Pastor Marty wasn’t playing by the rules. That’s the first thing I want you to understand. I was something of an expert in those rules. If there was a professional league for debating the existence of God, I would have been it, I’m pretty sure. I know what I speak of. Pastor Marty just wasn’t playing by the rules.
Here’s how the rules go. You start with one side believing in God. And the other side not believing in God. (A slight variation: one side believes a certain thing about God. The other side believes that this is not true.) You put the pair of them in a steel cage of some sort. One of them opens up with an attack. Sometimes, the defender just launches his own attack, ignoring the opening move. Other times, the defender finds it necessary to apply some sort-of counter-move to slip out of the philosophical wrestling hold.
One of the reasons that there is no professional league for this particular sport is that the judging leaves a bit to be desired. You see, both participants carry a little referee with them inside their brain. Nobody else can see or hear these guys. They certainly operate according to quite different sets of rules.
Most often, these matches end with both referees declaring their respective participant the grand champion. Each person imagines that the other has been decisively knocked out and pinned down.
A person less narcisstic than myself might be bothered by the fact that nobody else recognizes that they are grand champion. Not me. I was quite happy to keep my own little score in my own little head and wasn’t much bothered by the fact that nobody else would recognize my champion status.
If you’d known me at the time, you might not have known this about me. Like most human motivations, my secret pride in this sport was mixed up with nobler emotions. Deep inside, I was interested in the truth.
And this is probably what saved me.
Because, I may have mentioned, Pastor Marty didn’t play by the rules.
From the very beginning there were weird things going on. He had the opportunity for the home field advantage. The home field advantage in this sport carried with it many of the same benefits it would in any other sport. The potential for a friendly audience. Familiarity with the surroundings. Availabality of needed resources.
He could have suggested that we meet in his office at the church and kept all these benefits. But when he found out that I was a fan of Starbucks, he suggested we go there instead. What? Why? This doesn’t make any sense at all.
If a chess player opened by exposing his queen, the opponent would be thrown off guard. If a baseball team failed to take their positions in the field, but all clumped together near the pitchers mound, the batters would be curious. If a wrestler came out, not strutting and flexing and roaring, but doing the hokey-pokey, the opponent would question just what is going on.
And I did wonder just what is going on.
When we found our seats and began sipping our drinks, Marty said, “So I read through that email, and there were some really good points and really interesting questions.”
Here, at least, I thought I was in familiar territory. I didn’t particularly believe that he’d read my email very closely. At that point, I was quite skeptical that he truly believed my questions were interesting. But it was a pretty standard tactic: Lull the opponent into a false sense of security with kind words. The equivalent, I suppose, of a boxer who intentionally drops his guard just a little bit to lull the other guy into committing all his energy and weight into a punch that will end up leaving him wide open.
So I began.
The whole point of this is that my specific objection didn’t really matter. I don’t need to rehash it here. Pastor Marty’s reaction though, it mattered a lot.
Because he let me finish. And he asked points for clarifications. I remembered when I was in high school, I practiced some martial arts. I remembered how in grappling, once a hold is secured, it’s very difficult to get out of. The whole key is evading something before it’s firmly in place.
I knew it wasn’t any different with these sort-of debates.
It was inexplicable that he would be patiently be sitting there, waiting for me to perfect the hold before he tried to wriggle out of it. Of course it’d be bad form to blatently interrupt. You had to be a little more subtle than that. Wait for the person to take a breath, maybe.
Yet here we were. He was patiently waiting for me to construct the best argument I could. I began to realize something.
There was only two possible explanations for what was going on.
Option A) Pastor Marty thought he was such a great “wrestler” that he had the luxury of letting me finish the hold before he countered it.
Option B) Pastor Marty was playing a completely different game than me.
I would come to find that the truth was a little of both of these options. Marty and I would meet on a mostly weekly basis for the next several months. We developed a friendship.
Marty showed me a different way. He didn’t just talk about Jesus. He acted like this intruiging and frustrating figure. He didn’t much care that by the world’s way of counting things, I was winning.
