Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Embracing Mystery in a Culture of Certainty

This article was published in Alive Now, a periodical publication of The Upper Room, in the November/December 2015 issue. The theme for the issue is "mystery."

A version of this article also appeared previously in the "Faith and Values" section of the Huntsville Times.

I remember the moment I met Jeff, who led the praise band for the church I had come to serve in Huntsville, Alabama. “I heard you are a rocket scientist,” I said. “Yes,” he replied, “but I don’t do that here!” He smiled with a width I’ve grown to love and went back to playing his guitar.

The church I served at the time was fruitful in the context of a highly technical culture. We worshiped ten minutes away from the NASA space flight center where Space Shuttles were designed and built. Nearby was the arsenal where missile command for the United States was controlled.

One parishioner's full time job was to write the computer programs that test the computer programs that operate the Shuttle. I once found myself at a church social event with someone who flew helicopters, someone else who tested helicopters, and yet another person who did the computer support for helicopters. It was a culture of engineering, mastering information, and exacting personalities.

Yet I discovered that the people had a corresponding hunger for mystery. In Ephesians 3, Paul describes his call to preach the “unsearchable riches of Christ” and “make plain the mystery.” Do we dare claim a faith that is about something bigger than what we can identify, control, or explain?

I come from a long line of pastors that go back to the days of riding horseback. At my great, great, great uncle’s gravestone these words are chiseled: “For 50 years preached the unsearchable riches of Christ until his decease.” Those words echo Paul’s words and continue to touch me deeply.

Years prior to arriving in Huntsville, young in ministry and dealing with my first frustrations and disappointments, I went to that uncle’s grave and knelt. I considered the hardships of the early circuit riders. My heart melted in realization that my struggles were not just about me. The difficulties I was going through placed me in the company of generation after generation of people who had experienced the unfathomable richness of Christ’s love. Seeing my life in context of a bigger mystery gave me a great deal of hope.

While serving in Huntsville, I felt led to write my own mission statement. I kept it by my desk the whole time I was there. It read: “I have been placed here in the Huntsville culture to help people who are conditioned to think they can fix any problem, explore any place in the galaxy, or settle any conflict by force to live a life that encounters mystery and embraces uncertainty.”

I tried to live by it, but God had a great surprise in store for me. The people taught me much more about how to do that than any insight I could have brought them. They already longed for mystery; that’s why they were there. They implicitly knew this, and lived faithfully in that creative incongruity. I suppose all of us do.

Each year during the season of Epiphany, we remember the wise men who saw a bigger picture and followed a star. The King had been born right under the noses of the people of bustling Bethlehem, and it took some stargazing Persian astrologers to see it.

Sometimes we are so concerned with what’s right under our noses that we miss the mystery. We water down the gospel to acquiesce to a culture of work and rewards. We reduce the message to a few principles to follow in order to make our lives a little better. The problem with all that is that we’re still in control. Face it, we’re control freaks.

But the good news of the gospel is that certainty is an illusion. It’s mystery that’s real. Christ makes plain the unrevealable and reveals the unsearchable. Christ makes God touchable, lovable, knowable, even feelable. This mystery can’t be encapsulated in a few bullets on a power point slide. It can only be absorbed throughout a lifetime of beholding its light.

Stephen P. West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who serves as pastor of Arab First UMC in Arab, Alabama. His blog "Musings of a Musical Preacher" may be found at