It’s an old anecdote:
A Sunday school teacher poses a series of questions to a room full of third graders. “What is brown, furry, and has a large, bushy tail.” A kid in the front row raises his hand with a little hesitation and answers, “I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”
It’s cute. It’s funny. It’s profound. It’s most of us.
In high school, I had a similar experience.
I lived in a dorm. Friday nights were vespers. On Saturday, we would all go to church. The deans would post fliers in the dorm with all the week’s events, news, and a series of puzzles us guys could answer. Sometimes they were math problems. Sometimes they were a series of riddles. After vespers on Friday night, we could go to the dean’s office and if we gave the right answer—you guessed it—we got candy.
One Friday night, I decided to try my luck, and give the wrong answer.
I don’t recall the riddle, but it was beyond my comprehension. When vespers let out, I moseyed up to the office declaring, “I know the solution!”
Our dean stared at me (I’m not known as a riddle solver) and invited me to give it my best shot.
“The answer is Jesus,” I said, a cocky smile smeared on my face. Before he could protest too much, I tacked on, “Jesus is always the answer.” Checkmate and Snickers bar.
Most of us look at these examples and laugh. Of course we know that Jesus isn’t the answer to all riddles. The shape and depth of our relationship with anyone, including the creator and savior, is not so easy to boil down to a name, as if that name is a wand to wave and end all discussion.
Yet, how often have you sat in on a sermon where the pastor tells you about the state of the world, of a situation facing the community, of a plague attacking a member in that room, and the great words of revelation offered at the end are, “I don’t know about you all, but we need Jesus.” And we all say, “Amen.”
It’s a good answer.
It’s a great answer.
It’s . . . a safe answer.
We like this answer because it gives us something to hold to, be sure of, and never look beyond. That’s the problem with it. Our answers have become shallow for the sake of sounding certain. Baptism, Bible studies, and yes, Jesus, have become the end of the journey—the final destination—when I believe they are the start of so many more problems, dilemmas, and questions.
Am I saying that prayer and Bible studies and that sermon in which the preacher clues us into our need for a savior are all rubbish? If we start shaking them like a Magic 8-Ball, then they are in danger of becoming just that: rubbish.
Last week, the Hope Trending series kicked off, with Dwight K. Nelson, speaking every night about how we can start to live without fear. Following his presentation, a panel took questions from the internet, doing their best to answer questions from all over on tough topics: death, suffering, the world.
Nelson, on the first night, did something profound—he apologized. He apologized to communities and people who the church has treated abysmally: Muslims, illegal immigrants, the LGBTQ community, the atheists. That might enrage some of you to hear. Good. You should be enraged. Offended. Wounded even.
Nelson went on to say, “I’d like to apologize to a generation that is hurting and fractured and broken and hoping against hope that someone will reach out a hand in the name of God, or no God, but someone will reach out an arm and just draw me, draw me near and hold me as if you loved me.”
There’s plenty of voices pointing out where we need to do better. Hope Trending was a breath of fresh air, filled with new ideas and calls to be better, do better, to live better. It attempted to help break these walls that these pre-programmed, crowd pleasing, surface level, certain responses have built between us and people we see as others. It’s this addiction to being right and having the correct thing to say that has created this divide between us and those we see as wrong.
I’d like to add to this and say we need uncertainty. Prayer, Bible studies, vespers programs, E. G. White pamphlets, and even Jesus are just the beginning of a spiritual journey clouded in unknowing. In fact, Jesus came to wake us to the reality of the world and its brokenness.
Author and Theologian Peter Rollins writes that the “Good News of Christianity” is this: “You can’t be fulfilled; you can’t be be made whole; you can’t find satisfaction.” The reality of everyone’s situation on Earth is this. The riddle is hunger, refugee crises, slave trades, and drone strikes. The questions’ answers go beyond programmed response.
The answer isn’t always Jesus.
But he is a starting point: his life, his words, his example—and maybe a better word for that is modeling. It’s still not an answer. It’s a life, a call, a way of life that leads to more uncertainty. Maybe that’s the point. It’s not a life of end all, simple solutions, but like Plato’s cave, Jesus unshackles us to see our current reality for what it is and move the conversation and conversion forward. He is a paradox of ideas: eating with a crowd many of us today wouldn’t be caught looking at, rebuking religious leaders.
He told us to love our enemies!
I’m flabbergasted by the love of Jesus because it is weird, contradictory, and I don’t get it. And I probably won’t in this life. But it’s this uncertainty and total bewilderment that keeps me interested, and yes, frustrated.
I see many who know the right answers to each of the tough questions, but are just as anxiety ridden and full of worry, though they apparently know the “good news.” Maybe we need to start embracing this life for what it is—complicated, painful, full of more questions than answers. It’s something Jesus wants us to embrace, and it’s this “embrace that robs the reality of its oppressive sting,” writes Rollins. And that’s part of the oppression Jesus came to set us free from.