Sunday, October 11, 2009

Listening and Asking Questions

The questions children ask are not always easy to answer.

Questions to the vicar – a clip from Outnumbered.

The questions the six year old asks will have changed by the time he reaches the age of 12.

But questions will still be there.

When Jesus was 12 years old he went missing in Jerusalem as his family returned from their celebration of the Passover. In a panic his parents search for him …

After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions.

That was something Jesus continued to do on into his adult life.

He was good at listening and asking questions.

What do you expect from the questions you ask?

The five year old expects an answer – clear, black and white, cut and dried, simple answer.

I suspect the twelve year old will not only ask different questions but also be prepared for different answers.

And the adult? Do we expect the questions we ask to have simple, black and white, cut and dried, straightforward answers?

Not only do we find Jesus time and again listening and asking questions, we also find in the gospels people coming to Jesus and asking questions of him.

What kind of answers do they expect?

If they were expecting those simple cut and dried answers, they were in for a disappointment.

Someone has calculated that of the 183 questions Jesus is asked in the four gospels he only gives a simple straightforward answer to three of them.

Is it that he avoids answering in a simple way? Or is it possible that the responses he gives to the questions he is asked are doing something different?

Richard Rohr is one of those thinkers I feel drawn to. A Franciscan he set up The Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, back in 1987. He passionately believes that Christians should make a difference in the world through social care and the service of others. Equally passionately he believes that we can be sustained in that task only by prayer and reflection – the Centre for Action and Contemplation is ‘a place to be still and learn how to integrate a contemplative lifestyle with compassionate service. The Centre’s purposer would b e to serve not only as a forum for peaceful, non-violent social change but also as a radical voice for renewal and encouragement.” []

Felicity and I were talking through with Becky, Lrraine and with Mark Evans this week what we are looking for from our weekend away at Brunel Manor. We sensed that there is a business at Highbury that is great – it’s what church should be about. Great to see the mix of groups meeting and the range of activities we are doing.

Having a church weekend away is not something to add to that business. That weekend Mark and Denise will join us for will be an opportunity to get away together, and find the space for ‘renewal and encouragement’.

In the foreword to what looks an intriguing book with the title ‘The Questions of Jesus’, Richard Rohr reflects on what we expect from the questions we ask. “In the realm of soul and spirit,” he suggests, “there are not really answers as much as there are answering persons.”

Those really deep questions that are so important to share are not about the quest for cut and dried answers; instead their purpose is in Richard Rohr’s words, ‘to lead one into a vital relationship.”

So often people expect ‘religion’ to resolve their dilemmas and give straight answers.

Jesus works very differently.

Asked by Pilate “Where are you from?” Jesus gave him no answer (John 19:9)

Asked by the Herodians who were among those Jewish people who collaborated with the Roman occupation and the Roman power, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” he answered with another question, taking a Roman coin, “Whose head is this and whose inscription?” (Matthew 22:20)

Asked by a certain lawyer, Who is my neighbour? Jesus did not give a straightforward answer. Instead, he told a story, the wonderful story of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37)

Let’s take one episode in Mark’s Gospel.

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

Let’s get the question straight in our minds. So often people mistake the meaning of this question and imagine it to be asking, What must I do to get to heaven?

Listen to the question. What must I do to inherit something … you inherit something from someone who has died while you are still alive. The question is the key one to this Jewish young man … what must I do to inherit from all those who have gone before us who have belonged to the people of God and have shared this remarkable faith of ours, what must I do to inherit that life that begins here and now is shot through with the glory of God’s presence and is not bounded by death? Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

No immediate answer. But a question in response. Is it a clever put down? Or is it actually straightaway pointing this person back to God. It is Jesus the man at this point directing the young man to the goodness of God. Any questions about eternal life have to do with the goodness of God.

Then Jesus continues. Again, listen carefully.

19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.”

Were you listening carefully?

Who knows their ten commandments?

Are these the commandments?

Or has Jesus slipped something in?

Six of them are the six commandments that have to do with our behaviour. The other four are to do with God.

But there are seven in this list.

The one Jesus has slipped in is in keeping with all the others.

Do not defraud.

Why has Jesus slipped that in?

Could it be that the wealth of this young man has been accumulated on the back of fraud?

20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’

What happens next as this conversation unfolds we must not gloss over. Richard Rohr suggests it is one of the most moving of all moments in the whole gospel story.

21Jesus, looking at him, loved him

Was it that look that went behind all the façade, knew him as he was, with all his blemishes, maybe all the blemishes he wanted so carefully to conceal?

That look that loved in spite of knowing so much?

21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’

A general principle? For this young man it cut through to the bone.

22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

This young man does not instantly follow Jesus. Neither does he go away having rejected everything. He goes away in very deep thought. Grieving.

But that is not the end of the story. What follows on does not offer those who have been listening in to the story a simple, straightforward answer that is applicable to everyone. Jesus conversation has the effect of making them think. Track it right through and it leads to another question.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is* to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another,* ‘Then who can be saved?’

The response Jesus gives is not a simple, clear cut answer.

It is a response that makes them think even more deeply.

27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

The conversation started with the goodness of God. It finishes with the conviction that for God all things are possible.

And we are left looking in on the conversation Jesus had with the man, the conversation he had with the disciples. And we are left to draw our own conclusions. We are left asking more questions … but these are questions that have the potential to draw us more closely into a relationship with others who are grappling with the same problems, more closely into a relationship with God, and more closely into the way Jesus invites us to follow when he invites us to follow him.

How good it is to ask questions! That’s exactly what Becky and I would like to invite you to do. With the Order of Service paper is another sheet. It is for you to write down those questions you have always wanted to put in church but never had the opportunity to ask!

How good it is to ask questions! Can we move on from the quest for simple answers? Can we engage with answering persons? Can we see the process of asking questions as the way into a more vital relationship with God? Can our questions enable us follow the One who loved to listen and to ask questions?

Read Richard Rohr's Forward to John Deare's Book, The Questions of Jesus

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