This month’s “Window Gazing” — a monthly column from Pastor Alan Sherouse in our newsletter. Read the entire March newsletter here.
The wonderful author, Gertrude Stein, was nearing the end of her life when she turned to her longtime partner, Alice B. Toklas, and asked her, “Alice, what are the answers?” But Alice Toklas had no definitive reply. So after a long silence, Stein said, “In that case, what are the questions?” (In Wishful Thinking by Frederick Buechner).
Life is full of questions. The poet, Rainer Marie Rilke, reflects this in his Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke writes to a young military academy cadet, who had reached out to the poet amidst his own consideration of a literary career. Rilke urges the 19 year old to trust curiosity and embrace the unknown. He gives instructions on how a poet should feel, love and seek truth. His notes on how to be a poet ultimately function like instructions for how to live a life. “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart,” Rilke writes at one point, “and try to love the questions themselves.”
Many people of deep faith are also people who have learned to love the questions. Faith is sometimes confused with certainty. “If you’re 99.9 percent sure then you’re 100% lost,” a red-faced summer camp preacher once shouted at a teenaged me. In actuality, faith in Christ involves a great deal of curiosity, wonder and questioning. “Lord I believe, but help my unbelief,” we say with the desperate father who approaches Jesus in Mark 9. It’s one reason that Frederick Buechner has suggested that instead of just looking in the Bible for the answers it gives, we should first listen for the questions it asks.
I recently joined other ministers of our staff, together with others in our community, at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro for a lecture by Dr. Luke Powery, Dean of Duke University Chapel and Associate Professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School. The lecture was entitled, “Living the Questions.” Like Buechner, Dr. Powery suggested, “The Bible is not only an answer book. It’s also a question book.” What might happen if we echoed the Bible’s questions and embraced this practice of questioning as part of our faith? It might just help us to live in the unresolved and open spaces where we so often find ourselves.
Lent is a season for questions — questions of God, questions of our world, questions of ourselves. In our liturgical calendar, the gospel texts for Year A this Lent offer some of the most profound questions in scripture.
“Are you really the son of God?” the tempter asks Jesus in the wilderness, questioning his identity, power and ultimate purpose.
“How can anyone be born again?” asks Nicodemus in John 3, wondering about the new life Jesus brings.
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” wonders the woman at the well (John 4), when she encounters the inclusive love of God before her.
“What do you say about him?” ask the interrogators of the man born blind, after Jesus helps him to see in chapter 9 of John.
“Lord, where were you when my brother died?” asks a heartbroken sister after the death of Lazarus in John 11. Martha speaks right along with all of us who have ever loved and lost.
These questions echo so much of human experience, and so much of the wondering that accompanies any of us who seek to follow in the way of Christ. Lent is a season to embrace such wonder; to love these questions; to cultivate curiosity as a spiritual practice; to be patient with the unresolved, and embrace the questioning as part of what it means to believe. If we can practice this, we will be even more prepared for the dawn of Easter and the coolness of the empty tomb, which asks its own gospel question once again: “Whom are you looking for?”