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  • Stony Plain Alliance Church

Certainty and Mystery

For Lent 2024, we shared several congregational stories during our Sunday gathering. Coming out of our week on moving from Rightness > Righteousness, Matt Ripmeester shared this beautiful reflection with us. Enjoy!

When I reflected on the concepts of certainty and mystery, I feel like a lot of my faith journey can be described by the tension between these two things. I can clearly remember from a young age wrestling with questions of meaning and existence. I remember being quite disturbed by the fact that I couldn’t grasp or understand what (if anything) existed outside of our short snapshot of time on this planet and how this seemed so insignificant in the face of a seemingly infinite universe. As I grew up these deeper questions of meaning and existence followed me. In terms of faith, I considered myself a Christian but I’ll admit that it didn’t feel all that real to me and a lot more like going through the motions. As I moved through my teen and young adult years, I tried to make my faith feel real by doing the right things and trying to model myself after what I thought a “good or normal” Christian was supposed to look like (I imagine God probably had a good chuckle at the idea that the only way to be a “good” Christian was that one had to model themselves after the white, western, evangelical Christian stereotype). Not surprisingly this was an empty pursuit and led to burnout and seasons of depression.

One of the big lessons that God taught me as I went through this difficult time was that the reality of people’s lives is often different than it appeared. I began to have more real conversations and realized that people who seemed “normal” or looked like they had it all together had real struggles and doubts often times much more similar to my own experience than I would have ever thought. And it was also eye opening to hear that during some of the times I was struggling the most, others perceived me as normal, happy, and seemingly having it all together. As I reflect on this now, I can see that God was slowly breaking down some of the narrow preconceptions I was holding onto about myself, others, and Him and His creation. During my university years I also discovered a real love for science. I think initially I was drawn to the certainty that there seemed to be a single “right answer” to questions. However, I quickly learned that science clearly and beautifully uncovers and articulates the nuance and mystery that underpins creation. To me it was really compelling to see that in science we have to build mental models and metaphors to describe various complex phenomena that we cannot fully grasp (like the structure of the atom, or the concept of infinity). To me, looking at the activity of science as a whole, is really an exercise in human humility and curiosity rather than certainty, and the ugly sides of the scientific pursuit often show up when this is forgotten. Now when I think about Christianity and the church it feels eerily similar. As humans we are finite beings and as such, an infinite God reveals his character to us through both the patterns and structure of his creation and the inspired stories and metaphors of written scripture, both of which clearly leave us in a pretty humble position with relation to our understanding of an infinite God. As humans, the closest we can get to understanding God is to look at the life of Jesus, and I think one of the clear themes there, is that the certainties held by society and especially the religious institution were pretty far off.   As a scientist, the idea of embracing mystery always worried me as it seemed like it could be an easy excuse to stop questioning and thinking critically, but I think over the years, God has shown me that its actually the opposite: that moving towards embracing mystery actually gives us the freedom to question, learn, and grow without the temptation and lies of human certainty weighing us down.

When Wade first texted me last week to ask if I wanted to share some of my story this morning in relation to the themes of certainty and mystery, almost instantly the image of a gaussian distribution popped into my head and I felt that this was something I was supposed to share. (I think its going to be shown here on the screen) The gaussian distribution is also known as the normal distribution and is arguably the most important probability distribution in statistics, because it approximates and describes an enormous number of physical and social variables all around us, from things like our height, weight, and IQ, to the size of snowflakes and even the average NFL player retirement age. What really stands out to me about the shape of this normal distribution, is that no matter how narrow or wide we make the standard deviation, both tails on either side of the center extend to infinity.

Now when I think about this in terms of what this tells us about God’s definition of normal in his creation, it seems that diversity is important and that his definition of “normal” extends infinitely. When I reflect on the conceptions of normal that I have setup for various things in life over the years, the shape of the distribution is often more like a fairly narrow rectangle. I think that as humans we are so often tempted to setup definitions of normal or good in this rectangle shape with clearly defined bounds of who or what is on the inside and on the outside. Or in our increasingly polarized world today we can be tempted to simply draw a line in the middle and say that people on my side are in and those on the other side are out. I don’t think we need to think too hard or look very far in history to come up with countless examples of where certainty around a definition of the normal or good has led to catastrophic and tragic results in various human institutions, including the church. So I think for me, God put the image of the normal distribution in my head to remind me and us that it’s not our job as humans to determine or put boundaries around who is considered normal or good. When I was at work last week, I was mapping mineral concentrations throughout an oil sand mine and I was using a normal distribution and standard deviations when looking at the data. It occurred to me as I was working, that the data points that I learned the most from were actually the points that fell outside 1, 2, or even 3 standard deviations. This didn’t mean that the data in the center of the distribution was any less important, but without understanding those data points furthest from the mean, there would be some serious lost opportunity and value for the operation. When I think about the example Jesus gives us with respect to a normal distribution, I think it’s pretty clear that he is similarly telling us that we have a lot to learn from those furthest from us on the distributions of life. He time and time again moves away from the center, crossing any human made or religious boundaries and goes directly to those on the fringes or the tails of that distribution. I think that this is also mirrored in the parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd leaves the 99 and goes to find the one that is furthest away. This doesn’t mean that the 99 sheep were any less valuable, but Jesus clearly reminds us that we are called to seek to understand, love and learn from those who are the farthest from us and our definitions of normal. I think it’s here that as Christians we are forced to give up our idols of certainty and where we will learn and grow the most. To me Jesus’ example clearly shows that there can’t truly be fullness of life for anyone unless there is fullness of life for everyone.


Some of you were probably here when Anita and I dedicated our son Mason and you may remember us sharing that for us being parents to a child with Down Syndrome has really helped us on our journey moving away from certainty and showed us firsthand that God’s idea of normal and perfection are so much broader, diverse, and more beautiful than our limited human definitions. As parents we both feel so privileged to learn from Mason, as many areas of his life will be experienced on the tails of a normal distribution, and we feel like this community is already leaning in with us on this journey. As a family we are so encouraged to be part of this church that seeks to understand and embrace the generous mystery of fullness of life for everyone by practicing the way of Jesus together.


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