He was open, and vulnerable even. Marty tells me he learned a lot from our conversations, too. He grew up in a very traditional environment. Much like myself, he’d been presented with lots of silly cartoon versions of what “the other side” thinks. He occasionally saw that he had something wrong. And he had the grace to admit these things.
But it didn’t feel like he’s was condeeding everything. He had the air of somebody who was on a journey. And seriously? How long can you keep trying wrestling moves on somebody who’s acting like the tin woodsman, on a journey down the yellow brick road?
And my education began.
It’s a funny thing for me to say that my education began. I graduated with honors with a degree in philosophy. I completed most of a master’s degree in philosophy. I was ridiculously over-educated in some ways.
I’d always thought that learning was something that happened by simulated combat. I’d always thought that the last idea standing was the one that deserved to be held onto. I’d always thought that everything important could be expressed with words.
What I began to learn was things that were much more important than anything I began to learn about mystery. I began to realize that the most important things are not ones that can be expressed at all. I began to realize that there were other ways to find truth.
Marty told me how Jesus was beaten bloody beyond recognition. He was nailed to a cross and he died there. Everybody thought he’d been defeated. But one of the most important parts of the story is that he rose up from this.
I began to see that the truth could be left beaten bloody, that it could appear to be dead. But that maybe that truth is the most important one of all.
I’ve spent the last bunch of years doing my best to follow Jesus. When a bunch of people are attempting to follow the same guy, at some point they are going to bump into each other. I call the meeting place of the followers of Jesus church.
I know that there’s lots of others ways that the church gets defined. We think of a church as building. Or we think of it as a set of programs. Or a place where people have submitted themselves to this man-made idea or that man-made idea.
I don’t think that Jesus meant those things, when he talked about the church. The church was incredibly important to him. But that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly complicated idea. I think that the church is the place where Jesus’ followers bump into each other.
We bump into each other because we have so much to learn from each other about how to be most true to what Jesus said. We bump into each other and have these opportunities to work together and encourage each other. We bump into each other because Jesus had specific places he sent us to. It’s only common sense that we’d all end up in these places together.
The church is made up of people many of the same failings and challenges as people anywhere else. The following things are true for people both inside and outside the church:
Sometimes we’re too close to something to see it. Or we’ve experienced something so long we’ve forgotten to see it. Or something has been so consistently a part of our background that we’re no longer fully to appreciate it, because we don’t have a true understanding of what life would be like with out it.
I believe that mystery is one of those truths that the people who make up the church are awfully close to. Many of my brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced it so long that they’ve forgotten to see it. Mystery has been such a part of the background that we no longer appreciate it. We’ve forgotten what life is like without mystery.
The truth is that I’m ducking responsibility here. I wrote those above paragraphs in mostly the second person.
It’s all you, you, you, and the church, the church, the church.
It’s not that the stuff above is untrue. If it was I’d rewrite it.
But it’s equally true that those things are true of me.
I lose track of the importance of mystery. I get bogged down. I got ritualistic. My spiritual life feels all dried up. It seems like I’m doing nothing but going through the motions.
There are times when trudging onward in my faith, that continuing to try and follow and Jesus—there are times when I’m just kind-of taking my own word for it.
I remember how I felt, I remember how it was. And I just hold onto the idea that this person who I used to be was trustworthy enough that I ought to keep on going, and doing what he did.
I have a lot less excuse than most people. I saw the importance of mystery up close and personal. And yet still I need to remind myself, sometimes.
There are many people who are not part of the church. They aren’t interested in trying to follow Jesus. Or they don’t know how to begin.
We’ve been told to help these people out. To invite them. To show them what we are doing.
I think our failure to open our arms to mystery is keeping people away. Before my discussions with Pastor Marty in that Starbucks, nobody ever challenged the game I was playing. Nobody ever told me that it wasn’t about what we could say, that it’s about what we can’t say.
If you’re reading this, I know that there is things you’ve heard before.
I know that you’ve heard platitudes.
I know that you’ve been asked to accept some ideas.
I can understand why these aren’t very convincing.
Instead, I’d like to invite you into a mystery.
We need mystery. All of us. I need it. You need it. The world inside the church needs it. And so does the world outside the church.