I awakened this morning from a troubling dream, an occurrence that I find less troubling all the time. Troubling dreams are memorable, disruptive, and unsettling. It is good to be unsettled, stirred up, and focused anew on forgotten things. It creates innovation in our economy – forcing better products, increasing the efficiency of our lives, improving our connections, and magnifying everything we do – and it works the same way in our spirits. Too much of our lives is easy, I think, with easy questions and easy answers made easier by too much education and too much money and the false confidence that comes with each.
For that reason I find myself lately irritated with easy questions, particularly the ones I’m asking. When my children were little and asked me something, I often turned the question back on them and asked them what they thought, with a long discussion inevitably ensuing. It was a necessity because they accepted what I said without thinking about it and I had a sense that my role as a parent was less about imparting information or duplicating my own knowledge and attitudes than raising them to be lifelong searchers. I feel that I’ve gotten old and lazy and teach by answering questions instead of asking them, that I am creating shallow questioners and interfering with real searching. I don’t like it, and often ponder how to ask better questions and answer them less succinctly, but I still find myself talking too much about what I know and too little about what I don’t.
I’m convinced that God is not interested in answering our passing curiosities but has great patience with our persistence challenging. I’m not talking about the youthful railing of those who are certain they could counsel God, but the quiet advocacy of those who have demonstrated faith, been inconvenienced by life without railing against God, and are willing to occasionally inconvenience God with their guileless yearning.
Abraham has been on my mind again, walking with the Lord, humbly petitioning for the clueless inhabitants of a degenerate pair of cities whose pleasantries he demurely offered the nephew who wanted them worse, pressing, “well, what if they aren’t quite that good, will you yet save them?” It is in so many ways an uncommon exchange. It’s not a discourse we encourage our children to have with God, and probably not one we often give ourselves permission to have. Still, I think it may eventually have its place, as their (and our) spirits mature.
Zenos tells a wonderfully layered parable, preserved by a prophet named Jacob in the Book of Mormon, about a relationship between a Lord and his servant in the management of a vineyard. Ostensibly, it’s about the persistent care of a Lord for his vineyard and the timeline of humanity rendered in a story. It’s also, however, about the training of a servant to become a Lord over a vineyard, with his childlike reactive obedience followed by the questioning and tutoring of a more responsible servant, to the grown challenging of the servant to his Lord – on behalf of the vineyard. One gets the sense by the end that the Lord was satisfied with his servant’s commitment to the best care of the vineyard and would feel confident setting him over a vineyard, having become a master by being an advocate servant.
It occurs to me that in all this training, the vineyard might possibly not function perfectly all the time. Inefficiencies, like those created when we teach others how to do something instead of doing it ourselves, would be the rule rather than the exception. Great inefficiencies, unspeakable inefficiencies, ugly inefficiencies, would occur. Quite possibly, those ugly unspeakabilities, monitored and held in check, best stimulated the very growth the master wanted, in the vineyard, and in the servant.
This morning I dreamed of ugliness that’s very personal, and as I thought about it I remembered a spiritual ugliness that I don’t think often about but that was the most profound of my personal barriers in my youthful faith. I have never completely resolved it, but been willing to put it on the shelf and await the day that I had the understanding to reconcile what I knew and didn’t know. It has to do with Cain and race and eternal blessings and the character of God.
I’ve studied and followed and submitted for thirty years on this, and earned the confidence, I think, to question God and stand my ground, however humbly. So I did. Throughout the morning has rolled the understanding of a God who sometimes allows situations to broil before he tells us what to do, measuring our willingness to petition him, allowing the culture to mature and almost demand a blessing that he already wants to give so that we will value the opportunity and work passionately with mortal dissenters, letting us nurture a conviction based in advocacy of others until it is so strong that we would risk offending God by saying, “unless you say otherwise, I’m convinced that I must do this.” If my prophet went to God in that spirit, I now understand, and fault neither him nor God for it. Now I also understand why it took so long. It wasn’t because God was slow to see the need for us to treat one another equally. It was because we were. Slow to understand the fullness, slow to have a critical cultural mass ready to support the truth, slow to have the courage to question God.
Of course there hasn’t been a satisfactory answer. It’s not a simple one. It’s won by honest, patient inquiry. There are a great many questions that will only be resolved this way. For instance, how can God return to an earth that is not ready for him, because we do not universally care for the poor? What have we not fully understood, as individuals and as a culture, that is preventing him?
The story of the rich man and Lazarus, one of my favorite in all of scripture, demonstrates the perfect justice of a God who is not limited by time and who gives those who have resources in this life every opportunity to share them before the gavel of justice pronounces the final sentence, and who uses that inequality as a test for everyone concerned. My own 30-year journey of understanding one question exposes the profound need to question my own prejudices and to push the edge of the envelope in my learning much further than I am normally tempted to do, to ask harder, more open-ended, uncomfortable questions and to be suspicious of easy answers.
Like Moses, I expect to be back later, unsettled, because I have other things to ask of God.
I expect I shall receive.