The Value of a Good Question

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I’m going to keep this short: questions are our friends.

Seem simple? Sure it is, yet somehow the disciples still missed it. At this point in Mark’s account, Jesus has taken them aside to teach them about his upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. They don’t understand. We might make much of that, especially given that it’s the second time Jesus has explained things to them. But I’m willing to forgive their confusion — after all, this is a pretty mind-exploding thing Jesus is telling them. I mean, absolutely no one expected that the promised Messiah would redeem Israel through suffering. So if they don’t understand, even this second time, I get it.

What’s harder to overlook is that they are too afraid to ask any questions. Part of this, of course, may be Mark’s characteristic focus on the faults and failings of the disciples. But, then again, are we all that different? I know far too many Christians who are also often afraid to ask questions. Sometimes it’s because they believe they should already know the answer and they don’t want to look dumb. Sometimes it’s because our people are nervous that their question isn’t “okay,” that maybe there is something wrong with their question or, indeed, with questions in general.

Why is that? I have a hunch that, as a culture, we tend to equate intelligence with knowing things. I understand that to some degree. Smart people seem to know a lot of stuff. But what if we could also imagine that intelligence is measured not simply by what you know, but also by how eager you are to learn more. That is, it’s at the edges of what we know that there is the greatest chance to grow in understanding. Which is why questions are so important. Questions are not the mark of a lack of intelligence but of a curious and lively mind.

There’s another, and perhaps more ominous, reason folks may not want to ask questions, though: they may think it is unfaithful. Somewhere, sometime, many of our good folks were taught that questions are a sign of doubt and doubt is the opposite of faith. Toward correcting this unfortunate turn of events, we can point out two things: first, question are often far more a mark of perceptive curiosity than they are of doubt; second, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Faith, in fact, grows in the soil of doubts and challenges. Absent doubt, we may talk of knowledge, but given that faith is “belief in things not seen,” doubt seems to be an essential ingredient.

Moreover, not only does no one anticipate Jesus’ cross, but his resurrection is even more incredible, unlooked for, and down right shocking. In fact, in all four gospels the reaction to the news of Jesus’ resurrection is never “we knew it” or “about time” or “just like he promised.” Rather, it is doubt. Why? Because Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are so logic-defying and world-changing that, quite frankly, if you don’t have doubts you’re probably not paying attention.

So back to today’s reading. Yes, I can understand that the disciples didn’t understand, and I can even sympathize with the things that make them — and us — hesitant to ask questions. But oh, what might have happened if they could imagine that there is nothing Jesus’ wants more than to share their questions, their struggles, and their doubts so that he might help them understand his teaching and in this way draw closer to God. Perhaps if they had asked, they would have understood more quickly and easily — to jump to the second half of this Sunday’s passage — that greatness does not lay in power but in compassion and is not achieved by by status but by service.

And perhaps, just perhaps, the same is true of us. If Jesus’ kingdom — so different from the kingdoms we normally live in that we are tempted to call it the “anti-kingdom” — is understandably difficult to apprehend, then we should ask questions. If Jesus’ death seems meaningless or his resurrection hard to accept, we should ask questions. If we wonder how Jesus can be with us or where God is when it hurts, we should again ask questions.

So this week, Working Preacher, I’m going to keep my suggestion equally simple: invite people to write down a question about the faith, God, or the Bible that they wonder about and pass them in with the offering. That’s it. They don’t have to name their questions aloud or discuss them with their neighbor. Just invite them to write down one question they have about Scripture, God, or the faith and pass it in with the offering. And make sure it’s with the offering, teaching that just as we give God our time, talents, and money, so also do we gratefully give God our questions, challenges, and doubts.

If you are willing to try this, Working Preacher, I can assure that that not only will you give your people a chance to claim their questions as an important part of their faith life, but you will also gain tremendous insight into your congregation. I suspect, in fact, that over the weeks and months to come you will have a sharper sense of where your people are and that will undoubtedly strengthen your preaching.
You don’t have to answer their questions directly — though you may at times decide to — but you will be able to keep them mind as you craft your sermons. (Further, you may find all kinds of material for adult education classes and confirmation to boot!)

Whatever direction you might wander homiletically this week, Working Preacher, know that I value your openness to these sometimes crazy suggestions and, even more, your commitment to your people and the gospel we share. Blessings on your good work!

Yours in Christ,

PS: For a little more on questions, including some resources by friends Paul Raushenbush and Tony Jones and others, see my recent post at “…In the Meantime.”

PPS: I was torn between writing on Mark or the Proverbs text, so I wrote on Proverbs at the Huffington Post. You can find it here, along with some great artwork on “Badass Women of the Bible” – which should suit the Esther passage next week as well! 🙂