There is a poignant story that gives rise to the strange title of this inspirational piece. The story and these title words come from the first chapter of Ann Voskamp’s best selling book, One Thousand Gifts. Voskamp is a Mennonite, Canadian farmer’s wife. She is a keen observer of human experience and an articulate writer interpreting that experience. The book was a gift to me. And Voskamp’s words are profound gifts that are so welcome in my life of the Spirit.
Voskamp gives her first chapter an intriguing title: “an emptier, fuller life.” It is a paradoxical tease into the profundity of the spiritual journey she invites us to travel. The second half of the chapter centers around the death experience of the five-month old nephew of hers. The brother of her husband appears in her doorway and announces that Dietrich’s lungs are failing. Dietrich was doomed to follow into death an earlier brother’s death, Austin, at age four-months.
This was too much for Ann Voskamp. She narrates her encounter with her bother-in-law. Anger was fueling her emotions---straining to get out of her being. She grabbed him and said, “If it were up to me…I’d write this story differently.” In effect this was a challenge to God and to the providence of God that this family believed was unfolding. Effectively, Voskamp was asking, “how can that be?” She caught herself and lamented, “I regret the words as soon as they leave me.”
This precipitates her brother-in-law, John, to begin reflecting of some stories in the Bible. He recalls a few stories in the Old Testament where it might be easy to suggest God could have written the story differently. But then, he pulls himself back from this edge. I can almost see John pondering the possibility and then decided to go with the way things unfold, all the while trusting that God is in the process. He confirms this in his own mind and then turns to Ann Voskamp.
He said to her, “Just that maybe…maybe you don’t want to change the story, because you don’t know what a different ending holds.” In a sense she is convicted. She is rendered nearly speechless. But what she concludes thundered off the page. She comments, “There’s a reason I am not writing the story and God is. He knows how it all works out, where it all leads, what it all means.” That is a mighty powerful theological statement. I think I understand it fully---in a cognitive sense. But I am not sure I understand it fully in the heart, faith sense.
Theologically, I am not sure it represents what I think. But I realize I don’t want to quibble theologically. The theological challenge is to figure out how---if at all---God is at work in history? The question is how does God work in the lives of each of us? Or is it just some kind of random Fate working out the unfolding history of our lives and our world? John, Ann Voskamp’s brother-in-law, has his answer to the why of history. I wonder if I really do?
I realize that Ann Voskamp is using stories like these to shape the book that I am starting to read. I begin to understand why she moves to the next illustration to show that she is starting to think John has a good sense of how God works in history. She turns to the story of the Israelites being fed the manna in the wilderness. She quips about manna: it is “a substance whose name literally means ‘What is it?’” She says they are hungry and yet “they choose to gather up that which is baffling.” They eat “that which has no meaning.”
And then comes the sentence: “They eat the mystery.” And she repeats the sentence with italics. That prompted my own question about mystery. Do I actually believe there is mystery in my life or have I solved it all? Like so many folks, I plan and scheme so that I have a good idea how it will all work out. I am tempted with the illusion of control. I can make things happen. And most things do happen that way.
This is the temptation to think we are gods. Of course, no one would say they are in total control, but sometimes it feels as if we are in some control or, even, mostly in control. We don’t plan to eat the mystery. We order off the menu of life---no manna for us! But I realize this way of living essentially factors God out of the equation.
I don’t want to do that. I want to know more about how John and his sister-in-law, Ann, see and understand life. I like scholars I read, like the psychiatrist, Gerald May, who sees God Itself as mystery. Mystery does not mean you have not figured it out yet. Mystery means you will never figure it out. But it is ok.
I want to embrace mystery in my life. I know that I am writing my own story---in part, at least. But I will allow for the mystery---for what God has in store that I may or may not like. But I will eat the mystery nevertheless. Part of trusting the mystery of God is trusting that the story ultimately will be a comedy. Things will work out. That ending is not guaranteed. But in faith we can trust. We can eat the mystery.