Friday, February 15, 2013

Changing Our Questions

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
     “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
     He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
     “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
     But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
-Luke 10:25-29 (NIV)

In a recent piece in The Washington Post, Annie Selak proposes to describe “The church young Catholics want” in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s announced resignation. Selak, a Catholic lay minister and administrator of student affairs at Notre Dame, would seem to have her finger on the pulse of young Catholicism. She suggests that young Catholics are generally dissatisfied with the church. She mentions particularly church teaching on sexuality, the ordination of women, and the relationship of Christianity to other religions. She wishes for “a church that engages struggles and is open to dialogue.” “We want to wrestle, grapple, use our minds, engage our hearts, debate, think and pray,” she says. “And we want our church to do that with us.”
     Well, sure. I think wrestling, grappling, using our minds, engaging our hearts, debating, thinking, and praying is a great job description for the church. Believers should do all those things together. Church leaders should be the people who best facilitate those things, and not those who stand in the way of it.
     There’s a long history in the Bible of questions. Jesus honored honest questions with answers - or sometimes further questions. The Scriptures are chock-full of people asking God questions: sometimes politely, sometimes not. Its pages are filled with people struggling to figure out how to obey God when the world around them makes obedience seem impossible. 
     Take this expert in the law of Moses who questioned Jesus: “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” Excellent question, of course, but it’s not the one he’s really asking. He knows what he needs to do. He just really wants to know how deep it needs to go.
     “Who is my neighbor?” That’s the right question. 
     It’s the right question, because now they can get down to what’s really important. It’s one thing to talk about loving your neighbor. It’s another thing to get down to what that really means, who is to be the object of our love. Does the mandate to love outweigh religious duty? Is it more important than the purity of religious identity? Does it supersede ethnic loyalties? And how much does love put me on the hook - financially, emotionally, and in expenditures of time and effort?
     Those are the right questions, but they only get answered because Jesus will listen to our surface questions, the ones we originally ask out of our impulses to justify ourselves, or to distract ourselves, or out of our own anxieties or sins or limited perspectives. Those aren’t the questions that most need answering. But they can be a good place to start.
     It’s difficult for us sometimes to let our questions lead us on to the ones that are perhaps more central and more vital. Annie alludes to this tendency when she says “We want the church to ask the questions we are asking, rather than ones that seem trivial at best and irrelevant at worst.” It’s human nature, of course, to assume that the questions we’re asking are the really important and relevant ones. Naturally enough, other questions do seem trivial and irrelevant. Naturally enough, we feel frustrated when other people are asking other questions. I suspect it’s not only young Christians who want their churches to respond to the questions they’re asking. We all want our questions heard, and want to feel as though people care about us enough to respond to them. 
     But, really - our questions aren’t the only ones. And they’re certainly not always the most important ones. And, in fact, being in Christ, following Jesus, is fundamentally about letting him lead us to the right questions. That can be a difficult process. It can’t be rushed. But that’s what it means to have our hearts, minds, and identities reorganized and redeemed by Jesus.
     But that’s something the church should be able to do for each other. One the one hand, church should be the people who are least afraid of hearing our questions asked. However difficult those questions may be, wherever they come from, whatever sacred cows they may threaten, we should be able to ask our questions in the church. The things we’re wondering about, worrying about, questioning - even when they’re matters of group traditions and seemingly settled biblical interpretation - need to be honored with the church’s attention and concern. To study together, to pray together, to hear each other out - these are holy actions full of meaning , grace, and love. There’s no hurry, because the Lord is at work in the process. 
     On the other hand, church should be the people who won’t let us be satisfied with our surface questions. They should be the people who, by example and exhortation, help us get ourselves out of the way. Help us get to the questions that really matter - the ones that God has given us life in Jesus to answer. This isn’t done by dismissing questions, nor by ignoring, marginalizing, or browbeating questioners. But, at some point, we call each others’ attention to the questions beyond the ones we often find ourselves preoccupied with, the ones that seem so relevant to us. We help each other to see the questions we’re really asking, down deep in our hearts, and help each other start to answer them with the answers the Lord would give us.
     Young or old - church, ask your questions. Ask them, and keep asking until someone joins with you in those questions, turns them into a dialogue. Keep asking until someone helps you to find your way to the even deeper questions. And when you get there, don’t be afraid to dive into those deeper waters, knowing that the Lord is there with you.
     For what it's worth, that’s the church I want. 

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