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This message is from July 29, 2007.

Scripture Reading:
Job 36:26-37:5

Puzzle and Mystery

Even though it seldom gets much use, I love my brain.

Brains are pretty complicated. When you're awake, your brain generates about 25 watts of power. If your brain was stretched flat, it would have the surface area of a pillowcase. Your brain feels like a ripe avocado. So basically, you have an electric, avocado pillowcase between your ears.

Your brain is designed to look for meaning.

All the time, there is stuff happening all around you. There is a smell coming up from the dusty carpet. There are smells coming in through the open window. There are smells coming from the person sitting next to you. There are smells all around you. On top of this, you can hear the sound of my voice. You can hear the rustle of paper when someone nearby looks through his or her bulletin. Maybe you can hear a baby in the nursery or the chickens next door. You can see parallel lines of woodgrain in these old benches. You can see the aluminum light fixtures overhead. You can see faces. You can feel the temperature of the air. Maybe you feel an ache at the base of your spine, or the twinge of hunger. Maybe you feel tired.

You are bombarded with sensation. Stuff is happening all around you.

Every waking moment, your brain is sorting through these sensations. Some sensations are brought into focus. Other sensations are squelched. Thanks to the electric, avocado pillowcase, you can talk to someone in a crowded room. Your brain can pay attention to the sound of one voice, and tune out all the other voices talking at once.

Your brain is designed to look for meaning. It sifts through all the background noise of daily life and brings meaning into focus. Your brain is designed to do this. It arranges the raw material, so that meaning comes into focus.

I have a little demonstration for you. Think of this as a little test drive for your brain. Read this.

"Accodrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a whole."

Our brains are designed to work in a certain way. We turn raw data into meaning.

* * *

"What color is God's shirt?" This question came from a child in the meeting.

At the time, I had to admit my ignorance. I said, "I donít know." Before I could worry about it too much, the girl herself gave me the answer. She announced, "It's green."

When confronted with a blank spot in the universe, Children are perfectly willing to fill in the blanks. Ask them. Ask, "Why is the sky blue?" "Why do people get old?" Ask them, "Where were you before you were born?" It's very possible that you will get an answer to these questions. Sometimes, these answers are funny. Sometimes, they are profound. Sometimes, a child can see the pattern that the rest of us have overlooked.

Inside our brains, we put the universe together in a way that makes sense for us. We all do this. It is an essential function of the brain. We filter things out. We rearrange the pattern so it makes sense. We fill in the blanks. We see it clearly in children, but it's just as true for the rest of us.

The universe hands us a jumble of letters, and we try to read the meaning.

* * *

Gregory Treverton is a really smart guy. During the Clinton administration, he had a government job. Now he works for the RAND Corporation. He's considered an expert in national security. Earlier this year, Gregory Treverton wrote an essay about the difference between a puzzle and a mystery.

Twenty years ago, experts in national security were looking at the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, all of our questions were along these lines: "How many missiles do they have?" "Where are those missiles?" "How accurate are those missiles?" As Treverton points out, these questions have an answer. Even if we don't know the answer, we can be confident that an answer does exist. The Soviet Union has a certain number of missiles. They are located in one place or another. The information is out there. We just have to figure it out.

Every puzzle has an answer. Puzzles can be solved.

Precisely because there's a right answer, it's rewarding to grapple with a puzzle. We do puzzles for fun. There's a crossword puzzle in the Oregonian every day of the week. And below the crossword puzzle, there is a sudoku puzzle and a word jumble. Every puzzle can be solved. That is their appeal. Puzzles allow us to fill in the empty spaces with confidence. We can rearrange things, until they make sense. It will make sense. We just need to figure it out.

A mystery, on the other hand, comes with no guarantee. When it comes to mysteries, we may never know the answer with any certainty.

Nancy Drew, of course, would be surprised to hear this. Nancy Drew is routinely confronted with a mystery, and she always finds the answer. I think it's safe to say Traverton would consider the mystery genre is not really about mystery at all. They are literary puzzles. Nancy Drew would lose some of her appeal if all her stories ended with the confession, "Gee, I guess we'll never know the answer to this one."

* * *

In a mystery novel, you know there will be an answer. Whether it's Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, someone will get to the bottom of things.

But when Treverton uses the word, "mystery," he is trying to describe a situation where the answer is inherently elusive. Remember, he's speaking in the context of military intelligence. Instead of counting missiles, we now find are confronted with questions like "What will the terrorists do next?"

Who knows? Even the best experts don't know for sure. They can't know. We could gather lots and lots of information, and still have no idea of what the terrorists will do next. Information doesn't solve the problem. When you're faced with a mystery, more information is not that helpful.

* * *

After the damage is done, then we're back on the familiar ground of solving puzzles. After the terrorists strike, we can ask questions that have definitive answers. We can ask, "How did these guys get into the country? Who trained them? Who gave them money?" We can find answers. And we do. After something happens, we can fill in the blanks. Before it happens, we are faced with a mystery. We just don't know.

As a people, we're pretty good at solving puzzles. But when it comes to mysteries, we don't really know what to do. Americans like to solve puzzles. We're good at it. Because we are so good at it, we are tempted to use these familiar tools when faced with a mystery. This is a huge mistake. It's a mistake to treat a real mystery as if it were a crossword puzzle. Strategically, it's always a mistake to think you've solved a mystery.

What will happen when our soldiers enter Baghdad? Until it happens, that question frames a mystery. There is no existing answer that waits to be found through careful study.

We entered Baghdad as if we knew the answer. We said, "Our soldiers will be greeted as liberators. Iraqis will throw flowers. They will dance in the street." We thought we knew the answer to the puzzle. But we had it wrong. We didn't know how to admit how much we didn't know. This mistake has been costly.

Gregory Treverton was writing about national security. But I think his ideas have a broader application. As people of faith, we should recognize the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. In the face of mystery, we need to be humble. We need to be suspicious of what comes so easily to our brains. That electric, avocado pillowcase wants to fill in the blanks. It wants to rearrange the letters so that it everything make sense.

As the followers of Jesus, we need to distinguish between what we know, and what we don't know.

When he spoke to the learned people of Athens, Paul said, "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And God is not served by human hands, as if God needed anything, because God is the one who gives all people life and breath and everything else."

When we try to solve the puzzle of God, we are trying to contain God in something we have made. God is not in the things we make.

Our testimony has more weight when we acknowledge the truth of our limitations. As people of faith, we give witness to mystery. We don't have to solve the puzzle.

* * *

In your life, what puzzles are you trying to solve? What are the mysteries that you carry?

In our life together, what are the puzzles we need to solve? What are the mysteries that we carry?

One last question: If you carry a mystery, how do you carry it well?