph ever pray, “Hey, God? Are you there? Is this what I get for being faithful?” As readers, we know that he was in the middle of his story, not the end—that good things were coming. But Joseph didn’t know that.

Being in the midst of our own story is different than being the reader of someone else’s story. There’s no jumping to the end of the book, or even the end of the chapter. There are no point-of-view changes, no omniscient narrator or wry voiceover, no real sense of plot structure. Once in a while we might get a glimpse—like Joseph did—of a purpose, a sense of direction. But most of the time, we’re living in the spaces between the sentences, trying as hard as we can to keep the faith. “God was with Joseph” the Bible says, repeatedly. I wonder, did Joseph feel that? Did he know it?

Ah, and now the temptation, to bring it all back to me, to my life. What does this story say to meeee? Can I wrest answers from these musings—or from my life—and come to a tidy ending? What if I just hold up the sharp shards of my disjointed thoughts and doubts and questions, all my old pains and new longings, and let them bloody my hands and cut into my soul, and present them to God, not asking for answers?