I don't have the answers

A few days ago I was engaged in a there way conversation. My partners were a man just a few years older than I and a young man, just completing his college degree. As we spoke, questions were raised, as is often the case in situations like that. Our young partner, fresh with his growing education, gave the answers he knew - often brilliantly. He was accurate and cited sources as we spoke. I was, and continue to be, impressed with his knowledge and his ability to listen and respond to complex questions. It is the kind of conversation that I enjoy very much - one that shows respect for research and education and where ideas are offered with the intention of raising the level of the debate, not with an eye to winning an argument or changing another’s opinion.

I was also reminded by him of a time in my life when I was flush with answers. It was when I was about the same age as he is now. Sometimes I have said, partly joking, that I reached the height of my intellectual powers at age 25. I completed my graduate education and was awarded my doctorate the week before my 25th birthday. I was treated to a marvelous trip through Europe with my wife, parents, sister and brother-in-law that summer. I returned to become a small town pastor. I believed that people were coming to me with their questions because I was recognized as an expert - a product of a sophisticated equation system. It wasn’t that I saw myself as smarter than the people I served, I just felt that I had been privileged to have a unique type of education. I had left the small town of my growing up and survived in the educational world of a major city and returned to a rural part of the country with experiences and information. I felt as if it was my job to answer the questions that came my way - and when I didn’t have the answer to get to work and find the answer.

People would call me with Biblical questions and when I couldn’t answer off the top of my head, I would do my research and sometimes give them a short paper with the answer. I had yet to discover all of the quirks and false leads that come from people’s questions. For example, today I know that when a person says, “Where it the Bible does it say . . .” that they are often spouting a quote from some other source. The answer is going to be that the Bible really doesn’t say the thing that they think it does. Today, with the power of the Internet, I can usually find the source of the quote - or approximation of a quote - that they remember. Back then, I’d keep searching in the Bible, wondering if I had somehow missed something.

Having the opportunity to observe the young man this week, however, I became aware of a different and important change that has occurred in my life. With my 65th birthday just around the corner I no longer feel the need to have answers to every question. It isn’t that I have lost my love of reading and research. It isn’t that I’ve forgotten my education and training that give me skills to seek answers. It is just that I no longer need to be the expert. I no longer need to be seen as the one who has all of the answers. Deeper yet, I have had enough experiences to have come to the conclusion that there are questions for which I do not have the answers. I’ve been at the bedside of too many cancer patients. I’ve counseled a few too many inmates in jails and prisons. I’ve watched too many couples go through divorce. I’ve delivered too many death notices in cases of suicide completed. I no longer believe that this world has answers to all of its questions.

Of course this is obvious to many folks long before they reach my age. My scientist friends are completely happy to work with imagined hypotheses and theories. They are unafraid to examine a “what if” scenario knowing that whether their hypothesis works out or is proven to be flawed, they are engaged in discovery. It is a bit different for a religious leader, because there is an expectation of our people that we come up with answers that are always true. Too often, in religious circles the word faith itself has come to mean its exact opposite. We somehow have the urge to capture a belief that we can hold onto with and promote in others with evangelical zeal.

I, however, find that I do not possess those permanent and immutable answers. The more experiences with God that I have in my life’s journey, the more I am confronted with mystery. An encounter with God is an encounter with mystery. I find myself face to face with a depth upon depth mystery of this world that defies simple answers. It may even be that now, 40 years later, I have become just a bit more humble. I not only know that I don’t have all of the answers, but I also know that I don’t have to pretend I know the answers when the reality is mystery beyond answers.

I am convinced that the role of religious leaders in our community lies far from providing answers, though I still attend those community meetings where we seek to solve problems and come up with answers. My role, however, is not to provide the answers and sometimes it is to ask new questions. At a recent meeting about food insecurity and the distribution of food in our community, I was struck by the assumption that the assumption that the problem of hunger could be solved by providing more food and better distribution. No one was asking what happens when outsiders step in and remove a parent’s responsibility for providing food for their children. No one was asking whether a community kitchen or a classes in canning and food preservation might accompany a community garden. So I asked questions. I think I was seen as an obstacle to the meeting’s intended goal of providing answers.

My faith, however, is born in the encounter with mystery. And i am becoming quite comfortable living with the questions.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!