Thursday, July 21, 2011

Unanswered Questions

I am heading west tomorrow for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I have my MapQuest directions all printed out. The directions read like this: “Take a left out of your driveway, jump on the Ohio Turnpike a few minutes later (also heading west), and keep driving on Rt. 80 for about 560 miles.” If all goes as planned, I will travel a straight line from Hudson, Ohio to Iowa City, Iowa. Nothing out of the ordinary will happen, and nothing will go wrong – just like life. It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

The workshop I’ll be attending is called “Writing and Publishing the Personal Essay,” and participants have been asked to bring ideas for essays we’ll be developing while we’re there as well as actual magazines which might publish these essays.

So, I’ve been looking at magazines and examining their policies about submitting articles. Of course I am looking for those magazines with editors who have been waiting all of their lives for the essay that I will send them. “Stop the presses, change the cover, I don’t care about the expense, we’ve got an article written by Jim Bane here. I couldn’t put it down, I laughed, I wept, I was inspired, and I’ll never look at life the same again.” I haven’t quite found that publication yet.

I have identified two solid prospects, but I am puzzling over a third. A friend suggested a well-known religious publication, and I checked their submission guidelines. After a quick read, I doubt if my writing would fit their standards. A few quotes from their webpage: “Dramatize the situation, conflicts, and struggles, and then tell how the person was changed for the better or the problem was solved.” I would have no trouble dramatizing an event – I’m a preacher, I do that every Sunday in sermons when I am not on sabbatical (thank you New Horizons Christian Church). But unfortunately, in the world in which I live people are not always changed for the better and problems are not always solved – at least not in the length of a small article in a monthly religious periodical. Some problems just don’t seem to get solved to our complete satisfaction, do they? And some people do change for the better for awhile but later revert to their former lousy lifestyles. That doesn’t stop me from lifting up these people and situations in sermons because I think that most folks in our local church community have experienced life in a similar way. Life is rarely as simple and straightforward as those MapQuest directions from Ohio to Iowa.

Another admonition from the submission guidelines of that same magazine: “Don’t leave unanswered questions.” I don’t know about you, but I live with unanswered questions every day of my life. I don’t believe that I will ever have all the answers to all the questions I have – at least they won’t be answered on this side of the grave. Even the walk of faith involves questions and doubts. Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward:
"I worry about 'true believers' who cannot carry any doubt or anxiety at all, as Thomas the Apostle and Mother Teresa learned to do. People who are so certain always seem like Hamlet’s queen 'protesting too much' and trying too hard. To hold the full mystery of life is always to endure its other half, which is the equal mystery of death and doubt. To know anything fully is always to hold that part of it which is still mysterious and unknowable."

The prodigal son found in the Gospel of Luke is one of the most provocative and well known parables of Jesus. A story that would almost fit the submission guidelines of that magazine. A son demands his share of the inheritance and in essence declares that his father is dead to him. The father complies, and the son leaves town and stays away until all the money is spent. While sweating with the swine, he realizes that life would be better back home and heads back. You know the rest – the father seeing him, running to him, embracing him, loving him, accepting him, and throwing a welcome home party for him. “My son has come back. He was dead but is alive.” I am a father and this story always, always pulls at my heart. No matter how many times I hear it.

And the parable would be so much simpler if it ended at that party – life changed, situation resolved, no loose ends, and no questions unanswered. But Jesus just won’t leave it alone, will he? Because there is that second son working out in that field – the “good and faithful” son who didn’t run away, who didn’t waste the money, who had to pick up the slack when his younger brother hit the road. He hears the noise from the house, hears that a feast is underway for that lazy brother of his, and not surprisingly, he gets angry. He is resentful. He doesn’t want to join the celebration and pretend that it’s all copacetic. The father leaves the party and goes out into the field to encourage this son to join the other.

And the parable ends there. Will the older son show respect for his father and come to the house? Will be realize how much he missed his little brother and with tears in his eyes give him a big hug? Will he grab him by the neck the next morning and say: “It’s your turn to work. I am taking the day off.” Who knows what happens next? The story ends before everything is resolved leaving us to speculate about what happens next.

I don’t believe for a second that the writer of Luke misplaced the neat and happy ending that Jesus had originally intended. Jesus wanted us to deal with the tension and confusion and conflicts and doubts in this parable. He wanted us to wrestle with the enormity of God’s love for us even when we have strayed as well as our own personal challenges in trying to forgive others. Jesus wanted us to wonder about just which role we play in that parable.

Jesus wanted this parable to reflect real life – your life and my life. Real life which so often resists neat and clean and straightforward answers. Jesus invites us to resist easy answers to the difficult questions that we have; he invites us to struggle – but not to struggle alone but alongside him. “Come to me all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, for you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30.

Tomorrow I head to Iowa. Will the trip be as uncomplicated as MapQuest suggests? I doubt it. But the uncertainty won’t stop me from opening the door and leaving home.

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