I don’t know which newspaper it was where I first read the column “News of the Weird.” It might have been the “Blade,” or it might have been my hometown newspaper. It was a syndicated column written by Chuck Shepherd. In it you could read such true stories as these:
“Rev. Rick Oliver of the First Church of God in Pendleton, Ore., decided that the church’s new fund-raising campaign would involve the sale of toilet paper. The brand they chose? Angel Soft.”
“According to an Associated Press report, a bolt of lightning struck the steeple at the First Baptist Church in Forest, Ohio, causing $20,000 worth of damage, just as a guest evangelist was beseeching God for a sign from above.”
Shepherd’s story collecting started out as a hobby among friends, but it grew into the most widely-syndicated column featuring strange-but-true news stories. Shepherd retired in July of 2017, after publishing 1,534 columns. But, there’s no shortage of interest in weird news stories, so the column has continued in print and online forms under new editors.
I got to thinking about “weird” things after reading an essay by David Roper in a devotional book Mark Dotson loaned me, called In Quietness and Confidence. The essay was called “In Praise of Weird.” In it, Roper explained that the word “weird” hasn’t always been used the way we use it—to describe things that are simply odd or strange. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word “weird” comes from the Old English word wyrd, and it was used for things of a mysterious or unearthly character; things that were uncomfortably strange; things that were marvelous, unfathomable. Roper says it had to do with those things that are “unaccountably mysterious and uncanny and better left that way.”
Being able to accept that there are things we cannot know, or even should not know, is an intrinsic part of our faith. In fact, it’s been said that the opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s certainty. Accepting that we do not and cannot know everything about God’s mind and will is the surest path to a calm and quiet soul.
But, today, we don’t really appreciate the unexplained or the unexplainable—what those English speakers of the first millennium would have called “wyrde.” We like to believe that we can explain, that we can know, that we can understand. We like to have clear answers. And, once we decide on an answer to any given question, we’re likely to dig in our heels and are reluctant to admit that there might be a different answer, or multiple answers, or no answer.
Our ancestors in the faith weren’t so hung up on that. They were more comfortable with what they couldn’t understand. They could live with mystery. Oh, they wanted answers as much as we do. But, they were better able to accept that they didn’t have all the answers, or even some of the answers. They were able to accept that their knowledge was incomplete, and that only God has all the answers.
Our psalm today expresses that feeling of acceptance so well: “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.”
The psalm itself challenges something that is often thought of as certain—that the writers of the psalms were all men. In fact, there’s a high probability that Psalm 131 was written by a woman. It’s one of those psalms called “Songs of Ascents,” the psalms that were sung as the Jewish people ascended to Jerusalem and to the temple. Many of those psalms focus on family life, and it’s thought that this psalm may be one that women sang as they carried their children to Jerusalem and up the stairs to the temple.
But whoever wrote it, they had a good sense of what they could and could not understand. And, more than that, they were peaceful about it. They weren’t disturbed by the fact that there were things they couldn’t know. They didn’t feel the need to understand what they knew was beyond them. They were content to focus on what was accessible to them, and they were content to leave the things of God to God.
Throughout Scripture, we find reminders that there is much we should not expect to understand. Adam was told not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Four entire chapters of the book of Job describe all that is beyond the power and understanding of human beings. The psalms are full of prayers for understanding precisely because we lack it, and Psalm 139 concedes, “How weighty are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand.” Even Jesus had to accept the mystery of God’s ways. When questioned about when God’s kingdom would come, Jesus himself said, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
We search the Scripture for simple, clear, certain answers. But what we find there are the struggles of our ancestors in the faith as they tried to put into words things of a mysterious or unearthly nature. And so, we have not one but two very different creation stories, written down by followers of two different streams of tradition within the same faith. We have the books of Chronicles and the books of Kings, which recount the same history of the same people, but from two different political perspectives—the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
We have four different gospels, written by four different authors, who learned the gospel story from four different followers of Jesus, and told it in four different ways. And that’s not even counting the other gospels that were not included in our Biblical canon. It’s not possible to make all these gospels fit into one, tidy story. We have to be able to live within their contradictions and differences. We have to be able to live within their mystery.
Paul often spoke of the mystery of our God who was revealed in Jesus. To the Romans, the Corinthians, the Ephesians, the Colossians and to Timothy, Paul speaks of the mystery of Christ which God kept secret through the ages until the coming of Jesus. And yet, the mystery is not, even yet, fully disclosed, as John’s words remind us: “What we will be has not yet been revealed.”
When it comes to our faith, the wyrde abounds—things that are unearthly or uncomfortably strange; things that are unfathomable, things that are “unaccountably mysterious and uncanny and better left that way.”
We can take one of two paths when we encounter that which we cannot explain or know or fully understand. We can take a position that seems best to us, and then dig ourselves in. We can build up fortifications, cementing our foundation with evidence both scriptural and secular. We can ignore or reject those who suggest that perhaps our foundation is not as firm as we believe it to be. We can become dangerously certain that we know the mind of God, and we can come dangerously close to the pride and arrogance that brought such grief to the Pharisees.
But, there is another path open to us. It’s the path of humility. It’s the path of acknowledging that much about God and the things of God remain a mystery to us. It’s the path of becoming comfortable in the certainty that in many things we cannot be certain. It’s the path of having a true understanding of who we are and where we are in our relationship to and with God.
