“A Peculiar People: Choosing Questions over Answers”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
October 13, 2019
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
1 Corinthians 13:12-13
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
This morning we are continuing our sermon series on A Peculiar People – God’s invitation to us to become God’s own particular people, but also to maybe be a little weird as we do it, a little countercultural, to go against the grain.
Today we’re looking at choosing questions over answers. When I was talking to a church member this week about the idea of choosing questions over answers as peculiar, as somehow countercultural, she said, “Eh, I don’t know – I don’t feel like I’m looking for answers so much. I don’t need answers to everything to go about my day.”
For many of us, that’s true – we aren’t necessarily kept up at night by questions (although some of us might be!). It may not at first be obvious how addicted we are to answers – how much comfort and control they give us. So let’s approach it in from a different angle.
How many times this week did you look something up on your phone or on the internet instead of wondering about the answer? We are used to receiving instantaneous answers to everything from “What time does the store close?” to “How do praying mantises reproduce?” to “How much salt should I add to this dish?”
Do you remember when we had to wonder about these things instead? We’ve learned to skip right over other ways of getting that information – asking a human being, observing for ourselves, experimenting.
We’re dependent on answers – or seeking after them – in other subtle ways, as well. We talked a few weeks ago about choosing peace over worry; what is worry but wanting, sometimes desperately, to know an answer about the future? From climate change to how to parent our kids to navigating the transition into retirement to fretting over what we’ll have for dinner, our worries are often simply a disguise for our desire to know, to have the answers now about something we can’t always control and can’t accurately predict.
Then there are the really big answers we long to grasp: why do bad things happen to good people? What happens when we die? Who am I supposed to be? What’s the meaning of life? (My Uncle Joe was severely disappointed to learn that the answer to that last one was not automatically conferred on me upon seminary graduation or ordination.) Over the course of our lives, through upheaval and mundane routine, we return, again and again, to the search for these answers, sometimes even detouring into the proverbial midlife crisis as we try to nail them down.
Christians have long counseled each other to turn to the Bible for the answers to these kinds of questions. And it’s true that there is a lot of good, meaty wisdom about such topics to be gleaned from scripture.
But what there is not a lot of is direct answers. At the end of the book of Job, which is nothing if not a demand for an answer about why a bunch of terrible things have happened to the main character, God spends four entire chapters asking Job questions that highlight just how little Job understands of God’s ways. (The beginning of God’s speech is called, ironically, “God answers Job,” before God asks him 77 questions.)
And in all of the Gospels, Jesus only directly answers three questions.
Just three! (By another count it’s eight, but still!)
When people ask him questions – big, important questions – he often responds with parables and stories, but he rarely, rarely, answers them in the straightforward way most of us would like.
Jesus doesn’t give us a lot of answers. What he does give, though, are questions: 307 of them, to be precise.
As UCC pastor Martin Copenhaver wrote in his book “Jesus is the Question,” “Jesus is not the ultimate Answer Man, but more like the Great Questioner.”
At first blush, that is not a very comforting thought. Because if God and Jesus aren’t sharing the answers, then that means we’re left to our own devices, in this by ourselves.
Or are we?
In French, unlike in English, there are two verbs for the word “to know.” First there’s savoir, which you might recognize from the borrowed phrase savoir fair. Savoir means to know facts, to know answers. I would use savoir to say “I know what time the store closes” or “I know how to cook that dish” or “I know what happens when we die.”
Then there’s connaître, which is used to describe familiarity, relationship: “I know the city of Boston inside and out”; “I’ve known Jean for over a decade”; “they know each other so well they finish each other’s sentences.”
I think the Bible isn’t peppered with straightforward questions-and-answers in part because it encourages us to focus not on knowing things in the savoir sense – accumulating answers that make us feel certain and secure – but on knowing in the connaître sense – becoming familiar with, creating a relationship with God. It’s tempting to cling to the former, to feel like there is some solid ground beneath our feet… but the latter is where the ultimate sense of security lies.
“Now I know only in part,” says Paul; “then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
I may get all the answers one day, he seems to say; but the real goal is to know God the way God has always known me: through and through, like an old friend with whom you have no pretenses.
Here are some of the questions Jesus asks during his earthly ministry:
What do you want me to do for you?
Do you want to be made well?
Who do you say that I am?
Where is your faith?
Can you imagine Jesus, looking right in your eyes and asking you one of these questions?
Close your eyes; get comfortable; and then try this one out: picture Jesus asking you, with deep affection and tenderness, “What are you looking for?”
Sit with that for a moment.
If we let the noise of our daily lives fall away and really sit with that question, what comes to the surface for us?
That simple exercise can get us to go very deep, very quickly. And it’s not because Jesus handed us an answer; it’s because he asked us a question.
You see, questions create intimacy. They open us up to reflection, to possibility, to depth. They draw us closer to the One who knows us intimately, and when we can root ourselves in that closeness, in the peace that comes from an encounter with the God who made us or with the Jesus who loves us without conditions – it somehow eclipses all the unanswered questions – for a time, at least.
You see, unlike answers, which can be stagnant and give us a false sense that now we know it all and can check that box off, questions are alive. They invite us to check in with ourselves over and over, to reexamine and recalibrate, to listen more deeply and to adjust our course and to try again. They challenge us to let go of the frantic desire to have others hand us the expert opinion and invite us to instead turn inward, to listen to the quiet, gentle voice of Jesus pointing us back to our own truest selves.
In the last few years of high school, I struggled mightily with the sense that I should already know who I was and what I was going to do with my life. College admissions essays surely seemed to demand that I already have a passion, a clear and true direction for my life (preferably one that would impress the admissions committee); and unlike the kid who has known since age 5 that they wanted to be a doctor, I had no idea what I wanted to do with “the rest of my life.”
Even after I experienced a call to ministry, versions of that question plagued me – through a year of study abroad where I was charmed by the South of France but unsettled by a sense of not doing enough for others; through a rocky few years on the Gulf Coast where I did nothing but live for others yet was unhappy in a deeper sense; through the ordination process – did I really believe certain people should be set apart for ministry? And how was I going to survive the administrative side of ministry? And on and on.
I wish now that I hadn’t seen this big question as a plague – What am I going to do with my life? Why don’t I have a passion? What’s wrong with me? – but rather as a map that was going to lead me on a grand adventure through a fascinating landscape towards the pastoral vocation that God was preparing me for all along the way. (Even now, asking what lights me up helps me identify and feel deep gratitude for the very best parts of my vocation and helps me let go of assumptions about how I “should” live out my call. And it reminds me that it’s all still evolving.)
Seeing this big question as a gift rather than a burden would have saved me a lot of angst and even some heartache, and tuned me in a lot earlier to the joy of living the question instead of striving for its answer.
In his collection Letters to a Young Poet, the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke responded to a young man trying to discern his vocation – whether he should continue in his training as a military officer or pursue a career as a poet. The young man had sent samples of his poetry to Rilke, asking for a critique and for advice on his future – for answers.
Rilke gave him neither.
Instead, he wrote:
“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
No matter how badly we might sometimes want the answers, if we can treat those unsolved questions like a gift God is giving us – a tool for paying attention to the miracle of our lives, a lens for gazing, alongside Jesus, out over that beautiful, unknown landscape, a means of coming to know God more fully as we learn to trust – we will find ourselves, a bit peculiarly, feeling as if we know so much more. Amen.