Sunday, September 20, 2015

Afraid to ask

Preached at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Charlotte on September 20, 2015.
I’m afraid to ask. Have you ever said that, or thought that? I’m afraid to ask. I’m afraid to ask my boss for a raise. I’m afraid to ask someone I’m attracted to on a date. I’m afraid to ask the doctor what my prognosis is. Generally speaking, being afraid to ask is motivated by one of two things.

First, you may be afraid to ask because you don’t want to appear stupid. You register for an upper level course and suspect that you may be in over your head. You arrive for the first class and the teacher starts talking about Gazibray’s Theory. All the other students in the class seem to know all about Gazibray’s Theory. You’ve never heard the word Gazibray before and you have no idea what Gazibray’s Theory is. But you’re afraid to ask because you don’t want to appear stupid.

Your new neighbors invite you to dinner. They are from Somalia and they like to practice their English with you. At dinner they serve you a very strange looking dish, the likes of which you have never seen in your life. You don’t know if you’ll be able to eat it, but they’re such lovely people, so you cautiously take your first bite. It actually tastes pretty good. You wonder, what am I eating? But you’re afraid to ask because you don’t want to know the answer. That’s the other big reason we can be afraid to ask. We don’t want to know the answer.

I’m afraid to ask. In today’s gospel lesson, we read that after Jesus once again laid out the way of the cross in his future, his disciples still didn’t understand. And they were afraid to ask. Was it because they didn’t want to appear stupid? Or was it because they were didn’t want to know the answer? They were afraid to ask.

Now, in all fairness to the disciples, at this point in Mark’s gospel, this is the second time Jesus has taken them aside to tell them about his upcoming suffering, death and resurrection. So, they still don’t understand, but really, it’s a lot to take in. This is not what anyone was expecting—a promised Messiah who would redeem Israel through suffering. They couldn’t get their heads around it. And that’s understandable. But the parts that’s a little harder to understand is that, given their confusion, they were afraid to ask any questions.

It may have been because they didn’t want to appear stupid. Or maybe they didn’t want to know the answer. But they were afraid to ask.

I suspect that there may be another reason going on here and that’s that they didn’t want to appear unfaithful. For when you throw religion into the mix, questions become more than simple questions for us. We often view them as a sign of faithlessness. It’s all too typical among God’s people for questions to be withheld. We pretend we don’t have questions. And yet the deepest mysteries of life can only be approached with questions. Why do good people suffer? Why are human beings so brutal with one another? Why does evil succeed? Why did God create such a messed up world? Why did Jesus have to suffer and die?

After Jesus’ disciples avoid the questions they were afraid to ask, notice what happens. They begin arguing among themselves over petty issues of rank and status. When they avoid asking hard questions, they focus on posturing about who is right.

Imagine how the story might have gone differently if the disciples had asked Jesus their questions. What kind of conversation might have resulted? How might it have strengthened the relationship they had with Jesus? But that’s not what they did. They were afraid to ask. And yet, they were not afraid to ignore what Jesus was saying and argue amongst themselves, completely missing the point.

Instead of struggling to understand the meaning of the cross and all that stuff about taking up your cross and following him and giving your life to save it, they immediately went to a scene of coming glory when they will be rewarded with power and status.

When Jesus heard them, he saw another teachable moment. He brought a child before his disciples and told them that they aren’t get what he has been telling them unless they can learn to welcome that child into their midst. A child, who was following his own curiosity, hanging around these men and their teacher, and likely disobeying his mother by doing so. A child, whose heart and mind was not yet set in concrete. A child, who was still curious. Curious about what it might mean to become a man. A child, full of questions.

Jesus might have proven his point about serving those who are at the lowest rung on the ladder in society another way. He might have talked about welcoming a woman into their midst, or a leper, or a Gentile. But he chose a child to make a point to his disciples who were afraid to ask.

It doesn’t take long for us humans to learn to be afraid to ask questions. But that fear is a learned thing for us. It doesn’t come naturally. What comes naturally is curiosity and questions. Lots of questions. Every child passes through a phase of asking question after question and driving their parents nuts. What’s that? It’s a bunny. What’s it doing? It’s eating. What’s it eating? Lettuce. What’s lettuce? It’s a vegetable. What’s a vegetable? It goes on and on.

Some of my favorite moments with children are in the questions they ask. Once when my daughter was young, she had seen way too many reruns of “I Love Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver”, which I told her I used to watch on TV when I was a little girl, and she asked me, “Mommy, was the world black and white when you were a little girl?” It was a good question. And as I thought about it, the answer to that question is, yes. The world was black and white when I was a little girl. 

Back when Henry was four years old, his mother Angela shared with me some of the questions he was asking. These are the questions a four year old boy was asking about God over the course of two days: 
Does God die? How is God Jesus and God at the same time? If God doesn't die, why didn't God make it so we don't die? Does God like the cold weather? Does God like pirates? Do pirates do bad things to God, too? Where does God live? Was God ever a baby? Does God love sharks? Why did God make sharks? Does God talk to us when he isn't right here?

Henry alternated between calling God a
he and a she. Angela wondered if maybe he was thinking of his pastor as God. He told his mother that he met God once and told her what he liked, and that God had brown hair. When his mom told him that she, too, asked God why we had to die, but that God didn't answer, he said, "Well, if you two are kind of close, maybe you could ask again and she will tell you."

That’s the kind of perspective Jesus was telling his disciples to welcome into their lives—his disciples who were too afraid to ask.

I don’t know where we get the idea that asking questions is a sign of faithlessness, but nothing could be further from the truth. We’re afraid to ask questions because we don’t want to appear stupid, or maybe because we’re afraid of the answers. 

I suspect our biggest misunderstanding as people of faith is that we think questions need to have answers. And that has nothing to do with the life of faith. Faith is not about finding answers to questions. That’s knowledge. Knowledge is a good thing, but it’s not to be confused with faith. Faith is about learning to live with the questions. It’s trusting God when there are no answers.

A big part of what it means to be a loving not judging community of faith is giving people a safe place to live by faith—to ask questions, and let them live.

 Here’s a poem Gerhard Frost wrote about this:

 Never kill a question;
it is a fragile thing.
A good question deserves to live.
One doesn't so much answer it as converse with it,
Or, better yet, one lives with it.
Great questions are the permanent
and blessed guests of the mind.
But the greatest questions of all are those which build bridges to the heart,
addressing the whole person.
No answer should be designed to kill the question.
When one is too dogmatic or too sure,
one shows disrespect for truth and the question that points toward it.
Beyond my answer there is always more,
more light waiting to break in,
and waves of inexhaustible meaning
ready to break against wisdom's widening shore.
Wherever there is a question, LET IT LIVE!

1 comment:

  1. Catherinebengson@gmailSeptember 20, 2015 at 6:01 PM

    I have used this quote for years at workshops. Love your thoughts


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