A sense of humility is what enables us to live in the more excellent way of love that Paul describes to the Corinthians. The Corinthians were a group who prided themselves on how much they knew—or thought they knew. But their confidence in their knowledge led to lots of dissension in the church at Corinth. Which travelling teacher had the right version of the gospel, what food could be eaten, whether women should cover their heads or be allowed to speak in church at all, whether speaking in tongues was appropriate, whether it was good or bad for followers of Jesus to marry as they waited for his return were just a few of disagreements that tore at the unity of the church.
In response to their certainty that they had all the right answers, Paul offered a more excellent way—a way that is built on humility, on a right understanding of who we are and what we can know. It is the way of an unselfish love that cannot exist apart from a humble spirit: love that is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or rude; love that doesn’t insist on having its own way, love that isn’t irritable or resentful, love that rejoices in the truth.
This love, Paul says, endures all things. It is strong enough to last even in the face of difficult times. The trials of life will not pull apart those who love each other with this kind of enduring love. This love hopes all things. It is grounded in the hope we have in Jesus, who enables us to experience God’s redemption now and to expect that God will finish the work that God has already begun.
This love believes all things. It’s not a naïve, gullible rose-colored-glasses type of belief, but one in which we walk by faith not by sight. We believe in that which we cannot see—the unearthly, the mysterious, the unfathomable because, as Paul reminds us, faith in what we can see is not faith.
This love, of course, is the kind of love Jesus bears toward us. And, Jesus modeled for us the humility that is the foundation of that love—the basis for living without the certainty that comes with thinking that we know the mind of God. Paul urged the Corinthians, and us, to have the same mind “that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
Paul ends his description of the more excellent way with an affirmation of the mystery that is so much a part of our lives with Jesus. Paul warns that the prophesies we so confidently make are limited and will end. All the gifts we think mark us as authorities on the things of God will cease. Then he reminds us so clearly just how limited our understanding will be until that day when Christ comes again and God’s kingdom is fully revealed. He says, “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”
If you’ve ever had a small child in your life, you’ve probably had one of those discussions where there was no convincing them that there were no monsters in the closet, or that a sliding board was too high for them. If you’ve ever had a teenager in your life, you’ve probably had one of those discussions where there was no talking them out of their certainty that they were way more mature than you gave them credit for. Paul tells us that until Christ comes again, we are like those children, confident that we know it all. But, Paul says, although as a child, he spoke and thought and reasoned like a child; when he became an adult, he put an end to childish ways. The more mature we are in our faith, the more we can accept how limited our understanding is.
Paul returns to the mystery we live in and the promise of complete knowledge to come: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Think about what you see in a mirror. The mirrors of Paul’s time were polished pieces of metal; ours are glass. But both show the same thing. Both show ourselves reflected back to us.
We see our own desires, our own fears. We see what we want to see, or what we’re used to seeing. Likewise, what we believe we see the mind of God, it’s often really our own minds, our own thoughts, our own fears being reflected back to us. We see a God who is created in our image rather than the other way around. The writer Ann Lamott says “you can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Until that day when the kingdom is completely revealed—until that day when we see face to face—we will continue to live with our limited vision. We will continue to live in that mystery of the unknowable.
The question is, are we willing to settle in and accept that mystery as our companion? Are we willing to admit that there is much we do not know and cannot know? Are we willing to live with the wyrde? There is no question that we can live with it; the Holy Spirit gives us that power. The question is whether or not we will acknowledge it and live with it in a spirit of humility before our all-knowing God.
Thinking about how little we can know can leave us feeling insecure—as though the ground beneath us isn’t as firm as we thought it was. Uncertainty leaves us with souls that are anything but calm and quiet. But, in the midst of all there is to be uncertain about, there is one thing about which we can be absolutely certain, and that is God’s love for us, expressed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We can count on the fact that God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This is a love that is wyrde—vast, unearthly, and mysterious, but it is a love we can count in no uncertain terms.
As Peyton was getting ready to go off to college at Miami University, she was feeling a lot of anxiety because she didn’t have any idea about what she wanted to major in. The day we went for her orientation session, we were gathered in a huge ballroom along with hundreds of new students and their parents. The session began with a man asking the students to hold up their hands if they knew what they wanted to major in. Peyton shrank in her seat while hundreds of hands were confidently raised in the air.
Then he asked the students who didn’t know to raise their hands. Peyton slowly raised hers, along with a smattering of others. The speaker said, “Good for you. I am the Chair of the Statistics Department here at Miami, and studies show that more than 90% of freshman who come in thinking they know what they want to major in, change their major within the first semester. Those of you who don’t know are way ahead of the game. Good for you.”
I can imagine God saying much the same thing to us when we are humble enough to admit what we don’t know. I can imagine God saying, “Good for you, who do not lift up your hearts, or raise your eyes too high. Good for you, who do not occupy yourselves with things too great and too marvelous for you. Good for you, who know that you will one day know fully and see me face to face. Good for you, who trust in the good news of the wyrde—my marvelous, unfathomable, unearthly love, poured out on you through my Son, Jesus Christ. Good for you, who have learned to accept the mystery of faith, for you will be blessed with calm and quiet souls. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young